Coltrane, John (William Jr.)

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Coltrane, John (William Jr.)

Coltrane, John (William Jr.), hugely influential jazz tenor and soprano saxophonist who reshaped the whole way jazz is perceived; husband of Alice (McLeod) Coltrane; father of Ravi Coltrane; b. Hamlet, N.C., Sept. 23, 1926; d. Huntington, N.Y., July 17, 1967. Both of his parents came from literate families in N.C. His mother was musical, singing and playing piano, and his father played violin, ukulele, and possibly clarinet for his own amusement. Probably beginning in the fall of 1939, Coltrane received his first instrumental training playing alto horn in a community band under Warren B. Steele; he soon switched to the clarinet. Probably in September 1940, he joined a band that had just started at his William Perm H.S. Around this time, he took up the alto saxophone, inspired by Lester Young. From 1938–0, his family was devastated by a series of unrelated deaths, including that of his father, and his mother moved the family to Atlantic City, N.J., probably during his senior year of high school, 1942–43. John lived alone with boarders in High Point until his graduation from high school in 1943. He then moved to Philadelphia; he took saxophone lessons and theory classes with Mike Guerra (1944) and played in the concert band at the Ornstein School of Music. There, he met Bill Barron, Vance Wilson, and Johnnie Splawn. In 1945 Coltrane began picking up professional engagements, beginning in a trio with a pianist and a guitarist. Early that year, he began practicing with Benny Golson. He went to see Dizzy Gillespie perform with Charlie Parker (1945); from that point, he emulated Parker. Coltrane was in the Navy (August 1945–August 1946); he was sent to Pearl Harbor, where he played saxophone and clarinet in a band known as the Melody Masters. He first recorded July 13, 1946, in an impromptu session, not for release, with a small group of musicians from the segregated white band including drummer Joe Theimer; the eight titles included a number of recent Parker tunes. After the Navy, Coltrane probably resumed saxophone lessons, but his primary focus beginning probably in the fall of 1946 and continuing until somewhere between 1950 and 1952 was studying music at the Granoff Studios, where his veteran’s benefits paid his tuition. There he studied on and off, when he was in town, with Dennis Sandole. He also began picking up steady freelance work alongside Ray Bryant, Golson, and others. He called his “first professional job” a tour he made with Joe Webb (1946) in Philadelphia, alongside Cal Massey, who remained a lifelong friend. He then joined the band of King Kolax (February–April 1947). While in Los Angeles with Kolax, he also first met Parker by attending his recording session on Wednesday, Feb. 19, 1947. From about May 1947 through the end of 1948, Coltrane freelanced around Philadelphia, often with Jimmy Heath’s big band.

By 1948 Coltrane was drinking heavily, smoking perhaps as much as two packs a day, and using heroin. These habits caused him to be personally inconsistent and were probably a major factor in his obscurity over the next seven years. Although everyone recognized him as a fine musician, and took notice of his incessant practicing, no one could have predicted that he would become a major force in musical history. He first played tenor professionally while touring on one-nighters with Eddie Vinson (November 1948–April or May 1949), alongside Johnny Coles and Red Garland. His inspirations on tenor included Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Dexter Gordon, Wardell Gray, and Sonny Stitt. From Sept. 16, 1949, he played lead alto in Dizzy Gillespie’s big band, but he kept his now preferred tenor around and used it on recordings with singer Billy Valentine. Gillespie formed a small group (c. August 1950) and retained Coltrane on tenor, who had apparently impressed the trumpeter. Five 20–minute radio broadcasts survive of the Gillespie group at Birdland (January–March 1951). He recorded with Gillespie and his solo on “We Love to Boogie” (1951) was his only work available to the general public until he joined Miles Davis late in 1955. With Gillespie, he learned about sophisticated harmonies, Latin music, and vamps. He began seeking out any and all method books, even the piano books of Hanon and Czerny. By early April 1951, he was back in Philadelphia, freelancing and playing in a group named the “Dizzy Gillespie Alumni.” In January 1952, he recorded with the Gay Crosse group. He continued to study and practice relentlessly, saw Sandole for lessons on a regular basis, and got together with fellow musicians to exchange ideas, including the legendary pianist and theorist Hasaan Ibn Ali. Coltrane toured with Earl Bostic from 1952; Bostic was a virtuoso and Coltrane said “He showed me a lot of things on my horn.” In late 1953 or March 1954, he joined the band of his early idol Johnny Hodges. Though he did not solo on Hodges’s studio recordings, he was featured on a live recording of the band. He must have left Hodges around the beginning of September 1954, because he was gigging then in Philadelphia with Mop Dudley. He also played in several contexts with Bill Carney, a singer, percussionist, and impresario active since the late 1940s. In 1954 Carney put together a group called the Hi-Tones with Shirley Scott, Al “Tootie” Heath, and Coltrane. Coltrane worked with them and freelanced between engagements.

In September 1955, Coltrane was working at Spider Kelly’s in Philadelphia with organist Jimmy Smith, when two major events changed his life: he was “discovered” by Miles Davis and he married for the first time. On Sept. 27, 1955 in Baltimore, he began his first

engagement with Miles Davis. Perhaps bolstered by his new security, he was joined by his friend Naima and they married there on Oct. 3. Naima (her Muslim name; b. Juanita Austin, 1926; d. Oct. 1, 1996) was a single mother whose daughter, Syeeda (or Saeeda), was about five years old; the couple later divorced. Shortly after, he married Alice McLeod; they had three children. Col-trane’s alcohol and drug addictions continued to interfere with his performance. When Davis fired him because of his unreliability after an engagement that ended on April 28, 1957, Coltrane finally rid himself of the heroin habit by quitting “cold turkey” during a week in May while he was leading a quartet in Philadelphia. He planned to continue leading his own group and did so for a few gigs, and cut his first record as a leader on May 31. During this period, he began his next significant association, with Thelonious Monk. He had first recorded with Monk on April 16 and now began visiting him and playing with him informally on an occasional basis. He began working on multiphonics, the playing of several notes at once; he said that Monk “just looked at my horn and ’felt7 the mechanics of what had to be done to get this effect,” but that he learned the specifics of it from John Glenn, a local Philadelphia player. Monk asked Coltrane to join his group at the Five Spot (July 18 or 19-New Year’s Eve 1957). The engagement was critical for both of them; Coltrane’s playing drew raves from most critics. In addition, his album Blue Train was recorded during this stint and released that December; it brought increased attention to his brilliance as a composer, in that all but one of the five tunes were his. Composing was a major preoccupation for Coltrane and something he took as seriously as his performing.

At the end of the Monk engagement, Davis rehired Coltrane (January 1958). Coltrane was then using the blinding flurries of notes that Ira Gitler had dubbed “sheets of sound” (the term is sometimes inappropriately applied to his work from other years). However, by 1959, he was using the sheets of sound more sparingly. During the spring of 1959, he recorded on Davis’s Kind of Blue and his own Giant Steps, his first album as a leader for Atlantic. This time, all seven compositions were his own; the title piece represented the culmination of Coltrane’s developing interest in third- related chord movement, also employed on a number of pieces during 1959–60, notably “Countdown,” “Exotica,” “Satellite” (a variation on “How High the Moon”), “26–2” (based on Parker’s “Confirmation”), and his arrangements of “But Not for Me” and “Body and Soul.” However, from 1960 onward, Coltrane consistently referred to his interest in third-relations as a passing phase. Through the influence of Davis and the Kind of Blue album, in his own groups, and in his composing, modal pieces would predominate. Coltrane had for some time wanted to lead his own group—he did so periodically between gigs with Davis—and in late July 1959 he quit Davis. When Jimmy Heath was unable to remain in his place and Adderley had announced his intention to leave in September, Coltrane was persuaded to return to Davis’s group in mid-August, but left for good after Davis’s tour of Europe (March-April 1960). On the first concert of the tour, at the Olympia

Theater in Paris, Coltrane found himself in the midst of controversy. A chorus of boos from the audience during one solo led to a heated debate in the French press over his approach. Elsewhere on the tour, he was received enthusiastically.

On April 16, 1960, Coltrane led a group at Town Hall, N.Y., on a bill with Gillespie and others; on May 3, he began a two-month engagement at the Jazz Gallery. Apparently he had wanted hire McCoy Tyner on piano, Art Davis on bass, and Elvin Jones on drums; but none of them were available, so he opened with Steve Kuhn on piano, Steve Davis on bass, and Pete Sims “LaRoca” on drums. Tyner joined in about a month, and Jones between Sept. 26 and Oct. 1, while the group was on tour in Denver. The bass chair changed around—Reggie Workman played for most of 1961, sometimes in tandem with Art Davis—and finally went to Jimmy Garrison at the end of 1961. Coltrane had purchased a soprano saxophone around Feb. 1, 1959 and tried it out that week on a gig at the Sutherland Hotel in Chicago. He began using it regularly in May 1960; his recording of “My Favorite Things” that October re-established the soprano, rarely used in modern jazz, as a favored jazz instrument. His arranging concept was equally brilliant as his playing; essentially, he took one chorus of the song and extending it vastly with long vamp sections. That same week he recorded all the material that would eventually become Coltrane Plays the Blues and Coltrane’s Sound. He signed with the Impulse record label in April 1961. He was becoming increasingly popular; Down Beat honored him as “Jazzman of the Year” (1961); in both their International Critics Poll and Readers Poll that year, he won for best tenor saxophonist and for miscellaneous instrument (soprano saxophone); the critics also voted his the new star combo. But his detractors grew louder with the addition of Eric Dolphy to the group for most of 1961. A majority of English critics lambasted him on his first European tour that November. The Nov. 23 issue of Down Beat contained a scathing review from John Tynan, who spoke of “musical nonsense currently being peddled in the name of jazz—a horrifying demonstration of what appears to be a growing anti-jazz trend.” Coltrane and Dolphy responded with an article in Down Beat published April 12, 1962. Coltrane also considered expanding his group to a sextet with the addition of guitarist Wes Montgomery. They performed together in Calif, in September 1961 and again in 1962. Neither Montgomery nor Dolphy stayed, and Coltrane’s best known quartet—Tyner, Garrison, and Jones—remained intact from April 1962 through the fall of 1965. Just as “My Favorite Things” was a soprano feature, “Impressions” became his tenor theme song. This is based on the same AABA structure and D dorian mode (E-flat for the bridge) as “So What,” but the A section (main) melody was derived from Morton Gould’s “Pavanne” (sic) and the B section was taken from yet another pavane, Maurice Ravel’s “Pavane pour une infante défunte” (or from the popular song that was based on it, “The Lamp Is Low”). Far from indicating any paucity of inspiration on Coltrane’s part, this is a characteristic example of his remarkable breadth of interests and his ability to apply these diverse sources to jazz. He was among the first to play what is now called world music. He demonstrated how world music, classical music, and classical theory can all be incorporated into powerful blues-based jazz. For some years Coltrane had been exposed to the music of other cultures—India, parts of Africa, Latin America—through Dennis Sandole, Gillespie, Yusef Lateef, and others. He must have also learned about Middle Eastern music from Ahmed-Abdul Malik, the bassist during most of his Monk engagement, and John invited him to play the tamboura on “India” at the Village Vanguard (November 1961). He arranged to meet Ravi Shankar in N.Y. (December 1961), the first of a handful of informal lessons. He even named his second son Ravi. He based some of his pieces on the sources he found. His “Spiritual” is a melody for “Nobody Knows De Trouble I See” from James Weldon Johnson. “Ole” was based on a song known as “Venga Vallejo” or as “El Vito.” The notes to Africa/Brass state that “He listened to many African records for rhythmic inspiration.” “India” appears to be based on a recorded Vedic chant that was issued on a Folkways LP at the time. It wasn’t only the sound of world music that attracted him; Coltrane was interested in all kinds of religion, and in all kinds of mysticism. He knew that in some folk cultures music was held to have mystical powers, and he hoped to get in touch with some of those capacities.

Coltrane’s mystical, spiritual interests are explicit in A Love Supreme, his best-known and still best-selling album, recorded December 1964. Its four sections—”Acknowledgement,” “Resolution,” “Pursuance,” and “Psalm”—suggest a kind of pilgrim’s progress, in which the pilgrim acknowledges the divine, resolves to pursue it, searches, and eventually celebrates what has been attained in song. Virtually the whole piece is based on the little “A Love Supreme” motive chanted by Coltrane (overdubbed as two voices) at the end of Part One. Perhaps most striking is the way he incorporates his poem, which appears in the liner, into Part Four. His saxophone solo is a wordless “recitation” of the words of the poem, beginning with the title, “A Love Supreme.” Eventually Coltrane accepted the diversity of human belief as representing different ways of recognizing one God. The titles of Coltrane’s last compositions suggest a mixture of religious influences—only “The Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost” is specifically Christian; others such as “Dear Lord” and “Meditations” are more general, while “Om” suggests Eastern beliefs. He is quoted on the back of Meditations saying, “I believe in all religions.” A Love Supreme was voted album of the year by both Down Beat and “Jazz” (1965), and Down Beat readers also named Coltrane as Jazzman of the Year, best tenor saxophonist, and elected him to the magazine’s Hall of Fame.

But Coltrane continued to excite controversy; he was enamored of Omette Coleman and the so-called avant garde. Coltrane talked quite a bit about music with Coleman, and they reportedly discussed putting a group together but never did, although Coltrane recorded an album with Coleman’s band members in 1960 (released in 1966). He was also very interested in the music of Albert Ayler. He helped to arrange recording sessions at Impulse for Archie Shepp and others, and he was always generous about letting these younger players sit in with his group at performances. On June 28, 1965, he gathered ten musicians for the recording session that produced “Ascension.” Besides his regular quartet, and bassist Art Davis, he used trumpeters Freddie Hubbard and Dewey Johnson, alto saxophonists Marion Brown and John Tchicai, and tenor saxophonists Pharoah Sanders and Archie Shepp. By September, Sanders was a regular member of the group. On Oct. 1, 1965, they recorded “Om,” which opens with chanting of words from the Bhagavad-Gita. Coltrane is said to have been tripping on LSD, and this is likely, but his work, disturbing to some, revelatory to many more, continued to have profound musical substance and his own solos were as tightly argued as ever. The posthumous release Interstellar Space is the perfect place to hear this because it consists entirely of duets with drums. He also came upon a richer tone, with fuller vibrato, than he had ever used before. He was playing in free time, without the bass walking, and decided to try out two drummers on a regular basis. Beginning at the Village Gate in N.Y. in November 1965, he hired Rashied Ali as a second drummer. However, this prompted the departure of Tyner by the end of 1965. Jones left in early 1966. Jimmy Garrison stayed with Coltrane through the summer of 1966 (although he returned for recording sessions) along with Sanders, Rashied Ali, and pianist Alice McLeod Coltrane, his second wife.

In fall 1966, Coltrane began to cut back on touring and made plans to stay around N.Y., probably as much for family reasons as for health reasons; he was not yet aware of any serious illness. He had begun to take control of his own business affairs. He had arranged for his own label imprint, and was planning some self-produced concerts jointly with percussionist Olatunji; they already had reserved Jan. 14, 1968, at Lincoln Center’s Philharmonic Hall (now known as Avery Fisher Hall). He spoke of opening a space in N.J. or in Greenwich Village where rehearsals and performances would be open informally to the public for a nominal charge. By the spring of 1967, he was reportedly planning on performing less often or even taking a break altogether, while he concentrated on producing younger artists and possibly doing some teaching. A third son, Oran, was born in March 1967. By the spring of 1967, his health was failing. On April 23 1967, he appeared in a benefit concert for and at the new Olatunji Center of African Culture on East 125th Street. His final performance was in Baltimore on May 7. He died in the hospital of liver cancer. The cause has never been definitively found, but it was apparently not related to the drugs and alcohol he ingested as a youth, though it might have been a long-term effect of a dirty needle causing hepatitis. A funeral service was held on July 21, 1967, at St. Peter’s Church in Manhattan. A thousand people attended. Cal Massey read the poem “A Love Supreme.” Reportedly to fulfill one of Coltrane’s last requests, the quartets of Omette Coleman and Albert Ayler each performed one number. After the ceremony, the family drove out to Pinelawn Memorial Park in Farmingdale, where Coltrane was interred. North 33rd Street, Philadelphia, is now the base of the John W. Coltrane Cultural Society; historical markers have been raised in Hamlet and High Point. A Christian church in San Francisco(known as the Church of John Coltrane) centers its ritual around the album and poem A Love Supreme.


First Broadcasts, Vol. 2 (1951); Coltrane 1951 (1951); Traneing In (1957); John Coltrane/Ray Draper Quintet (1957); Cattin’ with Coltrane and Quinichette (1957); Blue Train (1957); Trane’s Reign (1958); Settin’ the Pace (1958); Coltrane Time (1958); Giant Steps (1959); Coltrane Jazz (1959); My Favorite Things (1960); Coltrane’s Sound (1960); Coltrane Plays the Blues (1960); Avant Garde (1960); Exotica (1960); Ole Coltrane (1961); Live in Stockholm (1961); Live at the Village Vanguard (1961); Impressions (1961); Complete Paris Concerts (1961); Africa/Brass (1961); Dwfa? Ellington and John Coltrane (1962); Complete Graz Concert, Vol. 1, 2 (1962); Complete 1962 Stockholm Concert (1962); Coltrane (1962); Bye Bye Blackbird (1962); BaZ/ads (1962); L/ye flf Bird/and (1963); John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman (1963); Newport ’63 (1963); A Love Supreme (1964); Crescent (1964); Transition (1965); Sim S/z/p (1965); Om (1965); Meditations (1965); Lira? m Seaff/e (1965); Lira? in Paris (1965); LICIRC;TO? m Antibes (1965); KM/M Sé Mama (1965); John Coltrane Quartet Plays (1965); Infinity (1965); Hrsf Meditations (1965); Ascension (1965); Lzirc m Japan (1966); Lzue af tTœ Village Vanguard Again (1966); Cosmic Music (1966); Stellar Regions (1967); Interstellar Space (1967); Expression (1967).


T. Gelatt, About John Coltrane (N.Y., 1974); C. Sim-pkins, A Biography (N.Y., 1975); J. C. Thomas, Chasin’ the Trane (N.Y., 1975); B. Cole, J. C.(N.Y., 1976); D. Wild, Recordings of John Coltrane (Ann Arbor, 1977); D. N. Baker, Jazz Style of John Coltrane (Hialeah, Fla., 1980); B. Priestley, J. C. (London, 1987); A. N. White, The Music of John Coltrane (Hal Leonard, 1991); L. Porter, John Coltrane: His Life and Music (Ann Arbor, 1998).

—Lewis Porter