At Cass & Willis
The recently produced documentary on the life of John Coltrane, Chasing Trane, illustrates how deeply the musician is beloved around the world, and the various ways in which devotees engage in preserving his legacy as a profoundly spiritual human being and artist. Detroit’s well-known cultural events coordinator and community leader, Njia Kai, is one such life-long devotee who, this fall, during the weekend of the Dlectricity Festival, presented The Temple of John Coltrane, a mixed media art installation. Kai’s principal collaborators in the design and implementation of the exhibit were Dell Pryor and Sharon Pryor, owners of Dell Pryor Gallery and Tulani Boutique respectively. The exhibit offered an appreciative audience the opportunity to sit among images and memorabilia of Coltrane’s work, while listening to his exquisitely beautiful, soaring compositions. It was a moment of stillness for contemplating the lessons of this ancestor’s life: the human capacity to endure and overcome personal failures, hardships and misfortune, to experience at some point the blessings of love and oneness with the Creator. For the two days of the Temple of John Coltrane installation, the corner of Cass and Willis became a lodestone, emanating energies of healing, vision and peace. Editor’s note.
The Temple of John Coltrane
Multi-Media Art Exhibit
Dell Pryor Gallery
September 22, 23, 2017
Curators: Njia Kai, Dell Pryor and Sharon Pryor
Interview conducted by Dr. Gloria Aneb House and Eric Campbell
November 12, 2017 at the Dell Pryor Gallery/Tulani Rose Boutique
Aneb: How did the idea come about and how did the three of you come together to make it happen?
Njia: It’s really through John Coltrane’s music that I entered the world of jazz as a young person, and I have previously produced John Coltrane celebrations on September 23rd (Coltrane’s birthday). Last year, I thought I was going to submit a Coltrane project for the DLectricity Festival. It would have celebrated his 90th birthday and I thought the timing was just grand! However, because of the M-1 Rail construction, DLectricity [an outdoor art festival in midtown Detroit featuring light-based installations from around the world] was delayed till this year.
At the time we were looking to produce a video that would be the mainstay of our exhibit; but I was so busy that we just were not able to pull together a suitable project. Once I knew we were not going to be an official part of DLectricity, and we didn’t have time to produce a video, we had to adjust the concept. Instead of a video, we focused on giving people an experience of John Coltrane — his artistry, his genius, his master use of sound and instruments — to reveal the spiritual awakenings that came into his life, especially during his last ten years.
I’ve been here over the years [the Dell Pryor Gallery] for a couple of artistic events based around films, music, art, and artists, and so I approached Del and Sharon with this idea. They said if I had something I wanted to do, they would be interested, and then, very timidly, you know, because this was my coming out party in a lot of ways after a lot of years of not self-producing….
Aneb: Njia Kai, Curator….
Njia: Yeah, exactly. Like, Dell gave me that and suggested that I own it. And so when I approached them with the idea, they were really generously supportive, for allowing it and then being a part of it, not just saying, OK, do something with that space. They both put themselves into it.
Aneb: Let’s describe the installation as it emerged– how the ideas evolved, how the three of you worked together; and let’s describe the elements of the installation so that everyone can imagine it.
Njia: Well, I brought a concept to Dell and Sharon. I had my little sketch to describe what we were thinking about and we had a conversation about it. What was interesting and very fulfilling was that Del, who has more experience in more areas than I was aware of, brought us ideas about how to refine the original concept, how to emphasize the art of it and how to look at the fine-points of it, so that those things would be emphasized, but not overdone.
And then Sharon: If you have ever visited her space [Tulani Rose Boutique], you know her capacity to appoint things and to arrange them just so, is special. She brought that. So there were furnishings and other pieces that were contributed towards the whole. Specifically, we decided that this was to be an installation instead of a video projection, and we looked at how we could celebrate both the spiritual nature of John Coltrane as well as his 91st birthday.
The room was just a perfect size — an intimate rectangle with a white wall at one end that we filled up with the projections, and that worked out beautifully. In front of that wall, we created an altar. I thought I would have a church altar, or pulpit, with John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” placed there as the holy scripture, and then a stand with the saxophone to infer that Coltrane was delivering the message; and then we wanted to put some flowers there, both to give the semblance of the church experience that I grew up in, where there were always flowers on the pulpit, and also to celebrate his birthday.
Well, it happened that Carl DJ Invisible Hollier came through and saw what we were trying to do. I was trying to find stanchions. He said, I have stanchions and I also have a platform, and the platform is red. And the platform was just so perfect, to lift up [the altar] and it gave the saxophone the correct height on its stand. This was a community process. I needed a saxophone, so I called Edward Gooch, who is a local jazz musician and bandleader and also an instructor at Wayne State. One of his students agreed to let us use his old saxophone, so we had the saxophone.
And then there’s a brother, Rob Brown, of Creative Audio Solutions. I work with him a lot in the events that I do. So Rob agreed to partner. And all these are volunteer community partnerships– these are not financial agreements. Rob came in, he brought a projector, he brought the speakers, he brought the microphone and the lighting that added to the magic and helped make this part of the DLectricity weekend, really setting the tone for us, outdoors and in.
I got in touch with Craig Huckaby, whom I knew to be a record collector and I knew he was into jazz, and sure enough, Craig was on his way to a record collector’s convention in New York and he left us nine of his precious Coltrane albums. And then we had another brother, Rod Murphy, a gentleman I met when we had Camp Detroit [cultural arts mentorship program for children founded and directed by Njia and her husband, Yao Kaza]. His son and daughter were in our program. He’s also a record collector. Well, he had moved into CDs, so we went and made copies of the CD covers, which were replicas of the original album covers.
My daughter, Ola, helped me do the research so that we could type up little paragraphs about each of the albums. Then we found those plastic covers for the albums. A lot of these were foldout albums with historic information. Matt Hentoff and Leroy Jones, whom you might know as Amiri Baraka, had done a lot of those liner notes, and there were historic photos. We wanted people to be able to see and touch them.
Aneb: Then there were the pews….
Njia: …. which kind of put the accent mark on the installation, to create the temple, or the church feeling. As soon as they came in the room, people would say, this looks like a church. A young man and his company, Sit On It Detroit, provided the pews. They have built and placed benches at bus stops throughout the City.
Aneb: There was a wonderful atmosphere of the sacred as soon as you stepped in. I entered from this door and it was aahhh! I wanted to ask you about the icon. I remember about two decades ago, there was a group out on the West Coast that actually established a church of St. John Coltrane. And I remember seeing similar icons from them. Is that where you got the icon that was on the main wall?
Njia: Yes, as a matter of fact, St. John Coltrane Church is still in existence in San Francisco. They recently had to move and people thought it was going to be their end, but they are continuing to thrive. When I was doing research, I came upon their church and went through their website and a lot of the stories around them and I just thought, OK, these are my people. I experienced John Coltrane as a spiritual experience — both the music and the thought that is there, the feeling, the implied universality. That whole cosmic…
Aneb: … and that whole idea of rebirth and regeneration.
Njia: You know, this year everybody’s got a fifty-year something around civil rights or the Black movement, and it was fifty years ago, in 1967, that John Coltrane passed. He passed a week before — literally seven days — before the Rebellion started here in Detroit.
So much of his music is reaching its fiftieth or sixtieth year this year. And his wife Alice Coltrane grew up here in Detroit and I happen to have attended the church where she grew up and knew her and her family when I was younger. So it’s just been in my life, there’s been this involvement and the music has meant so much to me.
Sharon: I was extremely excited when Njia approached us about the idea of having the Temple of John Coltrane because I am a John Coltrane devotee as well. I also think it’s absolutely essential that Black culture is honored and activated in public spaces. And I like the idea of people being able to enter this space and it did feel and present itself as a sacred space. I think it was extremely successful and we thank Njia for allowing us to be a part of it.
Dell: From start to finish, when she first told me about the idea, I thought this was a great opportunity.
Njia: People say that women don’t work together, or don’t work together well, or have issues producing things together. That did not happen within our several months of getting this together. Everybody’s contribution made this thing rise.
Del had sponsored a Coltrane event here at the gallery and boutique about two years ago. She had some of Detroit’s rising young jazz lions to participate. It was a magnificent night. To hear these young men, not only replicate Coltrane’s music, but own it themselves and bring it back up as their own. It was quite exciting and certainly, I’m sure, was part of what lay in my head as a seed for returning here for this.
Dell: Whenever I see the musicians — to this day — they say, Mrs. Pryor, when are you going to do another Coltrane? They said they had never gotten together, never played together, and something happened that night that had never happened before. They said they had a spiritual awakening during that concert. They said if you ever do it again, a Coltrane event, please let us know. And of course, when Njia proposed this project, I was just so happy.
Njia: Let me also mention that on the two evenings of our event, De’Sean Jones, who is a young Detroit prodigy when it comes to the saxophone, opened the experience, playing some John Coltrane pieces that were just fantastic. For him to capture that, alone on the sax, these difficult solos, it was just amazing. The next day Baba Adeboye Adegbenro [Detroit-based visual artist, musician and teacher] came and played, and spoke of his introduction to Coltrane. Then Joan Belgrave [celebrated Detroit jazz vocalist, widow of famous trumpet player, Marcus Belgrave] came and sang. Glen Pelton, a young Detroit guitarist, came also, and shared some blues with us.
Dell: Another thing I was excited about was that we’ve gotten into integrating several arts — music performance, the visual arts, and film. We’d never done that before. This also made it exciting. Njia did a great job with that — and then extending the experience beyond the doors to the outside. Everyone was enjoying it as much out on the sidewalk as inside. It was just amazing.
Aneb: You extended it outdoors?
Njia: It just happened that we had ordered more pews than we had space for inside once we started putting everything in. So we put them outside. And then the weather — who knew? September 22nd, 23rd, we could have had any weather, and it turned out to be two beautiful nights. We just kept the doors open, put the speakers outdoors, and mounted the giant projection of photos and videos– a lot of live vintage concert video of Coltrane.
Dell: And they weren’t just pews for sitting on. The pews were also works of art, beautifully painted by a Detroit artist. The pews stayed out the following day and everybody checked out the artist. So seeing all of these art forms come together — that really excited me. Usually it doesn’t work that way. I see more happening now, but it was something I guess I was inspired by when I was in New York once, and noted that when they have an opening with a particular artist, all the artists come together. That was something I wanted to see more of.
Aneb: Will you do a Coltrane event again next year? Will it be another installation, or another way of celebrating John Coltrane?
Njia: One of the best things about planning something is the doing of it, and the very best thing about it is when others come and actually enjoy it. We had that. There was real community here. There were young people– some had a smidgen of information about who he was. Some had more, but there was everybody. The full community of persons here showed up, and it was really exciting to see that we could create a space that attracted and impacted people. With the artistry, the mastery, the spiritual nature of it all, it became a sacred space because of the way that people used it. People came in, told their stories, interacted with each other, and quietly studied the written texts. It was just such an excellent feeling.
We are all agreed that we want to do it again. We have some other ideas and we had a lot of input about other elements that could be included and other ways of celebrating Coltrane. So we have September 23rd potential for next year.
Eric: Can you tell us a little more about the overall imagery? How did you choose the images that were projected?
Njia: Let me say this as to what was in my head around African American history and culture. I just think it’s important that everybody have a John Coltrane experience. The story of his life is significant. His background — how he grew up in North Carolina during that period of time and what his father, grandfather and grandmother were into, and the kind of experience he had in the service, and then the experiences he had when he came out; and how he could reach the pinnacle of being in the Miles Davis Quintet, and then fall from grace into a drug habit, and then cold turkey himself out of it, out of his own determination; and then spend the next ten years, which turned out to be the last ten years of his life, in a pure genius state of creation. To me, that’s a heck of a story that should not be lost. And then the music is timeless. When we started to break the installation down on Saturday evening, I was like, wow, I have spent the last two days, 7 p.m. till midnight, listening to John Coltrane music and watching John Coltrane and I never got tired, and I was inspired and my engines were running, and the same was true for a lot of other folk.
Aneb: We were completely uplifted by the music and spirit of reverence that you created in the temple space. I’m really fascinated by the icons, Njia. Did the folks out in San Francisco tell you who created them?
Njia: I had not made direct contact. Once we were able to get this going, time was of the essence, so we found much of the information we shared in the public domain on the Internet. We projected a lot of concerts from the 50s and 60s, as well as interviews, and we captured photos from different persons and from the Internet. Del included photographs of musicians from her own collection in the Gallery.
Sharon’s space is so lovely that people going past saw the lights, and not knowing what was happening, were just attracted by the beauty of her space, which looked like an art installation. So they came into her boutique and thought of it as the gallery because she appoints it so beautifully. The lighting was just so gorgeous that it drew people in.
I’m actually going to San Francisco in May. A local artist is going to have a production out there. I’m going with her and I’ll go early so that I can make my way to the church and become acquainted with my people and have a jazzy Sunday experience with their presentation. I’m just so grateful for the opportunity.
Aneb: Njia, it’s clear how much you appreciate that so many individuals in the community contributed to making this installation a beautiful thing, and that you did not rely on getting a grant from this or that place to carry out the project.
Njia: We are our own resource. There was nothing that was needed that didn’t exist within our community and extended community. Everything that was in here, everything that happened in here, came from a community of persons who responded to a call and donated themselves to make it happen. We spent some monies obviously, but we did not get the grant we could have gotten had we had time to put ourselves together. It was there for us, we just didn’t have the time to submit something worthy of receiving funding. Then there was the generosity of support here. Del and Sharon donated the space and hosted us and then each of the following persons contributed out of their own willingness to see it happen.
Dell: It was a privilege for us.
Njia: I keep trying to emphasize that all of the resources, all of the expertise that we need, more than likely exists within the folks that we’re connected to. There’s nothing to stop us but our own limiting thoughts and whatever work we’re not willing to do.
Dell: It’s amazing how Coltrane has impacted people — not only here but throughout the world. When I went to see the Coltrane documentary [Chasing Trane], and saw how he impacted all the people in Japan, you have to stop and wonder. This isn’t just a local thing. This is a worldwide thing.
Temple of John Coltrane Contributors (not mentioned in the text):
Taqee Vervon, graphic design and social media; NV Rentals, music stands;
Lamya Shareef, hostess; Yao Kaza and Ola Vernon, crew; Annmarie Borucki,
Toya Hankins, Jova Lynne Johnson, Neveric Noel, Paul Lee, Midtown Detroit, Inc.