Alice Coltrane, Jazz Artist and Spiritual Leader, Dies at 69
Alice Coltrane, widow of the jazz saxophonist John Coltrane and the pianist in his later bands, who extended her musical searches into a vocation as a spiritual leader, died on Friday in Los Angeles. She was 69.
The cause was respiratory failure, said Marilyn McLeod, her sister and assistant.
Ms. Coltrane lived in the Woodland Hills section of Los Angeles near the Sai Anantam ashram in Agoura Hills, which she had founded in 1983. Known as Swami Turiyasangitananda, Sanskrit for “the highest song of God,” she was the guiding presence of the 48-acre ashram, set among the Santa Monica mountains, where 25 to 30 full-time residents study the Vedic scriptures of ancient India, as well as Buddhist and Islamic texts.
She was also the manager of Coltrane’s estate, as well as of his music-publishing company, Jowcol Music, and the John Coltrane Foundation, which has given out scholarships to music students since 2001.
As a pianist, her playing was dense with arpeggios that suggested the harp; the instrument had an important place in her life. One of her childhood heroes was the Detroit-based jazz harpist Dorothy Ashby, and she was later motivated to study that instrument by Coltrane, who loved its sound.
Raised in a musical family in Detroit, Ms. Coltrane played piano and organ for church choirs and Sunday school from age 7. As a young musician in Detroit, she was studying classical music and playing piano in jazz clubs, in a group including her half-brother, the bassist Ernie Farrow, and the trombonist George Bohannon.
In her early 20s she lived briefly in Paris, where she studied informally with the pianist Bud Powell, and was briefly married to the singer Kenny (Pancho) Hagood, with whom she had a daughter, Michelle. She returned to Detroit, playing in a band with her brother, and then moved to New York in 1962. A year later she met John Coltrane.
She was playing vibraphone and Powell-inspired bebop piano in a group led by the drummer Terry Gibbs at Birdland, on a double-bill with Coltrane’s quartet. Coltrane was well established by the beginning of the 1960s, though she hadn’t known about him for long before moving to New York; the first time she ever heard him, she said, was on the 1961 album “Africa/Brass.”
They connected instantly; she moved in with him and traveled with the Coltrane band. By the summer of 1964 they had relocated from New York City to a house in Dix Hills, on Long Island. They married in 1965 in Juárez, Mexico, coinciding with Coltrane’s divorce from his first wife, Naima Grubbs. By that time she and Coltrane had already had two of their three children together — John Jr., who died in 1982, and Ravi, who by his 30s had become an acclaimed jazz saxophonist.
Ms. Coltrane is survived by her sisters, Marilyn McLeod of Winnetka, Calif., and Margaret Roberts of Detroit; her daughter, Michelle Carbonell-Coltrane of Los Angeles; her sons Oran Coltrane of Los Angeles and Ravi, of Brooklyn; and five grandchildren.
In 1966, as the Coltrane band’s music became wilder and more prolix, she became its pianist. She replaced McCoy Tyner, who quit without rancor, largely because he could no longer hear himself on the bandstand. Though she wasn’t Mr. Tyner’s technical equal and lacked his percussive power, she fit with the group’s new purpose; by the time of the recordings that would become the album “Stellar Regions,” in February 1967, she was fluid and energetic within the group’s freer new language.
She told an interviewer that Coltrane helped her to play “thoroughly and completely.” This meant stretching the definitions of rhythm and harmony, but she also meant something broader; Coltrane was talking about “universalizing” his music, creating a nondenominational religious art that took cues from ancient history and foreign scales. He helped her to sign a contract as a solo artist with his label, Impulse. And he introduced her to Eastern philosophy and religion, which became the main focus of her life.
After Coltrane’s death from liver cancer in 1967, Ms. Coltrane took a vow of celibacy. And at first she made music closely related to his, often reflective, minor and modal; on piano or harp she played flowing, harplike phrases over a deep midtempo swing, and she worked with the bassist Jimmy Garrison and the drummer Rashied Ali from John Coltrane’s band. On records like “A Monastic Trio,” “Ptah, the El Daoud” and “Journey in Satchidananda,” she was able to reconcile blues phrases and jazz rhythm with a kind of ancient, flowing sound.
Ms. Coltrane met her guru, Swami Satchidananda, in 1970, and in more recent years became a devotee of Sathya Sai Baba. By the early 1970s she developed a renewed interest in the organ, because it produced a continuous sound; she wanted to make a meditative music that wouldn’t be interrupted by pauses for breath. Her 1972 record, “Universal Consciousness,” with Ms. Coltrane on Wurlitzer organ and string arrangements by Ornette Coleman, became a far-out classic. In the mid-70s she switched to the Warner Brothers label and made four more records, including orchestras and Hindu chants. Thereafter, until 2004, she made records purely for religious purposes, distributing them privately.
After first establishing the Vedanta Center in San Francisco, she moved her ashram to Agoura Hills, just northwest of Los Angeles, and expanded it. In the past 10 years, she performed the occasional concert with Ravi, and in 2004 she finally returned to recording jazz, making “Translinear Light,” produced by Ravi, who reunited her with some old colleagues like Charlie Haden and Jack DeJohnette, as well as a chorus of singers from her ashram.