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People Who Died

Solar Sister

Alice Coltrane

Okan Arabacioglu

By Lee Gardner | Posted 12/26/2007

jazz giant John Coltrane changed thousands of lives, but none more than Alice Coltrane's. While they were partners, musical and domestic, just a few short years before he died in 1967, the spiritual and musical growth she experienced with Coltrane shaped the rest of her life. Yet Alice Coltrane was not a behind-every-great-man booster like Sue Mingus, or a dubiously talented spouse brought along for company, à la Linda McCartney. Her husband may have set her on the paths she followed in the years after his death, but she traveled them on her own, and no one has followed since.

Born in Detroit in 1937, Alice McLeod grew up steeped in gospel (thanks to her mother) and jazz (through her older brother,bassist Ernie Farrow), but her musical training, beginning at age 7, was in classical piano. Her brother's influence eventually won out, and by her early 20s, she had traveled to Paris to study with bop legend Bud Powell and was gigging professionally in Detroit and then New York. She met John Coltrane backstage at Birdland in 1962; the two introspective introverts were soon inseparable and married in 1965.

By that time, John Coltrane had driven his music near what was then the outermost edge of jazz, with harsh solo cries, expansive pieces, and a palette of exotic influences as broad as the saxophonist's pantheism. When pianist McCoy Tyner quit, the saxophonist asked his wife to join the greatest quartet of the time, maybe all time. "I just said, `Are you sure? Is this what you want?'" she recalled for a 2002 interview in The Wire magazine, "and he said, `I'm positive.'" Alice's more expansive approach better suited her husband's increasingly protean sound, but their journey together was cut short by his liver cancer.

Alice Coltrane found herself a widowed mother of four (including a son from a brief prior marriage) and, almost as unexpectedly, a solo artist. Her debut as a leader, 1968's A Monastic Trio, delivered a stripped-down, more emollient take on Coltrane's late-period explorations, and she sometimes doubled on harp, an instrument that remains almost unknown otherwise in jazz. Subsequent albums such as Ptah, the El Daoud and Journey in Satchidananda brought in more blatant Eastern influences as well as more evident spiritual concerns. She reached back to her classical training to bring in vast string sections for ambitious albums such as World Galaxy (on which she reprised her husband's signature tune, "My Favorite Things," in an arrangement for strings and organ) and Lord of Lords.

Coltrane made 11 albums in 10 years and then effectively retired from music to devote herself to her spiritual interests. A disciple of Indian guru Swami Satchidananda, she founded a still-extant ashram in Southern California in 1983 and lived a quiet life with her family. (She never remarried and reportedly took a vow of celibacy after Coltrane's death.) Her music, a little outré even for the '70s, was largely dismissed as jazz took a neo-classical turn. But, by the turn of the century, crate diggers and a new generation of more open-minded jazz fans had discovered the mystical yet enduring beauties of her omnivorous sound. After more than 20 years, she was lured into a modest comeback by saxophonist son Ravi, releasing the spry Translinear Light in 2004 and performing several concerts. She appeared to enjoy the notice, but she didn't seem to need it; she more or less returned to humble obscurity before dying of a lung ailment on Jan. 12. Her music continues to speak for her.

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