A Life Supreme

Spirit Seeker: John Coltrane’s Musical Journey
By Gary Golio
Illustrated by Rudy Gutierrez
(Clarion, 2012, New York, $17.99)

Behind John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme was supreme suffering. At twelve, the jazz saxophonist lost his beloved father, grandfather, and grandmother; his uncle died the following year. As a black man in America, he experienced poverty and encountered racism. He struggled with drug abuse and alcoholism during his twenties. What saved Coltrane was a strong belief that he could communicate the divine through music. Through this conviction, not founded in any particular religion, he was able to free himself from addiction and compose his best music, including A Love Supreme.

In Spirit Seeker, Gary Golio and illustrator Rudy Gutierrez chronicle Coltrane’s travails and transformation. Golio’s prose, like jazz itself, alternates between the straightforward and the vivid, occasionally achieving almost transcendental heights. At one point, Golio describes young Coltrane’s feeling of oneness with his instrument: “He loved the clicking of the keys, the feel of the mouthpiece between his lips and teeth, the shine of the brass, and the way it sat on his chest, close to his heart.” Gutierrez’s illustrations echo this unison between man, music, and instrument; in some spreads, the saxophone and Coltrane seem to have melded as one. Gorgeous and almost overwhelming, the acrylic paintings and mixed media spreads are as much depictions of Coltrane’s consciousness as his life: religious images, the faces of friends and loved ones, and serpentine swathes of color that seem to represent music itself swirl about the musician’s head.

With its themes and word count, this picture-book biography is not suitable for the youngest children. Clarion is marketing Spirit Seeker for ages nine and up;  an author’s note puts Coltrane’s drug use in its appropriate context.  But for older children and even adults, Spirit Seeker is a thing of beauty, a reminder that the arts can help us transcend our circumstances and view something bigger than ourselves.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

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