This is the third post in a series about Martin Luther King, Jr., leading up to his birthday celebration in January, 2015.
If you haven’t heard John Coltrane’s 1966 composition “Reverend King,” you owe it to yourself to hear it. This is “free jazz” Coltrane, late Coltrane, and magnificent Coltrane. It was released as part of the album “Cosmic Music,” after Coltrane’s death in 1967. It features Alice Coltrane, Pharaoh Sanders, Jimmy Garrison, Rashied Ali, Ray Appleton, and John Coltrane.
The song begins with a quiet chant, bass, and builds into a hopeful, harmonic, bright sound. It slowly begins to break apart into wildly growing branches, leaping out in many different directions. Its joy and playfulness continue most of the way through. A more minor segment finds its way into the work part-way through, but the uncontrolled and free expression keep their basic major-note feel. This song is ebullient, joyful, wild, and dangerous.
Coltrane begins the song with his tenor sax and ends it playing a bass clarinet. Some writers suggest it is Eric Dolphy’s bass clarinet that Coltrane takes up for the last part of the song. A beautiful tribute to Dolphy if it’s true.
This song seems to look at the large scope of Dr. King’s life. It begins with such controlled hope and beauty then breaks into wildness, some will say chaos or madness. It sounds discordant, like America. There seems to be no thread, no rudder guiding us through. But of course there is– with Coltrane there almost always is– no matter how “free” the composition seems to have become. As it slows at the end, its hope is more grand than at the beginning. As Dr. King’s life ended in Memphis, he was at a high point of his own optimism and faith. Recall his passionate words on April 3, 1968, the night before he was assassinated in Memphis: “I’ve seen the promised land! I may not get there with you, but we, as a people, will get to the promised land! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”
In its big-picture view of Dr. King’s life, this song differs from “Alabama,” Coltrane’s 1963 song recalling the four girls killed in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church. In that song, Coltrane echoes the cadences of Dr. King’s eulogy at the girls’ funeral. That composition dives into the details of that sorrowful event. In “Reverend King,” Coltrane seems to take a big-picture view. In this, he captures the spirit of Dr. King who is wiser and more experienced. At this point in 1966, Coltrane is too. One of the hopeful elements of this song is that it’s written before Dr. King is killed. I hope Dr. King was able to hear it before he died. I suspect he did and I suspect he was moved by it.
This song shows us the transformative power of music and art. The artist, Coltrane, takes up the life of a holy and transformative man, Dr. King, and he translates that life into the language of his own art. This is art at its best.