The (un)Making Within the Theo-Creative: Wrestling with James Baldwin and John Coltrane

Art is not only dangerous, it dismantles. As artists create, potentially, their work unearths the deepest forms of beauty in the foulest of places. As Toni Morrison denotes,

“Art requires a critical conversation about being human.”

In comparison, art as a theological praxis envisions God as a disciplined creator, creating within the infinite and borderless, space. In his lecture, The Moral Responsibility of the Artist, James Baldwin wrestles with a collision that occurs when the invented god of America and the creative vision of the artist begins to asked questions of humanity. He refers to this event as a collision, to represent an emphatic reiteration, as he proclaims, “because people don’t…wish to see their deepest intimations confirmed.” Baldwin’s view of artists reveals an intention of seeing the religious or transcendent authority that lies concealed within art. Understandably, from Baldwin’s recollection the artists are the only people capable of galvanizing the creativity to exegete from the captured space of the ugly. In other words, the artist has been blessed with foresight to see the beauty within the grotesque. We also find this type of reverence or foresight, in the artistry of John Coltrane. During an interview Coltrane insisted: “I want to discover a method so that if I want it to rain, it will start immediately to rain. If one of my friends is ill, I’d like to play a certain song and he’ll be cured. When he’d be broke, I’d bring out a different song, and immediately he’d get all the money he needed. But what these pieces are, and what is the road to attain the knowledge of them, that I don’t know. The true powers of music are still unknown. To be able to control them must be, I believe, the goal of every musician.” The un-making  within the theo-creative for Baldwin and Coltrane embodies an engagement of unhinging from the white gaze while simultaneously embracing how their Black experience has been cultivated by their community.

What is the unmaking within theo-creative? The theo-creative is the artist; being consciously inspired by the moment, where their creative response assumes transcendence. Therefore, the theo-creative is not merely a moment, movement or occurrence; it is also the person. It is the artist’s understanding how their artistry cultivates and reconfigures. The theo-creative is where art expands the conversation, while theologically struggling to provide solutions for what George Yancy describes as the “quotidian social spaces,” (think of: Public Enemy -Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos, Alabama- John Coltrane, Mississippi God Damn- Nina Simone). This is art performing an unmaking, a reconfiguring of the space to become a proponent of Black irruption. The un-making within the theo-creative conjures an artistic moment, where perfection is not an automatically centered part of the “sociocultural vocabulary” as denoted by Ashon Crawley (BlackPentecostal Breath, 230) or normalized. Rather, the most important factor becomes how does the art register in the spirit of the people. i.e. How does it make one feel? The unmaking within the theo-creative forms a distrust, radicality and subversive disposition with dominate ideologies/theologies that refuse to interrogate the white, European gaze of artistry.

Dr. JoAnne Terrell articulates on her a podcast, Shift of the Gaze, that “Being an artist is a given; becoming conscious of one’s artistry, and becoming conscientious as an artist depends on having or developing a sacramental theory of perception.” Terrell readily designate that the sacramental aspect of art must first be secured within the artist and the artist’s gaze. Therefore, the artist is not merely offering a response but producing a work. This work is not based, solely, upon the reaction of feeling but has been nested within and through a creative process. Now, the artist, in all of their disclosed banality, maneuvers with a tempered “disruptive clarity” as noted by Ed Pavlic’( Improvise, 24), in order to create. Therefore, how one practices, and, continually, engages in a method of practice transforms their art. This is noticeable evident in the artistry of Coltrane. His maniacal commitment to practice made his improvisational skills otherworldly. There are many stories where friends, family and other musicians would find Coltrane fingering his saxophone without blowing air into the instrument. This form of practice established an uncanny fluency with the horn and developed hand coordination as one heard the music in their head. Professor Lewis Porter insists, “That [it was] essential for improvisation, since one must hear music in one’s head in order to produce it at will.” (Lewis Porter, John Coltrane, 52)

James Baldwin as an artist is not the identity that first captures the attention of most. Many would primarily label him as an activist, writer, queer/gay Black man, and playwriter. And, I might add a progenitor of Black Rage. But, the label of an outright artist is something that is rarely connected with the genius of Baldwin. The artistic world availed his imagination unto a wider perspective from which he was able to extract his information. Baldwin proclaimed in a conversation with Studs Terkel: “nobody knows what’s going to happen to [him/her] from one moment to the next or how [he/she] will bear it. This is irreducible and its true for everybody.  Now it is true that the nature of society has to be, you know, to create among its citizens an illusion of safety. But it is also absolutely true that this safety is necessarily an illusion and artists are here to disturb the peace.” For Baldwin, art arranged moments for people to communicate their truth even in the midst of oppressive times. Ed Pavlic’ denotes that “art put people eye to eye with the essential state of risk and made an engaged joy possible.” (Pavlic’, 40) This is the beauty and the un-making of the theo-creative work of James Baldwin. He is consistently reworking the accusations that God abandons the Black community, allowing atrocities to dismantle their lives. Baldwin’s search for answers both torments him and fuels his work. Black Rage serves him as a theo-creative form of release to explore the problems that plagued the Black community. Though he notices the distinct places where despair could be the course of the day, Baldwin’s sense of Black Rage activates his artistry. His Black Rage revises his understanding of the imago dei. Baldwin’s rage towards his father has implications toward God as well. Viewing his father as a fraud, Baldwin also identifies God with the same fraudulent intentions. Nevertheless, God, through the church, appears to have had an apparent impact on his thinking, because Baldwin admits that he will never be able to rid himself of the church because “it is in him.” Baldwin is conduced to define God as a distraction, not as a sovereign being working on behalf of Black folks who are oppressed. He concretely believes that Americans, specifically, white Americans, use God as a shield so that they do not have to wrestle with the reality of white supremacy in America.

In the liner notes of A Love Supreme, John Coltrane writes ,” During the year 1957, I experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening which was to lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life. At that time, in gratitude, I humbly asked to be given the means and privilege to make others happy through music. I feel this has been granted through His grace. ALL PRAISE TO GOD. “ John Coltrane embodied his art, ontologically, to the point that his wife at time, Naima, declared, “he was 90 percent saxophone.” Coltrane’s theo-creative moments are centered around his relationship with the saxophone. This collision between Coltrane and the saxophone happen in the midst of family tragedy: his father, maternal grandparents, and uncle pass within months of each other. Coltrane uses music as a means of survival. For Coltrane, his art represented a path of righteousness. He understood and lived under the philosophy that “playing right meant, and required, living right.” Though he questioned many things including his idea of faith and God, Coltrane “found salvation through the saxophone.” (Ashley Kahn,8) But, Coltrane, like Baldwin could never severe the connection from the Black church because “it was inside of him.” As he journeys through the musical scene and develops as an artist, Coltrane has a moment where it appears as if his skills are eroding.  Ashley Kahn describes the time, in May of 1957, while playing at the Red Rooster, Coltrane begins to play like a six year old in the middle of a set. Coltrane was [obviously] detoxing from drugs, cold turkey, It was during that time that he had a dream about Charlie Parker, and Parker said that he was on the right track. This is the moment that Coltrane begins to transform in his playing.- (Love Supreme, 35-36) After witnessing Coltrane fight through that detoxification, Nat Hentoff would later emphatic detail , “there was Trane with his band…standing with a spiritual force.” Mcoy Tyner, who would later accompany Coltrane on A Love Supreme, marveled at his transformation saying, “It was almost like he had something he had to get done. You know? He had a lot of work to do.” This spiritual weightiness in the music of Coltrane is not only reshaping Coltrane but redefining the sound of the saxophone as well. Regardless of the particular style, Coltrane provided a credibility as well as his spirituality to upcoming saxophonist. His art was his infinite invitation to his Sunday Church. Coltrane allowed his music to speak “with a particular force to Black America, where politics and culture—the civil rights movement, R&B music, and jazz—were tightly enmeshed in a rising wave of racial pride.” (Ashley Kahn, 73)

Theo-creative Mechanisms of the Un-making

Within the theo-creative, Baldwin’s typewriter and Coltrane’s saxophone emerge as mechanisms of the avant-garde. Through these sacred surrogates (typewriter and saxophone), the creativity of both men grapple with the grief of losing their fathers. First, Baldwin’s chaotic love affair with the typewriter becomes apparent. Though he finds some sacred release from the typewriter it also produced his greater place of pain. It was the typewriter, where he was able to release pain, pleasure and fear but the actual expedition to the typewriter manufactured anguish. But, justifiably, Baldwin knew that solace was conceived and enveloped in the keys of the typewriter. Embedded within the tiny, creative space of the typewriter, he was forced to confront his inner demons, and the turmoil known as the memories of his father. The typewriter became a space for Baldwin to develop his voice as he struggled to tell his Black narrative. As Baldwin is struggling with communication and the decisions of life, the typewriter provides him a “passionate detached” space to create. ( James Baldwin, Cross of Redemption, 73) Though Baldwin does not understand why anyone would ever want to be a writer, he understands that he has been called to such a task. The typewriter is the place where his father becomes characterized and Baldwin is able to release his rage. A rage produced through Baldwin’s contempt for his father’s misappropriation of God’s holy. Because he observed his father attempting to evolve into whiteness, he discovered a disdain and bitterness that he harbored against him. It was so formative that Baldwin would later write, “…that God [himself] had devised, to mark my father’s end, the most sustained and brutally dissonant of codas.” (Baldwin, Notes of Native Son, 85) Interestingly, Baldwin, associates “holy” with whiteness, in relation to his father, yet his father had such unspoken hatred for white people. (Baldwin, Conversation with James Baldwin, 47) The commentator Buzz Poole supposes that these particular “codas” God devised for his father are the few things that Baldwin can say, honestly, that he inherited from his father –a rage. (Buzz Poole, Happy Birthday James Baldwin, The Millions) Codas that demark a Black Rage that is unescapable to any Negro alive; “a rage in his blood –one has the choice, merely, of living with it consciously or surrendering to it.” (Baldwin, Price of the Ticket, 133)

Secondly, Coltrane’s saxophone was his place of peace that allowed him to rediscover his faith. The sudden death of his father appeared to leave an aperture to which the saxophone would creatively satiate. Coltrane’s love for the saxophone was visibly apparent as he spent most of his waking moments attached to the instrument. Everywhere he went the saxophone was either in his hand or nearby. It was known that he would practice from anywhere from 10 to 12 hours a day. There was something intrinsic and ancestral about the saxophone that made Coltrane feel close to his deceased father and grandfather. Wayne Shorter connects this thesis of Coltrane’s playing and his appreciation for his grandfather’s Black form whopping as an AME Zion pastor. Inseparable, he denotes, “his grandfather was a preacher and I can hear the wailing [through the horn] …and the appreciation of his grandfather’s mission.” Shorter is positing this inevitable resurgence of spirituality that emerges through the artistry of Coltrane as he is chasing lost time with the men—his father and the father figures— in his life. This is apparent in the mentoring of Miles Davis versus the paternal pedagogical approach to practice with Thelonious Monk. During Coltrane’s tenure with Miles Davis he refused to answer question but preferred for the artist to creatively explore their way to understanding. Thelonious Monk, on the other hand, takes time with Coltrane, and rehearses different methods of playing until he has mastered the musical phrases and movements. Though Coltrane flourished in both environments, it was Monk that expanded his creative parameters. Coltrane admits, “[Monk] got me into the habit of playing long solos on his pieces, playing the same pieces for a long time to find new conceptions of solos. It got so I would go as far as possible on one phrase until I ran out of ideas. The harmonies got to be an obsession with me.”  Ultimately, Monk’s pedagogical, fatherly and instructive approached orchestrated a “complete freedom in his playing” as Coltrane would confide during an interview.


The un-making within the theo-creative is Black performance awakening to the historical value of culture.

Because art produces itself in the means of the crumpled and the creases of struggle, Black folks had/have to be creative in order to survive. Baldwin and Coltrane are products of a people where as Fred Moten denotes “Black performance was a means and a practice of resistance. “(Fred Moten,foot note 14 pg 263) With Blackness and God servicing as a connected never-ending muse, the quest to reshape humanity avails itself as a total disruption for these two artist. Their art mimetically induced their lives. Or in the words of Sonny Rollins,

 “I’m not supposed to be playing, the music is supposed to be playing me. I’m just supposed to be standing there with the horn, moving my fingers. The music is supposed to be coming through me; that’s when it’s really happening.”