Pianist/composer Alice Coltrane cast her own shadow
Herb Boyd | 11/16/2017, 11:03 a.m.
By now, many of you have seen the documentary “Chasing Trane,” about the acclaimed musician John Coltrane. It was also an opportunity for viewers to learn a little more about his wife, Alice, if they hadn’t heard of her before, and with an iconic artist such as her husband, it was very easy to be overshadowed.
But she cast her own enormous shadow, one that has its own visibility since she often worked in close concert with him, most notably in his last ensemble, and carried on their musical legacy after his death.
Born Alice McLeod Aug. 27, 1937, in Detroit, she was surrounded by music as a child. Her mother, Anna, was a member of the choir at her church and, Ernie Farrow, her half-brother, was an outstanding bassist who performed with a list of notable leaders, including Yusef Lateef.
After acquiring some of the fundamentals of music and inspiration from her family, she pursued the study of classical music at age 7. As a teenager she attended Cass Technical High School, where she was again in the company of such proficient musicians as pianist Hugh Lawson (another Lateef protégé) and drummer Earl Williams.
Along with the lessons at Cass, she continued her musical development at her church and studying privately with a host of remarkable teachers and musicians in the city.
Her musical progress and prowess were rapid, and soon she was the pianist in a number of local bands before embarking for Paris in 1959 to study with the immortal Bud Powell. While in Paris, she worked as an intermission pianist at the Blue Note Jazz Club. Among the jazz greats with whom she performed were tenor saxophonist Lucky Thompson and drummer Kenny Clarke. Many of these dates were broadcast on radio and French television. She married vocalist Kenny “Pancho” Hagood in 1960. Their marriage ended after Hagood became addicted to heroin, and she moved back to Detroit with her daughter Michelle.
Back in Detroit she was constantly in demand at local nightclubs, where she often was featured with Terry Pollard, a talented vibraphonist who later would tour with Terry Gibbs. In 1962-63 she met John Coltrane while touring and recording with vibist Terry Gibbs. They were married in 1965 in Juarez, Mexico, and she joined his band a year later, replacing the indomitable McCoy Tyner.
Their union was deeply spiritual, and together they began to infuse spirituality into their musical performances and recordings. Although she didn’t perform on his most popular album, “A Love Supreme,” it was exemplary of their love for each other and their growing spirituality. After his death in July 17, 1967, she resumed her career with her first album, “A Monastic Trio.” From 1968 to 1977, sometimes on piano, harp or organ, she recorded more than a dozen albums. With each recording she was more deeply involved in cosmic and spiritual ventures, and the recordings “Universal Consciousness” in 1971 and “World Galaxy” a year later were indicative of this quest. Her early training on the harp became even more prominent in these recordings. Most of the recordings during this period were alternately done on Impulse and Warner Bros. labels.