Highest Song of Bliss: Alice Coltrane and the Maha-Mantra

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The wife of jazz great John Coltrane, a legend in her own right, met Srila Prabhupada and brought the Lord’s holy names to the ears of thousands.

“When you’re chanting the maha-mantra,” said the late Alice Coltrane, “your soul responds, because the soul knows these names.” The wife of the great jazz saxophonist and composer John Coltrane, she was known among her followers as Turiyasangitananda (which she translated as “the Transcendental Lord’s highest song of bliss”). She continues: “The soul relates to them, the soul is enlivened, the soul is lifted up upon hearing the names of the Lord. It’s something people would open their hearts to and experience. They don’t have to be any certain age – they can even be children. And they don’t even have to understand the meaning of the words. Whether they understand or not, the hearing of that chanting is going to produce their spiritual good.”

How is it that she spoke so eloquently about Vaishnava spirituality? Who was she, and how did the sounds of transcendence come to engulf her life so thoroughly, transforming her music and, through her, hundreds of thousands of others?

I briefly met her once at the ISKCON temple on Fifty-Fifth Street in New York City. Sometime before, I had heard her unique version of what we in ISKCON call “the Nrisimha prayers.” Her version was similar to a traditional tune sung daily at all Hare Krishna temples, and I wanted to let her know that. It was 1977, and as I passed her in the temple lobby, I blurted out, “I like your music.” She turned with a bright smile and, without missing a beat, responded, “It’s not my music. It’s God’s.”

Alice McLeod was born in Detroit in 1937. She studied classical piano and harmony at an early age, and by her teens she was singing and playing hymns, anthems, and gospel music for black congregations in Detroit. This soon morphed into bebop and swing as she began to frequent jazz clubs in the 1950s. By 1963 she was playing professionally with jazz greats such as Lucky Thompson, Johnny Griffin, and Terry Gibbs, and the following year she met and married John Coltrane.

In 1965, the same year Prabhupada arrived in the West, Alice filled the large shoes of McCoy Tyner as pianist in Coltrane’s famous quartet, gigging and recording with the legendary band for two years. After her husband’s death in 1967, she dedicated herself to bringing out the spiritual in music, something her husband had been nurturing into an art form for many years.

Indeed, John Coltrane’s iconic albums, such as A Love Supreme (1965), exuded the moods of free-jazz that would soon be developed further in Ascension (1966), and through these experimental records he inadvertently created a new category of music that jazz aficionados would come to know as Spiritual Jazz. This culminated in his posthumously released Om (1968) – a masterpiece of progressive improvisation, free jazz, and atonal motifs taken from African and Indian music. This latter recording included the chanting of selected verses from the Bhagavad-gita.

While the atmosphere and sounds of these records certainly evoked an otherworldly state of consciousness, many spiritual practitioners noted that they afforded no practical method of spiritual procedure and remained too abstract to create lasting, tangible results in terms of quantifiable spiritual advancement. Alice sensed this too and set out to bring a more fully developed transcendental sound vibration into her music.

Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore

Just before John’s death, both she and her husband had come to question the Protestant teachings of their youth. They began pointing East, publicly highlighting their belief in reincarnation and interest in Indian gurus. In 1971, Alice said it outright. “The Western Church has failed, especially with young people. It was set up to serve needs it’s not meeting. Ask a Swami Hindu monk or someone else from the East about life after death and you’ll get answers that are real about direct experience, about looking to God. It has helped me to go on.”1 In 1970, Alice became a follower of Indian guru Swami Satchidananda, visiting his headquarters on New York’s Upper West Side.

Gail Lewis met Alice at New York University in 1971, and soon after became a co-follower of Swami Satchidananda, living at his ashram on West Thirteenth Street. But her interest in the Swami was short-lived, and she and Alice soon took different paths: While Alice maintained her spiritual connection with Satchidananda, Gail moved on to yoga teacher Dr. Ramamurti Mishra, an associate of Srila Prabhupada when His Divine Grace first came to the West.

This contact eventually led Gail to Prabhupada, and she became his disciple, taking initiation as Rasangi Dasi. After marrying Dharmadhyaksha Dasa, she eventually relocated to Los Angeles, where her husband was engaged as a BTG editor.

“Now,” says Rasangi, “Alice Coltrane, it turns out, was also living in LA at the time – and she was a BTG subscriber! When Mukunda Dasa (not yet a swami) found out that she read our magazine, knowing that I had had a previous relationship with her, he asked me to contact her and to see if I could rekindle something. By Krishna’s grace, she was happy to hear from me and even asked if the devotees could come and help her learn how to cook authentic Vedic cuisine. So Mukunda arranged that I would be part of a small crew that went out to her home to teach culinary science and the process of offering food to Krishna. This was in 1976. We would go weekly, cooking, offering, chanting – she would play piano, accompanying us – and this went on for quite some time, into 1977. Mukunda and myself, and a few others, would go regularly. Well, one day she announced that she wanted to go to India to meet Srila Prabhupada.”2

Rasangi tells the story of how Alice’s desire came to fruition.

She wanted a lady to go with her who had been to India before to show her around. It wasn’t me. I had never been to India. I was still a new devotee. So, the temple chose Gurutama’s wife, Deva Mata, who had some experience in India. I really wanted to go, but the decision had been made. Anyway, I went before Rukmini-Dvarakadhisha and prayed that I could somehow go along. Really, my prayer was, “My dear Lord Krishna, I want to go to India and spend time with my spiritual master in Vrindavan.”

Well, when I got home that day, Dharma was there with the phone, saying, “Alice Coltrane is on the phone, and she wants to talk to you.” So I pick up the phone, and it’s Alice, and she says, “Rasangi, today I got a message from God telling me that you should go with me to India, not Deva Mata.” She was very serious, and the temple wanted to accommodate her. So off we went. It was June 1977. We stayed for about a month. It’s funny because it was summer, and people tried to dissuade her from going, saying it would be too hot. But she insisted. “No, I must see Srila Prabhupada now.” It was as if she knew that he would soon be departing.

Once they arrived in Vrindavan, Rasangi and Alice stayed in the same room, waiting to see Srila Prabhupada. Tamala Krishna Goswami, Prabhupada’s secretary at the time, arranged for Pradymuna Dasa, Prabhupada’s Sanskrit editor, to show them Vrindavan. They were taken to all the main holy places, including Govardhana and Radha-kunda. Finally, they were brought into Prabhupada’s room, on two occasions. Both times, Alice left the room exclaiming, “What a high being!” It left an impression on Rasangi. She was happy to see that Alice could appreciate Prabhupada’s exalted position.

An Eternal Relationship

It is impossible to say where the relationship began, but we see that Srila Prabhupada corresponded with her on March 12, before they met, likely as a response to a letter from her, which was obviously accompanied by one of her albums:

My dear Turiya,

Please accept my blessings. I have listened to your new record album, “Radha-Krsna Nama-Sankirtana,” and am very pleased with your chanting. You have become transcendental. Now continue to keep yourself in that transcendental state and your life will be successful. As soon as you chant Govinda Jaya Jaya and Hare Krishna Maha-mantra you are no longer in the material world. These are the Vedic verses in favor of chanting:

yan-namadheya-sravananukirtanad

yat-prahvanad yat-smaranad api kvachit

svado ’pi sadyah savanaya kalpate

kutah punas te bhagavan nu darsanat

aho bata sva-paco ’to gariyan

yaj-jihvagre vartate nama tubhyam

tepus tapas te juhuvuh sasnur arya

brahmanuchur nama grnanti ye

“To say nothing of the spiritual advancement of persons who see the Supreme Person eye to eye, even a person born in the family of dog-eaters immediately becomes eligible to perform Vedic sacrifices if he once utters the holy name of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, or chants about Him, hears about His pastimes, offers Him obeisances or even remembers Him. Oh how glorious are they whose tongues are chanting Your holy name! Even if born in the families of dog-eaters, such persons are worshipable. Persons who chant the holy name of Your Lordship must have executed all kinds of austerities and fire sacrifices and achieved all good manners of the Aryans. To be chanting the holy name of Your Lordship, they must have bathed at holy places of pilgrimage, studied the Vedas and fulfilled everything required.” (Srimad Bhagavatam, Canto 3, Ch. 33, v6-7) [missing text]

So here the spiritual potency of chanting the holy name of the Supreme Lord is greatly stressed. The holy name has to be chanted to please the Supreme Lord, and not for any sense gratification. If this pure mentality is there then you become so glorious that not only do you become purified yourself, but you become competent to deliver others. So go on doing this nicely and Krishna will help you make advancement in Krishna consciousness.

I hope this meets you in good health.

Your ever well-wisher,

A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami

His message to her was clear: She should abandon any material motivation and chant purely.

By June, just a few months after receiving that letter, she was in Vrindavan. Tamala Krishna Goswami remembers the exchange:

Alice Coltrane came to visit Srila Prabhupada. She played some of the pieces from her latest record. Prabhupada very much liked the Nrisimha-deva prayers and blessed her for it as well as for chanting Hare Krishna.

After taking darshana of Sri Sri Krishna-Balarama, Srila Prabhupada met with “Turiya” Alice Coltrane. Srila Prabhupada answered her questions, including one about the number of rounds she should chant and whether she could chant them mentally. “You should chant twenty-four hours a day. But minimum sixteen rounds. Chanting any way that is convenient. But chanting with voice is better because it benefits not just yourself but others as well.” Srila Prabhupada stressed not to concoct anything. He had me read Bhagavad-gita 16.23 with purport, which condemns whimsical activities. He stressed that she study the books carefully. It was clear that she had enjoyed her stay here immensely. After she had left, Srila Prabhupada said she was very sincere. If she chanted and read the books carefully, she would be a nice devotee. Prabhupada was very pleased that she promised to lead a kirtana at three of our upcoming Rathayatra festivals. He said this would be a practical demonstration of how our movement united all people, black and white.3

At that same meeting, Prabhupada approved her upcoming performance at three Rathayatra festivals: New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, which she did. She had also asked His Divine Grace what chant she should focus on at the festivals. He answered that the maha-mantra should surely be the heart of her kirtana: Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. With that instruction, she took his leave.

A Mantra Supreme

We can see Alice Coltrane’s trajectory – and her entire spiritual evolution – by what she recorded on her final group of albums, released on the famous jazz label Impulse!/Warner Bros: Universal Consciousness (1971), World Galaxy (1971), Lord of Lords (1972), Eternity (1975), Transcendence (1977), Radha Krishna Nama Sankirtana (1977), and Transfiguration (1978).

On these albums she stays true to her jazz roots, along with her avant-garde and musically abstract leanings, but she also experiments with a string orchestra, tambura, harp, piano, and electric organ as she never has before. For jazz traditionalists, she had always been criticized for being a tad too creative, over-exploring rhythmically nonrepresentational motifs and uncommon musical pathways. But now she had gone even further, incorporating Indian music and almost cacophonous, nontraditional rhythms. But there was something else, too. On her later albums, one with an initiated ear could detect a marked development toward the transcendental sound she had been looking for: Vaishnava mantras.

The late musicologist Franya Berkman analyzes Alice’s contribution by looking at her two most popular devotional pieces, “Hare Krishna” and “Sita Rama”:

“Hare Krishna” and “Sita Rama” are the most strikingly original compositions on the album. Both are based on traditional Indian chants. During her career as a bandleader, Alice Coltrane saw the potential of bhajans as a transcendent, avant-garde vehicle for rhythm section and orchestra. Thus, rather than simply arranging the traditional hymns, she created a new devotional genre modeled as much upon the participatory and functional aspects of the music as the original melodic material. To the best of my knowledge, no other jazz or classical composer has used Indian devotional music in this fashion. In her adaptation of “Hare Krishna,” the entire ensemble plays an opening rubato theme in unison while Rashied Ali adds a patina of cymbals and bells. The opening melody appears to be an invocation and could very well match the text “Hare Hare, Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama.”

“Sita Rama,” her second bhajan arrangement, is perhaps the most “Indian” of her tunes thus far considered. The strings are absent here, and the tambura and drums begin by establishing the drone. Another slowly-expanding organ improvisation emerges resembling alap, the unmetered melodic exposition of raga in Indian classical music. This is followed by a more clearly defined melody that becomes the basis of improvisation. This structure is quite typical of Indian improvisational music. However, the entire conception is literally “jazzed up” with the sound of the rhythm section and overdubbed harp arpeggios. After this sonic environment has been established, Alice Coltrane closes with an entirely new ethereal musical moment using only harp and percussion.4

One might wonder if she received these chants from her guru, and she did, but she learned their true meaning and elaboration from the guru of gurus, Srila Prabhupada.

Her penultimate album, Transcendence, has been lauded as a masterpiece of modern jazz. The technique and instrumentation vary widely throughout the album. One can hear her unique harp playing accompanied by a string quartet on the sweet-sounding “Radhe-Shyam” and the title track, setting the table for “Vrindavan Sanchara,” a moody solo piece wherein Coltrane plays harp, tamboura, wind chimes, and tambourine. She even engaged devotees on several tracks, including Mukunda (mridanga, karatalas) and Jagajivana (mridanga), and Chitsukhananda, Dharmadhyaksha, Mangalananda, Rasangi, and others (backing vocals). On this record she tried to capture the mood of Vrindavan, which is exactly where she was when the album was released in the summer of 1977 – with Srila Prabhupada.

Rathayatra and Beyond

To prepare for that summer’s Rathayatra festival in New York, she visited Manhattan’s Fifty-Fifth Street temple. For her it was both discouraging and inspirational – seeing the devotees absorbed in kirtana with the force of a spiritual volcano was humbling. She saw congregational chanting as she had never seen it before. The night before Rathayatra especially, Dinanatha, an African-American devotee from D.C. who was particularly adept at Gaudiya Vaishnava kirtana, was leading in the temple room, and the entire room was vibrating with spirituality. It was New York kirtana at its finest, with hundreds of devotees making the building shake. Literally.

That same evening, Alice had been asked to do a recital in that very temple room, and for this purpose she came downstairs to the front lobby to meet Rameshvara Dasa, who was hosting her. He met her there and invited her to join the kirtana in the temple, saying that she could give her recital immediately thereafter. She popped her head in to see the celebration and quickly closed the door.

Turning around to Rameshvara, she said, “I can’t follow that. That’s way too transcendental. I’ll just bring the energy down.”

The following day, however, she performed at Rathayatra. And she brought the energy up. Way up. Although the festival was on fire from start to finish, she was among its most anticipated highlights. Indeed, she thrilled the crowd in Washington Square Park with her Gospel-flavored and jazz-inflected renderings of traditional chants. And, following the recommendations that Prabhupada had given her in Vrindavan, she focused on the maha-mantra as the main song of the day.

Friendship with Devotees

As the years passed, she continued to associate with devotees and to use her devotional community, Sai Anantam Ashram, in the Santa Monica mountains, in the service of Lord Krishna. Says Jayashacinandana Dasa:

In the spring of 1978, I first met Alice Coltrane, at her home in Woodland Hills, California. A devotee from the L.A. temple had invited me to meet her and join her for monthly kirtans. I brought my harmonium and mridanga, and because she had already heard recordings of my singing, she invited me to lead the bhajans and kirtans at that first meeting and at every other meeting after that. We became good friends through spiritual music. Sometime later, a devotee named Vishnave Dasa told me that she gave me a huge compliment, saying that I had one of the most beautiful voices she had ever heard. I played percussion at our kirtan sessions, she would play the organ, and her son John Coltrane, Jr. played the upright bass. I was very saddened to learn from her later that John had died in an automobile accident.

When I was in New York in October of 1978 I got a call at the temple from Alice, who asked me if I would play mridanga with her group the next night. They were playing a show at New York's fabulous Beacon Theater, a major concert venue there. She gave me the address and told me just to come to the stage door early for sound check, and then at 8 p.m. we started our part of the show. During the sound check I learned that we were the front band for John McLaughlin’s Indian fusion group Shakti, which I was excited to hear. I am glad that at the time I didn’t know who was playing tablas for Shakti, as I would have been a bit intimidated playing my mridanga before he went on. It was Zakir Hussein, the son of Alla Rakha, Ravi Shankar’s virtuoso tabla player. After the show, though, Zakir said I did just fine, which was a relief for me.5

In the mid-1990s she held large programs on her property with Bhakti Tirtha Swami and perhaps twenty of his disciples. She performed transcendental melodies on her grand piano for the devotees’ pleasure. That same year, she gathered together with Bhakti Tirtha Swami and Radhanath Swami at Raga Dasi’s home, with hours of chanting and prasadam served for a packed house.

Until her passing in 2007, she remained favorable to Krishna and His devotees, honoring Prabhupada’s request to focus on the maha-mantra. She was not a full-on member of ISKCON, but she assisted whenever she could, and she did receive Prabhupada’s grace. Perhaps she is still chanting, wherever she is.

Notes

  1. See Dews, Angela. “Alice Coltrane,” Essence. December 1971, 42–43. Quoted in Franya Berkman, “Appropriating Universality: The Coltranes and 1960s Spirituality” in American Studies, Vol. 48, No. 1 (Spring 2007), pp. 41–62.
  2. From a personal interview with the author, September 5, 2020.
  3. TKG’s Diary, July 1, 1977, p. 99.
  4. Franya Berkman, ibid., pp. 53–54.
  5. From a personal interview with the author, September 8, 2020.
About the Author: 

Satyaraja Dasa

Satyaraja Dasa (Steven Rosen) is an initiated disciple of His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. He is also founding editor of the Journal of Vaishnava Studies and associate editor of Back to Godhead magazine.