John Coltrane

  • Jazz saxophonist born in Hamlet North Carolina in 1926, died in 1967 of liver cancer.
  • He moved to Philadelphia with his mother. In high school, he played the clarinet and alto horn before taking up the saxophone. By his senior year, he was playing in a cocktail lounge trio with a pianist and guitarist.
  • He enlisted in the Navy and was shipped to Pearl Harbor. The war with Japan had just ended. His musical talent was recognized, and he joined the swing band at the base, The Melody Masters. However, he was treated as a guest musician, since the band was officially an all white group. His first recordings were with this group in July 1946, playing saxophone on a selection of jazz standards.
  • After his discharge, he returned to Philadelphia to become a professional musician. He toured with bandleader King Kolax, and then joined a Philly band led by Jimmy Heath. He studied jazz theory under Dennis Sandole. In 1947, he played tenor saxophone with The Eddie Vinson Band. By the early 50s, he was playing in bands led by Dizzy Gillespie, Earl Bostic and Johnny Hodges.
  • From October 1955 to April 1957, Coltrane played with the great trumpeter Miles Davis in Davis’ band called The First Great Quintet. Four albums were released – Cookin’, Relaxin’, Workin’ and Steamin’. The world now could see Coltrane’s growing skill at saxophone.
  • For the last half year of 1957, Coltrane performed with Thelonious Monk. By this time, Coltrane was recording for a record label himself – his debut studio album, the self titled Coltrane, was released in late 1957.
  • He rejoined Davis in 1958, and performed with him through April 1960. Meanwhile, he continued to release albums – 3 in 1958, and then his first album in 1960 of original compositions, titled Giant Steps. By this time, Coltrane had developed a unique style, with rapid playing of hundreds of notes per minutes. A difficult jazz harmony technique called the Coltrane Changes was named after his innovative style.
  • Critics and jazz fans were divided about Coltrane’s radical style. Some people referred to it as “anti-jazz,” and he was booed by some audiences. Over time, as other musicians adopted the style, he was acknowledged as the innovator of the Avant-Garde movement of jazz.
  • Coltrane’s success led to many album releases – during the 60’s, he would release multiple albums in a year, with 6 albums released in 1966. Most notably, his 1961 album My Favorite Things is considered a masterpiece, and was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1998. In total, he released 45 studio albums and 10 live albums, and he appeared on 59 albums by other artists.
  • From 1962 to 1965, the Classic Quartet was active, with Coltrane on sax, McCoy Tyner on piano, Elvin Jones on drums and Jimmy Garrison on bass. Their work was somewhat conservative compared to Coltrane’s earlier work. Their best selling album was 1964’s A Love Supreme, considered by many to be one of the greatest records of all time – Rolling Stone ranks it #47 on their list of the Greatest Albums of All Time.
  • From 1965 to 1967, the members of the quartet changed, as Coltrane moved to a more Avant-Garde style – Tyner and Jones did not like this direction. “Free-jazz” became the norm – when touring, songs would last over 30 minutes, and sometimes approach 1 hour in length, with solos by band members lasting 15 minutes with much improvisation.
  • Coltrane was deeply religious, and spirituality significantly influenced his work. He did not practice any one particular religion, but studied many, including Christianity, Buddhism, Muslim, Hinduism, African spirituality and the teachings of Plato and Aristotle. Many of Coltrane’s compositions had titles that reflected his spirituality. After his death, he was canonized as Saint John William Coltrane by the African Orthodox Church.
  • Coltrane was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Grammy award in 1992, and in 2007 he was a Pulitzer Prize Winner in the Special Awards and Citations category for “his masterful improvisation, supreme musicianship and iconic centrality to the history of jazz.”
  • His death at the age of 40 was a shock to the world – while people commented that he didn’t look well, no one was aware that he was dying of liver cancer.
  • John Coltrane is one of the most influential jazz musicians ever. Here is a performance of his song Alabama from his 1963 album Live at Birdland. 

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