In 1965, saxophone virtuoso John Coltrane released A Love Supreme, a monumental work of jazz he said had come to him as a vision from God.
Coltrane was a brilliant and groundbreaking musician and bandleader, and is still underappreciated even five decades after his death. He had a way of playing notes without thinking about them. He called it “God’s breath,” flowing through him and out of his instrument. It’s awe-inspiring when you listen to it — almost as if you can hear God talking.
In the liner notes of A Love Supreme, Coltrane credits a spiritual awakening that helped him overcome his decade-long struggle with alcohol and heroin:
During the year 1957, I experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening which was to lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life. At that time, in gratitude, I humbly asked to be given the means and privilege to make others happy through music.John Coltrane
It’s clear that the God to whom Coltrane refers is Universal. In Coltrane’s “religion,” we’re all part of that same loving deity. Throughout his life, Coltrane was an endless seeker of spiritual truth. His life and music reflected the influence of Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Kabbalah, astrology, and even Einstein’s theory of relativity.
“Ninety percent of what I play,” Coltrane said, “is prayer.”
Coltrane’s music, like his universalist faith, was a tribute to the beauty and connectedness of all of creation. He illustrated that in the liner notes of A Love Supreme with a handwritten poem, which included these lines:
“One thought can produce millions of vibrations, and they all go back to God…everything does.” And later, “God breathes through us so completely, so gently, we hardly feel it…yet it is our everything.”
When I listen to Coltrane, I hear more than music. There’s something deeper there, something that connects not just to my ear or my brain, but to my heart and its rhythms. The vibrations remind me of Nikola Tesla’s oft-cited quote: “If you want to find the secrets of the universe, think in terms of energy, frequency and vibration.”
When I listen to Coltrane, I picture the universe as an infinitely large jazz combo. Every frequency and vibration, every syncopated rhythm, is related to itself, bends upon and blends with other notes, and evolves into something completely new. As one thing changes, everything around it responds, and the changes flow out like waves.
The underlying cadence and flow of Coltrane’s jazz is structured, but it’s his improvisation — the spontaneous invention of something brand new — where the magic happens.
Improvising — stepping out alone on stage to play a solo — can be terrifying. I know this from my own improv solos in jazz bands when I was in school. But improvisation is how new tonal combinations and harmonies are discovered. Each musician takes cues from other players and then experiments, riffing on the overall piece to create something no one has ever heard before.
This is the beauty: allowing God (or Spirit or Source or the Universe) to breathe through us, then improvising to weave together the highs and the lows, the joy and suffering of life, so that you can create something brand new.
This is how God breathes through us. This is how we co-create the universe.
Listen to the music and let it flow through you, then begin to improvise. In those notes, you’ll hear God talking.
Artwork by Paolo Steffan, Portrait of John Coltrane (2007), Wikimedia Commons