Glissando Through the Blues

Lauren O’Neill-Butler on a tribute to Alice Coltrane at MoMA PS1

Ravi Coltrane, Dezron Douglas, and Brandee Younger. Photo by Derek Schultz.

MORE THAN A FEW ASPECTS of Alice Coltrane’s life and music stand out as singular, epic, genius—and, sometimes equally, tragic. Her husband, John, passed away from liver cancer in 1967, and as a widow at just twenty-nine she raised their four children on her own, never remarrying. Throughout, she maintained a brilliant and groundbreaking solo music career. I could go on. She’s the kind of inspiring person we need to keep celebrating, and so we do.

The Coltranes were wedded in 1965 in Juárez, Mexico, and their short time together looks, on the surface of things, as if it were pretty blissful. At a tribute to Alice at MoMA PS1 earlier this month, two of her children, Ravi and Michelle, among other family members, gathered. To have that many Coltranes in one place was enough. But to witness the cherished family memories that they shared, via a short video originally made for Alice’s memorial at the Cathedral of Saint John of the Divine in May 2007, brought chills. In a tapestry of faded Kodachrome and Super-8 were John and Alice, caring for their kids, posing together on the side of a road—living a life they didn’t know would be cut way too short. No wonder you weren’t allowed to bring your cell phone into this portion of the celebration—any duplication or posting on social media of these sacred family moments would have been harmful.

Alice on John: “I liked his spirit. It was quiet. It looked meditative to me.”

Purushottoma Hickson’s workshop. Photo by Derek Schultz.

Titled “Monastic and Ecstatic: A Glimpse into the Life and Legacy of Alice Coltrane,” the pacific Sunday event began with a workshop hosted by Purushottoma Hickson, a student of Alice’s for thirty-five years. It set the mood through some yoga, meditation, and a general overview of the devotional topics that animated the nonprofit Vedantic Center that Alice opened near Malibu in 1976, shortly after she and her family moved to California in 1972. In those years, Alice was still mourning the loss of her husband and suffering from insomnia and severe weight loss. She may have been looking for an experience outside of her body—some ekstasis to transcend the self—and something to ingest daily, like vitamins. (Félix Guattari was right when he claimed that “poetry should be prescribed like vitamins”: “Careful now,” he wrote, “you’d feel better if you took some poetry.”) And so she did: through devotional Vedic ceremonies, solo and group kirtans and bhajans, Alice transformed herself. Hickson called her a “mystic,” and that’s likely true. She said she’d had various visions in her lifetime, including visitations from John’s spirit.

In 1983 the center relocated to fifty dry acres in Agoura, nestled in the Santa Monica Mountains, and was named the Shanti Anantam Ashram. (It closed last year, sadly.) It was there that Coltrane—or Swamini Turiyasangitananda, or just “Turiya,” as her spiritual community knew her—developed and finely honed her devotional music, essentially creating her own genre while borrowing from gospel, jazz, rock, blues, and Indian classical and folk songs, among other genres. She led her spiritual flock, hosting services on Sundays, chanting to the divine with a dedicated group of singers. She stopped recording commercial albums. To be sure, she wasn’t a musical “side woman” any longer. She became, in all senses, a leader, and the numerous albums she put out before her death in 2007 are a testament to the examined life. Temet nosce.

At PS1, musician, educator, and harpist Brandee Younger gave a dazzling performance of some of Coltrane’s work and observed: “What stood out to me, as a kid learning music, was that she was a black woman playing a harp. There were only, like, two others doing that.” Younger cited them as influences: Dorothy Ashby (who was from Detroit, like Alice Coltrane) and Ann Hobson Pilot. But Coltrane differed from them, as Younger noted, because she was someone who could “glissando through the blues.”

Alice Coltrane & Charlie Haden, “For Turiya,” from Haden’s album Closeness (1976).

Joining Younger on stage was Ravi Coltrane and bassist Dezron Douglas, and the three performed a mesmerizing rendition of For Turiya by Charlie Hayden. If you ever have the chance to see Ravi Coltrane play his mother’s music, you must take it. “I remember telling her I wanted to be a filmmaker at some point, that I didn’t want to do music,” he recalled. “That was the only time she ever expressed even a slight disappointment in me.” He talked about her enduring love of Stravinsky’s Firebird suite and how the Coltrane kids would dance around the house to it. (Alice straightforwardly covered it on a few early albums.) “There was no division between music and family in our home,” Ravi shared. “The instruments were our playground,” Michelle Coltrane added on a panel discussion shortly afterward.

Ravi played some of his mother’s early bebop—El Nutto and Joshua (Fit the Battle of Jericho, both recorded in New York City in 1963—as well as a few unpublished songs from a 1988 recording session. (She had extra studio time booked and offered it to Ravi; in the resultant recording—live performance to tape—she plays the Wurlitzer organ and sings.) “It’s very hard to describe her voice,” he said, which is too true: The distinct tenor of her vocals on the version he played of Jagadishwar, without strings or synthesizer, is full of throaty, deep-drawn anguish, and at the same time it is courageous, focused, and completely full of being—brought to life, it seems, from the beyond. The song was recorded in one take.

Alice Coltrane’s “Jagadishwar,” from her album Turiya Sings (1982).

“It was confusing at times,” Ravi explained on the panel, “because you never knew if you were going to have Mom, or Swami, or Alice Coltrane, or Turiya, but she seemed to embody all of those roles effortlessly.” To persuade her kids to learn her Sanskrit name (which translates as “the transcendental lord’s highest song of bliss”), she spelled it out in magnetic alphabet letters on the fridge. T-U-R-I-Y-A.

In the alleyways behind Ventura Boulevard in their Los Angeles neighborhood, Woodland Hills, the family would race their horses. Ravi described that and other remembrances as his mother “extending herself” as a “kind friend” who was always performing multiple roles and still keeping it focused on her family—spiritual and biological. (And it’s important to note the legacy of this family, aside from the sheer force of her late husband’s work: Marilyn McLeod, Alice’s younger sister, who wrote hit songs for Diana Ross and other Motown artists, is the grandmother of the multitalented musician-dj-producer Steven Ellison, aka Flying Lotus.)

Kelsey Lu and Kyp Malone. Photo by Derek Schultz.

When I asked Ravi in the following days why, in his opinion, people are so drawn to his mother’s compositions, he responded: “It’s hard to say why exactly Alice’s music affects the listener as it does. I know that she imbued her music with the deepest convictions and purposes. Even people hearing her music for the first time can intuitively sense this. I believe my mother’s wish was not far from my father’s. They both wanted their music to uplift the soul and spirit of others. To help those who hear it move closer toward a sense of enlightenment and higher spiritual awareness and awakening.”

Those profound convictions and sense of purpose are exactly what keeps bringing us back to Alice Coltrane. They are also what have fetched her new generations of devotees. At PS1, nearly half the crowd appeared to be under thirty. They also didn’t seem like contemporary art or jazz concert regulars. They were there for Alice, for her family, and for the additional stunning performances by Laraaji and by Kelsey Lu with Troy “Mobius” Simms, Kyp Malone, and Younger. They were there for the pre-release screening of Ashram: The Spiritual World of Alice Coltrane, Turiyasangitananda, a short film by Priscilla Telmon and Vincent Moon in the Artbook store (where an altar was set up). The sold-out glimpse into her life was, in sum, forward-looking. And there’s much to look forward to: Ravi mentioned there’s “a lot” of unreleased material the family is hoping to publish in the future.

An altar in the Artbook store. Photo: Lauren O’Neill-Butler.

“Monastic and Ecstatic: A Glimpse into the Life and Legacy of Alice Coltrane” took place at MoMA PS1 on Sunday, February 11, 2018, as part of its VW Sunday Sessions.