This article first appeared in the March 2013 issue of Anglican Journal.
Jazz great John Coltrane’s music may not usually be thought of as spiritual or religious music, but the Rev. Jamie Howison’s new book, God’s Mind in That Music, explores its spiritual influences and themes.
Howison is the founding pastor at saint benedict’s table, an Anglican liturgical community that encourages creative and artistic ways of truth-seeking and gathers for worship on Sunday evenings at All Saints Anglican Church in Winnipeg. He started writing an essay-length piece about Coltrane’s music, but the more he listened, the more he heard, and the essay became a book.
In the first third of the book, Howison offers some background on the history of ambivalence about the place of music in the church and the origins of jazz music, along with information about Coltrane’s life. Born in 1927 in the Deep South, Coltrane could not have avoided the influence of the church at the time, Howison says, but it was particularly strong because he grew up in the home of his grandfather, who was an African Methodist Episcopal Zion preacher. That influence continued throughout his life and music. “In the last five years of his life, he basically said everything he did musically was prayer,” says Howison. The spiritual themes are clearly intentional in titles of songs such as “The Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost,” “Ascension” and “A Love Supreme.”
In the rest of the book, Howison explores spiritual themes in individual pieces of music, and includes a listening guide for readers who want to experience the music as they read about it. The guide comes with some disclaimers in it about music that some people who aren’t jazz fans might find very hard to listen to. Howison says: “Maybe you want to borrow this one, not buy it.”
One chapter focuses on the themes of love, brokenness and the movement to peace that Howison studied in songs Coltrane wrote for his wife, both during their marriage and after it failed. Other chapters centre on lament, grace, the trinity and shalom.
There are two chapters on improvisation, which Howison says he sees as a “deeply spiritual act, especially when it is characterized by musicians who know each other, trust each other and understand what they are doing to be spiritual.” As a part of his research for the book, Howison spent a month in New York City-exploring Harlem and getting to know the place where the music originated, attending churches there, as well as interviewing writers, jazz scholars and musicians. “It was fascinating to talk with the musicians about improvisation because they all kind of got how important that collaborative, trust-based creativity was. And one of them said to me that his experience playing in a quartet is ‘what the church should be.’ He’s a Christian guy,” Howison says.
The title God’s Mind in That Music comes from a quote from musician Carlos Santana, who said he often listens to Coltrane’s song “The Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost” at four a.m., the traditional time for meditation. “I could hear God’s mind in that music, influencing John Coltrane. I heard the Supreme One playing music through John Coltrane’s mind.”
The book was published in 2012 by Cascade Books.