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Bill Shoemaker

Alice Coltrane

It now seems like an inconsequential blip; but Bill Clinton’s 1993 White House jazz party was widely thought at the time to be the triggering event that would restore jazz’s prominence on the American cultural landscape. The symbolism was thick, as this was the first cultural event held at the Clinton White House. The sense of pride and promise the event created within the US jazz community has not been subsequently equaled.

By virtue of a piece I wrote that ran in the previous Sunday's Outlook section of The Washington Post, and my covering the event for Down Beat, I managed to get a +1 to an event that I otherwise would have only read about in the papers.

Since it was a typically sweltering summer evening, the tourists and the vendors had called it a day, and I was able to glide into a space on the south aide of the Corcoran Gallery, the site of another defining event for the arts in the '90s, the infamous Robert Mapplethorpe exhibit.

Usually, crossing 17th St. towards the White House requires waiting for the crossing lights, but there was a surreal lack of traffic as my wife Carol and I walked towards the gate close to where the drive that sweeps along the South Lawn fence merges with 17th. I remember distinctly looking down the drive for oncoming traffic and seeing none. So did Carol.

The street was so quiet that by the time we stepped up onto the sidewalk, the White House police officer at the gate had already noticed our large invitation card and motioned us to walk south.

We turned to our right and were confronted with the sight of Alice Coltrane, standing on the sidewalk mere paces away, holding up her invitation, her orange and purple trimmed sari practically blazing. A town car was at the curb behind her.

Carol and I were incredulous: it seemed impossible that a car could come around the curve and park, and that anyone, let alone someone who had to negotiate getting out of a car in a sari, could leave the car and walk even a few feet in what seemed like a split second.

Yet, there she was, holding her card. Alice Coltrane.

"Do you know where to go?" she asked. When I started to explain, she turned to the car, and it came up beside us. "Please," she said, her arm extending towards the car.

I opened the door for her and we got in. She thanked us for helping her. She asked our names and how we came to be invited to the event. When I told her my name and that I was covering the event for Down Beat, she nodded and said, "You've written about John."

I had written a piece for Down Beat on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of John Coltrane's death in which I opined that Coltrane's music was already moving beyond the parameters of his so-called "late period" when he passed in 1967 (the article was reprinted in Issue 7 September 2006). But, it ran a full year before.

I nodded, unsure of what she meant. She smiled serenely. I broke a sweat. Carol asked her where she lived, and she beamed as she described her home and ashram.

We were separated almost instantly upon arriving at the appropriate gate, as well-wishers swarmed around her.

An hour or so later, I was being harangued at the buffet line by an unctuous Washington Post critic, an unseemly pile of food on his plate, when Alice Coltrane appeared again. She thanked me again for our help. The man from the Post went slack jawed.

I told her it was our pleasure, and quickly mentioned that I had recently seen her son, Ravi, perform with Elvin Jones. She said she was proud of Ravi, but no more than she was of her other children; each had chosen their paths in life and pursued them with integrity.

"Every child is a gift," she said. From anyone else, the comment would have reeked of lite platitudes or political hackery. From her, it was Truth.

She then excused herself and vanished in the crowd.


Vision Festival

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