September 23, 1926 in Hamlet, North Carolina
July 17, 1967 in Huntington, Long Island, New York
Tenor saxophonist John Coltrane started playing music in his school band at age thirteen. Inspired by Lester Young, he switched from clarinet to alto saxophone, and immediately fell in love with the instrument.
While he didn’t show signs of being a particular talent, Coltrane was extremely focused on improvement, and was said to have practiced whenever he could get a chance. This concentration and drive is one of the defining elements of his musical persona, and also what allowed him to gain technical and harmonic wizardry later in his development.
In 1943 Coltrane moved to Philadelphia to become a professional musician. There he studied music theory, met other talented musicians, and began working in various groups. Inspired by the music of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, he became dedicated to mastering the bebop language, something he honed while playing in military bands after being drafted into the navy in 1945.
Later that year he returned to Philadelphia and worked as a freelance musician. After switching to the tenor sax in 1948, he was able to begin developing his own sound, since he wasn’t bound by the pervasive influence of Charlie Parker’s alto playing. He eventually began touring in groups led by Gillespie, as well as Johnny Hodges, Jimmy Heath, and Earl Bostic.
A Call From Miles:
In 1955, while still under the radar in the music world, Coltrane received an invitation from Miles Davis
to join his quintet in New York. Davis was firmly established in the scene, and Coltrane accepted the opportunity as the chance of a lifetime. Although Coltrane was not immediately popular with critics because of his rough approach, Davis supported him, until 1957 when he dismissed him from the group for using heroin.
Coltrane fought and eventually overcame his addiction to drugs. In the process he adopted a rich spiritual outlook through which he was motivated to expand his musical knowledge. He began performing with Thelonious Monk, and was given the opportunity to experiment with new ideas, including the technique termed by jazz critic Ira Gitler as “sheets of sound.” His 1957 recording Blue Train
marked the beginning of Coltrane’s mature style.
Free from addiction, and with a fresh concept, Coltrane joined Miles Davis for a second time in 1958, and recorded some famous solos on several recordings, including the modal jazz landmark recording, Kind of Blue (Columbia). In 1960, the year after he displayed his prowess in modal jazz, he recorded Giant Steps, (Atlantic), whose titular track was based on a harmonic sequence that Coltrane developed known as the Coltrane Matrix. This progression is considered a fundamental steppingstone in contemporary jazz education.
In 1961, after soaring into the public eye with his fierce and unconventional style, Coltrane began regularly leading his own group, most famously including Elvin Jones, Jimmy Garrison, and McCoy Tyner. With this group Coltrane stretched out his solos, and the other members of the group matched his fiery playing.
His spirituality and music began to converge, and he became more and more adventurous, recording A Love Supreme, an ode to God, in 1964. His view that music was a means of communicating with God earned him a strong following in certain religious groups, most notably by the Saint John Coltrane African Orthodox Church in San Francisco.
Coltrane’s musical experimentation continued to grow, and influenced by Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, and Sun Ra, he began to abandon traditional musical concepts altoghether, relying instead on pure improvisation, characterized by extreme intensity, virtuosic cascades of notes, and even screeching and bellowing with the horn.
Coltrane died of liver cancer in 1967 at age forty. In his brief career, he made dozens of recordings, and his persistent growth and exploration provide each of his stylistic stages with energy and excitement that are as yet unmatched. His innovations are permanent fixtures in jazz theory, and his phrasing and melodic approach can be heard in many of the top saxophone players since his time. His devotional connection with his craft has made him a true jazz icon.