John Coltrane

From New World Encyclopedia

John William Coltrane (September 23, 1926 – July 17, 1967), nicknamed Trane, was an American jazz saxophonist and composer.

Although recordings of his work from as early as 1946 exist, Coltrane's recording career did not begin in earnest until 1955. From 1957 onward he recorded and produced dozens of albums, many of them not released until years after his death.

A hugely influential jazz musician, Coltrane has been credited with reshaping modern jazz and with being the predominant influence on successive generations of saxophonists. Along with tenor saxophonists Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, and Sonny Rollins, Coltrane fundamentally altered expectations for the instrument.

Early life and career (1926-1954)

Born in Hamlet, North Carolina, Coltrane grew up in comparatively privileged circumstances in High Point, North Carolina, during an era of racial segregation. He lived in an extended family within the household of his maternal grandfather, Rev. William Wilson Blair, a superintendent of the AME Zion Church, and a dominant figure in High Point's African American community. Midway through Coltrane's seventh-grade school year, his close-knit family suffered three deaths—Coltrane's maternal grandparents, and his father. And soon afterward, his family lost its only remaining male breadwinner, Coltrane's uncle. This series of tragedies caused Coltrane's family to plummet to the brink of poverty, and forced his mother and aunt to take up domestic service. It was during this time that Coltrane began playing music and practicing obsessively.


Coltrane first played E flat horn in a community band, but soon switched to clarinet. In high school, he played in a fledgling school band and also sang in the William Penn High School Boys Chorus. However, it was the latter ensemble that exposed him to challenging and sophisticated musical compositions. Coltrane concurrently learned of jazz through the radio, movies, and jukeboxes. As his enthusiasm for jazz blossomed, he lost interest in the school band. He switched to the alto saxophone and dropped out of the school band completely.

Coltrane moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in June 1943, and was drafted into the Navy in 1945, where he played in a Hawaii-based Navy band. The group played then-current bebop standards. Several sides recorded by this band in a single rushed session have since surfaced on compact disc. They are Coltrane's earliest known surviving recordings.

Contemporary correspondence shows that Coltrane was already known as "Trane" by this point, and that the music from the 1946 sessions had circulated and impressed many big names like Miles Davis. Coltrane returned to civilian life in 1946; at this time, he had a few brief encounters with Charlie Parker, who was already a dominant influence on his playing.

Early jobs

He worked at a variety of jobs in the late 1940s until he joined Dizzy Gillespie's big band in 1949 as an alto saxophonist. He stayed with Gillespie through the big band's breakup in May 1950 and switched to tenor saxophone during his subsequent spell in Gillespie's small group, staying until April 1951, when he returned to Philadelphia.

In early 1952, Coltrane joined Earl Bostic's band. In 1953, after a stint with Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson, he joined Johnny Hodges's small group, which was active during Hodges's four-year sabbatical from Duke Ellington's orchestra. Coltrane stayed with Hodges until mid-1954.

Miles & Monk period (1955-1959)

Coltrane was freelancing in Philadelphia in the summer of 1955 while studying with guitarist Dennis Sandole when he received a call from trumpeter Miles Davis. Davis, whose success during the late 1940s had dissipated during several years of heroin abuse, had now cleaned up and was ready to form a regularly working quintet. With a few absences, Coltrane was with this edition of the Davis band (known as the "First Great Quintet" to distinguish it from Miles's later group with Wayne Shorter) from October 1955 through April 1957. Together they created extremely influential recordings which demonstrated Coltrane's growing ability to improvise.

This trend-setting group, best represented by two marathon recording sessions for Prestige in 1956, disbanded in mid-April. Coltrane would go on to adopt some of Davis's leadership traits for his future groups, such as allowing his musicians to solo with little interference, eschewing bandstand banter or tune identification, and remaining detached from both his audience and the press. Coltrane's style at this point was loquacious, and critics dubbed his playing "angry and harsh." One especially vocal critic, Harry Frost, called Coltrane's solos "extended double-time flurries notable for their lack of direction."

A spiritual awakening

In the early part of 1957, Coltrane succeeded in kicking his heroin addiction. He simultaneously experienced a spiritual epiphany that would lead him to concentrate wholly on the development of his music. He began to practice obsessively, incorporating violin and harp exercises, allowing Coltrane to play at wider intervals during his solos [1]. From this point until almost the end of his life, Coltrane was well known for his intensive practicing.

During the latter part of 1957, Coltrane worked with Thelonious Monk at New York City's Five Spot Cafe during a legendary six-month gig. Unfortunately, this association was not extensively documented. Blue Train, his sole date as leader for Blue Note, is widely considered his best album from this period.

He rejoined Davis in January 1958. In October 1958, jazz critic Ira Gitler coined the term "sheets of sound" to describe the unique style Coltrane developed during his stint with Monk and was perfecting in Miles' group, now a sextet. His playing was filled with rapid runs cascading in hundreds of notes per minute, but always lyrical and delivered with a complete sense of musical purpose. He stayed with Davis until April 1960, working with alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley; pianists Red Garland, Bill Evans, and Wynton Kelly; bassist Paul Chambers; and drummers Philly Joe Jones and Jimmy Cobb. During this time he participated in such seminal Davis sessions as Milestones and "Jazz at the Plaza."

Most influential jazz record

Miles Davis and John Coltrane would then go on to make what is arguably the most influential jazz record of all time, Kind Of Blue. This album turned the blazing-fast bebop world on its head by reverting to an introspective, spacious and static sound. This style of music has since been called "modal" jazz—a completely new genre that has very little chord movement. Some modal jazz songs consist merely of one or two chords or "modes." Many aspects of this recording were revolutionary—starting with Bill Evans, who played piano on most of the album. His non-traditional chordal approach was to play "clusters" of notes very close together on the piano, creating a warm, blurred sound. Jimmy Cobb, the drummer on that record, played an astonishingly simple beat—most of the time just playing on one cymbal, but never losing his concentration and created and quiet intensity that jazz world had not heard before. Indeed, "Kind of Blue" alone would have made Davis and Coltrane legends of jazz.

Coltrane's "Giant Steps"

Just two weeks after the recording session, Coltrane would break new ground by recording his own record, whose impact would rival that of "Kind of Blue." Using his own band, Coltrane recorded "Giant Steps," whose title track completely blew musicians away with what appeared to be the most complex and difficult chord progression on any jazz record at that time. Coltrane improvised over this intensely difficult progression with effortless mastery, but not from sheer talent. It was later discovered that Coltrane had been practicing the "Giant Steps" chord progression for nearly three years before the recording was made.

Around the end of his tenure with Davis, Coltrane began playing soprano saxophone, an unconventional move considering the instrument's near obsolescence in jazz at the time. His interest in the straight saxophone most likely arose from his admiration for Sidney Bechet and the work of his contemporary, Steve Lacy. The radical change in his tenor style after leaving the Davis group was due partially to a problem with his mouthpiece and acute pain in his gums, another possible reason for taking up the soprano, on which Coltrane could reach higher registers with ease.

The Classic Quartet (1960-1965)

Coltrane formed his first group, a quartet, in 1960. After moving through different personnel including Steve Kuhn, Pete Sims, Pete LaRoca, and Billy Higgins, the lineup stabilized in the fall with pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Steve Davis, and drummer Elvin Jones.

While still with Miles, Coltrane had signed a contract with Atlantic Records, for whom he recorded the aforementioned Giant Steps. His first record with his new group was the hugely successful My Favorite Things, whose title track, a catchy waltz by Rodgers and Hammerstein (as well as Cole Porter's "Every Time We Say Goodbye"), featured Coltrane on soprano. This new sound was coupled with further exploration. For example, on the Gershwins' "But Not for Me," Coltrane superimposes the harmonic movement of his Giant Steps over the original chord progression.

Shortly before completing his contract with Atlantic in May 1961 (with the album Olé Coltrane), Coltrane joined the newly formed Impulse Records label, with whom the "Classic Quartet" would record. It is generally assumed that the clinching reason Coltrane signed with Impulse! was that it would enable him to work again with recording engineer Rudy Van Gelder, who had taped both his and Davis's Prestige sessions, as well as Blue Train. It was at Van Gelder's new studio in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey that Coltrane would record most of his records for the label.

By early 1961, bassist Steve Davis had been replaced by Reggie Workman. Eric Dolphy joined the group as a second horn around the same time. The quintet had a celebrated (and extensively recorded) residency in November 1961 at the Village Vanguard, which demonstrated Coltrane's new direction. It featured the most experimental music he'd played up to this point, influenced by Indian ragas, the recent developments in modal jazz, and the burgeoning free jazz movement.

Critical criticism

During this period, critics were fiercely divided in their estimation of Coltrane, who'd radically altered his style. Audiences, too, were perplexed (in France he was famously booed during his final tour with Davis). In 1961, Down Beat magazine indicted Coltrane, along with Eric Dolphy, as players of "Anti-Jazz" in an article that bewildered and upset the musicians. Coltrane admitted some of his early solos were based mostly on technical ideas. Furthermore, Dolphy's angular, voice-like playing earned him a reputation as a figurehead of the "New Thing" (also known as "Free Jazz" and "Avant-Garde") movement led by Ornette Coleman, which was also denigrated by some jazz musicians (including Trane's old boss, Miles Davis) and critics. But as Coltrane's style further developed, he was determined to make each performance "a whole expression of one's being," as he would call his music in a 1966 interview.

In 1962, Dolphy departed and Jimmy Garrison replaced Workman. From then on, the "Classic Quartet," as it would come to be known, with Tyner, Garrison, and Jones, produced searching, spiritually driven work. Coltrane was moving toward a more harmonically static style that allowed him to expand his improvisations rhythmically, melodically, and motivically. Harmonically complex music was still present, but on stage Coltrane heavily favored continually reworking his staple tunes "Impressions," "My Favorite Things," and "I Want to Talk about You."

The criticism of the quintet with Dolphy may have had an impact on Coltrane. In contrast to the radicalism of Trane's 1961 recordings at the Village Vanguard, his studio albums in 1962 and 1963 (with the exception of Coltrane, which featured a blistering version of Harold Arlen's "Out of This World") were much more conservative and accessible. He recorded an album of ballads and participated in collaborations with Duke Ellington and Johnny Hartman. The album Ballads is emblematic of Coltrane's versatility, as he shed new light on old-fashioned standards such as "It's Easy to Remember." Despite a more polished approach in the studio, in concert the quartet continued along its exploratory and challenging path. Coltrane later said he enjoyed having a "balanced catalogue."

The Classic Quartet produced their most famous record, A Love Supreme, in December 1964—a culmination of much of Coltrane's work up to this period, this four-part suite is an ode to his faith in and love for God. Its spiritual concerns would characterize much of Coltrane's composing and playing from this point until his death in 1967. The fourth movement of the suite, "Psalm," is, in fact, a poem dedicated to God that Coltrane recites through his saxophone. The recording also pointed the way to the atonality of his later free jazz recordings. Despite its challenging musical content, the album was a commercial success by jazz standards, encapsulating both the internal and external energy of the quartet of Coltrane, Tyner, Jones and Garrison. They only played the suite live once – in July 1965 at a concert in Antibes, France. By then, Coltrane's music had grown more adventurous, and the performance provides an interesting contrast to the original.

Avant-garde jazz and the second quartet (1965-1967)

In his late (post-A Love Supreme) period, Coltrane showed an increasing interest in avant-garde jazz and/or "free jazz," pioneered by Ornette Coleman, and expanded by Cecil Taylor, Albert Ayler, Sun Ra, and others. In formulating his late style, Coltrane was especially influenced by the dissonance of Ayler's trio with bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Sunny Murray. Coltrane outplayed many younger free jazz musicians. Under his influence, Impulse! became a leading free jazz record label.

After recording A Love Supreme, the influence of Ayler's playing became more prominent in Coltrane's music. A series of recordings with the Classic Quartet in the first half of 1965 show Coltrane's playing becoming increasingly abstract and dissonant, with greater incorporation of techniques like multiphonics, overblowing, and playing in the altissimo register. In the studio, he all but abandoned his soprano to concentrate on the tenor saxophone. In addition, the quartet responded to the leader by playing with increasing freedom. The group's evolution can be traced through the recordings The John Coltrane Quartet Plays, Dear Old Stockholm (both May 1965), Living Space, Transition (both June 1965), New Thing at Newport (July 1965), Sun Ship (August 1965), and First Meditations (September 1965). Only Plays and New Thing at Newport were released during Coltrane's lifetime.

In June 1965, he went into Van Gelder's studio with ten other musicians (including Shepp, Pharoah Sanders, Freddie Hubbard, Marion Brown, and John Tchicai) to record Ascension. This lengthy 40-minute piece included adventurous solos by the young avant-garde musicians (as well as Coltrane), but was controversial primarily for the collective improvisation sections that separated the solos. After recording with the quartet over the next few months, Coltrane invited Pharoah Sanders to join the band in September 1965.

By any measure, Sanders was one of the most abrasive saxophonists around. Coltrane, who used over-blowing frequently as an emotional exclamation-point, gravitated to Sanders's solos. The aforementioned John Gilmore was a major influence on Coltrane's late-period music, as well. After hearing a Gilmore performance, Coltrane is reported to have said "He's got it! Gilmore's got the concept!" [2] He also took informal lessons from Gilmore.

By the fall of 1965, Coltrane was regularly augmenting his group with Sanders and other free-jazz musicians. Rashied Ali joined the group as a second drummer. Claiming he was unable to hear himself over the two drummers, McCoy Tyner left the band shortly after the recording of Meditations. Elvin Jones left in early 1966, dissatisfied by sharing drumming duties with Ali. Both Tyner and Jones subsequently expressed displeasure in interviews, after Coltrane's death, with the music's new direction.

After Jones and Tyner's departures, Coltrane led a quintet with Pharoah Sanders on tenor saxophone, his new wife Alice Coltrane on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass, and Rashied Ali on drums. Coltrane and Sanders were described by Nat Hentoff as "glossolalia or speaking in tongues," an interesting interpretation seen relative to Coltrane's Christian upbringing in the South. The screaming, especially, can be compared to the cadences of black preachers on the pulpit. Concert solos for band-members regularly stretched beyond the 15-minute mark. Sanders' voice often dominated the ensemble.

Coltrane died from liver cancer at Huntington Hospital in Long Island, NY on July 17, 1967, at the early age of 40. Coltrane's excessive alcoholism and heroin abuse during the 1940s and 1950s quite possibly laid the seed for this illness, which can strike reformed alcoholics years after they quit. In a 1968 interview Albert Ayler revealed that Coltrane was consulting a Hindu meditative healer for his illness instead of western medicine, though Alice Coltrane later denied this. In any event, conventional treatment may have been ineffective.

Coltrane and his religious beliefs

Coltrane was born and raised a Christian, and was in touch with religion and spirituality from childhood. As a youth, he practiced music in a southern African-American church. In A Night in Tunisia: Imaginings of Africa in Jazz, Norman Weinstein notes the parallel between Coltrane's music and his experience in the Southern church.

In 1957 Coltrane began to shift spiritual directions. Two years earlier, he had married Juanita Naima Grubb, a Muslim convert, (for whom he later wrote the piece Naima). His contact with Islam may have led him to overcome his addictions to alcohol and heroin. It was a period of "spiritual awakening" that helped him return to the jazz scene and eventually produce his greatest work. But he left her in 1963.

Coltrane also explored Hinduism, the Kabbalah, Jiddu Krishnamurti, yoga, math, science, astrology, African history, and even Plato and Aristotle [3]. He notes … "During the year 1957, I experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening which was to lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life. At that time, in gratitude, I humbly asked to be given the means and privilege to make others happy through music."

In his 1965 album Meditations, Coltrane wrote about uplifting people, "… To inspire them to realize more and more of their capacities for living meaningful lives. Because there certainly is meaning to life." [4]

In October 1965, Coltrane recorded Om, referring to the Aum (sacred syllable in Hindu religion), which symbolizes the infinite or the entire universe. Coltrane described Om as the "first syllable, the primal word, the word of power." The 29-minute recording contains chants from the Bhagavad-Gita, a Hindu epic. A 1966 recording, issued posthumously, has Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders chanting from a Buddhist text, The Tibetan Book of the Dead, and reciting a passage describing the primal verbalization "om" as a cosmic/spiritual common denominator in all things.

Coltrane's spiritual journey was interwoven with his investigation into world music. He believed not only in a Musical universalis or universal musical structure that transcended ethnic distinctions, but also in being able to harness the mystical, magical musical language of music itself. Coltrane's study of Indian music led him to believe that Mantra or certain sounds and scales could "produce specific emotional Bija or meanings" (impressions). According to Coltrane, the goal of a musician was to understand these forces, control them, and elicit a response from the audience. Like Pythagoras and his followers who believed music could cure illness, Coltrane said: "I would like to bring to people something like happiness. I would like to discover a method so that if I want it to rain, it will start right away to rain. If one of my friends is ill, I'd like to play a certain song and he will be cured; when he'd be broke, I'd bring out a different song and immediately he'd receive all the money he needed."


Although many casual jazz listeners still consider the late Coltrane albums to contain little more than cacophony, many of these late recordings – among them Ascension, Meditations and the posthumous Interstellar Space – are widely considered masterpieces.

Rock musicians such as Jimi Hendrix, Carlos Santana, Allan Holdsworth, Jerry Garcia, the Stooges, and Mike Watt would also seize upon Coltrane's work as inspiration.

Coltrane's massive influence on jazz, both mainstream and avant-garde, began during his lifetime and continued to grow after his death. He is one of the most dominant influences on post-1960 jazz saxophonists and has inspired an entire generation of jazz musicians.

His widow, Alice Coltrane, after several decades of seclusion, briefly regained a public profile before her death in 2007. Coltrane's son, Ravi Coltrane, has followed in his father's footsteps and is a prominent contemporary saxophonist.

An African Orthodox Church in San Francisco has recognized Coltrane as a saint since 1971. [5] Their services incorporate Coltrane's music, using his lyrics as prayers [6]. A documentary presented by Alan Yentob on Coltrane, featuring the church, was produced for the BBC in 2004. [7]

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Kahn, Ashley. A Love Supreme: The Story of John Coltrane's Signature Album. New York: Penguin, 2003. ISBN 0142003522
  • Porter, Lewis. John Coltrane: his life and music. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998. ISBN 0472101617.
  • Thomas, J.C., Chasin' the Trane. (Reprint of 1975 ed. published by Doubleday), Garden City, New York: Da Capo, 1975. ISBN 0306800438.
  • Woideck, Carl (editor), The John Coltrane Companion. New York: Schirmer Books, 1998. ISBN 0028647904.

Selected discography

As sideman

  • Miles Davis - Relaxin' with the Miles Davis Quintet|Relaxin', Steamin' with the Miles Davis Quintet, Workin' with the Miles Davis Quintet, Cookin' with the Miles Davis Quintet (all recorded in 2 sessions, 1956)
  • Miles Davis - Round About Midnight (debut for Columbia Records, concurrent with the above sessions for Prestige Records, 1956)
  • Thelonious Monk - Monk's Music (1957, with Coleman Hawkins); Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall (2005; recorded 1957)
  • Miles Davis - Miles & Monk at Newport (1958, released, 1963); Jazz at the Plaza (1958, released, 1975)
  • Miles Davis - Milestones; Kind of Blue; Someday My Prince Will Come (1958-1960)

Early solo period, at Prestige and Blue Note

  • Coltrane (debut solo LP, 1957)
  • Lush Life (1957)(includes "I Hear a Rhapsody," his first recording as sole leader, plus three tracks with a pianoless trio)
  • Blue Train (1957)
  • Soultrane (1958)

Middle period - Atlantic Records

  • Giant Steps (1959)
  • My Favorite Things, Coltrane Plays the Blues, Coltrane's Sound (recorded simultaneously in 1960; first albums to feature Elvin Jones and McCoy Tyner.)

The classic quartet on Impulse! Records

  • Africa/Brass (brass arranged by Tyner & Eric Dolphy, 1961. A second volume was released in 1974.)
  • Live! at the Village Vanguard (featuring Eric Dolphy, first appearance by Jimmy Garrison - 1961)
  • Coltrane (first album to solely feature the "classic quartet" -1962)
  • Duke Ellington & John Coltrane (1962, with Duke Ellington)
  • Ballads (1962)
  • John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman (1962, with Johnny Hartman)
  • Impressions (1963, featuring two more Village Vanguard tracks from 1961, and two studio tracks from '62 and '63)
  • Crescent (1964)
  • A Love Supreme (1964)

Later period

  • Ascension (1965)
  • Sun Ship (1965, released 1971)
  • First Meditations (final "classic quartet" session, 1965) and Meditations (with Pharoah Sanders and Rashied Ali, 1965)
  • Live at the Village Vanguard Again! (featuring Alice Coltrane, as well as Sanders and Ali, 1966)

Final sessions

  • Stellar Regions (Sanders absent; released 1995, recorded 1967)
  • Expression (final Coltrane-approved release; one track features Coltrane on flute, 1967)
  • Interstellar Space (final studio session; duets for Coltrane and Ali; 1974; recorded 1967)
  • The Olatunji Concert: The Last Live Recording (2001; recorded 1967)


  • So What: April 2, 1959 on The Robert Herridge Theater Show, CBS Studio 61, Manhattan NY with Miles Davis (t), Wynton Kelly (p), Paul Chambers (b), Jimmy Cobb (d) (trombones at final chorus: Frank Rehak, Jimmy Cleveland, Bill Elton)

External links

All links retrieved August 3, 2022.


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