Alice Coltrane

Jazz pianist widow of John Coltrane
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Alice McLeod, pianist, bandleader, harpist and religious leader: born Detroit, Michigan 27 August 1937; married first Kenny Hagood (died 1989; one daughter; marriage dissolved), second 1965 John Coltrane (died 1967; two sons, and one son deceased); died West Hills, California 12 January 2007.

You wouldn't expect a jazz musician who had albums under her name with titles like Reflection on Creation and Space (A Five Year View) (1973), Astral Meditations (1999), Ptah the El Daoud (1970) or the upcoming Sacred Language of Ascension to be a bundle of laughs, and you would be right not to. Humour was an element notably absent from the music of the jazz pianist Alice Coltrane and her husband, the tenor saxophone giant John Coltrane.

Alice McLeod, born in 1937, began her musical life in the Church and swiftly moved onwards to jazz. Her later move back to things mystical saw her at first entwining jazz into her religion and then giving up the music profession as her new beliefs took over.

From a musical family she had, from the age of seven, studied classical music at her home in Detroit. She soon joined the band at her local gospel church and it wasn't long before she picked up on jazz from the playing of her brother, the bassist Ernie Farrow (Farrow went on to play bass for Stan Getz, Terry Gibbs, Yusef Lateef and other top jazz names). In her home town, she played with local figureheads such as Kenny Burrell, Lucky Thompson and Barry Harris.

In 1959 McLeod travelled to Paris to study with the expatriate bebop pianist Bud Powell. She married the singer Kenny Hagood whilst abroad and they had a daughter, but the marriage soon broke up.

By the early Sixties, as an established professional she played piano in bands led by the vibraphone player Terry Gibbs. She was on the small group recordings made by Gibbs throughout 1963 and these show her to have been an accomplished bebop pianist in the Bud Powell vein. Gibbs remembers her as "the nicest person I ever worked with. She was a real lady."

It was whilst playing with Gibbs at Birdland, New York, in that year that she met John Coltrane. She left the Gibbs group to marry Coltrane in 1965 and, to much consternation amongst his fans, she replaced the pianist McCoy Tyner in John Coltrane's classic quartet. "John showed me how to play fully," she said: "In other words he'd teach me not to stay in one spot and play in one chord pattern. "Branch out, open up, play your instrument entirely." John not only taught me to explore, but to play thoroughly and completely."

She remained a part of the saxophonist's bands and experiments and toured the world with him until his death in 1967.

John Coltrane's influences at that time came mainly from Eastern sources and her understanding and compliance with his music became very important to him. When he died, Alice Coltrane followed the path that he had set and led bands using like-minded players who had been in her husband's last bands, such as Pharoah Sanders, Archie Shepp, Rashid Ali and Jimmy Garrison. She also employed another tenor saxophone giant, Joe Henderson, and the drummers Roy Haynes and Ben Riley. She began playing the harp and used sitar and tablas in her bands. The music was more than ever inspired by spiritual themes.

Alice Coltrane converted to Hinduism and moved to live in California in 1972. The strength of her religious conviction led her to leave the forefront of music and she went to India to study with the founder of the Integral Yoga Institute, Swami Satchidananda. In 1975 she established the Vedanta Centre, a retreat or ashram for the study of Eastern religions in a shop she had bought in San Francisco, where she practised a mixture of Christian and Indian beliefs. She became known by her Sanskrit name Swamini Turiyasangitananda.

She published a book of inspirational spiritual texts entitled Endless Wisdom (1981), which she claimed was made up of hundreds of scriptures divinely revealed to her, and another entitled Monumental Eternal (1978), an account of her religious experiences. Most of her last years were spent composing devotional chants, hymns and melodies for meditation. She retired from commercial music, and recorded only traditional and original compositions that were supplied to religious institutions for use during meditation. "Music is spiritual," she said: "It's invisible and that's where your faith comes in. It can be seen. It has shape. It has form. Music comes from within your heart, within your soul."

In 2001 Alice Coltrane was instrumental in setting up the John Coltrane Foundation to encourage jazz performances and to award scholarships to young musicians. Her last jazz album, done in 2004 when she came briefly out of retirement, was called Translinear Light and was her first for 26 years.

One of her sons, Ravi Coltrane, is a distinguished tenor saxophone player in his own right.

Steve Voce