Alice Coltrane - Biography
Alice McLeod was a highly talented, up and coming bebop pianist when she met John Coltrane, her husband-to-be, in 1963. Her life and music turned around in a heartbeat, as she came into the orbit of one of the most influential innovators in jazz in the Sixties. As Alice Coltrane, she would make important music with her husband. After his untimely death, she worked to protect his legacy while coming into her own right by creating a series of increasingly influential albums before devoting most of her life to spiritual pursuits.
Alice McLeod was born in Detroit, MI, on August 27, 1937. Her’s was a musical family, and as a baby, Alice was fascinated by music on the radio. She was playing piano and organ by the age of seven, and began to study classical music while she played for church choirs and Sunday school. Her interest in all styles of music never waivered. As a teenager, she continued to play at church functions while starting to play bebop piano in the fertile Detroit scene with bands led by multi-instrumentalist Yusef Lateef and guitarist Kenny Burrell. Her older half-brother was bassist Ernie Farrow, who played with Barry Harris, Stan Getz, and extensively with Lateef. McLeod and Farrow played together in a group that also included trombonist George Bohanon in the late Fifties.
McLeod lived in Paris for a few years in her early twenties, where she studied informally with bop giant Bud Powell. She also gigged with tenor saxophonist Lucky Thompson and the innovative drummer Kenny Clarke during her stay, as revealed in a short film clip played at a 2008 memorial concert in New York. There was also a brief marriage to singer Kenny “Pancho” Hagood. Returning to Detroit, she played in a group with Farrow for a while before leaving for New York in 1962. She joined vibraphonist Terry Gibbs’ band, and it was with them that she was first recorded in 1963.
The Gibbs band was working at Birdland on a double-bill with the John Coltrane quartet. This was McLeod’s first encounter with the man and his music. The two made an instant connection. McLeod soon moved in with the saxophonist and began to travel with the band. In the summer of 1964, the pair moved to Dix Hills, NY. They were married in 1965, as soon as Coltrane’s divorce to his first wife became final. The couple would have three sons together: John Jr., who died in 1982, Ravi, now a prominent saxophonist, and Oran Coltrane, also a saxophonist.
When pianist McCoy Tyner left the Coltrane quartet at the end of 1965, largely because of the difficulty of hearing himself on the bandstand, Alice took his place. In 2006, she told Michelle Castill of the UCLA Daily Bruin that she “was surprised that he asked me to join the band. (It was) not that I felt unqualified or not up to level; it wasn’t a matter of music or ability. It was just the number of talented people in the music world."
Alice’s first issued appearance in the Coltrane group was on Live at The Village Vanguard - Again (1966 Impulse) in a quintet with saxophonist Pharaoh Sanders, bassist Jimmy Garrison, and drummer Rashied Ali. John Coltrane assessed her playing in the liner notes by saying that “she continually senses the right colors, the right textures...She has real facility.” Alice would later credit her husband for teaching her “to explore [and] to play thoroughly and completely.” Earlier recordings of her in the band have since been appeared, notably the studio session Stellar Regions (1995 Impulse), and the four disc set Live In Japan (1991 Impulse), compiled from Coltrane’s only tour of that country in 1966.
Alice Coltrane continued as the regular pianist for her husband’s group until his death from liver cancer in 1967. John had helped her secure a recording contract of her own with Impulse Records. He also encouraged her to take up the harp, an instrument whose sound he loved. She quickly picked up the pieces. Her first release as a leader was A Monastic Trio (1968 Impulse) on which she played with two different bands, a quartet with Pharaoh Sanders, Jimmy Garrison and drummer Ben Riley, and another group with Garrison and Rashid Ali that featured Mrs. Coltrane’s harp for the first time. As the manager of her late husband's estate and musical legacy for four decades, Mrs. Coltrane also oversaw the release of a number of posthumous albums of John Coltrane’s music. A small controversy was occasioned by Infinity (1972 Impulse), for which Mrs. Coltrane composed and conducted string parts that were overdubbed on previously un-issued material from 1965 and 1966.
Her husband had introduced Mrs. Coltrane to Eastern philosophy, a spiritual path that soon became central to her life. When her second album came out in 1969, Huntington Ashram Monastery (Impulse), in a trio format with Ali and bassist Ron Carter, they were playing her original compositions with titles like “Turiya” and “Paramahansa Lake.” The next release, Ptah, The El Daoud (1970 Impulse), recorded at her home studio, offered the powerful quintet of Sanders and Joe Henderson on saxes with Carter and Riley. The following month found her in the company of saxophonists Wayne Shorter and Gary Bartz, Ron Carter, and drummer Elvin Jones, adding harp to McCoy Tyner’s Extensions (1970 Blue Note). Later that year, her own Journey In Satchidananda (1970 Impulse), expanded the instrumental palette to include oud, played by Vishnu Wood on one track with a quintet recorded live at the Village Gate, and tamboura, performed by Tulsi in a sextet recorded in Dix Hills. Both groups featured Sanders on soprano saxophone.
Coltrane’s music explored and extended her husband’s experiments with composition, Eastern mysticism, and a broad range of timbral colors and accents. The deep spiritual feeling in her work is apparent from the start, both on piano and harp. Around 1970, she began playing electric piano and electric organ, seeking a meditative and continuous sound that didn’t require pausing for breath. Her next album, Universal Consciousness (1972 Impulse), and her remaining releases under her Impulse contract, World Galaxy (1972 Impulse) and Lord Of Lords (1972 Impulse), combined large string orchestras with jazz groups. Her associates included violinists John Blair and Leroy Jenkins, saxophonist Frank Lowe, and percussionists Ali, Riley, Jack DeJohnette, and Clifford Jarvis. Somewhat neglected at the time, Mrs. Coltrane’s later Impulse records have been rediscovered by newer generations of listeners who have been able to approach the music on its own terms, and not as a curious sidelight to the tremendous achievement of John Coltrane.
In 1973, she was featured with Joe Henderson on The Elements (1973 Milestone). The next year, she co-led a session with long-time admirer Carlos Santana. Illuminations (1974 Columbia) blended keyboardist Tom Coster and conguero Armando Peraza from the Santana group with bassist Dave Holland, drummer Jack DeJohnette, and a string section. After signing with Warner Bros. in the mid-Seventies, she recorded four more records, including more orchestra music and Hindu chants, with Coltrane heard mostly on organ. Her last effort for the label was the double album Transfigurations (1978 Warner Bros.), recorded live in concert at UCLA with bassist Reggie Workman and drummer Roy Haynes, plus a small string section. While her musical pursuits continued, aside from a 1981 appearance on Marian McParland’s Piano Jazz subsequently issued on CD by The Jazz Alliance, her recordings for the next quarter century were privately distributed and intended purely for religious purposes.
After meeting her guru Swami Satchidananda in 1970, Coltrane became a disciple of Sathya Sai Baba. In 1972, she moved to Southern California, where she established the Vedantic Center in 1975. Sometime in the late Seventies, she changed her name to Turiyasangitananda. Coltrane was the spiritual director of Shanti Anantam Ashram (renamed Sai Anantam Ashram in Chumash Pradesh in Julu, 1993) which was established in 1983 on 50 acres in the Santa Monica Mountains.
Over the years, Mrs. Coltrane gave occasional concerts devoted to the music of John Coltrane. In 1987, sons Ravi and Oran joined her in a quartet at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. A Town Hall performance in 1998 presented Ravi and Mrs. Coltrane in the first half of the show, with Ravi Shankar and his daughter Anoushka Shankar playing together after the intermission. Then in 2002, Mrs. Coltrane joined Ravi’s group at Joe’s Pub in New York for another evening devoted to the music of her late husband. While it wasn’t known at the time, Ravi had finally persuaded his mother to begin recording again for the public. Translinear Light (2004 Impulse), which was released to great acclaim, featured Mrs. Coltrane on synthesizer in addition to piano and organ. The album included tracks from an April 2000 session with Ravi, DeJohnette, and bassist Charlie Haden, and from April 2004 recordings with Ravi, Haden, bassist James Genus, and drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts, plus a duet with Oran on “The Hymn” and one piece with Mrs. Coltrane backing The Sai Anantam Ashram Singers. Mrs. Coltrane appeared in support of the album at UCLA in February, 2006, then did a brief concert tour in the fall with son Ravi, Haden, and drummers Roy Haynes or Jack DeJohnette, appearing in Ann Arbor, Michigan and New Jersey before her final public appearance at the San Francisco Jazz Festival on November 4, 2006. Swamini A.C. Turiyasangitananda passed away on January 12, 2007, in Los Angeles.
Alice Coltrane once told interviewer Pauline Rivelli that the thing she liked about music “is if the person likes what he or she is doing, if they have a strong conviction behind it...if they have a conviction behind it then I appreciate and respect it. Because it’s something that’s flowing from their hearts.” Alice Coltrane’s music always flowed clearly and directly from her heart and mind through her body and soul, and out into the world.