Community & Government

Case Study: John Coltrane and A Love Supreme

Cornel West

Lesson time 14:33 min

In this lesson, Cornel explores how having a jazz-like conception of philosophy allows you to understand how music transfigures suffering, pain, and hurt into an expression that connects to humanity at large.

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Topics include: John Coltrane’s Quest for Wisdom


[MUSIC PLAYING] - It may surprise some people that John Coltrane would be a fundamental part of a MasterClass on philosophy but when you have a jazz-like conception of philosophy in which philosophy goes to school with science, with mathematics, with poetry, with literature, but also with music, then you're not surprised at all. And it may indeed be in our moment of such spiritual decay, moral decrepitude, that the kind of philosophical nourishment that we are really hungry for must embrace musicians. [SAXOPHONE PLAYING] Well, John William Coltrane, born to John R. Coltrane and Alice Blair on September 23, 1926 in Jim Crow Hamlet, North Carolina, would become one of the great exemplars of the quest for wisdom in the history of, not just Black America, but of the modern world. He would die at 40 years old on July 17, 1967. But in those 40 years, we would see the enactment of magnificent development over time and how we can best wrestle with what it means to be human, what love-- (SINGING) love supreme, a love supreme, a love supreme-- Yeah, that's December 9, 1964 in Van Gelder Studios in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, with Coltrane Quartet, with Elvin Jones on the drums, and Jimmy Garrison on the bass, and McCoy Tyner on the piano. That's probably the greatest masterpiece of his magnificent and magisterial career. But most importantly, John Coltrane becomes an example for each and every one of us of how we engage in Socratic self-questioning, how we engage in prophetic witness, and how we engage on having a belief in ourselves, a confidence in ourselves to reach the highest heights, very much like this magnificent set, because this is a jazz set. Look at that red. Coltrane and this set take us to the dark roots of our scream in the language of the great Lorca and also to the celestial heights of sublime silence, all having to do with suffering, pain, hurt, and how we transfigure our suffering and pain and hurt into an expression that touches other people's suffering and pain and hurt. And what is required? Mastery of craft. What is required? Formation of attention, attending to what matters. What is required? A cultivation of a critical consciousness, a noble discontent, and this unbelievable flowering of the maturation of a compassionate soul. No one would have predicted John Coltrane, an only child, a B-minus saxophone player up until he's in his mid-20s, would become one of the greatest figures in the history, not just of jazz, not just of American music, but of human music, as a modern figure. He is inseparable from a tradition. He is a wave in a grand ocean of the Black musical tradition, which is the greatest tradition in the 20th century of artistic creativity, spiritual fortitude, and moral courage that teaches us what it means to be human, producing love warriors in the face of hatred, producing freedom fighters in the face of terror, producing wounded healers in the face of trauma. Oh, what a people, ...

About the Instructor

Cornel West is one of the most profound, diverse, and intellectual thinkers of our time. Now he’s inviting you into the depths of his brilliant mind to teach you how thinking like a philosopher can help you navigate your personal relationships, your decision-making, and your everyday life by looking at the world from a completely different point of view.

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Cornel West

Distinguished philosopher Cornel West teaches you how to think more deeply, connect more closely, and live a more fruitful and meaningful life.

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