John Coltrane was the greatest jazz saxophonist, composer, and iconic figure of 20th-century jazz. The Trane, as he was called, was so great that he once said about his gift that “You can play a shoestring if you’re sincere.” John Coltrane was born September 23, 1926, in Hamlet, North Carolina. During the late 1940s and early 1950s, he played in nightclubs and on recordings with such musicians as Dizzy Gillespie, Earl Bostic, and Johnny Hodges. Coltrane’s first recorded solo can be heard on Gillespie’s “We Love to Boogie” (1951). Coltrane came to prominence when he joined Miles Davis’s quintet in 1955. He died from liver cancer on July 17, 1967, in Huntington, Long Island, New York.
It’s far from an overstatement to say that Coltrane was destined to be a musician. He was surrounded by music as a child. His father, John R. Coltrane, kept his family fed as a tailor, but had a passion for music. He played several instruments, and his interests fueled his son’s love for music. Coltrane’s first exposure to jazz came through the records of Count Basie and Lester Young. By the age of 13, Coltrane had picked up the saxophone, and almost from the moment he first started playing, it was apparent he had a talent for it. The young musician loved to imitate the sounds of Charlie Parker and Johnny Hodges.
In 1943, he too moved north, to Philadelphia to make a go of it as a musician. For a short time, he studied music at the Granoff Studios as well as the Ornstein School of Music. But with the country in the throes of war, Coltrane was called to duty and served a year in a Navy band in Hawaii. It was during his service, in fact, that Coltrane made his first recording, with a quartet of fellow sailors.
Then in the fall of 1949, Coltrane signed on with a big band led by Dizzy Gillespie, remaining with the group for the next year and a half. Coltrane had started to earn a name for himself. But as the 1950s took a shape, he also began to experiment with drugs, mainly heroin. His talent earned him jobs, but his addictions often ended them prematurely. In 1954, Duke Ellington brought him on to temporarily replace Johnny Hodges, but soon fired him because of his drug dependency. A year after losing a position in Ellington’s band, Coltrane rebounded with another big break when Miles Davis asked him to join his group, the Miles Davis Quintet.
It was a huge recognition of Coltrane’s talent and offered the saxophonist the kind of musical and mental space he needed. Davis encouraged Coltrane to push his experimental boundaries. More important, the sober Davis held him accountable for his drug habits. In 1957, Miles fired Coltrane, who’d failed to give up heroin. Whether that was the exact impetus for Coltrane finally getting sober isn’t certain, but the saxophonist finally did kick his drug habit. He played a six-month stint with Thelonious Monk and then embarked on a solo career. By this period, Coltrane had created a definite sound of his own. Part of it was defined by an ability to play several notes at once, creating what would be later dubbed as his “sheets of sound.”
By 1960, Coltrane had his own band, a quartet that included pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison, and drummer Elvin Jones. The group, known as the John Coltrane Quartet, produced some of jazz’s most enduring albums, including Giant Steps (1960) and My Favorite Things (1961). The latter album especially catapulted Coltrane to stardom. Over the next several years Coltrane was lauded — and, to a smaller degree, criticized — for his sound. His albums from this period included Duke Ellington and John Coltrane (1963), Impressions (1963) and Live at Birdland (1964). But it was 1965’s A Love Supreme that may just be Coltrane’s most acclaimed record. The album garnered the saxophonist two Grammy awards, for performance and jazz composition.
In 1964, Coltrane married jazz pianist Alice McCloud, who’d go on to play in his band. Coltrane wrote and recorded a considerable amount of material over the final two years of his life. In 1966, he recorded his final two albums to be released while he was alive, Kulu Se Mama and Meditations. The album Expression was finalized just one day before his death. He died from liver cancer on July 17, 1967, in Huntington, Long Island, New York.
Coltrane’s impact on the music world was considerable. He revolutionized jazz music with his experimental techniques and showed a deep reverence for sounds from other cultures, including Africa and Latin America. In 1992, Coltrane was awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. His work continues to be a part of soundtracks for movies and television, so much so that in 1999 Universal Studios named a street on the Universal lot in his honor. In 1995, the United States Postal Service recognized the late musician with a commemorative stamp.
He is immortal now, mainly because of the final years. More important, Coltrane’s sound has inspired generations of newer jazz musicians. I love his music as a child, as an adult, and until this day along with millions of jazz lovers. Long live the memory of the Trane! And that is my thought provoking perspective…