Gil Scott-Heron and the influence of John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme on his life

May 13th, 2015


A young Gil Scott-Heron


Yet more evidence demonstrating the influence John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme has had on musicians…This book excerpt from Marcus Baram’s excellent biography, Gil Scott-Heron: Pieces of a Man demonstrates how Coltrane’s legendary recording “inspired Gil with his mercurial independence in the face of criticism” at a time when the creative artist was contemplating his future as a novelist, poet, musician, and Lincoln University student.


      Gil enjoyed performing and jamming with the band, and he was impressed at how the music could inspire and enlighten the people who came to their shows. But he still considered himself a writer who played music just to perform his poetry. He didn’t really understand the power of music, or the musician’s creative potential to transform his life and the world around him, until he heard John Coltrane. One night in the spring of 1969, Gil stopped by [Scott-Heron friend Eddie “Ade” Knowles] Ade’s room and the drummer played Coltrane’s A Love Supreme album for him. The saxophone legend had died two years earlier, and Gil had heard him only playing with other groups, never Coltrane’s own compositions. He remembers the impact of hearing the album as “immediate. The first time I heard the [Love Supreme] chant, the spirituality, the mix of the instruments, the way the solos were set up, the way the tune was done, and the length of it at almost 20 minutes long – I got lost in it. I was literally taken aback.”

      The album’s symmetry and cohesiveness was what Gil craved in his own music and poetry and life. At Lincoln, he felt out of balance. Though the band was thriving and winning some acclaim, his writing was not getting the attention he felt it deserved. His main reason for coming to Lincoln had been to follow in the footsteps of his hero, Langston Hughes, and to be anointed by the school as the great new black poet. Though he had received a literary award in his freshman year, the English faculty was still dismissive of his writing in later years, and their lack of encouragement of his efforts to write his novel upset and confused him, he complained to friends. Stymied in his literary ambitions, Gil channeled much of his creative energy into music and performing with the Black and Blues. “The faculty didn’t take him seriously,” says Ade. “He would try to get people to read the novel, and they weren’t interested. Gil was really very assertive and very aggressive. He was a high ball of energy who wanted to do a lot of stuff, and some faculty was put off by that.”

      Soon after they bonded over music, Gil started coming over to see Ade to get feedback on his novel. He’d come by his friend’s dorm room at night clutching chapters, with a jug of wine and plenty of enthusiasm. “Let’s do this.” So, the two of them would stay up until three or four, discussing the novel, and end up oversleeping their classes. Ade was impressed that Gil was churning out twenty-five to thirty pages a day and felt that he understood character development and plot very well. “He was dedicated; he would rewrite chapters over and over again.” They grew close, and Gil told his friend, “You’re the only person who takes seriously what I am trying to do with my writing.”

      Once he committed himself to finishing the novel, Gil felt that his studies at Lincoln were too distracting and that maybe he should take a leave of absence. “So there I was, hung up between wanting to write and reading Euripides.” But he was torn; his mother, her two sisters, and her brother had all been outstanding students, and there was incredible pressure on him to go to college, excel, and do even better than they had. “When I should be studying I wanted to work on the book but when I worked on the book I knew I was wasting my time as far as the money I’d invested in going to school,” he wrote. “It was difficult to explain to people. It wasn’t about getting it published, it was about completing something.”

      What should he do: stay on campus or leave and finish the novel? He spent months trying to make up his mind – he later compared his indecision to “a jackass that was set down squarely between two bales of hay and starved to death.” In the end, he felt that he could succeed only if he pursued his dreams – much like Coltrane, who inspired Gil with his mercurial independence in the face of criticism. “I knew I was going to face a lot of criticism and I might not get back to school to graduate. I had to follow my own mind. So I had to listen to people and see examples of people who had done that and been successful in spite of criticism. I think I got that from ‘A Love Supreme.’”



Excerpted from Gil Scott Heron:  Pieces of a Man,

by Marcus Baram


“The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”

“A Love Supreme” — the complete recording

The A Love Supreme interviews

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