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Ravi Shankar 90th Birthday Tribute

Reminiscences about John Coltrane, 2001

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What a blessed musician he was - John Coltrane! Like some great creative musicians of different forms and eras he gave so much -like a magic pot being filled with his golden music spilling over and feeding his ecstatic admirers. Maybe that is why his mortal body couldn’t take it anymore - and he died so early, leaving his adoring listeners who miss him so much!

I first met him in New York around ‘64. My dear friend Richard Bock of World Pacific brought us together. We had a few sessions in my hotel room where I was staying and I had also gone to hear him once where he was performing. I was very impressed meeting him because from my early years I had met or seen performing many of the legendary jazz greats - and formed the opinion that most of them were very unsophisticated and earthy individuals, being addicted to alcohol, or drugs or both. But John seemed so different. He had sophistication, dignity and at the same time such humility! Dick Bock had already told me that John had given up eating meat, had become a vegetarian, and was reading books on Shri Ramakrishna and also doing yoga.

He had heard me perform and had most of my LP records that were available and was told by Dick Bock that he was a great admirer of mine and Indian Classical Music! In our sessions he asked me many questions about the basis of our music: the way we learnt from the beginning, how much was written down, how much was memorized, how much was fixed, how and when we started improvising, etc. He did not have his instrument with him, but I had my sitar and he was taking notes from my answers. There came the question of the drone, which is an essential part of our music. I explained that a continuous drone is maintained by the 4 or 5 stringed background drone instrument ‘tanpura’, which registers mainly the tonic and its fourth or fifth note to establish the ‘raga’ (or melody form) that the artist is performing. He said that he had been experimenting with the drone effect in some of his compositions after hearing me play, and said that the effect was also very calming and soothing. I had heard, just before meeting him, some cassettes of his latest compositions and I said, “John, if you don’t mind I will ask you a question. I just heard some recordings of your new compositions and I was very intrigued” …he looked perplexed. I continued, ” I was so impressed and found it amazing and touching as well,, but in places I felt you were crying out through your instrument and it was like a shriek of a tormented soul. I have heard the same from many other great jazz performers which is quite understandable because of their pain and the hurt of generations comes out in their music. But seeing and knowing you I thought that the interest and love of our tradition and music has helped you to overcome this…” I will never forget the expression on his face, and the words which he said with such a deep feeling which brought tears to my eyes. He said, “Ravi, that is exactly what I want to know and learn from you… how you find so much peace in your music and give it to your listeners.”

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This was in our last meeting - we embraced and parted with such love. We also fixed a future date in the summer of 1967 when he would keep himself free to come to LA for six weeks and take lessons from me. This alas was never to be.

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