Editor’s Note: Guest Editor Panama Jackson has hand-selected a group of acclaimed writers to curate this special series of personal narratives celebrating Black music, in preparation for the National Museum of African American Music’s January 2021 opening.
In high school, I loved reading comics, playing video games, and arguing with my friends about whatever sports topic came up on a given day. I was also a hip hop head, passionately in love with the music coming out of the south (Outkast was, and continues to be, my absolute favorite rap group), but I had a deep appreciation for West Coast hip hop—especially whatever Dr. Dre produced. I appreciated the East Coast, but it would be years before I deeply appreciated the music of the Wu Tang Clan, Nas, and A Tribe Called Quest. Yet, despite what I listened to when I was with my friends, I harbored a deep musical secret. Something I held so close that I never told a soul, something that I felt shame about because it made me feel like a freak.
What I told no one, including my best friends, was that every day when I went home, the music I played was not hip hop—it was jazz.
My late grandfather introduced me to Dizzy Gillespie when I was 15 years old. My mother was raising me on her own, so she would send me to live with my grandmother and grandfather during the summer to give herself a break. In between running through the fields and shooting his .22 caliber pistol at cans, we would spend time chewing on grass, and talking about music. He told me about the rich history of the blues and jazz, and told me that if I was going to appreciate black culture, I had to have an appreciation for those genres of music.
At night, after we had dinner, we would sit in his living room and listen to record after record from his jazz collection. He started me off on Dizzy but then exposed me to other great jazz musicians. Cannonball Adderley’s music felt muscular and low to the ground while Charlie Parker’s playing felt light, fleeting and fast. I was taken with Louis Armstrong’s singing and trumpet, but it was when I was at his home for the last time, the summer before I went off to college, that my grandfather blew my mind. That was the summer he exposed me to John Coltrane (whom he called “Trane”)—my life has never been the same.
It is hard to explain how deeply I felt A Love Supreme the first time I heard it. I would be lying if I called it a spiritual experience. It was not that—it was more.
I felt the music from the ground up. It is almost as if a musician transported me to another dimension. The colors in the room were more vibrant, the sounds sharper. I felt the chord changes in ways and in places that I’d never experienced before. It is not an overstatement to say that Trane’s horn transported me to another place. I leaned back, closed my eyes, and just felt the music.
The passion with which Trane played was nothing that I’d experienced before. Yeah, Parker and Dizzy played with precision, but Trane played with that and something more. It was almost as if he was experiencing the divine through the music and merely invited the listener to get in on a piece of the action.
My life changed that night. I knew as I listened to what this virtuoso was doing with his horn that I would never hear music the same way again. That I had crossed a Rubicon of some sort, and that, moving forward, my life would be lived in the wake of what I had just heard.
When the record was over, I did not play anything else. My grandfather tried to play other records by Trane, but I was in no mood to hear them. My mind was not ready to move on to the next track. I sat with the feelings I felt. I savored the experience. I thought about what I had heard, where I had gone, and I felt grateful.
The next few weeks I spent time digging into Trane’s catalogue. I listened to his albums: My Favorite Things, Blue Train and Giant Steps. I savored when he worked with other artists like Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington, and Johnny Hartman. I appreciated all that I discovered, but nothing had the effect on me that A Love Supreme did. There was something about that record that I could not find anywhere else, but I felt compelled to continue searching.
I have discovered other albums that I love like Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, Sonny Rollins’ Saxophone Colossus, and Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come, but nothing has given me the feeling of that first listen of A Love Supreme. It remains my favorite record of all time, period.
Soon after, I discovered A Tribe Called Quest and learned that jazz was not antithetical to my love of hip hop. Armed with that knowledge, I let my friends in on my secret love for jazz, and though they did not share my love for this genre, they certainly did not see me as weird. Like so many other things, I learned that my unique interests did not make me weird, they just made me…me.
I fell deeper in love with Blackness because of A Love Supreme. Listening to that album helped me to understand myself better, my people better. I began to understand that the experience of Blackness in America was at times painful but it could give birth to great art. I could better understand that the music I heard was not made in a vacuum but as part of our sojourn in this strange land.
My grandfather told me that to fully understand Blackness I had to have an appreciation for jazz. I did not comprehend what he meant when he spoke those words, but after I heard A Love Supreme, I understood his words.
Writer, editor, and speaker Lawrence Ware is the co-director of the Africana Studies Program, and assistant professor and diversity coordinator in the Department of Philosophy at Oklahoma State University.