Mary Lyerly Alexander, who worked to preserve the legacy of her cousin John Coltrane and in the process became a pillar of the Philadelphia jazz scene, died on Aug. 31 at a nursing home in Philadelphia. She was 92.
Lovett Hines, the artistic director of the Philadelphia Clef Club of Jazz & Performing Arts and a friend of Ms. Alexander’s, confirmed the death.
Whether they realized it or not, music fans across the globe knew Ms. Alexander’s name thanks to “Cousin Mary,” a composition that Coltrane wrote in her honor and included on “Giant Steps,” his pathbreaking 1960 album. A first cousin, she had shared a home with him for much of his life until then.
In the LP’s liner notes, Coltrane wrote of her: “She’s a very earthy, folksy, swinging person. The figure is riff-like and although the changes are not conventional blues progressions, I tried to retain the flavor of the blues.”
After Coltrane’s death in 1967, Ms. Alexander remained a devout jazz advocate and became a widely respected torchbearer on the Philadelphia scene. In 1984, with a team of female jazz musicians, aficionados, and spouses, Ms. Alexander founded the John W. Coltrane Cultural Society, a nonprofit organization that operated out of the home she had shared with him in the Strawberry Mansions neighborhood, and where she continued to live.
The group organized jazz workshops and master classes in public schools, day camps, and public housing around Philadelphia, and hosted a concert series in the house’s backyard. Ms. Alexander sometimes featured famed musicians with a direct association with Coltrane, such as bassist Reggie Workman and saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, John’s son. But she tended to focus on lesser-known local luminaries such as tenor saxophonists Bootsie Barnes and Odean Pope.
She led occasional tours of the home, where she displayed artifacts from Coltrane’s life, including original music manuscripts and paintings he had made. In 1999, Ms. Alexander secured a National Historic Landmarks designation for the house.
She also worked frequently with the Trane Stop Resource Center, a nonprofit dedicated to jazz preservation, and the Clef Club, which focuses on youth education and concert production.
“If we did anything in the name of John Coltrane, of course she was the person we went to and asked for assistance and advice,” said Hines, a former artistic director at Trane Stop. “If there were any musicians that we wanted to present, she was the major person we would go to first.”
Carla Washington, the Clef Club’s community engagement manager, called Ms. Alexander a repository of historical and cultural knowledge. “She knew the music; she knew the musicians; she had stories to tell in reference to the music,” Washington said. “She dedicated her life to the music of jazz.”
Mary Alice Elizabeth Lyerly was born on July 23, 1927, in High Point, N.C., to Goler and Bettie (Blair) Lyerly.
Both she and John Coltrane were only children, born just 10 months apart, and they grew up together in the house of their maternal grandparents.
They often played and took dancing lessons together, and even received a common musical education from Coltrane’s father, John Sr., who sang and played violin in the house. In a 1962 interview, Coltrane described Ms. Alexander as “like a sister to me.”
She leaves no immediate family members. Ms. Alexander’s husband, Billy Alexander, died in 1995.
She moved to Philadelphia with her mother in 1944, a year after Coltrane did. Eight years later, Coltrane, who had served in World War II, used a GI Bill loan to buy a house across from scenic Fairmount Park.
Ms. Alexander moved in, along with her mother and Coltrane’s mother, Alice (Blair) Coltrane. Ms. Alexander lived there until 2004; after a severe stroke left her without the ability to speak, she spent her final years at the Watermark nursing home.
Pope, who studied with Coltrane as a teenager, remembered Ms. Alexander as having a deep spiritual connection to jazz.
“The music, in her mind, was the motor to the soul,” he said. “She used to preach all the time: It’s our responsibility to create a platform for the young people, pass it on down to them. And eventually out of that platform, the younger generations can continue to pass it on.”