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A long-lasting lesson in God's love from jazz great John Coltrane

By T. Carlos Anderson
Special to the American-Statesman
John Coltrane described God's grace in the liner notes of his album 'A Love Supreme'.

Jazz saxophone giant John Coltrane released his masterpiece "A Love Supreme" in February 1965.

For those of you unfamiliar with Coltrane’s work, "A Love Supreme" is as fresh and timeless today as it was more than 50 years ago. Accessibly melodic, Coltrane’s exuberant tenor sax fuses with McCoy Tyner’s teeming piano chords and riffs to produce an unparalleled 33-minute session of ascendant and flowing grace.

Coltrane’s road to "A Love Supreme" was anything but straightforward. He was born in North Carolina in 1926. His father passed away when he was only 12 years old. Around this same time, a church music director introduced the young adolescent Coltrane to the saxophone.

After moving to Philadelphia when he was 17, Coltrane enlisted in the US Navy and played clarinet in a military band while serving in Hawaii. He returned to Philadelphia in 1946 and dedicated himself to becoming a jazz musician.

He found success and played alongside the biggest names of the early bebop era: Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Johnny Hodges, and Miles Davis.

The hungry ghost of addiction haunted Coltrane, however. He was booted out of Miles Davis’s band in 1957 for continued heroin use, including a near overdose. The close call, however, propelled him to clean up. From the autobiographical liner notes of "A Love Supreme": “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.”

John Coltrane in "Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary," from director John Scheinfeld. Don Schlitten (courtesy)

Coltrane's calling was “to make others happy through music,” which, he claimed, was granted to him through God’s grace. “No matter what … it is with God. He is gracious and merciful. His way is in love, through which we all are. It is truly — A Love Supreme.”

Yes, Coltrane’s credo – like some of his music later in his career— is a bit vague and esoteric. Let me put the credo in other terms, more accessible: love is a sufficiency all its own.

The Rev. T. Carlos Anderson is director of Austin City Lutherans.

I’ve written elsewhere on the societal desire and drive that is never satisfied with enough, always seeking “just a little bit more.”

Love is the antidote to the pursuit of more and more; it helps us to be grateful, to relax, to rest, to enjoy, to share, and to know when and what is enough. Love also helps us to do great things — working hard in the process — for our neighbors and the common good. Love covers it all.

John Coltrane died of liver cancer in 1967, having completed only 40 years of life on this earth. Forgive the obvious cliché— his music does live on. Coltrane biographer Lewis Porter ("John Coltrane: His Life and Music," University of Michigan Press, 2000) explains that Coltrane plays the “Love Supreme” riff (four notes) exhaustively in all possible 12 keys toward the end of "Part 1 — Acknowledgement," the first cut on the disc.

Love is sufficient; it covers all we need and then some.

The conclusion of Coltrane’s liner notes: “May we never forget that in the sunshine of our lives, through the storm and after the rain — it is all with God — in all ways and forever.”

T. Carlos “Tim” Anderson is a Protestant minister and director of Austin City Lutherans, the social ministry expression of a dozen Evangelical Lutheran Church in America congregations in Austin. He writes at tcarlosanderson.com.