The Handwritten Blueprint For A Musical Masterpiece

Before music becomes music—before it's played by musicians—it's just ink on a page. Some compositions require a great deal of ink and a lot of pages, hundreds of carefully-drawn notes bound into massive tomes of score-paper. And yet it's worth remembering that some of the greatest compositions of all time were born of simple ideas scratched onto a single sheet of paper.

Today is famed saxophonist John Coltrane's birthday—he was born on September 23, 1926 and died in July of 1967. To commemorate the day, Open Culture shared this rare document from the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. It's a single piece of score paper that Trane used to chart out the entirety of his classic four-suite 1964 composition A Love Supreme.


Check it out, click to embiggen:


I don't even know where to begin with how much I love this. Jazz fans will be familiar with the famous work, released on a 1965 album of the same name. It's a legendary album, usually near the top of any all-time lists right alongside Kind of Blue and Mingus Ah Um. As a tenor player I'll allow that I have a blind spot for A Love Supreme, though I like the album not just for its musical qualities but for the story behind it.

Most of what I know of Trane's history comes from Eric Nisenson's terrific book Ascension: John Coltrane and his Quest. In that book, Nisenson details how Trane found God while in the throes of heroin withdrawal; the habit had recently contributed to his getting fired from Miles Davis' late-50s hard-bop quintet, and he was determined to kick it. After surviving the ordeal of withdrawal, Trane dedicated his life to sharing spirituality though music. He never did relapse into heroin usage. (Incidentally, Trane was posthumously sainted by the African Orthodox Church; The Saint John Coltrane Church is located in San Francisco, not all that far from where I'm typing this.)


Several years later Coltrane wrote A Love Supreme as a sort of thank you to God, which he explains in the album's fantastic liner notes. An excerpt:

During the year 1957, I experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening which was to lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life. At that time, in gratitude, I humbly asked to be given the means and privilege to make others happy through music. I feel this has been granted through His grace. ALL PRAISE TO GOD.


This album is a humble offering to Him. An attempt to say "THANK YOU GOD" through our work, even as we do in our hearts and with our tongues. May He help and strengthen all men in every good endeavor.


The liner notes give A Love Supreme a personal touch that was rare for jazz albums of the day, and to some degree remains rare even today. And the actual musical outline for the composition provides an even rarer insight into Trane's creative process.

It starts with a vague outline with a scant few notes written without stems, intended to be played out of rhythm...

Advertisement to which is a short rhythmic figure for the iconic, chanted "A Love Supreme" that recurs throughout...


...and past that, his instructions become less technical, more conceptual:


"All paths lead to God."

"Rising harmonies to a level of blissful stability at the end."

"Musical recitation of prayer* by horn in the ending."

"*Prayer entitled 'A Love Supreme.'"

Musically, A Love Supreme remains the most iconic album from Coltrane's prolific period with his famous quartet: Drummer Elvin Jones, pianist McCoy Tyner and bassist Jimmy Garrison. That said, it can be a challenging introduction to Trane's music—it's an evolution beyond the more structured stuff he was playing in the late 50s, leaving behind more approachable albums like Giant Steps, Blue Train and his work with Miles' late-50s quintet. If you're new to Trane, I'd recommend some of that stuff—Blue Train in particular—to get started. But if you're already a fan, this blueprint provides a fascinating bit of insight into the creation of A Love Supreme, and a great reason (if you need one) to revisit a work of musical genius.


Happy birthday, Trane! Thanks for all sheets of sound, and for everything else.

(Via Charles McNeal)

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