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Monument Eternal: The Music of Alice Coltrane

March 29, 2018 - Non-Fiction, Reviews
Author: Franya J. Berkman
Publisher: Wesleyan University Press

Jazz and blues are two of the few genres of music in which women—specifically, black women—are welcomed, and even encouraged, to compose and perform. In her biography, Monument Eternal: The Music of Alice Coltrane, Franya J. Berkman describes jazz musician Alice Coltrane’s music in the context of her own life and beliefs, but also heavily in the context of her husband, John Coltrane. Berkman explains that Alice’s skills were probably downplayed from being in the shadow of her husband, but then brings in a surprising point about Alice’s feelings on the matter: Alice said in a direct interview with the author that she preferred to stay in the background compared to John. She probably could have become just as popular if she wanted. Berkman also describes Alice’s tendency toward spirituality and religion, especially later in life when she joined a religious group. These feelings contradict her contemporary artists’ feminist views, which were much more insistent on equality between men and women, and focused on politics and protest in jazz over religion. However, Berkman not only acknowledges this disconnect, but provides insight directly from Alice to justify her beliefs. Monument Eternal challenges 20th-century and modern ideas of black feminism by describing Alice Coltrane’s life, her spirituality, and her relationship with her husband.
In her introduction, Berkman states, “Alice’s musicianship, like that of many of Coltrane’s sidemen, has been overshadowed by the contributions of the man many consider to be the last great innovator of modern jazz” (4). However, by Chapter 2, Berkman begins to fall into this same trap herself. While it would be impossible to write a biography of Alice without including her husband, a good half of this chapter focuses almost entirely on John. Berkman foreshadows this focus on John by beginning the chapter with a direct quote from Alice: “Of course, John Coltrane is the one who inspires everybody, if you were fortunate enough to be in his presence in those days” (47). According to Berkman, Alice was part of the reason for her lack of recognition: “She was always self-effacing in in interviews and behaved with the condition that service to her husband’s legacy was historically important” (49). This mindset goes against the feminist views of other black female jazz musicians of the time, who were working toward a common goal of equality with men.

Clearly, John had a large, lasting effect on Alice and her music, even after he passed away. While most scholars would not hesitate to acknowledge the way he affected her musicianship, many fail to recognize the impact she had on him. This, however, is an area in which Berkman excels. In Chapter 2, she describes how much John’s music changed in the time that the two were together. When they met, John mainly played classical jazz music. After two years, he had taken to Alice’s avant-garde, “free” style, in terms of mode and timbre. He also began to take on some level of Alice’s spirituality, which is explicitly presented in his works written between 1965 and 1966 (49). The fact that Berkman provides this information about Alice influencing John separates Monument Eternal from other criticism on Alice Coltrane. Berkman does not just take Alice’s admittance of wishing to live domestically at face value; she digs deeper into their music to recognize correlations that Alice and John picked up from each other. Even though Alice said that she was fine with mainly just being a source of inspiration for John, Berkman recognizes that she could not help some of her talent from rubbing off on her husband.

Berkman’s other main point in Monument Eternal is Alice’s spirituality. This is something that was present throughout Alice’s entire life, but really took hold later on, once John died. This is when she began seeing Swami Satchidananda, a teacher of the doctrine of Advaita Vedanta, for spiritual guidance. Alice coped with her loss of John through their teachings of life after death, after denouncing the Western church for not giving clear enough answers on the matter. This turn to religion, and the general focus on spirituality throughout Alice and John’s music earlier on, also created a source of dissonance within the feminist community. While Alice was playing the organ for her congregation and singing and arranging hymns, other black female singers were implementing political themes into their music. Many blues and jazz songs can be interpreted as protest songs, as they focus on the struggles of the black community, and of women. For this reason, some critics see Alice as disregarding the political agenda that so many of her contemporaries were fighting for.

While some scholars dismiss Alice’s work as non-political, or even non-influential, Berkman provides an argument in Alice’s favor. The reason that Alice turned to the Advaita Vedanta in the first place was to cope with the loss of her husband. The loss had a large impact on Alice and her children. Berkman states that the most important concept Alice learned from Advaita Vedanta was self-realization. “Advaita Vedanta is a system of belief in which the self (the atman) is identical with the absolute (Brahman)” (77). These teachings allowed for Alice to strive to reach her full potential, and realize that she could continue making music on her own. In her interview with Berkman, Alice stated, “When I started playing organ…I found that I didn’t need anyone! When you have two or three manuals and complete bass in the pedals, if you play it the right way, you don’t need any percussion” (81). As Berkman then explains, this autonomy Alice discovers in the organ is a direct correlation with the newfound autonomy in her music and her life. This is when she began to take even more risks as a musician and really stray into the avant-garde. Overall, Alice’s movement toward spirituality was its own form of liberation for her. As Berkman phrases it, “[Alice’s] spiritual explorations should be seen as a creative, energizing, and productive alternative to more explicit forms of political protest” (15). Her spirituality was strong enough to inspire herself, and therefore can be seen as its own type of protest or encouragement.

In a musical context where black women are invited to compose and perform about their struggles and protest for equality, Alice Coltrane fights for a different cause. Berkman takes all these skepticisms revolving around Alice’s musical choices, and sheds light on her personal life to show how they influenced people, from her husband, to herself, to the Advaita Vedanta, and hopefully to many outside of the congregation. Even though she did not address the same protests and political views for liberation and equality as her contemporaries, Berkman shows that Alice Coltrane was able to achieve a freedom of her own.

 

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