Alice Coltrane; Musician, Spiritual Guru

By Teresa Wiltz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 15, 2007

Alice Coltrane, 69, a jazz pianist-harpist-composer who was the widow of saxophonist John Coltrane and retired from the world of secular music to become a spiritual leader and guru in the Vedantic philosophic tradition, has died.

Mrs. Coltrane, who died Jan. 12 at West Hills Hospital in Los Angeles of respiratory failure, was a child prodigy from a working-class Detroit family.

Born Alice McCleod in 1937, she grew up steeped in the rigors of classical music, playing in church choirs, music halls, funerals, weddings, wherever and whenever she could. "Music," she told The Washington Post in October, "was just in my heart, somehow."

In time, her older half brother, Ernie Farrow, a respected bassist, introduced her to bebop. She was immediately entranced. As a teenager, she gigged with saxophonists Cannonball Adderley and Sonny Stitt.

After studying briefly in Paris with pianist Bud Powell, who melded jazz and classical sounds, Mrs. Coltrane moved to New York and joined a group led by jazz vibraphonist Terry Gibbs.

Few outside the jazz world knew her for the highly gifted musician and composer she was: An artist in her own right, she was admired for her rumbling arpeggios, for the deep vibrancy of her tone, for her dynamism as an improviser.

She joined John Coltrane's quintet in 1966, replacing pianist McCoy Tyner, and together they explored the limits of avant-garde jazz, marinating in the mysticism of Eastern music, taking her far from her Baptist upbringing.

Theirs was a brief union but one that brought three children and altered her life's trajectory. (Her eldest child, Michelle Coltrane, was the product of her first marriage, to jazz vocalist Kenny "Pancho" Hagood.)

Alice and John Coltrane met in 1962 at the Birdland in New York and quickly formed a fast partnership, two introverted souls who were fascinated with religion, architecture and languages. The couple wed in 1965 in Mexico and made a quiet life in Dix Hills, N.Y.

Her husband, 11 years her senior, introduced her to Eastern religion, meditation and philosophy and pushed her to take up the harp, at the time a rare addition to the jazz canon.

That instrument, along with her ecclesiastical explorations and experimentation with North African and Indian instrumentation, formed the musical basis of her solo albums in the late 1960s and early 1970s: "Journey in Satchidananda," the staple of many a yoga class; "Ptah the El Daoud"; "World Galaxy"; and "Universal Consciousness."

When John Coltrane died in 1967 of liver cancer at age 40, Mrs. Coltrane took a vow of celibacy and immersed herself further into spiritual life, traveling to India to study with spiritual masters such as her guru, Sri Swami Satchidananda, and the Indian sage Sri Satya Sai Baba.

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