2023 Annual Report:

When a quartet of the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra performed the music of John Coltrane at the National Museum of American History, it shared one of the most famous works in American jazz, “A Love Supreme.”

Less well known is the inspiration for the 1964 composition: Coltrane’s religious awakening. He wrote the piece as a prayer. The concert was one of several events held during a convening of Lilly Endowment’s Religion and Cultural Institutions Initiative in Washington, D.C. As Peter Manseau, the director of the museum’s Center for the Understanding of Religion in American History, introduced the quartet, he encouraged colleagues from cultural institutions around the country to continue to be attentive to the unexpected and intriguing ways that religion shows up in their collections. (See story about the Religion and Cultural Institutions Initiative on page 20.)

Smithsonian musicians Allyn Johnson, piano, Amy Shook, bass, Luis Hernandez, tenor saxophone, and Ken Kimery, drums, performed what scholars consider to be among the most important pieces of 20th century American music. Smithsonian archives contain many of Coltrane’s manuscripts, including the original score for “A Love Supreme.” For the concert, an image from that score was projected above the stage. Manseau directed the audience to Coltrane’s handwritten instruction, including a description of how the bassist’s final notes are intended to be the prayer’s symbolic ‘Amen.’

“The great opportunity and responsibility we have as cultural institutions engaged with religion is to explain it when it is obvious and reveal it when it is hidden,” Manseau said. “To help our audiences see and hear and understand it in new ways, even when it is as subtle as a bass line under music.”