Very few people in this world make hotel reservations in the land of Grief. We’d much rather “have a nice day” and if there is an occasion where a tear drops from our eye, we often apologize to the people present, as if it were a cause for shame and we’re ruining their nice day.
But if we make that a habit, what do we do when the occasion demands that we cry a river or are overwhelmed with a tidal wave of sorrow? An event like the Birmingham church bombing or 9/11 or the police murder of George Floyd?
We’ve seen how Nina Simone wrote and sang a song of outrage, how Charles Mingus wrote a composition of protest. John Coltrane was not a singer, but he sure could sing through his tenor saxophone and reach some notes that his voice couldn’t easily reach. His reaction to the 1964 Birmingham act of terrorism was a great grief-cry, a composition called Alabama.
Coltrane was that rare combination of disciplined technician— people say, only half-kidding, that he practiced 25 hours a day— and a soulful spokesperson for Divine Presence in the world. No one knows at the beginning of the path exactly what awaits them, but some simply feel called to follow it no matter where it may lead and to trust their heart to know when they’re on track or off. Coltrane went from the 3-minute jazz blues to the long composition A Love Supreme and people folded up in his volcanic sound were wholly along for the ride.
And so when the community was in grief over Birmingham, some, like social activist Angela Davis, needed to hear the notes that spoke their sorrow and also led them towards hope. As all true artists do, he wasn’t aiming for a predictable effect, simply letting his own anguish cry forth and those that could hear, heard. As might you, when you listen.