Coltrane, John (1926-1967)

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Coltrane, John (1926-1967)

Saxophonist John Coltrane exerted a huge influence on the generation of jazz musicians that followed him. In fact, many view Trane, as he was known, as a kind of sacred leader. It is certain that he fostered trends in jazz, while developing those already present. While taking bop trends in harmonization to their ultimate logical conclusion with his stream-of-sound style in the 1950s, Coltrane also explored the simpler modal style as well as Free Jazz, which emphasized melodic development free from the confines of chordal progression. In common with other innovators, he never entirely abandoned the use of one style while moving toward another.

Coltrane was born in Hamlet, North Carolina, in 1926 and grew up in High Point, North Carolina, where his maternal grandfather was a preacher. His father was an established tailor and, thus, in common with many jazz musicians, Coltrane came from the black middle class. Both his parents were musical and he grew up in a musical environment. He was only 12 when his father died, but his mother kept the family together and provided him with economic and emotional stability. She moved to Philadelphia where jobs were more plentiful in the World War II economy but sent money home for his support. After graduating from high school in 1943, Coltrane joined his mother in Philadelphia, where he studied alto saxophone at the Orenstein School and made an impression with his seriousness, discipline, and eagerness. Drafted into the navy, he spent his service time playing in the navy band in Hawaii, and after his discharge he resumed his saxophone studies. Soon after, he played in a number of rhythm and blues bands, most notably that of Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson. The spectacle of the serious Coltrane tossing horns to Vinson in a vaudeville setting is hard to imagine but that is what he did, and did well, according to contemporary accounts. Certainly, that rhythm and blues influence was always discernible in his playing and added depth to his ballad performances.

By the mid-1940s Trane was playing tenor saxophone, a switch originally made so as not to compete with Vinson. He listed Dexter Gordon as a major influence but also absorbed the work of many other musicians. Indeed, Coltrane listened to everyone and adapted elements from many that accorded with his own developing style. Unfortunately, Coltrane's various addictions began to catch up with him at this time. He was an alcoholic, a heroin user, a heavy smoker, and was addicted to sweets—habits that caused the disruption of his personal and professional relationships and damaged his reputation. Eventually, he managed to kick all his habits except his sugar addiction, which cost him his teeth. Having refused dental care, all his teeth ultimately decayed and had to be removed.

From 1949 to 1951 Coltrane played with Dizzy Gillespie's band, and it is with them that he recorded his first solo. In 1951, he moved back to Philadelphia with his mother and resumed formal musical studies at the Graniff School of Music. In addition to studying saxophone, he studied theory with Dennis Sandole. Some critics have traced Coltrane's fascination with bi-tonality and the use of scalar composition to this period in his career. In 1952 he resumed work with a rhythm and blues band, that of Earl Bostic who, interestingly, like Vinson, was primarily noted for his work on alto saxophone. Bostic's R&B style was enormously popular in the early 1950s and Coltrane was once again exposed to large dance audiences and their emotional reactions to the music. Coltrane soon left Bostic to work with his early idol, Johnny Hodges. Hodges had left Duke Ellington's band for a brief time to head his own band, one that has been underrated or forgotten over the years. In 1954 Hodges fired Trane because his heroin addiction had made him erratic and undependable.

Once more he returned to Philadelphia where he suffered from physical and emotional problems. In this period, he met Juanita Grubbs, known as Naima, and married her in 1955. He sorted out his problems to the extent that he was able to resume playing, and joined Miles Davis's classic 1955 quintet. By this time, his style had incorporated elements of Charlie Parker and Coleman Hawkins. While Trane could play gorgeous melodic lines like Parker, in the 1950s he generally preferred to construct arpeggio-like vertical runs at breakneck speed. Alcohol and drug abuse, however, cost him his job with Miles Davis in 1957. Again, he returned to Philadelphia and his mother, but this time he determined to conquer his multiple addictions, locked himself in his room, and subsisted on water for some days. When he emerged he was ready to resume his life and work.

From this time on, he became fascinated by Eastern religions. Although he never practiced an Eastern faith, he studied the teachings and incorporated elements into his music as well as his personal philosophy. Open use of these elements, however, awaited the 1960s and its ethos. Meanwhile, later in 1957, Trane picked up his career with a stunning engagement with Thelonius Monk at the Five Spot in Manhattan. Working with Monk was worth more than all the theory courses combined. Coltrane perfected his sheets-of-sound style with Monk, while absorbing Monk's unique approach to harmonic conception. Unfortunately, only one record of this fertile period has emerged, but it demonstrates just how vital the partnership was in Coltrane's development.

When Sonny Rollins left Miles Davis, Coltrane returned. Davis showed some courage in bringing him back against the advice of many friends who considered Trane as too erratic and a man who should have left much of his performance in the practice room. His tone and style were not yet the models they soon became, but Coltrane played well on what is now regarded as one of the classic jazz albums of all time, 1959's Kind of Blue. Record contracts soon followed, and Trane became the darling of the Hard Boppers, his sheets-of-sound period seeming a logical extension of the bop movement.

In 1960 Coltrane struck out on his own and explored different styles of playing. In his 1959 Giant Steps album he showed his ability to develop an older style while moving into a newer one. He developed his hard-bop soloing on some cuts while moving into polytonality and modal areas on others. His album My Favorite Things (1960) marked the return of the soprano saxophone to jazz. Although many, notably Johnny Hodges, had used it over the years since Sidney Bechet had mastered it, no other major jazz exponent had really turned it into a popular jazz instrument on a regular basis. Trane openly acknowledged Bechet's influence on his soprano work. The instrument, he said, allowed him to play in the higher registers in which he heard music in his head. It also made his modal playing accessible to a larger audience. My Favorite Things made the top 40 charts and began Coltrane's career as a show business figure, commanding healthy fees and continuing to release soprano hits such as "Greensleeves."

Meanwhile he grew interested in Ornette Coleman's Free Jazz movement and released "The Invisible" with Don Cherry and Billy Higgins and "India" in 1961. This movement into free jazz, predictably, did not entail an abandonment of earlier styles. A Love Supreme (1964) is a modal album and sold 250,000 copies. Such sales resulted from the popular upsurge of interest in Eastern religions and mysticism during the 1960s, and the album was bought by many who had no idea of jazz but were attracted by the music's connections with mysticism. Even in the midst of his freest experiments, "Ascension" and "Expressions," when he recorded with Freddie Hubbard, Archie Shepp, Eric Dolphy, Pharoah Sanders, and Rashid Ali, Coltrane never totally abandoned his love of harmony and melody. He once performed with Thelonious Monk near the end of his life. When it was over, Monk asked Trane when he was going to come back to playing real music such as he had performed that day. Reputedly, Trane responded that he had gone about as far as he could with experimental music and missed harmonic jazz. He promised Monk that he would return to the mainstream.

Whether he was comforting an old friend or speaking his heart, nobody knows, but Expressions (1967) was his last recording and included elements from all his periods. Coltrane died at the top of his form when he passed away in 1967 at the age of 40. Though doctors said he died of liver cancer, his friends claimed that he had simply worn himself out. His creative flow had not dried up and it is reasonable to assume that, had he lived, he would have continued to explore new styles and techniques. As it was, he left a body of music that defined and shaped the shifting jazz styles of the period, as well as a reputation for difficult music and a dissipated lifestyle that con-firmed the non-jazz lover's worst—and inaccurate—fears about the music and its decadent influence on American culture.

—Frank A. Salamone

Further Reading:

Cole, Bill. John Coltrane. New York, Da Capo, 1993.

Kofsky, Frank. John Coltrane and the Jazz Revolution of the 1960s. New York, Pathfinder Press, 1998.

Nisenson, Eric. Ascension: John Coltrane and His Quest. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1993.

Porter, Lewis. John Coltrane: His Life and Music. Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 1998.

Simpkins, Cuthbert Ormond. Coltrane: A Biography. New York, Black Classic Press, 1988.

Strickland, Edward. "What Coltrane Wanted." Atlantic Monthly. December 1987, 100-102.

Thomas, J. C. Chasin' the Train: The Music and Mystique of John Coltrane. New York, Da Capo Press, 1988.

Woodleck, Carl, editor. The John Coltrane Companion: Four Decades of Commentary. New York, Schrimmer Books, 1998.