On the same fateful day the world lost Coltrane-inspired tenor saxophonist Michael Brecker, Alice Coltrane passed away as well. Her health had been faltering lately, and she died of respiratory failure at 69 years old Saturday, January 13th in West Hills, CA.
While she's best known for her piano work with her husband John Coltrane with his adventurous groups of the mid-'60s, she actually started off as a bop-based pianist. Born and raised in Detroit, she played piano with notable local musicians Yusef Lateef and Kenny Burrell. She eventually joined vibraphonist Terry Gibbs's band in the 1960s. She met Trane in '63 at Birdland while playing with Gibbs, marrying the saxophonist in 1965. She filled McCoy Tyner's piano chair in the saxophone giant's band shortly afterward and took up the harp at her husband's request.
Naturally, her playing exhibited the same exploratory spirit her husband embodied, and after his death she became the guardian of his estate. Her own career as a leader began in 1968 with A Monastic Trio with Pharoah Sanders, and she would also record with Joe Henderson, Rashied Ali, Leroy Jenkins, Charlie Haden, and Jack DeJohnette among others, including her sons Ravi and Oran.
Having extensively studied Eastern religions, she founded an ashram in the Bay Area before moving it to Woodland Hills, CA. A convert to Hinduism, she also composed numerous chants and hymns for meditation. After 26 years of staying off record as a leader, she recorded her final album, Translinear Light in 2004.
Upon replacing McCoy Tyner after the pianist's voluntary departure from Coltrane's legendary quartet in the '60s, Alice was the subject of undeserved criticism and controversy. In an interview in The Wire, she revealed how Trane inviting her into the group was a completely natural choice (at least for Trane, at first):
When he asked me if I would like to join the band after McCoy [Tyner] had left I just said, 'Are you sure? Is this what you want?' and he said, 'I'm positive.' Well, I hesitated. I didn't know whether to accept because I'm considering there are so many other people who'd be more qualified. But he said, 'You know you can do it and I want you to.' Because of his assurance, his encouragement and his belief in me, I never felt half or less than anyone. I never felt like, 'Oh I'm going to have to come up to par and make myself favourable or acceptable because of him.' His confidence in me was so strong. One day he said to me, 'For you to come out from Detroit, this music is like a second nature to you, it's just like it's a part of you, a part of your life.'Obituaries:
Orgy in Rhythm
Straight, No Chaser
There Stands the Glass
S.F. Chronicle (Nov. 2006)
Tavis Smiley (NPR, Sep. 2004)
The Wire (Apr. 2002)