The Jazz Theologian

The Jazz Theologian

Talkin’ Trane

The key to Coltrane is found not in how or what he played but why he played the way, he did. Musically he was a genius and a trendsetter. Practicing for hours a day, he developed unprecedented speed that awed all who heard. But why did he play the way he did? What pushed him to play scales at such mind-boggling, even manic speeds?

In, Spirit Catcher: The Life and Art of John Coltrane, John Fraim chronicles the struggles, triumphs and spiritual transformation of this man who was reared in his grandfather’s church and was familiar with the ways of God. He had a substance abuse problem and eventually he moved in with his mother and began playing less and abusing drugs and alcohol more.


“However, this time he must have sensed that some final decision had to be made if he was going to reach his full potential as a musician: he would have to decide once and for all if he was going to live the rest of his life as a drug addict or as a musician.” (p33) He sought the support of his wife and mother and then sought sanctuary in his room, praying and seeking God’s help to withstand the pain of withdrawals. Four days later he emerged a changed man, God had met him in a most unusual way… the result being that he began to play his instrument for a different reason.

To truly truly hear Coltrane we must know what happened to him in that room.

Have you ever had an experience with God that was so personal, so utterly amazing that you couldn't describe it? How has it affected you? Do you savor the moment or has the moment sent you on a pursuit to find it again?


It was a sound, a droning sound unlike anything he had heard. God met him, revealed Himself to Coltrane through a resonance. “It was so beautiful,” he told his wife as he hopelessly tried to reproduce it on a piano. That is the key to Coltrane.

“With this event, the search for the mysterious sound began. It was a search that would continue throughout his life and would cause him to create some of his most intense and emotional music.” writes Fraim.

After this experience he still played solo’s with amazing speed but they were not frenzied rather they were searches for ultimate meaning. When he picked up his sax and played, he was trying to reproduce the sound of God. Sometimes he would solo for thirty minutes!


The question is what was he doing? He was searching for that sound of God that was playing at his lowest and yet most transformational moment of life. That magnificent murmur, that melody that met him when he was at his weakest and yet somehow was becoming his strongest. He was searching for the sound of God not to play to him, but to have it played by him and through him as a witness to his audiences.

When you listen to his music you either love it or hate it but remember the meaning is not found in what he was playing but in why he was playing the way he was playing.

Our lives will be meaningless to those around us until we are willing to tell them the story that reveals our search for God. Others will always baffle us until we are willing to pursue the meaning behind their music.

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God's Weaver

posted July 27, 2007 at 8:07 am

This story about Coltrane’s search for the sound reminds me of C.S. Lewis’ story in “Surprised by Joy.” He recounts the glimpses of intense joy through his life that led him to search for them. He could never reproduce them through his own machinations. It wasn’t until he discovered the source of the JOY that he began to understand the glimpses that quickened his heart.

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Rebecca Schaefer

posted July 27, 2007 at 12:31 pm

Our Catholic brothers and sisters have a term called “Mystigogia” (sp?) that speaks to the indefinable attributes and actions of the Trinity. In a moment of absolute despair during a counseling session behind the altar at Queen of Peace, my counselor challenged me with, “Do you believe Jesus can forgive all of these sins? If so, just ask Him to…” The trouble was I believed He could (i.e. was more than capable), but thought I’d crossed over the limit He would allow; so I didn’t know for sure if He would. I had a long “confession” list so dark that even the counselor said “Enough, I can’t listen to any more…”
Tension hung in the air. If I asked, would Jesus forgive? If I asked, what happens next if He says no? I asked out loud with my eyes closed, braced for a lightning strike!
In His merciful love, He didn’t utter an audible affirmation. Instead… His pure, radiant white-hot purifying light (the signature descriptor for Jesus) poured like radar through my soul and body – it was hotter then fire, brighter than the sun, with a dimension of love and peace so profound and reassuring that I’ve cried every time I’ve attempted to explain it in human terminology. I knew it was Jesus, I knew it was His perfect love, I new it was so penetrating I would never again doubt His forgiveness or cleansing power. I knew I was made right by His sacrifice, and I knew I’d be in heaven with Him for eternity.
That day behind the altar, truly altered my life. But, it haunts me. I’ve searched and consumed Scripture to try to re-engage even a portion of that moment, fasted & prayed at every secluded retreat center in Colorado and never found that degree of liberty that is freedom from sin, and permission to be fully alive in Christ.
It’s an appetizer moment for me, a prelude for heaven that draws me forward and keeps me searching the skys for Jesus’ return. Once in a “blue moon”, if I’m following flawlessly on a smooth dance floor with an accomplished leader, I catch a glimpse of that freedom and a touch of that joy.

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sacred vapor

posted July 27, 2007 at 7:26 pm

great stuff man… I can’t get enough of Coltrane.

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posted August 1, 2007 at 6:19 am

Thanks for sharing that, Rebecca.
It seems your moment with God came in the form of realizing your freedom in grace. My experience came in the form of breaking my pride — yet, unbelievably, seeing his hand lift me up undeservedly.
We adopted our first daughter as an infant, and her birthmother didn’t want to meet us. I frankly didn’t care too much. I had the attitude, “Look at us, coming in and rescuing this poor baby from her awful circumstances. God obviously thinks we have it together (stable income, our marriage, our finances, our faith, our big house…), and has decided that we would be good parents” (entitlement).
Then four months later I had the privilege of seeing my son’s birthmother (Rebecca) give birth. I stayed with her in the hospital over night and we took turns changing him and feeding him. It was beautiful. The next morning, we took Rebecca home to her empty house, dropped her at the front door, and left with her baby…
We pulled over 3 blocks away and my husband and I sobbed. As the vastness of my pride washed over me like a heavy, black blanket, I felt as if I was sinking out of the car and into the pavement.
Who are we? What just happened? The enormity of the gift of this little boy was overwhelming. What had we done to deserve this? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Rebecca chose us. She gave up her son so that we could have one. It was for our good — but caused her great pain and loss in the offering.
It was the first time in my life that I had a clear, down to the depths of my soul understanding of the Father’s sacrafice in giving his Son for my sake. My son is a living, breathing picture of Jesus. Sweet Jesus.
Who am I? A receiver of mercy and grace. Praise be to God.

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Rebecca Schaefer

posted August 1, 2007 at 1:12 pm

Your post reminded me yet again of the sanctity and purpose of every human life. Like a single note playing in a piece of music would be missed if it’s sweet sound was not offered, this tiny infant’s life was a conduit for the Gospel to be proclaimed. God’s mercy is overwhelming.
P.S. You were and are the perfect choice for parenting Rebecca’s child and continuuing to proclaim the grace of God.

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