John Coltrane’s ‘Scales of India’ – which ragas are they?


John Coltrane left behind a few handwritten pages of notation entitled ‘Scales of India’, hastily scrawled for a student (full context explained here). We’re trying to work out which ragas they are – so I’ve reproduced them below, along with some ideas and thoughts. Let me know what you think! george@ragajunglism.org


 

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Notes to collaborators: This is a hidden url for now – so if you’re reading this then that means I’ve actively sought you out for ideas, opinions, corrections, etc.

 

The scales themselves are below, along with quick audio demos recorded on my guitar, descriptions in Indian and jazz terminology, and initial notes on what they might be. I’ve identified some, but need a hand with the rest.

 

My guess is that they’re more likely to be Hindustani – North Indian music was more prevalent in Trane’s listening world at the time. Peter Lavezzoli, percussionist and author of The Dawn of Indian Music in the West, confirmed to me via email that Trane listened regularly to Ravi Shankar and shehnai (reed horn) master Bismillah Khan.

 

Also, Hindustani ragas have much stronger samay associations (links to particular times of day). But in the end there’s no reason to discount strong matches from Carnatic or folk – he was a wide musical searcher, and we already know that he once borrowed a Vedic chant melody from Religious Music of India, a 1952 compilation record.

 

Bear in mind that, wherever he got them from, they could well be approximations rather than the ‘established’ theoretical forms of the ragas in question (not that ragas are ever reducible to the theory). It seems that they may have come from a textbook, many of which were unreliable at the time, or have been transcribed based on guesswork from his own listening. 

 

So don’t necessarily expect each set of ascents, descents, and adjectives to exactly match to a raga as you know it. And don’t totally discount the possibility of murchana (modal relationships) – this is second-nature to a jazz musician, and we can’t discount the possibility that Trane rotated the original scales for his own purposes (e.g. jazz guitar virtuoso Pat Martino ‘rotates’ much of his harmonic thinking into its relative Dorian/Kafi key).

 

The ‘Scales of India’ are a fascinating musical puzzle. I’d love to hear your thoughts – literally whatever comes to mind as you hear the audio, and which ragas the notes and accompanying words remind you of most. All contributions will be name credited – thanks for being involved! george@ragajunglism.org

 

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Source: As explained in the full contextual overview, I first came across these on p.210 of jazz scholar Lewis Porter’s John Coltrane: His Life and Music, the most comprehensive biography currently out there. The actual photo in the book is (I assume) under copyright, so I’ve notated the scales instead, retaining Trane’s formatting. Porter explains the picture’s origin on p.209:

 

“Carl Grubbs, Naima’s cousin, offers some more information on Coltrane’s studies of India. When he visited Coltrane’s place in Queens, he noticed a page of Indian scales that had been copied out of a book. Grubbs made his own hand copy.” (I’m still trying to track down what book Trane had).

 

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Scale 1 – ‘Night, Power, and Majesty’

 

ColtraneScale1

[AUDIO]

  • Jazz: 1-2-4-5-7-8 | 1-3-4
  • Sargam: SRmPNS | SGm

Several ragas contain these notes, e.g. Brindabani Sarang, Desh, Pilu, Bihari, and various Malhars. My initial guess is Raag Desh:

  • “Night” – Desh is associated with the second part of the night.
  • The SRmPNS ascending line is an exact match for Desh’s usual aroha, and the three notes in the final bar may reference the addition of Ga (major 3rd) in Desh’s descent.
  • Desh typically features unusually strong Sa-ma (1-4) and Sa-Pa (1-5) relationships, and a prominent Re (major 2nd) all of which would have piqued the ear of a jazz musician.

But this is far from conclusive. There is no descending line, and “power and majesty” may suggest a grander raga than the folksy Desh – perhaps, given the SRmP, something from the Malhar family? Is it too skeletal to suggest Desh Malhar?

 

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Scale 2 – ‘Morning, Sad’

 

ColtraneScale2

[AUDIO]

  • Jazz: 1-b2-b3-4-b6-b7-8 | 8-b7-b6-5-4-b3-b2-1 | b3-4-b6
  • Sargam: SrgmdnS | SndPmgrS | gmd

This is undoubtedly the Hindustani Raag Bhairavi: 

  • “Morning” – Bhairavi is a famous morning raga, which Coltrane would doubtless have heard both live and on record.
  • The scale clearly matches Bhairavi’s swara material (note set) – roughly akin to the lamentative, mournful Western Phrygian mode.
  • The sketch retains a characteristic feature of Bhairavi’s phraseology – the Pa (5th degree) is omitted on the way up, but played on the way down.
  • Though not notated here, Bhairavi commonly takes a mishra (mixed) form, allowing for the injection of some rare chromaticism into the tightly-constrained world of raga. No wonder recordings of the raga would have attracted a jazzer.

As mentioned above, Trane regularly played Bismillah Khan and Ravi Shankar records. So perhaps he was studying renditions such as these – in particular Shankar’s version, recorded in New York in 1957 for his Sounds Of India album and widely circulated in the West. His take, which showcases Raag Sindhi Bhairavi, a popular folk-based regional variant, begins by laying out his ascent and descent in more detail.

 

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Scale 3 – ‘Night’

 

ColtraneScale3

[AUDIO]

  • Jazz: 1-2-4-5-b7-8 | 8-b7-6-b7-5-4-2-1
  • Sargam: SRmPnS | SnDnPmRS

Not sure on this one yet – these notes are in many ragas. Key points:

  • The irregular nDnP movement in the descent might be the key
  • Aroha of SRmPnS is like Megh Malhar and Madhumad Sarang? But what matches the descent?
  • “Night” – which Kafi and Khamaj ragas have no Ga, and are associated with the night?

 

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Scale 4 – ‘Evening & Night, Praise’

 

ColtraneScale4

[AUDIO]

  • Jazz: 1-2-3-4-5-6-8 | 8-7-b7-6-5-4-3-2-1 | 5-6-8
  • Sargam: SRGmPDS | SNnDPmGRS | PDS

Initial thoughts:

  • Which Bilawal or Khamaj ragas feature both Ni swaras in avroh? I can’t recall seeing four chromatically adjacent swaras in a raga’s form before (SNnD). I think Coltrane reordered the descent to match with the pattern of the Bebop Dominant, an eight-note scale he would already have known inside-out?
  • What might the isolated PDS in the final bar refer to? A chalan or pakad, or maybe even the tones of the tanpura if this scale is from a recording?
  • “Evening & night” is unusually vague for a samay (time of day) designation, but is still an important clue.

 

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Scale 5 – ‘Evening, Gay’

 

ColtraneScale5

[AUDIO]

  • Jazz: 1-4-b3-4-b6-b7-8 | 8-b7-b6-4-b3-1
  • Sargam: SmgmdnS | SndmgS

At first glance this looks like Raag Malkauns:

  • Identical swara material, which in the case of Malkauns is highly suggestive, as it dominates its own swara set.
  • It seems as if ma (the 4th) is being used as a melodic ‘centre of gravity’ (e.g. Smgm), in keeping with its use as Malkauns’ vadi (king note)

But…Malkauns is seen as a heavy, auspicious raga (read my full essay on it for Darbar here). Musicians fear its supernatural powers, and scholars describe it in terms such as ‘austere’, ‘contemplative’, or ‘severely tranquil’. And it is associated with the late night.

 

Trane’s “evening, gay” just doesn’t seem to fit with any of this. Then again, they might just be his own reflections on a recording, and we all know that the emotional interpretation of music can greatly differ across cultures. Are there any swara-synonymous ragas that fit these descriptors better?

 

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Scale 6 – ‘Night, Melancholy’

 

ColtraneScale6

n.b. Porter notes that he “penned in the penultimate Db because it appeared on another one of Grubbs’ copies” (it is bracketed in the original image).

[AUDIO]

  • Jazz: b7-1-b2-b3-4-5-b6-b7 | b7-b6-4-5-b3-(b2)-1
  • Sargam: nSrgmPdn | ndmPg(r)S

Initial thoughts:

  • I’m assuming the Sa (root) is the second note rather than the first (all the other scales are notated in C, and this one ends on C). But this also seems to leave us with a problem – the resulting scale follows the Bhairavi mode, which usually contains morning ragas (Bhairavi itself is the ‘queen of morning ragas’). What to make of this?
  • The vakra (zigzag) descent of ndmPg looks like a good key – which ragas have this pattern?
  • So I guess it boils down to which Bhairavi-swara ragas place particular importance on the komal ni, and feature a ndmP movement. This one seems odd to me. Any ideas?

 

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Are there more of these scales out there?

 

Porter also notes that: “Two more pages of scales, in Coltrane’s own hand, are reproduced in Simpkins (113)…[including] three ragas from India, the third, at the top of the second page, being the type that differs slightly when ascending and descending”.

 

The book he refers to is Coltrane: A Biography, a poetic 1975 work by Cuthbert Ormond Simpkins – I’ll add those scales when my copy arrives. And similarly, I’m getting in touch with everyone mentioned who may know more.

 

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George Howlett is a UK-based musician and writer, specialising in jazz, rhythm, Indian classical, and global improvised music. See the rest of the site for more – or email me at george@ragajunglism.org

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