1964: John Coltrane Finds Love, Realizes A Love Supreme the Manifestation of an 18-Year-Old Vision

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1964: John Coltrane Finds Love, Realizes A Love Supreme the Manifestation of an 18-Year-Old Vision

Or, that time a four-track, album-length jazz suite wasn't a losing proposition.

Coltrane smokes a pipe while taking a break from recording “A Love Supreme” at Van Gelder Studios, Dec. 1964. Photo by Chuck Stewart.

By Matt Silver

1963 chronicled a version of Coltrane’s Classic Quartet navigating between at least two worlds — the highwater mark of the group’s avant-garde experimentations, as heard on 1961’s "Live" at the Village Vanguard and Impressions, and 1962’s tidal recession to the more, shall we say, accessible repertoire of Ballads and the eponymously titled collaboration with Duke Ellington. It's a split-the-baby-in-two type scenario: you’ve got more adventurous sessions at Birdland as the year’s bookends — and, sandwiched between, the velvety lyrical decadence of Trane’s collaboration with Johnny Hartman AND six months of gigs with a substitute drummer, Roy Haynes, who filled in admirably for Elvin Jones, most memorably at 1963’s Newport Jazz Festival.

In 1964, there’s less vacillation, more incantation. Less compromise; more contemplation. Less soul searching; more satisfaction. More grounding and even more gratitude. 

And more happiness. In Coltrane’s career, but also in his life more generally. 

Life can imitate art, but more frequently art imitates life. In 1963, he met a woman, a musician — a pianist, harpist, and vibraphonist named Alice McLeod — in New York. At Birdland. She was playing vibes and piano in Terry Gibbs’s band, which was splitting a double-bill with Coltrane’s quartet, and they fell in love. 

By ’64, they’d had their first child together — John, Jr. — and moved out of the city, to Dix Hills, on Long Island. The next year, they’d marry and welcome their second son, Ravi, an acclaimed tenor saxophonist you may have seen performing recently in San Diego.

The Coltrane quartet recorded just two records in 1964, but, taken together, both cast the John Coltrane of the moment — emotionally, artistically, and spiritually — into stark relief.

1964’s “Crescent” showcases the rhythm section and Coltrane, the composer. Its suite-like approach and spirituality, especially evident on “Wise One,” foreshadowed the year’s later landmark recording.

Crescent, recorded over two sessions in April and June 1964 is particulary notable for two reasons: One, it serves as a showcase for each member of the rhythm section as an individual, most conspicuously exemplified by “The Drum Thing,” a Coltrane original and percussion tour-de-force featuring Elvin Jones, the now fully healthy prodigal drummer. And two, Crescent presents less as a collection of discrete compositions and more as an interconnected whole, an LP-length jazz-suite, which roughly lays the blueprint for the album-length jazz suite to follow, the one many consider to be Coltrane’s masterpiece and signature album.

In the Book of Saint Coltrane, the mythology-turned-gospel for many decades was that A Love Supreme came to Coltrane while in the grips of a five-day fever late in the summer of 1964.

But in 2006, an addendum, a previously unrecorded piece of clarification from Alice Coltrane (née McLeod), published in Ashley Kahn’s excellent book about Impulse! Records called The House That Trane Built.

“When he was in the Navy,” Alice tells Kahn, “he had a vision that he couldn’t interpret at the time. It was just beyond him, and he didn't know who to turn to who could provide any clarity to it. He said that’s when the idea for A Love Supreme started to blow into his consciousness.”

As Alice tells it, it was only years later, in the throes of this late summer illness, that Coltrane acquired the tools to interpret and then effectuate this vision from 1946.

A copy of the first page of Coltrane's original blueprint for "A Love Supreme."

Coltrane’s own notes, his first ideas for how this once inscrutable vision should be communicated, are spelled out explicitly.  It is to be “a musical recitation of prayer.” And this prayer is to be entitled “A Love Supreme.”

Some of the most iconic elements of the suite were sketched out beforehand. Trane’s notes enumerate that the trademark four-note motif in “Acknowledgment” was to recur through all 12 keys. And on “Psalm,” the intention from the very beginning was that the saxophone part would mimic the cadence and phrasing of the Coltrane-penned poem that serves as A Love Supreme’s liner notes.

Neither a cult hit nor controversial like “Chasin’ the Trane” or the avant-garde offerings to follow, A Love Supreme was a commercial and critical success from the start. Though not surprisingly, most record producers of the day thought it would flop.

George Avakian, the famous chief of Columbia Records who’d signed Miles Davis and had a close working relationship with Coltrane, told Ashley Kahn, “Trane was frustrated because he wanted to record some long compositions, but Impulse! producer Bob Thiele wanted more standards and shorter tracks.”

Coltrane mentors Archie Shepp, a young saxophonist from Philadelphia who played on alternate takes of “Acknowledgment,” during a Dec. 10, 1964 recording session of "A Love Supreme. Impulse producer Bob Thiele looks on, as does McCoy Tyner (background left). Photo by Chuck Stewart.

Thiele, of course, would eventually relent, as he describes in his own autobiography, over the vociferous objection of his bosses at ABC Records, Impulse’s parent company. In the meantime, Avakian tried to take the temperature of other record executives on Coltrane’s behalf, and he found that all had the same predictable attitude. When Avakian asked Ken Glancy, then head of pop A&R at Columbia, if he’d sign Coltrane for a one-off to record A Love Supreme, Glancy’s response was, “How many times do you want to hear “Greensleeves” for half an hour?”

In 2021, 56 years after its release, A Love Supreme was certified platinum. It’s the only jazz LP of the 1960s to have earned that designation.


John and Alice Coltrane’s son and daughter, Ravi and Michelle Coltrane, receiving their father’s platinum record at a Nov. 2021 ceremony held at the Coltrane House in Dix Hills, N.Y., where John Coltrane composed “A Love Supreme.” From left: Jamie Krents, head of Verve and Impulse! Records, Ravi Coltrane, Michelle Coltrane, and Ken Drucker, the label’s head of jazz development. Photo by Meredith Truax.

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