Image Depicting Collage of Alice Coltrane Next to Harp with Music Notes on an Abstract Colorful Background

Alice Coltrane’s Journey to Satchidananda

When John Coltrane died in 1967, his wife Alice plunged into a crisis of the soul. Instead of crumbling, she looked inward and emerged with an album of timeless resonance and mystery.

DoubleBlind Mag

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Updated March 30, 2024

If you’ve ever sat in a medicine ceremony—or even just dipped a toe into the meditation or healing world—there’s a good chance you’ve heard it. You’ll know it by the sound, an improbable blend of instruments that sound as though it were beamed from some alternate—and yet very familiar—universe: harp, saxophone, tanpura (an Indian string instrument resembling a sitar), and the standard jazz rhythm section of string bass and drums. 

What you’re hearing is undoubtedly Alice Coltrane’s Journey in Satchidananda, a recording that manages to be ethereal yet grounded, exploratory yet personal, and undeniably trippy all at once. Since its original 1970 release, the album has only grown in stature, with regular reissues ever since (the most recent being in 2019). 

As a woman and a harpist—both comparative rarities in the jazz world—Coltrane’s legacy is usually overshadowed by that of her late husband, John. And while he’s justly regarded as one of the major musical figures of the 20th century, it’s Alice’s reputation that’s truly blossomed in recent years.

READ: We Found the Best Music for Mushroom Trips 

So…who was Alice Coltrane, and why does her music strike a chord among so many wisdom-seekers today? 

At least part of the answer lies in the journey she had to undertake to birth her creative breakthrough. While it never involved the use of psychedelics, as far as we know, the journey to Journey was both a crucible and an initiation—two crucial aspects of the medicine experience. She couldn’t have known it at the time, but her quest would lead the Detroit-born churchgoer to befriend a yoga guru and take her halfway around the world. 

The Detroit Years: A Hotbed of Modern Jazz and Black Progress 

Alice McLeod was born in 1937 to a working-class family in Detroit’s East  Side. Vishnu Wood, her neighbor and later musical collaborator, described the neighborhood as “rough-and-tumble,” but the city as a whole occupied a special place in the constellation of historically Black communities.

At the time, Detroit was the nation’s industrial heart, its great beating pulse offering Black Americans a narrow shot at the culture and economic self-sufficiency many white Americans took for granted. The McLeods’ neighborhood church, Mt. Olive Baptist, boasted several choirs; some sang a range of classic European and American hymns, while others offered the newer, more urbanized gospel style that was then gaining popularity. Incidentally, this musical matrix would also spawn such Detroit-based icons as Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, and countless other stars of gospel, pop, and jazz.

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Tall, shy, and quiet, Alice demonstrated a musical aptitude at a young age. Soon she was accompanying services on piano and organ, an experience that instilled an appreciation for communal and ecstatic expression. In the book Monument Eternal: The Music of Alice Coltrane by Franya Berkman, Alice describes her early experiences with spirit.

“One day, we were at this church. I happened not to be at the piano at the time… The choir was singing, and there was such a spiritual experience happening in the church. There was such God feeling. The people in the audience were so overcome with the spirit that they weren’t singing anymore; some were just walking around the church. Half of the choir had to be carried out – even young people…there were nurses attending to those who were highly overcome…. Just God.  God-inspired. An experience filled with the spirit of the Lord.”  

By her teen years, Alice was already an accomplished multi-instrumentalist. Bennie Maupin—a woodwind player who would later find fame backing Herbie Hancock—went to the same high school as Alice. He told Berkman in an interview for her book that Alice’s musical gift floored her young peers.

“I came into the auditorium with my class, and we sat down and I  looked up at the stage, and there was Alice playing the piano!” he said. “I was  just so in awe of her because I hadn’t heard anyone play like that… the kids went wild after it was over.”  

Little did she know her musical flexibility and questing spirit were about to meet their match.

The Dawn of Jazz Consciousness 

It’s difficult to overstate the place John Coltrane held in the public imagination of the early 1960s. If jazz was already ceding ground to rock and roll, folk, and other genres, it was still a medium associated with important discourse, and it consistently pushed artistic boundaries in ways other music didn’t. And nobody epitomized this phenomenon more than John Coltrane.  

Already a bona fide star by 1962, the year Alice McLeod first encountered him in the flesh, Coltrane would only ascend higher. Like Alice, he grew up steeped in the church—his two grandfathers were both ministers in the American Methodist Episcopal church—and he credited a 1957 religious experience with helping him overcome heroin addiction. But even before then, Coltrane was infusing a deep, sojourning resonance into his saxophone playing that tapped into the divine.

In early 1962, Alice McLeod and Bennie Maupin went to see John Coltrane at a former Detroit furniture store repurposed into a nightclub. The bandleader’s quiet intensity transfixed the two and his willingness to reach beyond jazz’s established boundaries, though his increasingly free stylings ruffled a portion of the audience hungry for the bebop he was already leaving behind. 

The following summer, Alice—by then a touring musician—was playing at New York’s Birdland. Her ensemble, under bandleader Terry Gibbs, had a multi-date engagement opening for the John Coltrane Quartet. According to Gibbs, Alice spent each night enraptured, watching Coltrane play from a back booth in the room. Later, Alice herself commented on the encounter: When I heard his recordings, I would hear…something else, like another message. It was like he had to be saying that to me. So then,  when we were there at Birdland, and he was in performance, that  same feeling would come back, like some kind of inner knowing,  recognizing something that I’m hearing, something that I  comprehend, was associated with my soul or spirit.”  

Soon, Alice McLeod became Alice Coltrane. In short order, she’d be happily ensconced in family life, bearing John three children in addition to caring for her young daughter from a brief marriage (to bebop singer Kenneth “Poncho” Hagood, eleven years her senior). 

Alice always said her relationship with John was blissful, with musical and spiritual parity. But when Coltrane asked her to join his new group in early 1966, his recognition of his wife as his creative equal sent a ripple of disquiet through the jazz world. Coltrane had fully embraced his avant-garde side, and there was no going back. Together, they were creating music with the intention of connecting people to the frequency of transcendence.

“To me, as a result of the association [i.e. the marriage], it fully manifested,” she said in Monument Eternal. “There was no more question about [musical] direction. What we did was…to reach out and look toward higher experiences in spiritual life and higher knowledge to be obtained in spiritual life.”  

Alice didn’t know it at the time, but her descent into spiritual challenge was just around the corner. 

Alice’s Dark Night of the Soul  

All through the first half of 1967, John complained of increasing abdominal pains. By the time he finally saw a doctor, in May, it was too late. By mid-July he could no longer eat, and he checked himself into a nearby hospital. 

“He was such a strong man that he walked out the door himself,” said Alice in a 1969 interview. “He was walking slow, but he made it. And then  he went down so fast.” John Coltrane died from cancer of the liver on July  17, 1967. He was just 40 years old. 

When John died, Alice was a few weeks shy of her 30th birthday. Left to raise four young children on her own, she fell into an extended period of challenge. Plagued by insomnia, she began sleeping less and less— sometimes just two hours a night. She began fasting, her weight dropping from 128 to 95 pounds. Her family, concerned for her mental and physical health, sent her to the hospital after a series of self-inflicted wounds, including cuts and at least one third-degree burn. Then there were the visions—visitations from her dead husband, of talking trees and astral beings. So far as the rest of the world was concerned, Alice Coltrane was losing her mind. 

READ: Shrooming at the Symphony: How Does Music Affect the Psychedelic Experience?

But Alice regarded the experience as something else: It was a tapas, a period of physical, mental, and spiritual tests in the yogic tradition. Tapas is often interpreted as a rite of purification. As Alice explained in a 1977 interview: “My tapas…initially began with increased waking hours and extended meditations…a series of examinations on my reactions and  aversions, specifically to heat and cold, light and darkness, life and  death, joy and sorrow—i.e. on the dualities of life-polarization.”  

Those who have undergone challenging medicine journeys will undoubtedly recognize parallels. But while it’s known John Coltrane tried LSD at least once—some sources claim he took it regularly near the end of his life, others say it happened only once, during the recording of his posthumously released album Om—there’s no evidence Alice ever did. She was turning instead towards some internal compass, perhaps the one forged by the direct experience of God in her childhood church. 

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On the Path to Satchidananda  

Alice’s tapas lasted two years. When she finally emerged, she launched herself as the fully-fledged artist that her husband and so many others knew she was. 

Alice was still making music throughout her tapas. Between 1968 and 1970, she recorded no fewer than three albums for Impulse!, her husband’s label. Each of Alice’s first three albums received acclaim to varying degrees. 1968’s A Monastic Trio introduced Alice Coltrane as a self-taught harpist—John had ordered the instrument shortly before his death—while 1970’s Ptah, The El Daoud is regarded as a high point of her early solo career. 

Still, there was grumbling in some quarters of the jazz world that Alice was merely copying her late husband’s approach, an all-too-common critique leveled at many talented female artists who marry successful counterparts. But any attempts to bring her down were shuttered upon the release of her fourth seminal album, Journey In Satchidananda.

In 1969, Alice Coltrane’s former neighbor, Vishnu Wood, introduced her to Swami Satchidananda Saraswati. Saraswati was a star, a yoga guru helicoptered into Woodstock to offer a commencement for the legendary festival. Within a few months, Alice had become friends with the yogi, visiting him regularly for inspiration and spiritual guidance. Crucially, she also began chanting at this time, a devotional practice that both hearkened back to her early churchgoing experiences and helped plant the seeds for her future musical direction. 

As Alice emerged from her tapas, new music was coming to her. By November of 1970, she was ready to record. Working with drummer Rashied Ali, saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, bassists Cecil McBee and Charlie Haden, and occasional corollary musicians, Alice crafted an ethereal but indelible body of work, drawing as much from world and devotional music as on her jazz chops. 

The five songs on Journey In Satchidananda seem to walk an edgeless path, a forever unfolding spiral seemingly devoid of the usual mileposts of structure and sonic boundaries. Coltrane’s harp glistens and twinkles, the ethnic instruments shine in non-traditional adaptations that never descend into pastiche. If it’s an avant-garde jazz album, it’s a remarkably approachable one: deep, heartfelt, even groovy. Since its release, artists ranging from Radiohead to Sunn O))) to Steve “Flying Lotus” Ellison— coincidentally, Alice’s grandnephew—have all cited the album’s influence on their own work. 

It makes sense that Alice produced Journey after a period in which the public thought she had gone crazy. In the Hindu faith, Satcitananda, or “Brahman,” is said to be the source of “all reality.” It’s the source of all conscious thought and of all perfection. It is regarded as the ultimate and complete destination of spiritual pursuit in Hinduism. In a sense, it was a message from Alice to the world saying that she’d finally arrived at her fullest sacred expression.

Alice would go on to enjoy an eventful remainder of her life, visiting India with Swami Satchidananda Saraswati, returning to California to found an ashram, and recording a series of increasingly experimental and well-regarded albums throughout the 1970s. Following a twenty-five-year break from public performance, she briefly returned to the stage in  2006. She died of respiratory failure the following year and is buried on Long Island next to her husband. While there were any number of turning points in Alice Coltrane’s epochal life, Journey In Satchidananda was a crucial one. Having gone so deep inside herself on a quest for understanding, she emerged with one of the most singular and resonant albums in the entire jazz canon.

If you’re contemplating a journey of your own—be it psychedelic or otherwise—there’s no better time than the present to experience it for yourself.

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