Spiritual leader and jazz icon Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda will be remembered 10 years after her passing at the final event of this year's inaugural Red Bull Music Academy Festival Los Angeles. Alice and John Coltrane’s daughter Michelle will be among the many performers at the tribute concert on Sunday, Oct. 29.
Ahead of the tribute, Michelle spoke with me about her parents, her love for Alice specifically, and why it took so long for her mother — who spent her later years in Los Angeles and established an ashram here, the Vedantic Center, in 1975 — to be recognized in the mainstream. Michelle and her siblings have done much to archive and remember their parents' work, but they're playing a bit of a game of catch-up with Alice's legacy, as she is slowly being pulled out of the shadows of a male-dominated music industry and into the light of a more inclusive historical narrative.
Michelle is an accomplished jazz musician and singer herself, and after many years of raising children and looking after her family, she’s finally taking the time to make music for herself in earnest.
Let’s talk about what led you to participating in this Red Bull Music Academy event and how much your mother means to you.
She was a good mother and a parent. She was a very fascinating, beautiful, inspiring woman. She was the wife of an icon and completely capable herself as a professional. She had four kids and managed to curate her husband’s legacy. She kind of got out of mainstream music and went deep into her spiritual desires to become a spiritual leader, and play devotional music.
There’s a quote in the book, Race Woman: The Lives of Shirley Graham Du Bois, about W.E.B. DuBois, where it was mentioned that many prominent black women contributed to maintaining their husbands’ legacies, and that the wives needed their own wives to become as relevant.
You’re absolutely right. I was on a panel two nights ago for a film called Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary and I brought Alice into the conversation. She had four children under the age of 7, and she was still doing gigs. She had her harp in the car and we’d go to Carnegie Hall or wherever her gig was, and we’d be running around playing in the curtains and underneath the piano. She handled it really well in a male-dominated industry to kind of stake her claim. She kind of accepted that. I never saw any grievances come from her like, “I could have been a contender" or something. She really enjoyed family, she was a happy mother, and through her spirituality and growth she got the calling to build an ashram, so devotional music was what she dedicated her time to.
Luaka Bop, David Byrne's record label, put out World Spirituality Classics 1: The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda in May, and your brother Ravi and other friends and fans of Alice performed a tribute concert in NYC at Red Bull Music Academy Fest to commemorate her memory and this new album. Did it all kind of seem out of the blue when you were approached by Red Bull and Luaka Bop?
There were cassettes first that were only available at the ashram. It had a little bookstore, so if you were privy to that, you could get them. But after 10 years there started to be bootlegs and we’d get inquiries to release the music. We decided that Luaka Bop turned out to be a good fit. They weren’t the biggest company but they did an amazing ad campaign for the material. Yes, it was great to have it received so well. Maybe it’s just the time. Everything has a divine order. Maybe she knew what she was doing, and that this was going to happen for her own life. She stuck to what she felt was an important statement of what she wanted to make. It was healing music. With what’s going on in the world socially, it’s nice to be able to experience something like [her music]. It’s unique.
The world is just catching up. Even the media is at a more evolved place to begin to give Alice her due as an individual.
Right, because in every interview when I would go with her, [journalists] would ask her a few questions about herself, but after that it was all about John: “What was he like?” “What does he do?” She would so graciously answer those questions and didn’t try to loop it back around to what she was doing.
Did you notice how journalists and people treated her as a child? Did that stand out to you?
Always. I thought, “Why would they ask her a few questions, and then make the rest all John questions?” People can’t help themselves. She handled it very well.
How did that affect you as you became a woman jazz musician?
I guess I can say that I thought it was and think it is unfortunate. This woman was a pioneer. She played with her husband while she was pregnant, he invited her on tour, which means she had the ability to execute what he wanted from a pianist. That was serious, and to kind of be in the shadows of that, I find it ... She was very powerful when she was making her music and playing, but in speaking, she would never be aggressive or say anything negative about the state of the business and the industry. It probably was the reason why she made a shift in the kind of music that she made. Because it was devotional music, that was the silver lining. She didn’t have to be disappointed in the leaps and bounds that she could have made.
We wanted to get a star for her on Hollywood Boulevard, maybe her and John [next to each other]. But in the application there were questions like, “What are her accolades?” “What awards did she win?” It was kind of like, wow. I think she would be very deserving of a star but the fields in the application were laid out in such a way that made it seem like she couldn’t possibly be considered, which is unfortunate.
It’s like when you hear John play his sax, how emotional it sounds. I just think that she has that, too. It’s pure. The truth that she exudes through her music, I believe people feel that.
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It seems like there’s an almost subconscious vibration that pushes women out of prevailing in mainstream jazz. Do you think that still exists today?
As Alice would say, “You’ve got to hold your head high and walk through the fire.” You have to keep on going. She was all of 117 pounds but she was very disciplined about her approach to things. She saw things through. So I know a lot of times it’s very easy to become disappointed or discouraged. I know I’ve felt that way. That happened to me from the gate. Maybe someone didn’t like me or I felt like I shouldn’t be doing this, and she was very good about not doing that. This is what I’m trying to do. That’s the inspiration I get from her.
What do you plan to do for the upcoming tribute concert?
She left her body 10 years ago on Jan. 12. We always had a celebration on that day. We were asked to do something in L.A., a tribute to Alice. Most of the tributes we’ve done have been John tributes, so we added Alice’s name to the John and Alice Coltrane Foundation and we started to reach out to people that we thought might want to be involved. In the meantime, Luaka Bop was steaming along with their release of her album in May; we said that we wanted to do something for her birthday on Aug. 27. Red Bull said, “Hey, we’re doing something in August, why don’t we join forces?” That tribute was in New York and I was very pleased with how they went to great detail to make it an experience. So they set aside a date for me in October, so we’re doing it here in L.A. in October.
Is jazz your main gig?
It’s what I grew up on and I certainly try to put my two cents into jazz. First starting out I did R&B music and lived in Japan and did background singing. But as my kids grew older and my mother passed ... I got back into [jazz]. I got a band and repertoire together. Because I live in L.A., we kind of played to the crowd. We’d throw in a little of what we wanted to do but we definitely had to keep customers in the clubs. So we assembled a compilation of jazz and original tunes and I’m very pleased with the recordings. We do a version of “Moment’s Notice” where I got the solo that John played, and have a really nice version of “My Favorite Things” and a tribute song to Alice called “Out of the Shadows.” It has one of the prayers in there and has her actual voice in the recording. So, if I live for another 30 years, I have something to do.
The Red Bull Music Academy Festival's "The Ecstatic World of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda" happens Sunday, Oct. 29, at 4 p.m. at the Cooper Design Space in downtown Los Angeles. Michelle Coltrane will perform with the Sai Anantam Singers. Other scheduled performers include Flying Lotus, Marilyn McLeod, Brandee Younger, Georgia Anne Muldrow and the Miguel Atwood-Ferguson String Ensemble. Tickets and more info.