People don’t listen to much jazz anymore. It used to be considered the most American form of music and held all of our optimism, hopes, dreams and desires as a nation. Now, it’s seen as hard-to-listen-to or just plain corny. There are better jazz writers out there, but I hope these essays wake up your ears to jazz.
John Coltrane was a loser. He was strung out from heroin and alcohol, which he’d been addicted to since 1948. He was a mess.
And then, in 1957, he got clean.
In the period between 1957 and his death 10 years later at the young age of 40, Coltrane would do his most essential work, and, in my opinion, the best place for people who don’t like jazz to start listening to jazz.
There are many greats during this time, including Giant Steps, but none looms larger in Coltrane’s catalog then the 1965 album A Love Supreme, by many and any estimation, one of the greatest jazz albums ever, period. I first heard it as a senior in high school, and I count it, along with Jean-Michel Basquiat’s painting as the formative artistic experience of my life, one of a few moments when I realized that art wasn’t something you were forced to learn about in school, but a bloody, beating center of life.
Coltrane plays on Supreme like his life is on the line, and, for him, maybe it was. He famously wrote in the liner notes that, “In the year of 1957, I experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening, which was to lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life,” and the album is often seen as his praise chorus to God.
I think that link is undeniable, because it certainly does feel spiritual. Like early Howlin’ Wolf or The Stooges, it pins you up against the wall with its ferocity and never really lets you down. But unlike those records, it feels holy, like it is always pushing higher and higher and higher. Famed Reformed pastor Timothy Keller used a quote from the liner notes in his book about God’s view of work, Every Good Endeavor, and it’s easy to see why. While A Love Supreme is often ferocious, it’s also joyous, and I would not be surprised to hear this record playing instead of harp music when I get to heaven. When you listen to A Love Supreme, you encounter a God of wild power and love. This is not church music.
Its second track, “Resolution” kicks off with Coltrane and then splits the difference between the hard bop that had been in vogue in the early ’60s and the free jazz that I believe led to its decline in popularity in the later part of the decade.
The best albums are often ones of transition, halfway between this and that. Supreme is that, but I think it’s accessible. When you’re listening to jazz, you let your body lead your mind. I’m not a jazz musician, so it’s hard for me to explain what makes this album so good other than the fact that it hits you at a gut level. If you’ve never heard jazz before in your life, skip Miles Davis and start here. Davis is seen as the leading light of jazz and the guy most people who don’t know jazz know, but he has a detached coolness that can make him hard to slide into. Coltrane sounds like a linebacker running down a ranch house hallway. Sometimes you need to get hit in the head or struck by lightning to get it. Moses got a burning bush. You’ve got A Love Supreme.