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Carl Clements: Indian Concepts in the Music of John Coltrane (NEWSLETTER, Fall 2007)

Posted by ElJay Arem (IMC OnAir) on September 25, 2007

Indian Concepts in the Music of John Coltrane

by Carl Clements

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 as Om (1965) and Ascension (1965), he seemed to abandon conventional concepts of harmonic structure entirely. During this time, his music expresses a kind of transcendent religious ecstasy, sometimes incorporating prayers or chants.

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 Ravi in 1965.

Coltrane also 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 India took on a special importance for him, as evidenced by the titles of such compositions as “India” (1961, from Live At the Village Vanguard) and “Om” (1965, from the album Om). Lewis Porter notes that Coltrane “made a special study of India,” including the writings of Paramahansa Yogananda and Mohandas Gandhi.5 Bill Cole states that Coltrane was aware of the works of the South Indian spiritual teacher and philosopher Krishnamurti and practiced yoga.6
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 India as his personal style evolved.
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. “India” provides a more overt reference to the Indian drone. In this piece, which is probably derived from an Indian Vedic chant,7 a G pedal point is used throughout. Coltrane uses this drone-like pedal point in other tunes as well, such as “Psalm” (1964, from A Love Supreme), “After the Rain” (1963, from Impressions), and “Chim Chim Cheree” (1965, from The John Coltrane Quartet Plays).

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 Ravi Shankar’s “Jor in Rag Malkauns”
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 India. According to N.A. Jairazbhoy, “the term tal, perhaps best translated as ‘time measure,’ is conceived as a cycle.”10 This cycle may theoretically consist of any number of beats, and tals consisting of five, seven, or ten beats are very common. In “Nature Boy” (1965, The John Coltrane Quartet Plays), the tune is first stated in free meter, then the rhythm section begins to play in 10/4 meter for the improvisational sections. The regular use of odd meter tals, such as the ten beat jhaptal commonly used by Shankar and other Hindustani classical musicians, is a likely source of Coltrane’s inspiration here. Indeed, many of Coltrane’s performances in this period convey a broad sense of rhythmic cycle. Elvin Jones plays an important role in establishing this feeling, and this aspect of his playing probably helps explain Coltrane’s preference for this ground-breaking drummer.

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 “India” and “Om,” the album titles A Love Supreme (1965), Ascension (1965), Selflessness (1965), and Meditations (1965) all evoke Hindu or Buddhist imagery or concepts. As Nat Hentoff writes in his book Jazz Is, “Coltrane became a theosophist of jazz. … In this respect, as well as musically, he has been a powerful influence on many musicians since.”15

In “Om,” Coltrane’s integration of Indian religion into his music is overt. The title refers to “the sound that represents the reverberations of all creation in Hinduism.”16 The group recites a chant at the beginning and end of this composition that was “reportedly taken from the Bhagavad-Gita, a classic poem of Hinduism.”17 The conclusion of this chant was: “I, the oblation and I the flame into which it is offered. I am the sire of the world and this world’s mother and grandsire. I am he who awards to each the fruit of his action. I make all things clean. I am Om—OM—OM—OM!”18 This is clearly derived from verses sixteen and seventeen of the ninth discourse of the Bhagavad Gita in which Krishna, who has revealed himself to the warrior Arjuna as the incarnation of the god Vishnu, explains how his divine essence permeates all things.

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 “Om” may hold a key to the understanding of much of Coltrane’s later work, for he seems ever more eager to break out of the conventional boundaries of jazz to express the unity of all things. The expansion of intensity in his work could be seen as a reflection of Hindu teachings. Eric Nisenson writes that “the point of [Coltrane’s] music was, to use a now hackneyed Sixties phrase, to ‘expand the consciousness’ of the listeners, to create nothing less than a transcendent religious experience. The spiritual burden borne by the Indian musician is certainly something to which Coltrane could relate.”20

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, Oregon and Natraj, Trilok Gurtu, Badal Roy, and Zakir Hussain.

With India’s ever-growing international role, its cultural presence is increasingly seen in musics as diverse as hip hop, jazz, Western art music, and background scores for movies and television. As the number of Indian immigrants has dramatically increased since the 1960s, Western perception of Indian culture has begun to move beyond the exotic and into the everyday. Coltrane’s pioneering work with Indian conceptions in jazz nonetheless continues to stand out as a major achievement. When one considers his enormous impact on the beginnings of Indian-jazz fusion, it is evident that his spirit pervades the genre. The frequent use of odd time signatures, modality, and other Indian-derived concepts in present-day jazz shows how thoroughly his innovations have been integrated into this music. In this area, as in so many others, musicians of diverse backgrounds owe an enormous debt to John Coltrane.

—Carl Clements
The Graduate Center, CUNY

1 Lewis Porter, John Coltrane: His Life and Music (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 2000), 209.
2 1961 interview by Francois Postif, quoted in Porter, 209.
3 Gerry Farrell, Indian Music and the West (Oxford: 1997), 191.
4 Ibid.
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” (University of Texas at Austin, 2000), 72-79.
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 (New York: Angel Records, 2000).
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 North India: The Music of the Baba Allauddin Gharana As Taught by Ali Akbar Khan (St. Louis: East Bay Books, 1991), 350.
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.
18 Ibid.
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 syllable OM and also the Rik, Sama and Yajur (Vedas).” See The Bhagavad Gita, with Translation and Commentary in the Words of Sri Aurobindo (Jhunjhunu, Rajastan: Sri Aurobindo Divine Life Trust, 1992), 239.
20 Eric Nisenson, Ascension: John Coltrane and His Quest (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993), 111.

—Carl Clements
Brooklyn College

(Source: Copyright © 2005 Institute for Studies in American Music, Conservatory of Music, Brooklyn College. All Rights Reserved.)

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