Black History Month: John and Alice Coltrane

This month in my blog, I’m paying tribute to a few of the major African-American influences in our culture’s music. There aren’t enough days to include all of them, but if I can help raise awareness of some of the world’s greatest Black musical talents, then we’ll all be a bit richer. Please follow me on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, where I’m sharing short snippets of even more of my favorite African-American artists and their work.

The influence of John and Alice Coltrane

Few people have stretched the boundaries of improvisation further than the legendary saxophonist John Coltrane. His recording of “My Favorite Things” inspired countless jazz musicians to push their own frontiers. Much of his history is readily available on the internet, but I’d like to focus on how he challenged other musicians of his active period (late 1940s – 1960s).

Giant Steps

If we look at his song “Giant Steps,” the circle of fifths takes on a life of its own. The song, recorded in 1960, put pianist Tommy Flannagan in a tough spot as he tried to improvise around the circle in three different keys (B, Eb, G). When Coltrane takes over, the song flies. Today, it has become a rite of passage for jazz musicians. Numerous artists have recorded their versions of the song, with Pat Metheny’s being one of my favorites. Coltrane played with many of the great jazz masters including Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis.

Alice Coltrane

Although John is widely known, many people are surprised to learn that his wife, Alice, was equally talented. She was a pianist and harpist who eventually replaced McCoy Tyner on piano in John’s band. John adopted her daughter, and the couple had three other children together, all of whom became musicians. John and Alice studied spirituality, recording this period of their lives in the album A Love Supreme. After John’s death in 1967, she continued exploring jazz and spiritual practices. These influences merged in her albums Universal Consciousness and World Galaxy. She changed her name to Turiyasangitananda or Turiya Alice Coltrane, established an ashram, and went on to record music that left from her jazz roots and focused on promoting spirituality. Many of her later works including Turiya Sings, are now regarded as ashram classics. Alice passed on in 2007.

The originality, skill, and mastery of both of these musicians are indisputable. I have spent untold hours listening to their work. As for a favorite song from either of them, it’s impossible to choose. However, it’s hard not to love “My Favorite Things.”

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