The legendary jazz saxophonist John Coltrane would have turned 80 this month. Susan L. Taylor talks to his wife, muse, musical collaborator and fellow spiritual traveler at her ashram in Southern California
The ashram is another world, an abode in the rolling hills of Agoura, California, 40 minutes north of Los Angeles. A clear-water creek meanders among massive oaks, refreshing the land and inner landscape of a serenely beautiful sister some call Swamini. Most know her as Alice Coltrane, master musician and wife of the great saxophonist John Coltrane. “I love these trees,” I tell her, feeling their presence as keenly as I sense hers—abiding, deeply rooted, always reaching for the light.
For years I had been curious to know how this woman, who grew up in the Baptist church in Detroit, had come to found an ashram, Sai Anantam, where some 30 people live, and another 50 come to nourish the spirit. I wanted to visit and speak with Sister Alice about her spiritual life and her beloved husband, John, who died 39 years ago.
It seems strange to write of John Coltrane in the past tense when his spirit remains so vital and present for so many. “John Coltrane lives!” my husband, Khephra Burns, wrote in liner notes for the album Tribute to John Coltrane. “Lives !…in the courage of artists standing naked before the world, as Coltrane stood, baring his soul for Love’s sake, clothed only in the cry of the preacher, the prophet, the mystic.”
John would have turned 80 on September 23. His death from liver cancer in 1967 left Alice with a daughter, Michelle, from a previous union; and sons John, Jr., who died in an automobile accident at 17; Ravi, a tenor and soprano saxophonist; and Oran, who plays guitar and alto sax. Alice Coltrane—composer, pianist, organist, harpist— had been off the scene for 26 years when she released Translinear Light in 2005. In the interim she founded the ashram in a San Francisco storefront, moving to Agoura in 1982. It was here that I spent a night and a glorious day with the gifted healer and teacher.
What are your core spiritual beliefs here at the ashram?
I believe that meditation is the highest spiritual practice, the pathway to God. Our studies of various religions take us a distance. Great lectures by revered, saintly souls may take us even further. However, to know God as Spirit, as consciousness, as truth, we have to engage ourselves so that we can experience the omnipresent God in everything. Meditation to me is the way.
What is it about the meditative state that allows us to know God’s presence?
The mind is always busy. Even when we are not speaking, the mind is active—thinking, planning, worrying, deducing, rationalizing, speculating. The mind is a great gift, but it has to be quieted down in order to feel, hear and see the presence of God. Meditation is not a philosophical or intellectual pursuit. It is spiritual. When you quiet your mind, you can enter a world of clarity, peace and understanding. You will always find something of value from meditation. If you need to calm down and be more patient, meditation should become a part of your life. You will operate more smoothly, work more efficiently and proceed more confidently and in control of your life.
This ashram is a place of peace. But how do we, who aren’t living in so idyllic a spot, stay peaceful in the face of so many competing personal pressures, with our hearts hurting for our neglected community and our children? How can meditation help with these things?
If we are worldly oriented or adversely affected by life’s challenges, we cannot give the children the time, attention and guidance they need. But we can receive healing and direction from meditation itself.
You don’t have to adopt an Eastern religion. You just need to set aside 15 minutes a day to be still. Keep a little notebook near you to record your experiences. You are going to find there is something in those notes that you require in your life, your family, your work, on your spiritual path. Just as it is fire’s nature to burn, it is meditation’s nature to heal, to bring peace and uplift you beyond your worldly environment and transport you to a higher plane.
What is your chosen path, your religion?
Mine is a Vedic, Eastern path. The name comes from the Vedas, the world’s oldest known scriptures proclaimed as emanations from God and compiled during meditation into Four Testaments by the saints and rishis, or holy men. The rishis would write on stone or palm leaves to keep a record of the spiritual renderings and transmissions, and then impart them to the people. Vedas and other scriptural literature always come through meditation by holy men and women of God. The Vedas are teachings for life, family, government, military warfare, arts, sciences, marriage and, moreover, spiritual guidance for liberation and self-realization.
Throughout the world today’s women’s voices have been silenced. Women have been greatly repressed. But thousands of years ago women were respected as sages and wisdom carriers.
Oh, yes, a lot of scripture has revealed the lives of great ladies of spiritual wisdom. Anasuya, known as mother of the gods; she was powerful, loving and beautiful. Sita Devi, consort of the Lord of the Treta Yuga (an ancient period of time) was known for her forbearance and great faith in God in the midst of opposition. Sarasvati, known as the mother of learning, intelligence and knowledge. Mira Bai, a queen and ardent devotee of the Lord was despised by family members, jailed and prosecuted by authorities. Joan of Arc was burned. Believers know that Mother Mary, mother of Christ, was highly empowered and revered.
As was Mary Magdalene.
Yes, she also was great. And now more people are finding out that she was one of Christ’s highest initiates.
But so castigated. The truth about her wisdom and power are little known.
Well, that has been the problem. Women have been held back and limited throughout the centuries. Creation could not have been rendered, not even considered, let alone be brought into manifestation without woman. She is principal, a powerful energy. She is first.
Now how does that square with the Adam and Eve story? Many people do take the Bible’s powerful stories, metaphors and allegories literally.
We concretize them, which is a big mistake. In the Bible Adam represents reason—brain, calculating, deducing, rationalizing, speculating. Eve represents sentiment—emotion, feelings from the heart. The point is not about Eve being made from Adam’s rib or that she was a temptress, a sinner, disobedient and to be blamed for the Fall. The point is that we all have both male and female aspects and must balance both. We’ve not looked to the inner meaning. The Bible is so encoded with wisdom. God has given us everything for our understanding.
What are your thoughts about the many predictions in the Bible like Jesus’ return?
We take them all so literally, and are waiting for Christ to come a second time. Christ has returned many times. Unfortunately, we the people did not remember his statement, when it is written, “Those that have ears, let them hear. Those that have eyes, let them see. I am here.” Yes, this means, hear and see me as I am. Christ is saying, “I do not look like your interpretation of me, and I do not return according to your design or idea of me.” Christian historians would have faltered and the American and other churches worldwide would have failed long ago with his presence.
My understanding is that the Christ spirit is in all of us and it is love. Jesus taught that we could do works even greater than his did if we would give our life to God, have faith in his Father and learn to love one another. Sounds so simple, so easy, but we don’t understand it or trust it and more than anything what humanity is struggling to evolve to. Living love, giving birth to the Christ spirit in us, isn’t that the whole purpose of meditation?
Yes, that is it. Give your heart to God and continue to love your family, friends and elders; however, remember that these relationships are all temporary and transitory. No matter how great or small, they will come to an end. And yet, God never leaves you, neither forsakes you, nor betrays you. When you give your heart to God, it is accepted and honored.
Were you leaning toward Eastern philosophy and religion before you met John?
Not at all. John was already interested in Eastern philosophy. Even though his family was Christian, he studied various other faiths, everything from metaphysics, Cabala, Hindu mysticism, Sufism, Buddhism, Islam and Judaism to numerology and astrology. In the early sixties John was very much interested in meditation and in the different ways people throughout the world honor God.
When and how did you two meet?
It was at Birdland in New York City, 1963. I played piano with the Terry Gibbs band, and the John Coltrane Quartet was the headliner. Backstage there was a small seating area for musicians. John would always be sitting at the farthest end, and I would take my seat at the opposite end. He had a pensive, contemplative aura, such a quietness and peace about him that I didn’t speak to him because I didn’t want to disrupt this peace.
After about three days, we did speak, and I was highly impressed by his calm mannerisms, his beautiful hands, his serene face, eyes and smile, and his soft, gentle voice. I felt wonderful. It was a joy to converse with him. He talked about music, art, architecture, science in terms of Einstein’s theory of relativity, yoga, vegetarianism and so much more.
How did the romance begin? Did you open your hearts to each other immediately?
Absolutely! It was a different day, a new day in our lives. Some years later I recall his saying, “Years ago, I had dreamed of you, not knowing that someday we would meet.” I will never forget one particular moment backstage. I was walking down the corridor and totally unbeknownst to me John was following me with his horn, and he began playing “Always.” That was John’s tender and charismatic way of expressing his thoughts through song.
The brilliance of John Coltrane—Amiri Baraka has referred to him as the heaviest spirit in the universe. My husband, Khephra, says when he first heard Meditations he cried. What do you think John was saying through his music?
He was saying, “Dedicate your life to God, for all is with God.” He’d had a spiritual experience and this pointed all of his musical endeavors toward A Love Supreme. And despite his receiving accolades from peers, prestigious awards, a Grammy and worldwide acclaim, John dedicated himself completely to God through such albums as Om and Meditations, and songs like “Dear Lord,” “Offering,” “Peace on Earth,” “Song of Praise,” and so many other spiritual compositions.
What would you say he was trying to give?
John knew that music fundamentally is a spiritual language that speaks to the heart and soul. Unfortunately, everyone cannot go to the mountain, or to isolation. But through music, people can go within their own heart and let their spirit soar, and maybe say, “Lord, at least through spiritual sound, I could possibly reach that open door that leads to your sacred domain.” I felt that through John’s compositions, and the sound of his instrument, this could pave the way to the righteous path, giving us a time for spiritual reflection, concentration, upliftment and revitalization. In India, there is a Name of God known as Nadabrahma. It means God as sound. God is sound.
John was deeply affected by the need for peace in the world; and he wanted to utilize his music as his elders had done in the church. Not necessarily from the pulpit, but from a platform that could serve as an outreach to many more souls that those who followed his music. He respected the faiths of others, and I don’t believe people knew how deep his thoughts were on the subject of salvation, liberation and God realization, and that he believed in love toward all mankind with and the effort to relieve pain and suffering.
Although John was already revered as a pioneer in artistic expression and improvisation, some jazz critics blamed you for the change in his music, saying you led him toward the avant-garde and caused the breakup of the famous John Coltrane Quartet with Jimmy Garrison on bass, Elvin Jones on drums and McCoy Tyner on piano.
I was committed to just being there for whatever purpose I could serve. I didn’t have to inspire John to go into the avant-garde field. He led that way on his own. The man was a genius, he didn’t need anything from me. And that’s why it’s so interesting that critics decided to dislike me. At a point McCoy Tyner stated it was time for a change, time for him to leave. And this is what they all did. They left on their own. When John said he wanted me to play with him, on piano, I told him there were many others who were qualified. He said, “I want you there because you can do it.” It was a wonderful, a beautiful response from him and I was astounded. He could have chosen from among many fine pianists from around the world.
You were a child prodigy, and John surely appreciated your mastery as a pianist.
John and I did have a wonderful time making music together. We’d sit at the piano and go through Stravinsky and Schoenberg and Copland, and the children would be around us running and playing.
John Coltrane, the musician, we know. But what was he like as a husband and father?
He was an excellent husband, father and obedient son to his mother, Mrs. Alice Coltrane, Sr., who lived in Philadelphia. We lived on Long Island, New York, and he loved to be at home. We always had dinner together whenever possible. I could not cook as well as his mother, but I loved to cook good vegetarian meals for the family, and occasionally bake his favorite apple pie. We spent a lot of time outdoors taking pictures of our children, watching them play and grow. We were so close; he was so very gentle with us. John never once raised his voice at me or the children. He was at peace with himself and didn’t feel he had to use anger to express his feelings. He was fulfilled in his mission in life.
Often, after he had left for work, I would discover a note that he had left stating his love and adoration for me. On any given day, he would bring me flowers. When holding hands in silent moments, I could feel a warm and tender magnetic energy flow from his palms. It was truly very comforting.
When John passed away, you were not yet 30 and had four young children.
How did you cope?
In terms of the children, it was very difficult for me. The youngest was only four months old. The older ones couldn’t understand why their dad did not come home from the studio. I had to wait until they were older before I could fully explain his absence. Mercifully, God brought me through those hard times. And in some sense, God had prepared me. Once, prior to his transition when I was in meditation, I began to see different things about him. I was seeing that we would have less time to spend together. In this visionary state, I saw him walk up to me and say, "I have something to tell you of great importance, and it is that I am going.” I asked, “Where are you going?” And he said, “I'm going on to enlightenment.”
Did he know he had liver cancer?
No. I believe that he knew that he was quite ill, but I had to practically take him to the doctor for an examination. He tried to avoid it by saying, “Everything is okay, it’s alright.” Following that initial examination, the gravity of his condition was discovered, yet not fully defined. The doctors said that they needed one more test to fully evaluate the situation. However, on one fateful day, John passed on before the final test was taken.
Were there symptoms?
He was in pain, very tired, debilitated. Then he told me, “I cannot play my horn anymore.” I was shocked. I was speechless.
I read that you’ve taken the vow of celibacy.
Yes, I have taken vows of celibacy since the time John departed the world. I could not envision myself with someone else. I did not want to remarry. Once I expressed this to some family members who told me, "Give yourself some time." I said no. There is no one who can stand in his place, not even in his shadow. I will not bring another man into my life here over my children. Never.
Have you also taken vows of humility, sacrifice and austerity?
The vow of celibacy also includes humility, and I wholeheartedly adhere to it, and daily live it. Also, many sacrifices have been made for the sake of others. As for me? I sacrificed concretizing for years, accepting no recording contracts. My musical career came to an end for 26 years for God. In terms of austerities known as mortification of the body, I have experienced them. Foremost, I do not recommend that anyone engage in them, they can be dangerous to the unadept, also to those who are misguided by something or someone. I have fasted for three months on water and protein drinks, and similarly for 10 months at a time. I have stayed awake from three to four days in an effortless, meditative state, with little or no communication with others.
Why the retreat from the jazz world and staying off the scene for 26 years to honor God.
After fulfilling my Warner contract, I really wanted to go deeper into what the Lord had outlined for me to do. I felt that it was time for the next generation of musicians. And the music was changing, so I thought maybe my time is finished. Maybe this is sufficient.
What are your days like now?
I live very simply. I’m awake at 4:00 a.m. for meditation. I like to walk around our grounds in the early morning. I take a light breakfast, and a normal evening meal around five o'clock. Then, I have the rest of the evening to myself, to read, to listen to music, or to spend time with family members, or help the grandchildren with their homework. During the day, I attend to the evangelical duties and to the needs of our spiritual organization. I also oversee the business of our family and Jowcol Music, John's publishing company. It controls all of his songs, and there are always requests to use his music in recordings, films, videos.
This is another existence out here on The Land, as you call it. Music, meditation, chanting, people of all races and backgrounds living in isolation. We think of folks living like this as having dropped out.
Dropped out of what?
These aren’t people who don’t want to think for themselves. The young people here aren’t helpless ones depending on me. We all still have to face our tests and our trials. There are many professionals here, people with various college degrees, physical therapists, yoga and special education teachers. They’ve not dropped out of human society. The children go to public schools. This is not a commune. No one was proselytized to come here or solicited in any way. This is an ashram, a place for spiritual refuge where you develop yourself devotionally and spiritually.
What is it you offer residents and initiates? And what do you ask of them?
I ask that they be sincere in their purpose. We’re here for the Lord, and everyone understands that and participates in our activities and helps keep our land beautiful. Meditation, prayer, recitation of the names of God, singing the Lord’s glories, service to the community—taking clothing and food to homeless shelters, helping native American communities, singing to the elders in hospitals, providing them daycare and medicine, offering service wherever it’s needed—these are the reasons for being here. When we serve humanity, we serve God.
What I try to give is the guidance that people might not otherwise have been able to find. Someone may be having difficulty meditating or may be struggling at work, with a child or in a relationship. I offer my inner understanding. God has healed so many people of disorders and diseases here.
What has replaced the joy of playing jazz?
The joy of chanting the holy names of God—Prince of Peace, Rose of Sharon, Jehovah Gira, Krishna, Shiva, El Shadai.
Why an ashram?
I felt this was the next step the Lord ordered me to take.
Sister Alice, what would you say to Black women? What must we do to find our way home again?
Go within. God is working on the inside. Just go into the sanctuary of your heart, offer your prayers and your worship there. Offer your tears of devotion to the Lord there. God will never, ever fail you. He will receive you.
Photo Credit: Kwaku Alston