Alice Coltrane, Wife of John, Left Her Own Mark

Pianist and composer Alice Coltrane died this weekend at 69. She was best known as the wife of jazz giant John Coltrane, but she put her own stamp on blues-based music. Alice Coltrane was one of the few to use the harp in jazz, and added an eastern sensibility to her music.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

This weekend, we lost another original thinker. Pianist and composer Alice Coltrane is dead at 69. Alice was best known as the wife of jazz giant John Coltrane, but she put her own stamp on blues-based music. Alice was one of the few to use the harp in jazz and added an Eastern sensibility to her music.

In late 2004, Alice Coltrane released her final album, "Translinear Light." We now rebroadcast NPR's report from that time prepared by producer Roy Hurst.

(Soundbite of previous NPR broadcast)

Ms. ALICE COLTRANE (Musician) So we get a singular transcendental path of light that can lead to such great dimensions of consciousness, of revelation, of spirituality.

ROY HURST: When talking with Mrs. Coltrane, you get the sense that everything about her, including her music, is fused to her spirituality.

(Soundbite of music)

HURST: Alice Coltrane is 67, a brown-skinned woman with powerful facial features, a bundle of Indian-African fabric wrapped around all of 117 pounds. She lives in the valley outside Los Angeles. When her famous husband died of liver cancer in 1967, Alice became the fierce guardian of his vast musical estate. She was also left with the task of raising their four children.

Ms. COLTRANE: Without him in the house, then that made me be sole teacher, leader, nurse, mother, father, everything to them, but I didn't have any fear. You have everything was (unintelligible).

HURST: Alice became a member of the John Coltrane Quartet in 1964, replacing McCoy Tyner at piano.

Ms. COLTRANE: It came as a surprise to me when he told me that McCoy had left. And I said what, it's unbelievable. And I didn't say anything. he said well, I need a pianist and I want you to play. And I said well, if you believe in that, then I will.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. STEVE ROWLAND(ph) (Music Documentary): Alice is often maligned and I think quite unfairly.

HURST: Steve Rowland is a music documentary.

Mr. ROWLAND: She's sort of look at us at kind of Yoko Ono figure in the jazz world, meaning a woman who came into an extraordinary musical ensemble, something the world had never really seen before, and then has blamed for its breakup when I would assume that the break up was inevitable.

HURST: John's insistence on having Alice in the band wasn't a token gesture. Alice was already recognized as a first rate jazz pianist. She'd grown up a child prodigy in Detroit, beginning her musical education in the church with gospel. She studied classical music and as a teenager became thoroughly ensconced in Bebop, the most advance musical expression of the day.

Ms. TERRY GIBBS (Vibraphonist): Alice MacLeod was her name and she played four bars, just four bars. And I stopped it, I said you're hired; you got the job.

HURST: Vibraphonist and bandleader Terry Gibbs met Alice in 1962.

Ms. GIBBS: Alice had it all. She had technique. She had a beautiful sound and she played what the call bebop.

HURST: Later that year, Terry Gibbs got a call to do a week stay at the famous jazz club Birdland in New York. They would be the opening act for the John Coltrane Quartet. Each night, after the Terry Gibbs band set would end, Alice found herself alone backstage with John.

Ms. GIBBS: It was almost like a Hollywood love story where two people see each other and fall in love.

Ms. COLTRANE: I'd go walking in there and he, you know, he hadn't gone on, so he's just sitting there.

HURST: What did you say to one another?

Ms. COLTRANE: For a few days, nothing. He was a very quiet person, a person who seemed to dwell in his own universe. So I would sit on one side of the room and he'd be sitting there always looking deep in thought, in his (unintelligible) and somehow I felt that he would not want to, no one would want to disturb that. So for days, it was nothing.

Ms. GIBBS: She sat in that musician's table all by herself every time he played.

Ms. COLTRANE: Finally after about three days, we began to talk about architecture, that was the first subject because I had brought up - I had a book and I said you might want to take a look, and that was on architecture and that's what we spoke about. That was the beginning.

Ms. GIBBS: I watched a love story happen right in front of my eyes. I watched them fall in love.

HURST: Alice MacLeod and John Coltrane were married in 1965. They found one another at a time when John was taking his music up several notches beyond what was the norm for traditional jazz. Again, music documentarian Steve Rowland.

Mr. ROWLAND: His passion was so extreme. When I listen to John Coltrane's music I feel that I'm in the presence of the most articulate human having the most articulate conversation with God. And that is not a safe place. It's a profound place.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. COLTRANE: I came through the bebop era, and to me that was enough. So when I got in the band with John, he was showing me a lot (unintelligible) dimensions in music that you could - that you can move into, that you can express yourself to.

HURST: Alice continued in the musical direction her husband was going, but she became more heavily involved with the Hindu faith, integrating its music into her own jazz, gospel, African and Western classical mix. And in addition to keyboards, she began to experiment with the harp, one that her husband had ordered for her.

Ms. COLTRANE: Unfortunately, he never lived to see his (unintelligible) that came following his illness and passing.

Mr. ROWLAND: John Coltrane, his music was a light. When he died in 1967, it was a void that was very, very difficult to fill, and I think that Alice Coltrane has been short-changed in recognition of what she did to help fill that void in those years afterwards.

Ms. COLTRANE: The music is within your heart, your soul, your spirit, and this is all I did when I sat at piano. I just go within.

(Soundbite of music)

HURST: For NPR News, I'm Roy Hurst.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: The report you just heard aired originally in December of 2004. Alice Coltrane died this past Friday at 69. And that's our show for today. To listen, visit npr.org. NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.

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