Institute for Studies In American Music
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Inside This Issue
Indian Concepts in the Music of John Coltrane
John Coltrane was at the forefront of many important directions in jazz in the 1950s and 1960s, including those that have been labeled hard bop, modal jazz, avant-garde jazz, and world music. One interest that became an increasingly dominant focus for him in his later years was the study of Indian music and spirituality. While Coltrane’s music remained firmly rooted in jazz, this exploration was an important part of the development of Coltrane’s personal style from the early 1960s to the end of his life in 1967. A number of factors inspired Coltrane to explore Indian music and thought, and an investigation of specific applications of these ideas in his music will provide some insight into his stylistic motivations.
Coltrane exhibited a constant drive to absorb new
ideas throughout his career. The years between 1955 and 1960 were a period of
dramatic transition in his stylistic direction. In the late 1950s he began to explore modal
jazz with Miles Davis, and by the time he recorded “My Favorite
Things” in 1960, it was apparent that this harmonically static approach
to improvisation was becoming a crucial element in Coltrane’s evolving
style. In even later recordings such
In the course
of his search for structure within this loosening of harmonic boundaries,
Coltrane began studying Indian and other non-Western scales and modes. Lewis Porter notes that Coltrane started
paying particular attention to the music of the Indian sitar master Ravi
Shankar in early 1961.1 “I collect the records he’s made, and his
music moves me” Coltrane stated. “I’m certain that if I
recorded with him I’d increase my possibilities tenfold, because
I’m familiar with what he does and I understand and appreciate his
work.”2 Following their
introduction in 1964, Shankar and Coltrane began to converse about Indian
music. Regarding these lessons,
Shankar recalled: “I could give just bare beginning and main things
about Indian music and he became more and more interested.”3 Coltrane
had intended to spend six months studying with Shankar in 1967, but died
before this could take place.4 The importance of Shankar to Coltrane is
evidenced by the fact that the latter named his son
developed an interest in Indian religion and philosophy. Though raised in a Methodist household, he
did not consider himself to be specifically Hindu, Christian, Muslim, or any
other single faith. However, by the
mid-1960s, the religion and philosophy of
Coltrane integrated Indian music and concepts
into his style in a number of ways. On
the one hand, he incorporated various structural elements of Indian music. These include the use of the drone, ideas
of melodic development, and rhythmic and metric considerations. On the other hand, he drew from Indian
religion and philosophy in both literal and abstract ways. While none of these elements dominated his
playing and composing, as a whole they reflect Coltrane’s profound
interest in drawing from the music and thought of
The Indian use of the drone was a significant
influence on much of Coltrane’s music after the late 1950s, beginning
with his 1959 composition “Naima” from the album Giant Steps. “
Alap, the free-meter introductory portion of a performance of North Indian classical music, also inspired Coltrane in some of his work. In the development of the Hindustani (North Indian) alap, performers explore the various ways they can arrive at the successive notes of the raga. At times, Coltrane would similarly focus a portion of his improvisation on a single note. The entire piece “Psalm” is somewhat reminiscent of an Indian alap both in its rubato presentation over a bass drone and its tendency to continually return to a single note. While this concept is not uniquely Indian,8 the drone and free-meter presentation point to the Indian alap as a likely inspiration.
“Song of Praise” (1965, from The John Coltrane Quartet Plays) also exhibits features of Indian alap. Like “Psalm,” the entire piece is presented in free meter over a bass drone. “Song of Praise” creates a further parallel with the first part of an Indian alap, as can be seen in Example 1. In Hindustani alap, the performer first establishes the tonic. Subsequently, each important note in the raga is systematically introduced until the middle-register tonic is stated. In Example 1, which shows how the first part of “Song of Praise” reflects this feature of alap, Coltrane’s performance is divided into numbered phrases, each of which cadences to the circled note (the phrase number can be found over each circle). As with the Hindustani alap, he first emphasizes the tonic D in the lower register in line A phrase 1. Phrase 2 resolves to G a fourth above D. Phrase 3 returns to the lower D. Phrase 4 introduces G a fourth above the D; phrase 5 states the fifth (A); phrase 6 establishes the major seventh (C#); and phrase 7, after touching the high G, resolves to D in the middle register. Thus he has used the notes D, G, A, and C# to established an internal structure resembling that of Hindustani alap development.
Example 1: Excerpt from John Coltrane's “Song of Praise”
Transcription by Carl Clements
Beginning at line C phrase 8, Coltrane repeats the systematic note development of lines A and B, as can be seen from the circled notes in phrases 8 through 14. This time, however, the cadences are more elaborate and embellished, and culminate on the upper register tonic in line D, phrase 15. After this second systematic development, he explores the highest register of the instrument and treats his phrases and cadences in a much freer manner over the instrument’s full range. This repetition of the ascending note development is suggestive of the typical progression of full presentation of alap, in which note by note development is repeated with increasing intensity.
A further structural element in “Song of Praise” that parallels Indian music appears in bassist Jimmy Garrison’s free-meter introduction. This solo makes extensive use of pedal point in several ways. Of particular interest is his alternation between moving lines and pedal point, as shown in Example 2a. This bears a close resemblance to the use of bol patterns played in the jor section of alap by players of the Hindustani sitar, as shown in Example 2b.9 In this excerpt from Ravi Shankar's performance of Rag Malkauns (1968, from The Ravi Shankar Collection - Sound of the Sitar), he maintains a C# pedal and, as is typical of this style of playing, alternates rhythmically between stroking the fixed pitch chikari drone strings and playing melodic patterns on the main strings.
Example 2a: Excerpt from Jimmy Garrison’s bass solo in “Song of Praise”
Transcription by Carl Clements
Example 2b: Excerpt from sitarist
Transcription by Carl Clements
Some of Coltrane’s rhythmic ideas also seem to
be inspired by Indian music, particularly his use of unconventional time
signatures. Tal is the guiding
rhythmic principle of the classical music of
Beyond explicit applications of Indian musical ideas, Coltrane also drew from extra-musical Indian elements. One example is his interest in the Indian concept of rasa, the “emotion or mood” of a raga.11 In an interview with Nat Hentoff, Coltrane said that he had “already been looking into those approaches to music—as in India—in which particular sounds and scales are intended to produce specific emotional meanings.”12 He also wished to be able to tap into what he believed to be the mystical power of music:
I would like to discover a method so that if I want it to rain, it will start right away to rain. If one of my friends is ill, I’d like to play a certain song and he will be cured; when he’d be broke, I’d bring out a different sound and immediately he’d receive all the money he needed.13
This same concept appears in a variety of Indian stories about the power of music. O. Gosvami writes that, when properly performed, “the Raga is believed to have the power to move the elements in nature, in man and in animal,” citing examples of performances in which Rag Dipak generated intense heat and Rag Megha brought on torrential rains.14
The titles of many
of Coltrane’s later compositions suggest broad spiritual concepts that
might be associated with Indian and other religious thought. Besides “
The first verse of
this discourse reads: “The Blessed Lord said: What I am going to tell
thee, the uncarping, is the thing most secret, the essential knowledge
attended with all the comprehensive knowledge, by knowing which thou shall be
released from evil.”19
The ideas of “
Coltrane was not the only jazz musician in the early- to mid-1960s to look to Indian music for inspiration, as can be seen in the works of Yusef Lateef, Harihar Rao and Don Ellis, and John Mayer. Coltrane was apparently among the first to do so, however, and his high profile in the jazz world inspired many others to follow suit. Former bandmates Miles Davis, Pharaoh Sanders, and Alice Coltrane later drew from Indian sources to varying degrees. By the late 1960s, Indian ideas had begun to permeate Western popular and art music, from the Beatles to Philip Glass. Coltrane and Ravi Shankar were likely two of the most prominent catalysts for this movement.
Musicians such as
John McLaughlin, Dave Liebman, and Jan Garbarek continued to carry on
Coltrane’s work from the early 1970s to the present. Each of these
musicians acknowledges the significance of Coltrane’s music to the
development of their individual styles, and their distinct backgrounds are
indicative of the range of his legacy. The phenomenon of Indian-jazz fusion has
become thoroughly international, with musicians from the United States,
Europe, India, and elsewhere presenting their own interpretations of this
merging of musical systems. This is
evident in the music of such stylists as Steve Coleman,
1 Lewis Porter, John Coltrane: His Life
and Music (
2 1961 interview by Francois Postif, quoted in Porter, 209.
3 Gerry Farrell, Indian
Music and the West (
5 Porter, 259.
6 Bill Cole, John Coltrane (New York: Schirmer, 1976), 97.
7 Porter, 209. This composition, according to Bill Bauer,
may be based on a Vedic chant from the Folkways album Religious Music of
India (New York: Folkways 4431, 1952, recorded by Alain Danielou). See
also Soniya K. Brar’s elaboration of this concept in her Master’s
thesis “Transculturalism and Musical Refashioning: The Use of
Hindustani Musical Element in the Works of John Coltrane” (
8 Lewis Porter points to the use of the “recitation tone” by black American preachers as a source for this concept. See Porter, 246.
9 The Ravi Shankar Collection - Sound of the Sitar (
10 N.A. Jairazbhoy, The Rags of North Indian Music: Their Structure and Evolution (London: Faber, 1971), 33.
11 Ali Akbar Khan
and George Ruckert, The Classical Music of
12 From Nat Hentoff’s notes to Coltrane “Live” At the Village Vanguard. Quoted in Porter, 211.
13 From Clouzet and Delorme, “Entretien avec John Coltrane,” 12-13. Quoted in Porter, 211.
14 O. Gosvami, The Story of Indian Music: Its Growth and Synthesis (Bombay: Asia Publishing House, 1961), 245.
15 Nat Hentoff, Jazz Is (New York: Random House, 1976).
16 Farrell, 191.
17 Porter, 265.
19 Sri Aurobindo
translates these verses as: “I am the ritual action, I the sacrifice, I
the food-oblation, I the fire-giving herb, the mantra I, I the butter, I the
flame, and the offering too I am. “I am the Father of this world, the
Mother, the Ordainer, the first Creator, the object of knowledge, the sacred
20 Eric Nisenson, Ascension: John Coltrane and His Quest (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993), 111.
Copyright © 2005 Institute for Studies in
American Music, Conservatory of Music,