[This essay reflects on John Coltrane's collected interviews as gathered in Chris DeVito (ed.), Coltrane on Coltrane: The John Coltrane Interviews, Chicago Review Press 2010, to which all citations in what follows refer.]
John Coltrane's music—born in spontaneous wonder and furious exploration—remains with us, finished and repeatable, a singular slice of the continually growing archive of recorded sound. From his earliest recordings in the 1940s to the breakthrough collaborations with Miles Davis and Thelonius Monk in the 50s, from the Impulse! albums of his great quartet (Coltrane: sax; McCoy Tyner: piano; Jimmy Garrison: bass; Elvin Jones: drums) to the late avant-garde sessions in the 60s with the likes of Pharaoh Sanders and Rashied Ali; from the conventional style of the early standards through the harmonic and chordal innovations of Giant Steps and then the modal phase influenced by Indian ragas, and finally the radically free collaborations and last creative experiments—this medium of endlessly inventive sonic chaos and alchemy still speaks to us today. What do we receive from this corpus, this body of work, these long-past sounds that nonetheless still sing? Among other things, a philosophical theology and a musical ethic.
We know that religion was an important aspect of Coltrane's life from early childhood. Raised as a Methodist, both his grandfathers were ministers, and Coltrane's first music was church music, not jazz. Moreover, in his later years Coltrane spoke frequently of God as the source of his own musical inspiration. But to speak of God is nothing compared to musing God directly, to channeling in sound the very experience of God, an experience that for Coltrane takes the form of a profound creative unity at the root of all things.
In this regard Coltrane's theology takes a distinctively philosophical shape. As early as his young adulthood, Coltrane had begun to question the limits of his religious heritage. As he recounts it in a recorded conversation with August Blume in 1958: "And after I'd say my late teens, I just started breakin' away, you know, among certain things. I was growin' up, so I questioned a lot of what I find in religion. I began to wonder about it" (12). He will later go so far as to say "I believe in all religions" (263). Such a statement represents no facile liberalism, however, but the singular power of self-transcendence. What John Coltrane finds through music is an analogue of what philosophy finds: the universal. Indeed, Coltrane retained a long-standing interest in traditional philosophy, referring in one interview to his reading of A. J. Ayer's classic of analytic thought, Language, Truth and Logic. In Coltrane's case, however, true universality is not the domain of the concept, but the unlimited quality of musical resonance. Resonance is a material event of unity within difference, and Coltrane's own sonic experimentations drew regularly from multiple sources: Western classical traditions, dodecaphonic composition, Indian ragas and African rhythms, as well as traditional jazz. The forces bound up with these diverse traditions express just some of the voices of the "powers of music," of which Coltrane remarks, "The true powers of music are still unknown. To be able to control them should be, I think, the ambition of every musician" (182). But to what end?
When asked about his future plans, Coltrane at one point responded, "I would like to be a saint" (270). This is well after the spiritual conversion he underwent in 1957, his break with alcoholism and narcotics abuse and the emergence of his new sound, the distinctive sixteenth-note runs and sheer imaginative unstoppability. Is sainthood at the core of Coltrane's music? On the one hand, its energy manifests the experience and spirit of collaborative exploration. Yet on the other hand, Coltrane’s willingness to learn from his collaborators—King Kolax, Miles Davis, Thelonius Monk, Eric Dolphy, Dizzy Gillespie and so many others—serves always as a way of more fully becoming himself as an individual. Both these sides, however—collective and singular—express one and the same musical process, instantiated in the work of constant experimentation and the ceaseless pushing of limits. Yet this process is equally a task of life, a philosophical task in the strong sense of the ancient notion of philosophy as life lived in the love of wisdom and excellence. For Coltrane, such a task ties musical poiesis to the universal desire for the Good: "And this is what I feel that we feel in any situation that we find in our lives–when there's something we feel should be better, we exert an effort to try and make it better. So it's the same socially, musically, politically, in any, in any department of your life" (286).
According to Coltrane, the medium of music is able to communicate such processes of creative individuation in ways that link individual struggles for truth to social and collective experience. He says, "I think music is an instrument. It can create the initial, just, the thought patterns, that can create the changes, you see, in the thinking of the people" (287). This is one effect of the linguistically unfathomable communicative power of music, its capacity for the immediate and direct transmission of experience and affective resonance. In particular for Coltrane, music is a medium that is capable of communicating certain religious experiences in an especially direct way. Perhaps, Coltrane's own example would suggest, there are forms of the experience of God that are attainable only through music.
Several indications of the ethical and political consequences of Coltrane's understanding of music are evident in a 1962 letter to Don DeMichael, the editor of the jazz magazine Down Beat, in which Coltrane discusses Aaron Copland's Music and Imagination at some length. Coltrane writes: "This book seems to be written more for the American classical or semi-classical composer who has the problem, as Copland sees it, of not finding himself an integral part of the musical community, or having difficulty in finding a positive philosophy or justification for his art" (159). In this respect, Coltrane distinguishes his own position as an African-American jazz artist from that of Copland: "The 'jazz' musician (you can have this term along with several other that have been foisted upon us) does not have this problem at all. We have absolutely no reason to worry about lack of positive and affirmative philosophy. It’s built in us. The phrasing, the sound of the music attest this fact" (ibid.). Coltrane then verifies this claim through a kind of argument by genealogical self-selection whereby the affirmative force of jazz would be grounded in structural necessity, since only music of such affirmation and joy will have been capable, given the social and historical circumstances of the birth and growth of jazz, of overcoming the inertia and resistance of "hostile communities where there was everything to fear and damn few to trust" (160). Furthermore, Coltrane claims: "Any music which could grow and propagate itself as our music has, must have a hell of an affirmative belief inherent in it. Any person who claims to doubt this, or claims to believe that the exponents of our music of freedom are not guided by this same entity, is either prejudiced, musically sterile, just plain stupid or scheming" (ibid.). For these reasons, Coltrane finds himself justified to write (in 1962) "we all know that this word which so many seem to fear today, 'Freedom,' has a hell of a lot to do with this music" (ibid.). The creative power inherent to jazz thus entails ethical and political commitments. In this regard, Coltrane expresses his fundamental agreement with Copland’s statement: "I cannot imagine an art work without implied convictions" (ibid.).
There is ethical, political and religious resonance in Coltrane's sound; indeed, we find a distinctive sensibility of religion as infinite resonance. But these are not religion, politics or ethics in their usual senses. Coltrane consistently resists religious sectarianism, political factionalism and narrow moralism. In particular, Coltrane’' philosophical theology of music offers us a model not just of the rapprochement of ethics and aesthetics, but of a thoroughly individual and at the same time unlimitedly God-devoted way of living. At any rate, "resonance" here is not just a metaphor; it is a real effect. In John Coltrane's own words, "Once you become aware of this force for unity in life, you can’t ever forget it. It becomes part of everything you do" (263). The music’s untamed eloquence is its own proof. Just listen.