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.