John and Alice; Alice and Swami Turiyasangitananda

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John and Alice; Alice and Swami Turiyasangitananda

Or, you may not have known that Alice Coltrane lived in ancient Egypt in a past life.

Alice in the basement recording studio of the Coltrane home. Dix Hills, NY. Sometime after the release of Cosmic Music, c. 1968–69.

By Matt Silver

In 1963, John Coltrane met a pianist from Detroit named Alice McLeod in New York City. 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 1964 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.

When McCoy Tyner left the Coltrane Quartet in early 1966, Alice replaced him, and, after a while, would play organ, harp, and vibes, too. Along with Pharaoh Sanders, Rashied Ali, and Jimmy Garrison, she was a core member of her husband’s final quintet; they made music together until he died in July 1967. 

John and Alice Coltrane arrive in Nagoya, Japan. Approx. a year before John's death. July 1966.

Immediately after John’s death, Alice focused more on raising the couple’s four children and less on her own music. Though, in time, she’d form her own band, with some significant continuity in terms of personnel. Pharaoh Sanders played tenor, piccolo, and flute; Rashied Ali played drums; and the great Jimmy Garrison was back on bass, anchoring another band led by a Coltrane. 

In January 1968, Alice combined two previously unreleased tracks from a Feb. 1966 recording session of her late husband’s final band with two she’d recorded with her new band. She called the album Cosmic Music, and released it first on her own Coltrane Records and a year later on Impulse Records.

That began her relationship with Impulse as a leader, and later in 1968 she’d release her debut for the label her late husband had built; it was called A Monastic Trio. Produced by her husband’s longtime producer Bob Thiele, it featured the aforementioned remaining members of her husband's final quintet, along with drummer Ben Riley. And though it received a tepid reception upon its release, it’s viewed much more favorably today and, in the words of Ashley Kahn, author of The House That Trane Built, it “offers a peak at the signature style Alice had been developing while attending to a growing family.”

Alice’s debut for Impulse. Alice was credited as the producer and Bob Thiele, her late husband’s longtime producer, oversaw its late 1968 release.

Over the next dozen years, Alice would record a dozen full-length albums. Her second release, Ptah, El Daoud, named for the ancient Egyptian patron deity of craftsmen and architects, revealed more about Alice’s evolving spirituality. She’d begun to play the harp and when she did so said she felt in communion with a version of herself who’d lived in Ancient Egypt in a past life. 

So, of course, it was most appropriate that a Pharaoh be on the gig. Both Pharoah Sanders and Joe Henderson play tenor saxophone, and on “Blue Nile” they both play alto flute, while Alice communes with her ancient self via arpeggios on harp. 

On her next album, Journey in Satchidananda, she keeps the channels of communication with her ancient Egyptian relatives open with a take of “Isis and Osiris” that’s recorded live at the Village Gate. But it’s the title track honoring the Indian guru who helped her navigate the despair she felt following her husband’s death—a man she calls “the first example I have seen in recent years of Universal Love in action” — that foreshadows what would come next for Alice.

In 1972, she moved her young family to Southern California; the same year, she recorded World Galaxy, an album that includes a stirring and most spiritual version of her husband’s magnum opus, A Love Supreme. In California, she’d immerse herself much more fully in her spiritual practices, ultimately becoming the guru of the Shanti Anantam Ashram near Malibu in 1983. 

Still, her music continued to be an important vehicle for her spirituality, and even though much of her evolution in faith was ostensibly rooted in Eastern religion, she never abandoned her roots as a musician. Instead, she fused these two parts of her identity, becoming the patron saint of a new strain of music. 

In a 2022 New York Times feature, professor of musicology Tammy Kernodle, suggests, “The intersection of [Alice] Coltrane’s music and spirituality reflected her personal journey driven by divine purpose and her role in birthing an idiom of liturgical jazz.” 

Though her newer sound may have been foregrounded in Eastern-sounding modes, Kernodle contends that compositions like “The Hymn,” from her 2004 album Translinear Light, which features son Oran Coltrane on alto sax, are “a reminder of how [Alice] Coltrane’s music and theology of transformation and liberation were rooted in the emotive, ecstatic and contemplative sounds of Black Baptist and Pentecostal churches.”

Elsewhere on that album, Alice is joined by son Ravi on tenor saxophone, frequent collaborators Charlie Haden and Jack DeJohnette on bass and drums, respectively, and by the great drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts on the three tunes DeJohnette sits out.

Produced by Ravi, Translinear Light would be her last studio album. Alice, who in her later years became known as Swami Turiyasangitananda, meaning “the highest song of God,” died in 2007 at the age of 69. Her ashram in Agoura Hills closed in 2017 and was subsequently destroyed in the wildfires of 2018; by that time, the Coltrane family no longer owned the property.

Produced by son Ravi, who, along with younger brother Oran, plays on the album, “Translinear Light” was released in 2004. Alice died in 2007. Photo by Jeff Dunas.

Alice’s daughter Michelle wrote shortly after that the fires wouldn’t—and couldn’t— extinguish what and who her mother was. She said, “The years of service, teachings, and dedication that the guru exhibited will be shared with my children and grandchildren. They will remember Alice Coltrane’s legacy; as it was always so much more than brick and mortar.” 

Indeed, Alice’s spirituality and musicality continue to inspire younger musicians, literally; the harpist Brandee Younger is among Alice’s most celebrated devotees. In 2022, she expressed her love of Alice the organist to the Times, saying “I didn’t realize that an organ could make me feel such a full range of emotions.” 

Saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin is another, and probably the first saxophonist in  post-Coltrane jazz history to be into Alice Coltrane’s music before John’s. She released a terrific tribute to both musicians in 2020, with Pursuance: The Coltranes. 

To find out more about that album and what Alice meant and still means to the thrice Grammy-nominated Benjamin, click here.

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