I grew up surrounded by sound. As a little Black girl born smack dab in the middle of Detroit in the 1970's, my ears were treated to the delights of Motown, acapella gospel choirs, fledgling rappers on the cusp of a new medium, and retired jazz musicians who had long laid down their horns and picked up different pipes.
My grandmother Juanita had a stellar record collection. My earliest recollections of her were of her living room, full of music. She was not necessarily a kind woman; my grandmother was not one to dote. But somehow, I managed to escape punishment and, as the baby at the time, I got free reign where my elder siblings were constrained. I'd sit on her purple velvet ottoman, the one everyone else was forbidden to sit on, and I'd soak it all in. Even though my grandmother was stern and unyielding, but she loved a good party.
She was known on her street for the fêtes she threw: block parties, rent parties, any excuse to listen to music, drink brown liquor, and unwind from the harshness of growing up Black in America's most segregated city.
It was through my grandmother's record collection that I first learned the difference between horns, the wailing of a muted trumpet versus the velvety smoothness of an alto saxophone. I learned through listening to Sarah Vaughn, Billie Holiday, and Dinah Washington that the voice was an instrument. It was my earliest music education. As a little girl, my grandmother's records taught me Jazz.
It wasn't until I got older that jazz literally changed my life. I was 17. It was the summer of 1993. I had just graduated from high school. My best friend and I were hanging out in her basement, trying to escape the humidity of a sweltering Detroit summer. Her father spent that summer hipping us to the finer things in life: how to make a pasta sauce from scratch, how to discern whether a boy we liked had good home training or not, and how to pick a perfect jazz tune. He'd already introduced us to the wonders of Miles and Monk. Miles Davis was the epitome of cool and I had grown to love his emotive sound on the horn. I was even more fascinated by his mythical temperament and attention to detail in real life. Thelonious Monk handled the keys like someone possessed of spirit. His sound was intellectual and vast; I felt I wasn't mature enough to process what I was hearing but I loved it just the same. And then, that hot summer day, he played Giant Steps. I was immediately enthralled. The saxophone had never been my favorite instrument, I was partial to trumpet or flute. But the way that sound wafted through the speakers, I fell instantly, and eternally, in love.
Soon thereafter, the only thing I listened to was Trane, Monk, and Miles.
I went off to college that fall and used my work study check to make weekly runs to the record store. I devoured every recording I could find by John Coltrane until that was all I listened to. Musically, I couldn't really understand what I was hearing at first, but Coltrane's use of melody and phrasing was like a warm embrace, it spoke to me. I picked up 'Meditations' his famous album featuring 'sheets of sound'. I couldn't process it and it took me days to make it through but Trane's free jazz' sparked something in me. I was listening to his albums at he same time that I was trying to decide my next spiritual journey. I had left the church that I was born into, the congregation I'd been in my whole life, and I was reaching out, first to Hinduism, Buddhism, Ifa and then I finally settled on a book about Sufis. I read about the oneness of God, the circles of remembrance, the art of seclusion as a spiritual practice. I listened to Meditations and I read my Quran, but nothing made sense, neither the book nor the music.
Then one day, the record store got an import pressing of A Love Supreme.
I had only ever listened to the first track. This time, I bought it and listened to the entire suite. And a light bulb clicked. It was meditative, cathartic, and liberating. A Love Supreme, A Love Supreme, Allah is Supreme. It seemed like the music was leading me down a path. My deep obsession with his sound coincided with my embrace of Islam. I took my shahada and became a Muslim not long after purchasing that album.
It has taken many years for me to openly profess my love for all things John Coltrane. As Muslims, we are taught that music is forbidden, that what passes our ears should be reserved for the sacred. I visit Muslim elders sometimes, brothers and sisters who were of age in the 60's and 70's. Sometimes we chat about jazz and our favorite artists. The conversations are often short-lived though because we aren't supposed to talk about music.
But Trane, to me, is sacred. His music speaks directly to my soul. There is a saying that the quickest way to penetrate the heart is through the ear. Truer words were never spoken. John Coltrane's sound met my heart through my ear.
I was talking to my teacher, my spiritual guide, the other day. He is a devout Muslim, a mystical teacher of Sufism. He's teaching me things about my religion that I never knew. I mentioned Trane in passing and told him this story about the time I met Trane for the very first time in that Detroit basement. His response affirmed that what I felt back then was real and that the prohibition wasn't meant for music like Coltrane. This is the real soul music. He told me how Trane wrote A Love Supreme during a period of seclusion, what Sufis call khalwa, leaving his room for nothing, eating and sleeping very little. He told me how the glorious gospel-like refrain from Acknowledgement actually said "Allah is Supreme", that his first wife, Naima, was a Muslim and she undoubtedly rubbed a bit of the deen off on Trane. He told me all of these things and I listened to some but none of it mattered. He had given me Coltrane again.
My teacher and I wound up talking jazz for a bit and then he said, "you know what my given name at birth is?" Thelonius, he said.