Jazz giant John Coltrane’s cousin, who inspired the composition “Cousin Mary” from his landmark album “Giant Steps,” has died. Mary Lyerly Alexander, of Philadelphia, was 92.
Carla Washington, of the Philadelphia Clef Club of Jazz and Performing Arts who is a friend of the family, said Alexander died on Saturday, Aug. 31, 2019.
Lyerly spent much of her life working to preserve Coltrane’s legacy and supporting jazz and the arts.
The house at 1511 33rd St. where Coltrane lived with her from 1952 to 1958 is now a national historic landmark.
Washington, the community engagement manager at the Clef Club, said “Cousin Mary was the mother of jazz in Philadelphia.”
Alexander was the subject of her cousin and world famous John Coltrane’s “Cousin Mary.”
“This composition is world known. And everyone who knew Mary loved her,” Washington said. “She would have master classes and workshops for children. She loved children and would go wherever the children were. She thought it was important to understand music from an historical standpoint and where jazz stood in an historical sense.”
Washington said that’s why Alexander took started the nonprofit John W. Coltrane Cultural Society in 1984.
Alexander was known to support all of the arts and not just jazz. She would attend visual arts exhibit around the city. Washington recalled how lively Alexander was at various music venues.
“Mary would also have an inside joke with Lovett Hines [artistic director of the Philadelphia Clef Club of Jazz and Performing Arts],” she said. “Mary would say ‘that music had me sitting on the edge of my chair!’ Then it meant the music was hot and she was moved by it. But sometimes, she would say ‘do you see me sitting on the back of my chair.’”
“But it was the music that really gave her a purpose — the music and the children. It didn’t matter what age, it was about the children,” Washington said.
After a stroke in 2005, Alexander was basically bedridden, Washington said. But occasionally she would get in her wheelchair and be taken to a pavilion at the Watermark to get fresh air. Washington said that her, Hines and few others who called themselves “the crew” would come in with some musicians to celebrate special times like her birthday in order to “just give back the music to her. That’s what Mary was about — the music.”
Hines recalled how Alexander started out holding small events.
“She had the backyard concerts, and they were exactly that — concerts in her backyard and they kind of turned into institutions,” he said.
Hines said that since Coltrane had such a large footprint in the music world, musicians from all over came just to be close to Alexander.
“They looked at her as part of the musical family and kept her as part of the circle,” Hines said. “That resonated from John Coltrane. She was the closest thing to John — other than his immediate family. His music was at the roots of jazz and everyone cherished it and so they cherished her.”
In the liner notes for “Giant Steps,” the saxophonist described his cousin as “a very earthy, folksy, swinging person.”
The piece and others from the 1960 album, like “Naima” and the title track , have become practice templates for jazz saxophonists.
A memorial service is still being planned.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.