Sunday, June 28, 2015
"a love supreme" / "allah supreme"?
Did Coltrane say 'Allah Supreme'? by Hisham Aidi
The recording has long been understood to be a deeply spiritual, even devotional, piece. Its four phases - "Acknowledgement", "Resolution", "Pursuance" and "Psalms" - reflect what Coltrane described as a "spiritual awakening" in his overcoming of drug and alcohol problems.
Yet, what was the nature of that "spiritual awakening"? The conventional view is that by 1964, Coltrane had moved away from his Methodist upbringing, adopting a "pan-religious" outlook with a particular interest in Eastern mysticism. In spite of that, "A Love Supreme" is still described as laden with Biblical symbolism: the title "Psalm", and the rising cadences, reminiscent of black preachers' style, are offered as evidence that Coltrane was still rooted in Christianity. But ask one of the jazzmen or Muslim elders who knew Coltrane, and you get a different answer.
The saxophonist Yusef Lateef, who died at the age of 93 earlier this year, worked closely with Coltrane between 1963 and 1966. In his autobiography , "A Gentle Giant", Lateef says: "The prayer that John wrote in 'A Love Supreme' repeats the phrase 'All praise belongs to God no matter what' several times. This phrase has the semantics of the al-Fatiha, which is the first chapter or sura of the Holy Quran. The Arabic transliteration is 'al-Humdulilah…' Since all faithful Muslims say the al-Fatiha five times a day or more, it is reasonable to assume that John heard this phrase from [his Muslim wife] Sister Naima many times."
Lateef is referring to the poem Coltrane wrote and included in the liner notes of the album. Coltrane wrote: "No matter what … It is with God. He is gracious and merciful" and ends with "All praise to God..."
What Lateef and others have noted is that "gracious and merciful" is a translation of "rahman raheem", the opening lines of the Fatiha. Moreover, say the elders, when Coltrane begins chanting the album's title for half a minute it sounds like a Sufi breathily repeating "Allah supreme".
The relationship between Islam and jazz is almost a century-old. It was in the 1920s that the Ahmadiyya movement, a heterodox Islamic movement that emerged in 19th century India, began sending missionaries to US cities, building a substantial following among African Americans in the decades to come. In a trend that still intrigues historians and music critics, after World War II, scores of jazz musicians embraced Ahmadi Islam.
When Coltrane arrived in Philadelphia in 1943, the Muslim presence in the "city of brotherly love" would rattle the young man. As he told an interviewer in 1958: "This Muslim thing came up. I got introduced to that. And that kind of shook me."
The saxophonist was surrounded by Muslims: his drummer Rashied Ali was Muslim, as was his pianist McCoy Tyner (Suleiman Saud), and saxophonist Lateef. Coltrane then married Naima Grubbs, an observant Muslim. Even Coltrane's band members have pondered his relationship to Islam. If Lateef suspected that Coltrane's art was influenced by the Quran, the drummer Rashied Ali thought that the saxophonist was "a real country boy" and that "he was into being a Muslim and everything like that". One also hears the argument that Coltrane wanted to title his composition Allah Supreme - instead of A Love Supreme - but was worried about a political backlash, given the ongoing conflict in the Middle East. "Back then jazz and Islam were intertwined - the first time I heard the adhan on Temple University radio, I thought it was a Nina Simone song," says Imam Nadim Ali, a celebrated jazz deejay and community leader who spent his youth in Philadelphia. "Artists were deeply influenced by Islam - sometimes publicly in their art, sometimes privately."
It's not inconceivable that "A Love Supreme" could have been inspired by the Quran. After all, as the elders will observe, "Celebration", that great funk hit by Kool & the Gang, was inspired by a Quranic sura.
"The initial idea came from the Quran," says Ronald Bell (Khalis Bayyan), the group's saxophonist and musical arranger. "I was reading the passage, where God was creating Adam, and the angels were celebrating and singing praises. That inspired me to write the basic chords, the line, 'Everyone around the world, come on, celebration'."
This song inspired by Islam - and released in 1980 - would become an international hit heard at ball games and political rallies in the US, and ironically was played by the Reagan administration on February 7, 1981, to welcome home the hostages held by students in the Islamic Republic of Iran.