John Coltrane

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Album cover of A Love Supreme

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

Though he was active before 1955, his prime years were between 1955 and 1967, during which time he reshaped modern jazz and influenced generations of other musicians. Coltrane's recording rate was astonishingly prolific: he released about fifty recordings as a leader in these twelve years, and appeared on dozens more led by other musicians.

He is generally regarded as one of the most important and influential jazz musicians, and furthermore as one of a handful of profoundly innovative saxophonists who fundamentally altered expectations for the instrument. More broadly, Coltrane is considered one of the greatest musicians of the twentieth century.


Early life and career

Born in Hamlet, North Carolina, Coltrane grew up in High Point in an era of racial segregation. During his seventh-grade school year, Coltrane experienced three deaths in his close-knit family: he lost his aunt, his grandfather, and his father. Coltrane began playing music and practicing obsessively at about this time.

Coltrane moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in June 1943.

His early life was influenced by a traditional Southern upbringing; the heavy emphasis on religion especially affected his later musical career. Coltrane began playing clarinet early on, but became interested in jazz and soon switched to alto saxophone. He was inducted into the Navy in 1945 and returned to civilian life in 1946.

Coltrane worked a variety of jobs through the late forties 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 with Gillespie's small group until April 1951, when he returned to Philadelphia to go to school.

In early 1952, Coltrane joined Earl Bostic's band. In 1953, after a stint with Eddie Vinson, he joined Johnny Hodges's small group (during Hodges's short sabbatical from Duke Ellington's orchestra), staying until mid 1954.

With Miles Davis' First Quintet

Although there are recordings of Coltrane from as early as 1946, he received little recognition until 1955.

Coltrane was freelancing in Philadelphia in the summer of 1955 when he received a call from trumpeter Miles Davis. Davis, whose success during the late forties had been followed by several years of decline, was again active, and was about to form a quintet. Coltrane was with this first edition of the Davis group from October 1955 through April 1957 (with a few absences), a period which saw influential recordings from Davis and the first signs of Coltrane's growing ability. This classic "First Quintet", best represented by two marathon recording sessions for Prestige in 1956, disbanded in mid-April due partially to Coltrane's problematic heroin addiction. Coltrane would use much of what he learned with Davis to run his own groups, namely allowing musicians to solo and improvise with their own sensibilities as well as eschewing involvement with his audience and remaining aloof to press.

During the latter part of 1957 Coltrane worked with Thelonious Monk at New York's Five Spot, a legendary gig. His music during this period shows tremendous and rapid evolution; it is extensively documented by his recordings as a sideman and a leader for Prestige Records. He rejoined Miles in January 1958 after kicking heroin and experiencing a spiritual epiphany that would lead him to concentrate wholly on the development of his music. He stayed with Davis until April 1960, usually playing alongside alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley and drummer Philly Joe Jones in a sextet. During this time he participated in such seminal Davis sessions as Milestones and Kind Of Blue, and recorded his own influential sessions (notably Blue Train and Giant Steps). In October 1958, Jazz critic Ira Gitler coined the term sheets of sound for Coltrane's unique style during this period with Davis. His playing was compressed, as if whole solos passed in a few seconds, with triple- or quadruple-time runs cascading in hundreds of notes per minute. Around the end of his tenure with Davis, Coltrane began playing soprano saxophone, an unconventional move considering the instrument's then-obsolescence. His interest in the straight saxophone 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 chronic pain in his gums, another possible reason for taking up the soprano, which Coltrane generally played "faster."

Coltrane's Quartet

Coltrane formed a quartet in 1960. After moving through different personnel including Steve Kuhn, Pete Laroca and Billy Higgins, the lineup stabilized in the fall with pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Steve Davis and drummer Elvin Jones. By early 1961 Davis had been replaced by Reggie Workman. Eric Dolphy joined the group as a second horn around the same time. In 1962 Jimmy Garrison replaced Workman. Dolphy departed in early 1962. The "Classic Quartet" with Tyner, Garrison and Jones produced searching, spiritually driven work. Coltrane quickly developed a rugged, sometimes aggressive freewheeling tenor style which had all the density of a track like "Giant Steps" but none of its formal structures. This group would famously produce A Love Supreme in 1964.

After completing his contract with Atlantic Records in May 1961 with the album Ole, Coltrane joined the fledgling Impulse! label.

In November of 1961 Coltrane took his quintet (with Dolphy) into the Village Vanguard. The music at the Vanguard was Coltrane's most experimental up to that point.

During this period, many critics saw Coltrane as an interesting and virtuosic but somewhat sterile player. Audiences in France famously booed during his final tour with Davis. Down Beat magazine indicted Coltrane, along with Eric Dolphy, as players of "Anti-Jazz" in 1961, in an article that bewildered and upset the musicians. Coltrane admitted some of his early solos were based mostly on technical ideas. 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.

The criticism of the quintet with Dolphy may have had an impact on Coltrane. In contrast to the radicalism of Coltrane's 1961 recordings at the Village Vanguard, Coltrane's studio recordings in 1962 and 1963 were much more conservative and accessible. He recorded an album of ballads and participated in collaborations with Duke Ellington and Johnny Hartman. Despite a more polished approach in the studio, in concert the quartet continued its exploratory and challenging approach.

Free jazz

In the early 60s Coltrane was influenced by Davis' modal approach, the free jazz of Ornette Coleman and the music of Ravi Shankar. Much of this influence can be heard as early as Coltrane's surprise 1960 hit My Favorite Things a nearly 14-minute version of the Rogers and Hammerstein classic. Coltrane would frequently play this song through the rest of his career, though subsequent versions grew increasingly abstract, bearing only the fainest resemblence to the original song.

Coltrane's success was phenomenal for the jazz world at the time. By following his personal vision absolutely, he would captivate many listeners and aspiring musicians, producing a public persona of total independence and artistic rigor.

The recording of A Love Supreme in December 1964 proved to be a watershed in Coltrane's career. It was notably more adventurous than the studio recordings of the previous 3 years. It featured the "spirituality" that characterizes much of Coltrane's playing from 1965 to 1967. Its conception -- a four-part suite played continuously -- would influence several future Coltrane compositions. Despite its challenging musical content, the album was very commercially successful by jazz standards. There is one known live recording of the suite, from July 1965; it provides an interesting contrast to the original, as Coltrane's music had grown more adventurous by that time.

Coltrane's late period music showed an increasing interest in the free jazz pioneered by Cecil Taylor, Albert Ayler and others. In formulating his late period style, Coltrane was especially influenced by Ayler's dissonance in Ayler's trio with bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Sunny Murray. Coltrane championed many younger free jazz musicians (such as Archie Shepp), and under his guidance, 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 devices like multiphonics, overblowing and playing in the altissimo register. In the studio, he reduced his soprano playing 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).

Having gone as far as he could with the quartet, Coltrane began augmenting the group with outside musicians. As early as June 1965, he went into the studio with about a dozen 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. Despite returning to 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 then playing. Coltrane, who used over-blowing frequently as an emotional exclamation-point, gravitated to Sanders's solos, frequently overblowing-based orgies of screaming revelation. Longtime Sun Ra saxophonist 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!"[1] ( Coltrane took informal lessons from Gilmore, and his own "Chasin' the 'Trane" (1961) was strongly inspired by Gilmore's music.

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, Tyner left the band shortly after the recording of Meditations. Jones left in early 1966, dissatisfied by sharing drumming duties with Ali. It is possible that both men were unhappy with the music's new direction.

Also in 1965 Coltrane began using LSD, which would inform the sublime, "cosmic" transcendence of his late period, and also its incomprehensibility to many listeners. After Jones and Tyner's departures, Coltrane led a quintet with Pharoah Sanders on enor 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 "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.

Despite the radicalism of the horns, the rhythm section with Ali and Alice Coltrane had a very different, more relaxed feel than that with Jones and Tyner. The group can be heard on several live recordings from 1966. In 1967, Coltrane entered the studio several times; though one piece with Sanders has surfaced (the unusual "To Be", which features both Coltrane and Sanders on flutes), most of the recordings were either with the quartet minus Sanders (Expression and Stellar Regions) or as a duo with Ali. The latter duo produced six performances which appear on the album Interstellar Space. These saxophone-drum duets are general considered among the finest music Coltrane recorded near the end of his career.

Today, most casual jazz listeners (and some self-described "traditionalist" musicians like Wynton Marsalis) consider late-period Coltrane all but unlistenable. However many recordings — among them Ascension, Meditations and the posthumous Interstellar Space — are widely considered masterpieces. Many of Coltrane's innovations would be incorporated into the jazz fusion movement, however with diminishing returns of spiritual fervency and earnestness. Also more mainstream rock guitarists like Jimi Hendrix would seize upon Coltrane's work as inspiration in addition to American Blues music.

Coltrane died from liver cancer at Huntington Hospital in Long Island, NY on July 17, 1967, at 40. Coltrane's excessive alcohol and heroin abuse during the 40s and 50s likely laid the seed for this illness, which can strike former 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 conventional treatment may have been ineffective regardless.

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.

Coltrane was an important pioneer in unaccompanied playing for saxophone and drums, first with Elvin Jones and then with Rashied Ali.

Coltrane's son, Ravi Coltrane, has followed in his father's steps and become a saxophonist. His widow, Alice Coltrane recently returned to music after several decades' retirement.

Selected discography


Further reading

  • Kahn, Ashley (2002). A Love Supreme: The Story of John Coltrane's Signature Album (1st ed.). New York: Viking. ISBN 0-12-345678-9.
  • Porter, Lewis (1998). John Coltrane: his life and music. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. ISBN 0472101617.

External links

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