John Coltrane’s Spiritual High Point

By  |  November 20, 2018
Photo of John Coltrane courtesy of Gai Terrell / Redferns / Getty Images Photo of John Coltrane courtesy of Gai Terrell / Redferns / Getty Images

Shortly after publishing the biography John Coltrane: His Life and Music, Lewis Porter received a letter from a man who identified himself as a Coltrane. Only not, presumably, one related to the great jazz musician. His ancestors had been white farmers in North Carolina. “He said, ‘I’ve been looking into my family history,’” Porter recalled recently, “‘and I have here a bill of sale that could be interesting.’” 

The bill, dated June 6, 1828, records the purchase of a slave, the faded scrollwork of the cursive still legible after all these years. “Abner Coltrain two hundred dollars in full consideration for a Negro boy named Handy,” it reads, using a variant, Coltrain, that was common at the time. The sale occurred in Fayetteville and was intended as a gift, or else conducted by proxy, since the receipt for Handy was signed by Jacob, Abner Coltrain’s father. 

Porter was intrigued by the document, yet he doubted it had anything to do with John Coltrane. Coltrane was brought up in North Carolina, in the city of High Point, but “going back that far,” Porter told me, “there are going to be plenty of descendants, and plenty of people from North Carolina had slaves. It’s like, What are the chances?” 

He sent the bill to David Tegnell. Retired now, at that time Tegnell held an administrative job at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Coltrane history, and prehistory, is his hobby. Tegnell has been researching the family for decades, spending his weekends in the microfilm labs of libraries and digging through courthouse records and pieces of chancery. He was not shocked by Porter’s find. “Handy” was a nickname he had encountered before, in auction papers and an old widow’s allowance. He knew it stood for Andrew, John Coltrane’s great-grandfather, one of four male slaves listed as belonging to Abner on the 1830 census. 

The bill, I said to Tegnell one day, must be the earliest trace of Coltrane in the historical record. Actually, no, he replied, and proceeded to describe an incident involving Coltrane’s relatives on his mother’s side. They were named Blair and also rose out of slavery, living on a large plantation near Edenton, in Chowan County. After a dispute with the master, one of them, named Bill, was sold. Matching census data with slave auction tallies, Tegnell dates the event to 1820 and believes Bill’s children were raised as orphans. “They certainly would have been doing labor. It shines a different light on Coltrane—if you think family history is determinative.” 

Tegnell is a recognizable type—obsessive, solitary, and male, forever in search of the next clue to add to his vast and singular archive. Such private sleuths and record collectors compiled the first histories of America’s prewar blues and hillbilly music. His background, curiously, is not in jazz but in early Western music. He plays sackbut and came to UNC to pursue a doctorate in musicology. He never finished. Instead, he spent a lot of time in churches, making field recordings, while gathering all the evidence he could about Coltrane’s tenure in High Point, which lasted from 1926, the year he was born, until 1943, when he graduated from high school and moved to Philadelphia. Along the way Tegnell believes he stumbled on the secret of Coltrane’s sound, though he concedes not everyone is able to understand or accept his theories. 

“It’s a stretch,” he said. “I don’t think it actually is, but it requires a leap. There’s an existing intellectual assumption that the North saved the Southern jazz musicians from a primitive culture. And most people who are interested in jazz just want fanboy stuff. They don’t want to dig into this.” 

Tegnell still lives in Chapel Hill, not far from me, and over the summer we met several times. I am fascinated by his research because ever since I discovered Coltrane in college, he has been presented to me as otherworldly, demoniac almost, the supreme virtuoso whose catalog simultaneously draws on all of jazz—bop, modal, and free—as well as the blues, select world traditions, and classical sources. Coltrane I had always understood to be beyond category, beyond origin. Even if he came from someplace, he covered his tracks long ago. 

This was the exact sort of thinking Tegnell wanted to correct. “All I’ve ever aspired to was to bring Coltrane home,” he told me. “Embracing Coltrane, to my mind, is also to embrace the community that gave rise to him. And I’ve been thwarted at every turn.” 

The house where Coltrane grew up still stands at 118 Underhill Street in High Point. There’s no sign pointing the way from downtown and no marker out front. Many of the properties around it are abandoned and choked with vegetation. The city purchased the home in 2005, and there has been some talk, locally, of turning it into a museum, but that would require significant renovation. As of now, the foundation looks warped and there is mold blooming on the siding. 

William Blair, Coltrane’s maternal grandfather, built the house in 1928. In one interview Coltrane described him as “pretty militant” and “the dominating cat in the family.” Pastor for a time at St. Stephen, an African Methodist Episcopal church in High Point, Blair was also an elder of the AME and traveled across the South to attend religious conventions. He lived with Coltrane and Coltrane’s parents at 118 Underhill. “Religion was his field,” Coltrane recalled. “I grew up in that.” 

On the face of it, Coltrane’s years in High Point appear to be unremarkable. Some tantalizing artifacts remain—in fifth grade, for a Mrs. M. S. Adams, he prepared a “Negro History Book,” beginning with the lines by Langston Hughes: “I am a Negro / Black as the night is black”—but there is no creation tale, no clear or dramatic genesis moment to give us a glimpse of the genius to come. Though voted Most Musical by his class, Coltrane was not a prodigy, and he dropped out of the high school band. A shy and indifferent student, Coltrane left High Point after graduating in 1943, and following his discharge from the Navy at the end of World War II, he never came back. Why, we cannot say. Coltrane died in 1967, at the age of forty, and in interviews he tended not to discuss his youth in any detail. 

As a result, how High Point might have influenced him is thought to be a mystery, and it is a period of his life that is often overlooked. The composer Steve Reich told me he had no idea Coltrane was from North Carolina. Reich saw Coltrane perform many times in the 1960s and credits him as a foundational influence on minimalism, especially his own work Drumming, which he said derives, in its pattern of rhythmic and tonal variation, from “Africa,” a Coltrane composition from 1961. “But I was never interested in the life,” Reich said. “I don’t doubt his time in North Carolina had an influence on him. It would be impossible not to. These are the interesting biographical footnotes. Every musician has a similar story.” 

Coltrane, for his part, thought of music in spiritual terms, not regional ones. “Let us sing all songs to God,” he wrote in a poem accompanying A Love Supreme, the suite from 1965 that many consider his masterwork. “No road is an easy one but they all go to God.” His command of the saxophone, so legendary, was achieved not for its own sake but because he was searching for a pathway to the divine. “I would love to discover a process,” he said, “such that if I wanted it to rain, it would start raining. If one of my friends were sick, I would play a certain tune and he would get better.” 

This faith, and the association of song and sacrament, is usually tied to the environment Coltrane was raised in, particularly the mentorship of the Reverend Blair. Few are willing to carry the investigation past this point. It is sometimes assumed that in a work like A Love Supreme Coltrane was simply producing jazz with a religious title. For Tegnell the connection runs much deeper. He doesn’t view this part of Coltrane’s life as a mystery, and he doesn’t think of it as a footnote. If you’d like to find out what Coltrane took from High Point, he can show you where to go. 

Not long after moving to Chapel Hill in 1983, Tegnell asked a professor where he could hear sacred music. The professor gave him a list of churches, and Tegnell began hanging out at one, the Bright Hope Divine Holy Church of God, a Pentecostal house of worship in Raleigh. He had never visited a Holiness church, and his was the only white face in the room. Parts of the service perplexed him. The invocations were delivered quickly, in a heavy accent. Now and then the congregation would get up and move around the church, as in the shout rituals of old. 

But the music, Tegnell said, that made sense to him. He had heard something like it before. “The heterophony, the emphasis on individual testimony, all that I recognized from Coltrane.” 

Traditional Pentecostal services like the ones that were held at Bright Hope would have been similar to those in North Carolina towns like High Point in the 1930s. Tegnell knew Coltrane was raised AME. But he also knew the practices of other denominations would have been available to him, and however he might have picked it up, Tegnell believes elements of the Pentecostal ceremony seeped into Coltrane’s DNA. 

“Often during services,” Tegnell observed of Bright Hope, “time seemed to stand still. Members acknowledged the Holy Spirit, then basked in His presence. This happens often in Coltrane improvisations—time seems to unfold endlessly. Church members call this preaching under the anointing, when words are directed by God. This kind of ecstatic state is achieved through the interactions of the speaker and members of a spiritually sophisticated congregation.” 

To get a sense of what he is talking about, listen to “Spiritual,” the last track on Coltrane’s Complete 1961 Village Vanguard set. “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” is the tune. The performance lasts for twenty minutes and feels twice that. Between the bookends of the main theme time seems to bend and stretch in just the way Tegnell described; the musicians are on their own clock, forging a communion that is at once highly personal yet also symphonic in the way each voice feeds off the others. 

But not every Coltrane song sounds like that. “Mature Coltrane,” Tegnell clarified when I pointed that out, “after he gets rid of chord changes. Classic quartet stuff.” 

The classic quartet, as it’s called, was Coltrane’s band for much of the 1960s. Elvin Jones on drums, McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass. This was also the decade when Coltrane’s music became expressly devotional. On recordings like Crescent, Meditations, and A Love Supreme, Coltrane discarded the complex harmonic theorems he had been experimenting with during the previous decade. He could base a song off a single chord or scale, and that freed up the group. Taking away chords meant fewer restrictions, more responsiveness; the band was locked in to each other the way a church group is, their songs resembling a drawn-out prayer, or what Tegnell terms “collaboratively constructed meditation.” Once Coltrane decided, that is, to make his music an offering, his songs began to take on the shape and dynamics of the revival services he witnessed as a boy. 

“Do you think it was conscious?” I asked. 

“No, no,” Tegnell replied. “It can’t be. It’s bigger, cultural.” 

For all the documents he has accumulated over the years, Tegnell’s most important discovery, ironically, turns out to be intuitive. He is not, himself, a religious person, and he maintains that his investment in the subject is merely that of a scholar, even if some are unwilling to hear him out. “I couldn’t get Ravi to pay attention,” he said, recalling an unhappy dinner with Coltrane’s son. “It’s like, if I can’t get Ravi, what am I going to do?” 

Still, I did not have to go far to find others who share Tegnell’s assessment. Branford Marsalis, another saxophonist and Southerner, told me there was a limit to what you could learn about Coltrane in the woodshed, by memorizing solos and dreaming up elaborate harmonic maps. Marsalis moved to Durham in 2002 and recorded a version of A Love Supreme with his quartet a year later. He found it disappointing, he said, and could not figure out why. Only later did he realize what was missing. 

“I went to a Pentecostal church,” he said. “And listening to A Love Supreme afterwards, I realized, Wow, this is the same thing. This is what it is. Trying to figure out what we were doing wrong, it hit me. We’re playing data; we’re not playing sound.” 

When I asked if he would explain what was so striking about the service, he said, “If you’ve never been to a Pentecostal church, then I can’t. There’s a thing that they do. They bring the heat. It’s such an intense experience. If you go to a small town in North Carolina, not a big production, where the band is basically an organ player and a tambourine—it’s hot, man.” 

As it happens, this is also what Reich told me he remembers about watching the classic quartet in clubs: “the total commitment, the radiation of intensity.” 

“That’s the thing you learn from spending time in those churches,” Marsalis went on. “It’s how to play with a certain level of intensity brainpower cannot duplicate.” 

Marsalis eventually recorded A Love Supreme again—the second time it was a live release—but the version I ought to hear, he said, was by a Pentecostal group. “The Campbell Brothers. You should talk to them.” 

The Campbell Brothers, a sacred steel outfit from Rochester, New York, were commissioned by Lincoln Center Out of Doors and Duke Performances to perform A Love Supreme in 2014. Their version, which can be seen on YouTube, is about as good as Marsalis says, though the band was initially bewildered by the musicianship of the classic quartet. “We cannot mimic the notes,” said Chuck Campbell, the group’s pedal steel player. “We don’t have the skill. Frankly no one has the skill.” Finally they decided to treat A Love Supreme like any other piece of gospel music. “As soon as you tap into it from a spiritual standpoint,” said Chuck, “the notes made sense. Then you can hear call-and-response. You can hear unison. You can hear chanting.” 

“A prime example would be ‘Psalm,’” added his brother Phil, who plays guitar and bass for the Campbell Brothers. “The way that piece is phrased out, that’s the way someone would pray in a Pentecostal service.” 

“Psalm” is the final movement of A Love Supreme. Coltrane is out in front, his tone measured and strident, the band falling away to provide a spare and ornamental backing. Lewis Porter has long speculated that in “Psalm” Coltrane used his saxophone to articulate the words of the poem he wrote to go along with the suite and that, if you listen closely, you can hear him “read” such lines as “thank you God” and “blessed be His name” and so on. It’s possible. Certainly, “Psalm” is homiletic in design. “Each section of several lines has an arched shape—an ascending phrase, a recitation on one tone, and a descending phrase,” noted Porter. “This is just the way black American preachers work.” 

Chuck Campbell told me the only way a saxophone can sound like that is if the player has been exposed to line-hymn singing, a rite of the church when a preacher will sing a prayer’s verses rather than recite them, using a range of pitch and subtle modifications of meter. “‘Psalm,’” he said, “reminded us so much of hymns being outlined and then sung.” 

Line-hymn singing is some of the oldest music in the United States, and it was the music, as Tegnell said one day, “of the brush arbor service, when slaves would steal sleep and leave their houses, go into the woods and hold religious services in the deep of night, out of earshot.” Coltrane’s songs may in the end memorialize this inheritance, and to listen to “Psalm” or to “Spiritual” in this way is to wonder whether his music would have been lost on his forebears, on “Handy,” Bill Blair, and all the other ghosts Tegnell has been chasing in the reading rooms and courthouse basements of North Carolina. Perhaps, given its modern sound and configuration, it would have been. Or maybe they would have heard, in the music’s cadence, its loftiness and energy, something like their own pleas for renewal and survival.


“Crepuscule with Nellie (Take 2)” by Thelonious Monk, featuring John Coltrane, is included on the North Carolina Music Issue Sampler.

Enjoy this story? Subscribe to the Oxford American.

Benjamin Hedin is the producer and writer of the Grammy-nominated documentary Two Trains Runnin’ and the author of In Search of the Movement: The Struggle for Civil Rights Then and Now.