A Sax Supreme: John Coltrane's Legendary Instrument Joins the Collections of the American History Museum | At the Smithsonian | Smithsonian
New to the collections: John Coltrane's 1965 Mark VI tenor saxophone (Courtesy of the National Museum of American History)

A Sax Supreme: John Coltrane's Legendary Instrument Joins the Collections of the American History Museum

Ravi Coltrane, son of jazz musicians John and Alice Coltrane, donates one of his father's three saxophones

smithsonian.com

On December 9, 1964, legendary jazz musician John Coltrane recorded his canonical, four-part suite A Love Supreme in sound engineer Rudy Van Gelder’s studio in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. A squat brown residence surrounded by tree-lined suburban streets, its unassuming façade belied state-of-the-art facilities; 39-foot ceilings with fine acoustics lent a cathedral-like reverence to the sleek, brick-lined space that also housed countless other great artists including Gil Evans, Oliver Nelson and Ray Charles.

That day, as legend goes, the lights were dimmed, and Coltrane’s quartet soon began to play. As their sounds melded together, each member became lost in the music, improvising a lilting stream of notes to the four-note bass line anchoring the composition. Few words were spoken, but none were needed; the band's natural chemistry surpassed any instruction. The next 33 minutes were a singular moment in time—and sound—that will now live on forever within the collections of the National Museum of American History, thanks in part to a donation from Coltrane’s son, Ravi Coltrane.

Today, the museum kicked off its 13th annual Jazz Appreciation Month by celebrating A Love Supreme’s 50th anniversary. And in honor of the occasion, Ravi Coltrane, himself an accomplished contemporary jazz musician, donated one of his father’s three principal saxophones—a Mark VI tenor crafted by Henri Selmer Paris, a manufacturer of high-quality brass and woodwind instruments. The saxophone was made in 1965, the same year in which the recording of A Love Supreme was issued. “Every time I open the case to look at the saxophone,” said John Edward Hasse, curator of American music, who presided over its donation ceremony, “I get goosebumps. John…Coltrane’s….saxophone.”

Among one of Coltrane’s greatest works, the resulting album also held personal significance for the esteemed saxophonist. Its four phases—"Acknowledgement," "Resolution," "Pursuance" and "Psalms”—tied his music to a newly-reaffirmed faith in God, and marked his resolve to end the hard-drugging lifestyle that had gotten him fired from Miles Davis’ group seven years earlier. "As time and events moved on, I entered into a phase which is contradictory to the pledge and away from the esteemed path,” Coltrane wrote in the album’s notes. “But thankfully now, through the merciful hand of God, I do perceive and have been fully reinformed of his omnipotence. It is truly a love supreme."

Coltrane passed away less than three years later, at the age of 40. But his musical legacy lived on.

John Coltrane was not only a saxophonist, but a bandleader and a composer, Hasse said, calling the musician a "creator of new sound" and a "musical revolutionary." He was a muse to Jimi Hendrix and Carlos Santana, and the "subject of college courses and countless poems. For many, an epic culture hero."

The instrument will become a part of the museum's treasure trove of jazz artifacts, which includes 100,000 pages of Duke Ellington’s unpublished music, Dizzy Gillespie’s trumpet and Herbie Hancock’s cordless keyboard. It will also be on view in the museum's “American Stories” exhibition starting June 1, alongside Coltrane's original score of A Love Supreme. Until then, visitors will be able to see it on the museum's first floor, near the Warner Bros. Theater

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About Kirstin Fawcett
Kirstin Fawcett

Kirstin Fawcett reports on the collections, exhibitions, new research and other happenings around the Smithsonian Institution.

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