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Lions Roar : March 2018
THIS DHARMA LIFE A Love Supreme Zen teacher and musician SEAN MURPHY looks at the spiritual search of jazz great John Coltrane. ©CHUCKSTEWARTPHOTOGRAPHY,LLC ONE PREDAWN MORNING in 1964, the already-legendary saxophonist John Coltrane was sitting in meditation in his Long Island home when the structure and themes of his masterpiece, the album A Love Supreme, came to him in their entirety. “It was the first time I had it all,” he said, as reported by his wife, the pianist and harpist Alice Col- trane, with whom he shared a practice of meditation and a deep interest in all things spiritual. This was not the first time that Coltrane, who came to consider his musical impro- visation a form of meditation in itself, experienced what he thought of as divine grace. He’d sweated out addic- tion—his first, failed path to transcendence—in 1957 after what he described as a “life- changing spiritual experience” that helped him overcome heroin and alcohol and set him on a search for other means of transcendence, through meditation, prayer, and music. Fifty-one years after his death in 1967, Coltrane remains a cultural and spiritual icon, exerting an influence over jazz that is impossible to escape—so much so that it gave rise to a Saint John Coltrane Church. Based in San Francisco, the SEAN W. MURPHY is author of One Bird, One Stone: 108 Contemporary Zen Stories and three novels, including The Finished Man. SJCC is an actual community of wor- ship that uses A Love Supreme, Col- trane’s signature work, as scripture and hymnal. Before Coltrane, jazz was largely regarded as a sensual, even risqué form of expression, linked as much to libation as to liberation. But jazz and spirituality have always been connected. Jazz is an improvisational art form—it requires total immersion in the moment. I have long been struck by the unusual purity of the best jazz, despite the fact that it was so often developed under the most impure of condi- tions: smoky clubs, alcohol, drugs, and the inescapable burden of racism. How could this be pos- sible? As a Zen practitioner and musician myself, I feel the answer lies in a brand of what we in Zen call work- ing samadhi—an immersion in moment-to-moment activity so complete that it essentially becomes a medi- tative state. Improvisational music, at least at the level of complexity exhibited by jazz, requires a putting aside of the ego. If you start thinking of good or bad, try to impress, become dis- tracted by the flubbed note of the last moment, try to anticipate the next moment, or give yourself over to anything else but what’s happening now, you’re lost. To play truly great improvi- sational music, you have to lose yourself. The best jazz musicians, like Col- trane, are able to summon an immer- sion in the moment that can transcend even the worst environments, personal problems, or state of health. Of course, this doesn’t mean that certain play- ers don’t inflate themselves after the fact, building themselves up and taking “I believe in all religions,” said legendary saxophonist John Coltrane. LION’S ROAR | MARCH 2018 25 CULTURE • LIFE • PRACTICE