Alice Coltrane (Swamini Turiyasangitananda) is the widow of jazz legend John Coltrane. After her husband’s passing she continued their shared exploration of Eastern music and spirituality. In 1970 she recorded Journey in Satchidananda and explained: “Direct inspiration for Journey in Satchidananda comes from my meeting and association with someone who is near and dear to me. I am speaking of my own beloved spiritual preceptor, Swami Satchidananda. Swamiji is the first example I have seen in recent years of Universal Love or God in action. He expresses an impersonal love, which encompasses thousands of people. Anyone listening to this selection should try to envision himself floating on an ocean of Satchidanandaji’s love, which is literally carrying countless devotees across the vicissitudes and stormy blasts of life to the other shore…” (photo: Alice Coltrane with Swami Satchidananda, Rishikesh, 1971.)
Integral Yoga Magazine After you married, it seemed that you became less involved in music and that the spotlight was on your husband, John Coltrane.
Swamini Turiyasangitananda: I didn’t really care for the limelight. I felt I had accomplished a great deal on my own by the time I met John. When I met John, I was more interested in knowing what married life would be like; I wanted to experience that. It was very easy. I didn’t walk in the shadow. It was my preference to be home with the children. I only performed again during the last year of his life when one of his band members had to leave and John asked me to take that position and that was fine.
IYM: After that—and six albums later—you withdrew from the commercial music industry.
ST: God’s work was what I felt was the greater work. At our center, we do a lot of bhajans and songs for God. So, I’m still surrounded with the music. I feel it’s a beautiful continuation in my life to have this spiritual path and my family—I feel this is where I am supposed to be. I don’t feel deprived in not completing my artistic endeavors. I’m sure I could have developed more. But, I felt that John took music to such heights, that I got a sense of fulfillment from his music and I was content with that. I could hear music every day in the house and I didn’t feel I needed to practice or go to the piano. It was a joy for me to hear him practice. He would always strive to improve and go to the next level or dimension. That was amazing to me. I appreciated it so much.
IYM: What was it like to be married to John Coltrane? Was he a very spiritual person?
ST: He was a very quiet, meditative person, very pensive, very deep in thoughts. Many times you see couples whose personalities are opposite and they clash a lot. That doesn’t make for peace in your heart and home. I felt fortunate to be with someone who had that calm and peace in his spirit. John loved to read spiritual books—books on metaphysics, the Indian masters, Chinese temple music. He was a person who wanted to look deeper into the esoteric side of life. That was very interesting to me. We would meditate together.
IYM: Didn’t he explore a lot of spiritual themes in his music?
ST: John technically exhausted so many areas in the study, writing, research and performance of music. He explored it all but it was the spiritual side that brought in melodies and areas of music that had not been explored. Spirituality brought him into higher dimensions of musical life. I felt his real seeking. He was a man who believed in his heart that he could realize God and reveal God through his instrument. He was looking for God. He was a person always involved in exploring. Especially during the last five years of his life (from the time of “A Love Supreme”) it was all spiritual songs that came out—“Dear Lord, dearly beloved God, OM.” That is why we heard music that we hadn’t ever heard before, because I believe it wasn’t all from this world. He played from another realm, a spiritual realm.
IYM: How did you meet Swami Satchidananda?
ST: It was after John departed. In the early 1970s I was introduced to Gurudev (Swamiji at the time) by a friend who went to the Friday lectures in New York. I went to hear him and was highly impressed. For me to walk into the church and see so many young people gathered together was quite impressive. I would see Peter Max, Laura Nyro and others there. [Actress] Satya Kirkland put on a program on the life of Buddha and I had a chamber orchestra at the time so I played the music. Gurudev liked it very much and so my proximity to him developed from the programs and the music which was what I felt I could offer to Him.
IYM: Did Gurudev ever give you advice about your celebrity?
ST: Gurudev never condemned any of us who were in the public eye. Whether we were performers, writers or musicians, he always wanted us to understand that the arts could serve a good purpose, a spiritual purpose. He inspired his disciples to develop the talents God gave them. If your actions are selfless you can do good from any position in life. If you are in the film industry or the music industry and you are doing your craft from a pure place in you, it inspires others. Inspiration is the step to aspiration. When we get letters or hear from people that say they are inspired to stay in school, to get a degree, to go from there to a career, that is good.
One of Gurudev’s greatest teachings—and there were so many great teachings—was to keep our life in good balance through moderation. It’s so important. Accumulating more doesn’t help us. Many people accumulated material opulence and that hasn’t made their life happy. So, having more doesn’t really bring fulfillment in anyone’s life. Peace, happiness, being able to see the true reality of life and appreciate that for what it is, these are the things that matter. Material success is very short lived. We can’t go from this world with any of the material things. I believe our spiritual wealth goes with us always.
IYM: Would you share something about your experiences with Gurudev—receiving your names, the lineage, and so on?
ST: I traveled to India with Gurudev in the early ‘70s. Before leaving India he gave me the name Aparna which is a name of Parvathi. Gurudev explained that much of her life was tapasya (austerity). I asked Gurudev, “Would you ever consider initiating me into brahmacharya?” He told me, “That is possible. When you are ready and it’s the right time.” Some years later I received my initiation following meditation. I had a revelation about what would take place. I would be initiated through Divine Grace. I stood up and I watched the orange color pour down on me and the Lord called me Turiysangitananda, which means the bliss of God’s divine music.
What I share with my students are the basic Vedic teachings handed down from the great Gurus like our Gurudev. These teachings are eternal. They come to us through the Gita and through Yoga. I gave one of my students Gurudev’s book on Hatha Yoga and he has been into Hatha Yoga for the past 15 years and now has students of his own! Gurudev enriched our lives so much and we all wanted to be near him more. I just thank him for all he has given us all these years.
IYM: Last year you released Translinear Light, your first recording in over 25 years.
ST: I told my kids that my time ended in the ‘80s and now it’s their time but they didn’t want to hear it. My son Ravi pleaded with me to do a CD. He has a growing career and he’s on the CD. He organized everything beautifully. My other son Oran plays alto sax and he’s on the CD too. It was so nice to see the young people show that interest and dedication and that was the real joy of the recording. I felt so much heart and spirit in the people at Verve Records and to acknowledge that I agreed to do three concerts over the next year in Europe and the U.S. The next one is on October 22nd at our Festival in California. For the past 17 years we have had a festival program and we give scholarships to encourage young people. We give them an audience and a space to express their art and talent. A lot of time we put our young people on stage with achieved artists like Santana and others. We want them to be seen and heard with professionals.
IYM: Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
ST: Gurudev’s teaching that “Truth is One, Paths are Many,” is one of the highest teachings. We can be open-minded, universal, appreciative of cultures and traditions because we are all speaking the same truth. There is one everlasting truth and that is God. No matter what name you give, whatever term you use—we are speaking that peace, that truth which is God. My life is blessed. I have the highest and greatest esteem for our beloved Gurudev. It was a privilege and honor to be with him. His spirit is with us and I believe will always be with us. He is a great Guru, teacher and spiritual leader. I will always share the consciousness of his light. I will always carry that within me, always.
About Alice Turiyasangitananda Coltrane
Alice Coltrane’s albums including Journey in Satchidananda and her latest release, Translinear Light, are available from music outlets or online at Amazon.com For more information about The John Coltrane Foundation, please visit: www.johncoltrane.com
*This interview was originally published in the Fall 2005 “Hollywood/Holywood” issue of Integral Yoga Magazine (original article title: Spiritual Wealth)