John Coltrane (1926-1967)—saxophonist, composer, and iconic figure—is to me a saint. He has inspired me in my music and my life, and has meant so much to me that we named our son Coltrane. September 23rd is the anniversary of John Coltrane’s birth. In his honor, I want to share with you what has made him such an influential figure in my life.
From the beginning of recorded history, music has played a significant role in our wellbeing. The ancients were well aware of the power of music: In Greek mythology, Apollo was revered as the god of both music and medicine, and the great philosopher Plato wrote, “Music is an art imbued with power to penetrate into the very depths of the soul.”
Music offers a direct way to tap into the innate knowledge that resides deep within our cells. It is through music that we experience and harmonize ourselves with the Divine, because music is capable of bridging heaven and earth, and our human mortal-self with our spiritual immortal-self. Simply put, music inspires us in a way that nothing else can. I am sure that everyone, at some point, has had the experience of music piercing through their being, effortlessly opening their heart and soul.
As a musician, I’m attuned to the transformative power of music. My father was a musician, and I grew up listening to classical and jazz compositions. I was intrigued by the complex rhythms and melodies of jazz, and was inspired to begin playing the bass guitar in my early teens. In my early twenties, I added another dimension of music to my life when I entered a Franciscan monastery and experienced the meditative chants of the monks. I always felt that I both lost and found myself in music, whether it was classical, jazz, or Gregorian chants.
As a researcher, I’m interested in understanding exactly how music affects the body. From the beginning of recorded history, sound and music have played a significant role in healing. Whether through the hypnotic drum rhythms of an African tribe or the sonorous chants of Tibetan monks, music pierces the soul and accesses the power of healing in a way unlike any other.
In the West, there’s a growing interest in music therapy. Studies show that music helps to relieve stress, anxiety, and depression; eases pain and muscle tension; lowers blood pressure; and improves immune function. People with cancer, cardiovascular disease, dementia, anxiety, and depression have all been shown to benefit from music therapy. For example, researchers at the November 2008 American Heart Association Scientific Sessions meeting in New Orleans presented a study showing that emotions aroused by joyful music have a beneficial effect on blood vessel function. Laughter and relaxation are also helpful, but music seems to be the strongest of “medicines” for the heart.
One of my favorite musicians is the great jazz saxophonist John Coltrane. It’s not only his consummate skill as a musician that inspires me, but the way that he finds and expresses God through his music.
One evening, as Coltrane performed one of his most well known pieces—“A Love Supreme”, he ascended to new heights of superb musicianship. Everything came together in a transformative experience for Coltrane, and he communicated this transcendent experience to the audience through his saxophone. As he left the stage, his drummer heard him softly say, “Luke 2:22-29.” Coltrane recognized that he had touched heaven, and that he was doing what he was meant to do in this earthly existence.