Pianist, organist, harpist, composer and spiritual leader Alice Coltrane died Friday, January 12 in Los Angeles. She was 69. Born Alice McLeod in Detroit, she studied classical piano and played organ in church as a child, taking lessons early on from jazz great Bud Powell. She met saxophonist John Coltrane in the earl 1960s, and the two married in 1966. Soon thereafter, she became his pianist, replacing McCoy Tyner. She remained in his band until his death in July 1967, appearing on the albums Stellar Regions, Live At The Village Vanguard Again, and the 4CD boxed set Live In Japan, among others.
As a solo artist, Mrs. Coltrane embraced spirituality to an even more explicit degree than her late husband had, using her music as a portal to higher planes of understanding. To this end, she frequently recorded with strings, as on albums like Lord Of Lords and World Galaxy. Her talents as a pianist were sorely underrated by many jazz critics and listeners, but her unique sound on the Wurlitzer electric organ, and her use of the harp in free jazz, earned her a great deal of respect within the avant-garde. She played with many major figures in both jazz and rock, including Pharaoh Sanders, Joe Henderson, Charlie Haden, Ron Carter, and Carlos Santana, with whom she made the collaborative album Illuminations in 1974. In 2004, she returned to recording after 27 years away, releasing Translinear Light on Verve to overwhelmingly favorable reviews. Last year, she played live concerts in Paris, France and several U.S. cities.
Mrs. Coltrane’s spirituality led her to combine modal jazz with Indian rhythms and themes, and offstage she founded an ashram, the Vedantic Center, in 1975, adopting the name Swami Turiyasangitananda. This facility, still open, is now known as the Sai Anantam Ashram, paired with the John Coltrane Foundation, which awards scholarships to young musicians. She is survived by her sons Ravi and Oran (both of whom played on Translinear Light), her daughter Michelle, and five grandchildren.