Alice Coltrane’s daughter and grand nephew reflect on her impact

Written by Celine Mendiola, produced by Christian Bordal

Alice Coltrane (left) holds her baby grandson Nicolas, as she stands next to her daughter Michelle (right), in front of their home in Woodland Hills in August 1998. Photo courtesy of Michelle Coltrane.

On August 26 at 2220 Arts in Historic Filipinotown, friends, family and people associated with Alice Coltrane’s ashram will gather to celebrate what would have been the jazz musician and spiritual leader’s 86th birthday

Coltrane played piano and organ and — unusually for jazz — the harp. Her daughter, Michelle, remembers that their house “was full of many instruments. And to this day, I'm still inspired by the body of work.”

She was often overshadowed by the legacy of her husband, saxophonist John Coltrane. But her grand-nephew, Flying Lotus, a music producer and DJ, says her posthumous popularity is on the rise.

“I'm really grateful for … how history has caught up and … the people have caught up. … I'm seeing a lot more of her everywhere. I see … the Alice Coltrane bumper sticker all the time, and it just makes me laugh,” he says.

In “Drips // Auntie’s Harp,” Flying Lotus samples Alice Coltrane’s harp performance as a tribute to his aunt. “We talked about working on some music together several times, and we never did, and I always wanted her harp sound featured on my music,” he says.

Shortly after John Coltrane’s death in 1967, Alice focused her attention on Vedic spiritual practices and founded the Vedantic Center, later named the Sai Anantam Ashram. It was located in the Santa Monica Mountains in Agoura, but was burned down by the 2018 Woolsey Fire

Michelle says her mother played devotional music every Sunday at the ashram for 30 years and was a loving and supportive spiritual leader for a lot of people. But, as a teenager, Michelle says the spiritual leader and the mother would sometimes combine. 

“When I was getting reprimanded … my mother would say, ‘The Lord said…’ I was like, ‘No, not the Lord!’ It's like, ‘You can't run away from that,’” she says.

When remembering what it was like to watch Alice Coltrane play, Flying Lotus often thinks of her surreal performances at the ashram. 

“You can actually hear nature and you hear the world and … all the vibrations, everything. You feel it. And it was just … music that you've never heard,” he says. “I’d go and see her … in this other way. And it was always very, very interesting and very deep, profound.”

Flying Lotus, a renowned DJ and music producer in Los Angeles, is the grand nephew of Alice Coltrane. “I'm really grateful for … how history has caught up and … the people have caught up. … I'm seeing a lot more of her everywhere,” he says. Photo by Tim Saccenti, courtesy of Autry Fulbright.

After many years of solely focusing on her religious role and the spiritual music, Alice Coltrane released one final studio album, “Translinear Light.” Michelle remembers how her brother, Ravi, convinced their mom to record music again, and how excited Alice was to perform at sold-out concerts.

“There was a whole page ad … in the newspaper. And my mother's personality was very demure, and she comes in, smiling … with a newspaper, and she said, ‘Look at this. Would you look at this? This could have really helped me in my career when I was a young girl coming up [as a] musician,’” she says.

For Flying Lotus, he remembers Alice’s last concerts fondly. His favorite was her performance in Paris, where he finally witnessed his aunt playing jazz – different from the spiritual music of the ashram. 

“I hadn't really heard her play just straight jazz and swing. … So, it was crazy, just to see that playing and the speed and all that,” he says. “My aunt … was really chill … like [Michelle] said, very demure. So when it hits, it was like, ‘Whoa! Where did that come from?’” 

Alice Coltrane’s birthday celebration will be from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. on August 26. You can buy tickets online here.