AA Legacy Series Spotlight: Betty Davis & Alice Coltrane

First of all these two ladies are far more than the wives of famous musicians. Betty Davis & Alice Coltrane were the equals of their counterparts in more ways than one. We are fortunate to still have one of these illustrious women amongst us and shouldn’t forget their contributions.

Betty Davis

“If Betty were singing today she’d be something like Madonna; something like Prince, only as a woman. She was the beginning of all that when she was singing as Betty Davis. She was just ahead of her time.”

I have to say, the descriptions written about Betty Davis annoy the heck out of me. They’ve fashioned this narrative of a woman who was talented, beautiful, innovative and confident, but she has been constantly referred to as “wild”. It’s demeaning and sexist to state emphatically that a young woman of the age of 23 in the 1960’s-70’s was out of control. If she were a man, no such pejorative would be used. She’s also continually tied to her former husband (yeah I used a quote of his as well) who was the epitome of “wild”, if we are to apply the same standards, no? Miles was a drug addict and abusive towards women. So much so that Pearl Cleage wrote the book Mad At Miles: A Black Woman’s Guide To Truth lambasting him for his misogyny. So don’t get it twisted.

Betty refused to be put in a box and went against the hypocritical black community code of self-actualization denied black women to this day. The fact that the NAACP protested against her (and plenty of other black women) also reiterates their long-standing black woman hatred. I’ve listened to the reissues of her albums and have two of them. While her expression of her individual sexuality is frank, it is certainly not vulgar. Nor has she denigrated the image of black women. If we were free – or felt free enough to express the range of our identity it would be par for the course.

The Sound of Young America has a podcast with Betty Davis. Her first interview in decades.

You might enjoy —

http://www.missomnimedia.com/2010/09/fashion-meets-music-betty-davis/

http://www.thedailymaverick.co.za/article/2010-09-07-madonna-before-madonna-the-woman-who-introduced-miles-to-hendrix-finally-speaks

*****

Alice Coltrane (1937-2007) —

Though she had long ceased using that name except for music-related events and used her spiritual name Swamini Turiyasangitananda, Coltrane was a well-respected spiritual leader. She still performed occasionally where videos abound on Youtube:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xgqimZjJZ3U

A few tidbits:

2nd wife of John Coltrane ( I see a trend in that Betty was also a 2nd wife)

An accomplished musician in her own right she played piano, harp, vibraphone, organ and a was a music composer.

She lived in Paris where she studied classical music

Established the Vedanta Center in SF and Los Angeles then the Sai Anantam Ashram in Chumash Pradesh near Malibu.

Per wikipedia —

In 1994, Coltrane appeared on the Red Hot Organization‘s compilation CD, Stolen Moments: Red Hot + Cool. The album, meant to raise awareness of the AIDS epidemic in African American society was named “Album of the Year” by Time Magazine. (Which is how I found out about her).

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alice_Coltrane

Swamini Turiyasangitananda (Alice Coltrane) on jazz, God & the spiritual path interview in Ascent Magazine. Excerpted here —

“One of the directives given to me was to start the Ashram. I felt I could serve in any way that God wished. If He wants you to do charity work or humanitarian work or however He wishes to utilize you, maybe just talking or giving musical concerts is fine. Many people have a musical ministry. Whatever was ordered, I would have been happy to receive.”

“We all have the right to know the truth, but if we want to believe in the negative and in the limitation, that’s where we stay. We bring this into the subconscious, and say, “Oh, I could never go that high. Oh, I could never know about those things. Oh no, I’m too afraid, oh no, I can’t meditate, my mind is far too busy, filled with all kinds of negative thoughts.” Well, if you want to stay bound, you cannot expect to rise above those thoughts. If you give yourself a chance, a chance to be sincere… I believe you will succeed whoever you are.”

***

In case you’re wondering what a Swami is:

http://www.swamij.com/what-is-a-swami.htm

The word swami means master; it means striving for the mastery over one’s smaller self and habit patterns, so that the eternal Self within may come shining through. The act of becoming a swami is not so much an acting of becoming, of adding on, of allegiance, as it is an act of setting aside, of renunciation. A swami is a monk, one who has set aside all of the limited, worldly pursuits, so as to devote full time effort to the direct experience of the highest spiritual realization, and to the service of others along those lines. Renunciation is not anti-world, in any sense of the world being a bad place. Rather, it is a matter of priorities about how one will spend his or her time, the twenty-four hours in a day, and the seven days in a week.

http://www.swamij.com/swami-rama-philosophy-not-religion.htm

Upanishads are Philosophy, Not Religion

A dependent mind is not free, and without freedom, enlightenment is impossible. Religious dogmas are full of beliefs and myths that do not satisfy the human intellect and that bind believers to a narrow view of life and human potential. Such preachings instill more fear than love in the hearts of the masses. Religion either promises salvation or threatens the tortures of hell, but it does not provide sound solutions to the hellish problems and situations that plague human beings here and now.

New York Times Obit:

http://www.nytimes.com/2007/01/15/arts/music/15colt.html?_r=1

Ms. Coltrane met her guru, Swami Satchidananda, in 1970, and in more recent years became a devotee of Sathya Sai Baba. By the early 1970s she developed a renewed interest in the organ, because it produced a continuous sound; she wanted to make a meditative music that wouldn’t be interrupted by pauses for breath. Her 1972 record, “Universal Consciousness,” with Ms. Coltrane on Wurlitzer organ and string arrangements by Ornette Coleman, became a far-out classic.

15 Replies to “AA Legacy Series Spotlight: Betty Davis & Alice Coltrane”

  1. I feel like even with the internet, that the literature my mother once had last year was the ONLY proof that this AA lady even existed! Although another thought just popped into my head, I have worked for the BBC in the past a few times on contracts, and for a short while I worked with their archives slightly. It MAY or it may not be a long shot, but their archive may have information on this AA lady and her name and her very quiet legacy. Here's hoping, although I'm really busy at the moment!

  2. She married an Englishman and together they bought a nightclub and bar that may have been called The Florida Room(?) in a posh area of London either Mayfair or Marylebone, and it was supposed to be quite popular for a while. I don't know if they ever had children together but their bar was one of many buildings that got destroyed in the Blitz in London as you can imagine, but they may have tried to rebuild it or moved it to another location possibly.

    Faith, this really is the reason I have been so silent on a lovely topic such as the one you've been doing but it's because I wanted to bring something to the table regarding this lady, and for the life of me I cannot even remember her name!

    (will be continued)

      1. O….M…..G…….Faith? You're gonna think that I'm slow, dense or something but I can't believe I actually found out who that woman is again! And her name!!!! LOL LOL On the internet!!!! Ha ha haaaa! So long now after I found out about her through something my Mom received once. Her name was Adelaide Hall and here are two links about her & thankfully BOTH have really good pictures of her. In the one on Wikipedia (HA! I feel so stupid now, but I just could NOT remember her name!) she looks so gorgeous that she actually looks just like Josephine Baker in it!:
        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adelaide_Hall
        http://www.londonhistorians.org/index.php?s=file_downloa...

    1. YAY me!! LOL I now know that her club in London, as Adelaide Hall owned more which was great, was called The Florida Club!

  3. I really really am having a hard time researching one AA, not Caribbean at all but an AA woman that I read about on some piece of literature that my Mom saved for me to read last year. I gave it back to my Mom as it was hers, but she didn't save it and I was like 'Darn!'

    There was an AA woman who left the USA all the way back in 1930 (?) Faith, and just decided to move to England just like that. I think she may have been performing as a singer, and possibly touring, but I cannot remember now. Well anyway Faith this AA woman was I believe the first black person ever to be featured on what was back during WWII only BBC Radio, not the TV side yet obviously in other words. She sung or she read news bulletins (I'm so sorry about this vagueness, I've Googled and everything I tell you!) and she did this before the first set of West Indian blacks made their token appearances on BBC Radio or the later Television department. (will be continued)

  4. Hi Faith I really haven't been able to contribute as much as I wanted to the BWE blogs lately because I've been getting certain things together in my life such as volunteer work (no not mule-ish work) to help me gain more skills regarding my Accounting degree. I've heard of Betty Davis and i could have sworn that at one stage I read that she died years ago and of a drug overdose at that, but now I can't believe that she's still around but just keeping very quiet! I wonder if she'll ever release an album again? But it sounds very doubtful, as I'm under the impression that Betty would be way out of practice by now sadly.

  5. The picture of Alice Coltrane is just beautiful! She's radiating peace.

    Faith- I think her birth year is a typo.

    I had heard these two women before, but do not know to much about them. Thanks for sharing!

  6. "A dependent mind is not free…"

    Wow!

    Faith, thanks for posting this. I had never heard of either of these ladies before. I look forward to doing a bit of reading up about them.

    1. Thanks Khadija. I've found both of their life histories so fascinating. I hope Betty Davis feels unburdened enough to make public appearances. A memoir from her would be great as well.

  7. I really like this new series. I love learning about black women who are true individualists. It's a nice change from constantly being bombarded by images of Beyonce, Nicki Minaj, video vixens, etc.

    I've known about Betty Davis and Alice Coltrane for a minute and have always been a fan of their music. Keep showcasing these women because more of us need to learn about the alternatives that exist for black women. If these women could forge such unconventional paths during a time when sexism and racism were much more rampant, then we can surely do the same now. I find it really encouraging and educational to study the lives of women like Betty Davis and Alice Coltrane because their stories teach me that anything is possible.

    1. APA: Thanks for commenting. The sad thing is that all it takes is a little research and a conscious decision to turn off the dysfunctional media hype machine. You are correct, things were more difficult in many ways for these women back then. So we really have no excuse today.

  8. I had a tape from Alice Coltrane from years ago--the South Asian influence to her music was phenomenal….

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