When I was a suburban Jewish kid living in Ottawa, studying for my Bar Mitzvah, I began listening to the music of John Coltrane, and perhaps nothing more than “Alabama.”
When I went to synagogue and heard the chanting of the cantor, I heard the modal freeform improvisations of Coltrane on soprano (for example, on “India” or “My Favourite Things” or “Impressions,”), and his exploration of modality and, particularly, the non-western scales of Indian music. A solo voice keening, birling, undulating. I heard the expression of another kind of identity, what I imagined was an alternative to the four-square homophonics of the dominant Western culture. A kind of non-tempered heterophony, or a monophonic swirling through different scales and otherness.
And of course, in “Alabama,” I heard the deep grief for the young girls murdered in Alabama, the victims of racial hate. Coltrane standing with his tenor expressing his grief and blessing them with this secular prayer. Sanctifying their experience. What felt like “our” experience, even though, I could, of course, share almost nothing of their experience, or Coltrane’s, and came to it as a middle class white Jewish teenager, fifteen years later in suburban Ottawa. But it revealed something about the world. This was what was important. This was how one responded with courage and a sense of empathy and morality. It did make me consider my grandparents in Eastern Europe, the hateful system of apartheid that my parents left in South Africa, and the religious strife in Northern Ireland where I grew up.
Through this piece and the model of John Coltrane, I understood that music and the arts in general could express profound feelings of empathy, a kind of large-picture view of the world (which might perhaps be termed “spirituality,”) and the powerful sense of consolation and healing through shared experience and expression, and a meditative energized sense of being-in-the-moment as it unfolds. I remember reading somewhere about the recording of “Alabama” which appeared on an album (“Live at Birdland,”) that it was remarkable that this profound and deeply moving piece was recorded live in a nightclub (i.e. Birdland) where people were drinking their beers and cocktails.
On the Jewish high holidays, I’d heard the Kol Nidre prayer, which is one of the most serious, intense and emotional sung prayers in the tradition and heard in it the sorrow of persecution and suffering of the Holocaust, and the suffering afflicted on other peoples at other times. Of course, because I was a teenager, I also heard a general cri de coeur for life’s difficulties and fundamental existential dilemma. But through this, I understood that such expression could bring meaning and perhaps consolation.
I also understood the model of Coltrane’s relentless experimentation—his drive to discover and to explore what might be possible, rather than just continuing with the utter mastery that he had achieved. (For example, Kind of Blue, that mind-blowingly perfect album with Cannonball Adderly.) The role of the artist—and by extension, the role of the person—was to explore, was to push through to greater understanding and expression (I saw those as two facets of the same thing.) I don’t remember what the rabbi taught me for my Bar Mitzvah. Ethical responsibility? Moral choices and culpability for one’s actions? How Jewish text and musical culture could articulate values and identity and form a way of being-in-the-world? I remember nothing of that. I do remember him telling me that I should say “Moses’s” instead of “Moses’” which rankled my Anglo-grammatical sensibilities—and I refused. I do think of the grief and consolation of “Alabama,” of how Coltrane responded with compassion, empathy, moral courage, tenderness and strength.
I do remember John Coltrane and what he taught me for my Bar Mitzvah.