Ascensions: Personal Farewells to Alice Coltrane and Michael Brecker


Two great musicians, bound together by a thin shining thread, died within 24 hours of one another. Alice Coltrane was a peripatetic soul, a pianist and harpist who broadened the vocabulary of jazz by adding the harp's tonalities to its palette. Her work fused influences as diverse as bebop, Stravinsky, ragas, and Islamic devotional music.

Saxophonist Michael Brecker infused himself in the playing style of Alice's late husband John Coltrane, the pioneer who transformed jazz - no, all modern music - before dying at the premature age of 40. While Brecker may have been best-known for playing with stars like Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon, his own music was recognized as a treasured step along the trail blazed by Trane himself.

The tone of Coltrane's horn - sometimes muscular, sometimes crystalline - was the thread that wove their lives together. Alice and Michael were bound by Trane's music, and by the selfless dedication to exploration and growth embodied in that music. Their common grounding and commitment leaves behind a source of inspiration that will outlast their earthly lives.

I met Alice Coltrane in 1970 or so, when I was a teenager with shoulder-length hair who probably looked like he would blow away at an unfriendly glance. I was a student of Jimmy Garrison, the revolutionary bass virtuoso who played with John Coltrane and after his death with Alice. As I wrote in a remembrance of Jimmy, another student and I would sometimes steal glances at Jimmy's address book, starstruck at the luminaries' names we found there. (Logically we knew that they did, but it still felt somehow surprising that Joe Chambers and Philly Joe Jones had street addresses and phone numbers like ordinary people do.)

Actually, it's an exaggeration to say I met Alice Coltrane. I encountered her once or twice, at gigs and elsewhere. But where I had a shy kid's tenous presence, Alice already had the energy and focus of a spiritual star. She, together with Rascals vocalist/organist Felix Cavaliere, was a devotee of Swami Satchidananda, and she radiated the unmistakeable aura of an experienced meditator. (And while Alice was no rock fan, that certainly sounds like her swooping and gliding harp on Felix's ecology song "Brother Tree.")

Alice went on to assume the spiritual leadership her presence always foretold. She eventually founded a 48-acre ashram here in Southern California, gathering her own devotees and taking the name Swamini Turiyasangitananda. Did I know Alice Coltrane? In cold hard fact, no more than I've described here. But right now I have that aching feeling you get in your chest when somebody you care about has died.

My wife Janet Dourif met Michael Brecker in the late 70's through her then-producer, Mac Rebennack (better known as Dr.John). She recalls a gentlemanly and kind man who, in addition to being a brilliant and inspired player, was unfailingly gracious and helpful. She and I heard about Michael's life now and then throughout the years from mutual friends, including the health struggles that he faced with grace and selflessness.

I was fortunate enough to see Alice Coltrane one last time, at a book event last July for Ashley Kahn's The House That Trane Built. The book recounts the rise of Impulse Records, the record label led for many years by Bob Thiele. I was there at the invitation of my friend Bob (Jr.), Thiele's son. Ashley and Bob were joined by several other speakers at the event, including Alice Turiyasangitananda Coltrane.

There was no mistaking Alice. She was tall, courtly, regal, with erect bearing, long swept-back hair, and shining eyes. She was also robed from head to toe in orange, the most sacred of Hindu colors.

She could not have remembered me, but I introduced myself to her. As I did, I felt something of that young man's shyness coming back to me. We spoke about Jimmy's brilliance, and I told her how fortunate I knew I was to have a platform where I could pay tribute to him online. I said that Jimmy's son Matthew sent me an email after I published my piece about him, and I told her how gratifying that had been.

We talked about Matthew's talent, and that of Alice and John's children, and of mine. That was as much of her time as I felt I could take. Later, one of the presenters passed around copies of John's original LPs on Impulse. When A Love Supreme came into my hands I had a visceral response to the album I had played so many times when I was growing up. (Think "Rosebud" in Citizen Kane.)

The record was such a familiar object that, to quote the Qu'ran, it felt "closer to me than my own jugular vein." So without thinking - you might say "on impulse" - I rubbed it against my cheek a couple of times.

I heard appreciative laughter behind me, and turned around to see a famous rock producer who clearly understood my reaction. Both he and I had started out in jazz and then turned to pop music, a form that Alice made clear held no interest for either herself or John. Although he had succeeded where I had not, that producer recognized from my gesture that we had a common point of origin.

Call it an L.A. Moment.

Although I felt reluctant to intrude again, I went back and asked Alice to sign a copy of the book for me. it's in front of me right now. It reads: "Richard - Thank you kindly and may God bless you always, Alice Coltrane."

Same to you, Alice. And to you, Michael. Always.