My friend Brad rides the bus in Seattle and hears the darnedest things. I ride in Kansas CIty and hear what I choose to hear. Yesterday I was hearing John Coltrane's A Love Supreme.
The bus was not quite full. There was a woman sitting up near the front with a baby in a stroller. The stroller was turned away from her, so the baby faced all of us in the back. A man seated near me made funny faces at the baby. He smiled and giggled, pleased as can be. The woman's wasn't quite twisted in a scowl, but it was a couple shades past indifference. She wore a wifebeater and jeans, and when her cell phone wrang with a hip hop beat she answered it and talked for the rest of the ride.
I listened to Coltrane as I watched the scene. A Love Supreme is one of a handful of jazz albums that push the genre into the realm of high art. Unlike most jazz recordings, it's hard to imagine it being played in a smoky bar where people are talking and maybe only half listening. There's not a note of cliche in it. It's all unique, utterly its own, as if it were some base element of sound that was discovered, not created.
It tells a story of love, of course, in so much as musical notes can tell stories, and the scene on the bus told a story of love, too, and I thought it beutiful and sad the way these two stories -- the one in my ears and the one in my eyes -- didn't connect. I imagined being a young radical in 1965, and listening to this disc and believing in the revolution its handful of tracks foretold. Back then, you'd have to listen to the album in your living room, or in a friend's living room. I think that might have made the vision all the more believable. The same way a painting is more inspiring in a safe gallery space, set against a clean white wall.
But here it is, more than 40 years later, and I'm listening to it on a bus, on a hot day -- a hot Tuesday, no less, maybe the bleakest day of a long work week. And there's this cranky young mom, and this happy man who loves kids, and a baby with a dumb expression and spittle on his short stuck-out tongue, and all these other people sitting all around us staring out the window or at the floor or, like me, at the scene, when Coltrane starts chanting at the end of a blisteringly hot, impassioned solo, a love supreme... a love supreme... a love supreme.