There’s no understanding 20th century music without understanding John Coltrane. His legacy is a testament to strength in artistry, dedication to craft, and belief in God unmatched by almost any in history. Born in Hamlet, North Carolina during the fall of 1926, the young man was well versed in faith, tragedy, and music before reaching his teenage years.
In a span of mere months around his twelfth birthday, his father and grandfather (both leaders in local Christian circles), grandmother, and aunt all passed away, leaving the remaining Coltranes grief-stricken and struggling.
John had recently taken up clarinet as a means to emulate the big band sound he’d grown infatuated with on the radio. Music was a respite, and yet the urgency with which he practiced and perfected was astounding, a theme throughout his life and career.
In this period of recovery, his interest and skills developed fast, pointing the way forward for opportunities outside of small-town North Carolina and into new artistic realms.
During the summer of 1943 he moved to Philadelphia and by early 1945 was working locally as a clarinet and alto saxophone player. No stranger to discipline, Coltrane enlisted in the Navy that same summer.
Returning home after a short service, he took advantage of the G.I. Bill’s education opportunities to pursue training at Ornstein School of Music. Philly’s jazz clubs were John’s oyster as he played almost every room in town, honing his already monstrous sideman chops and performing with America’s leading acts. Of the many mighty stars he backed at the time was Dizzie Gillespie, who’s music had been integral to Coltrane’s big band roots. After ten years of tireless practice and performance (jazz saxophonist and Coltrane collaborator Jimmy Heath famously said that John practiced “25 hours a day”), the seasoned sideman approaching his thirtieth birthday got a fateful call that would change jazz music forever. When Miles Davis asked Coltrane to relocate to New York and join what would become his landmark quintet, there was seemingly little hesitation.
Despite their famously tumultuous personal relationship, John’s time with Davis was a catalyst for Coltrane’s progression from local legend to international figure, and together they produced some of the canonical jazz recordings. It was also through Davis that Coltrane connected with Thelonious Monk in 1957.
Where Davis erred on the side of spacious expression, Monk had an insatiable penchant for virtuosic, highly theoretical playing that proved essential to Coltrane’s signature oscillations between those two spheres. Stress from the rehearsal and performance regiment, in conjunction with the inescapable narcotics problem in the New York scene at the time lead John to a period of addiction that would cost him some work and other struggles, but eventually, in rehabilitation, would sanctify his spiritual calling.
By the end of the 50s, having put in years with Monk and Davis, now boasting one of the most notable resumes in jazz, Coltrane was more than ready to breakout as a bandleader and composer. 1959’s Giant Steps, his first album of all original compositions, was an astounding breakout work. He pushed the envelope with dizzying chord progressions and a tone so expressive it was as if the saxophone was a human voice. The collection of songs not only relied on his mastery of the bebop language, but ventured into experimental motifs molded by the likes of Ornette Coleman, captain of the Free Jazz movement.
Eager to showcase maximum Coltrane, Impulse! Records signed John in 1961 and he would remain with them until his death. ’61-’64 was an essential period with the release of My Favorite Things, a stunning reimagining of American standards that gained him notoriety among music fans and divisiveness among critics and Ballads which endeared him to a broader listenership with its soothing moods. This period also features the new John Coltrane quartet with pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison, and drummer Elvin Jones, a group whose performances were some of the most significant in jazz history.
It was also then that he met his second wife and most important collaborator, Alice Coltrane. After a decade of extreme highs and lows for both John and Alice, the couple and their young children moved to the quiet suburbs of Long Island, and in this landscape were able to fervently explore profound depths of musical and spiritual expansion.
A LOVE SUPREME
It was in the attic of this home, tranquil and free of distraction, that John composed the American masterpiece A Love Supreme. With its four movements, the album seems to narrate the story and meaning not only of Coltrane himself, but of jazz, and of music in general through its emotive gestures and succinct, yet bravely unbounded structures. Getting recognized with abundant acclaim and two Grammy nominations, A Love Supreme was a blueprint for what jazz could accomplish, incorporating Davis’ broad strokes, Monk’s enflamed tenacity, moments of religious chant, and urgent experimentation inspired by Coltrane’s frameworks in classical harmony, free jazz, and far out spiritual ventures.
The next few years he pushed further and further, enlisting his wife on piano and fellow reeds player Pharoah Sanders. Coltrane was now at the helm of a sound that was, in the eyes of many, unchained by convention. The late albums are those of an artist expressing from a place necessity, distinct from the stylistic dabbling of many in that era. Coltrane, now atop the dignified platform he’d urgently worked for 35 years to establish, had no interest in savoring the moment or relishing in the glory, but instead challenged himself and listeners with a commitment to expanding the art and consecrating the spirit.
Ascension, Om, Cosmic Music, and the other albums from his final years go further in their daring tones and unfettered expressions of faith, but land with the same exquisiteness and clarity of vision as his previous music that shaped the era. Then tragically, in the midst of fervent creative momentum, he left his earthly body on July 17th, 1967 at forty years old.
Coltrane is not only a must know name for music lovers in the 21st century, but a word that has become almost synonymous with art itself. This seems to come not just from the greatness of the music, but from the reverberations of artists, genres, scenes, and cultural movements that walked upon the land that John established and tended.
Without John Coltrane there’s no doubt that what it would mean to play saxophone, play jazz, and make or listen to music at all would be different. Only few times in a generation are there figures who, with unfathomable work ethics and spiritual commitments, achieve such enormous strides in revolutionizing what a style means or what an instrument can do. Giant steps.
As the world is thankfully graced with his timeless albums and recordings, there’s no telling how far John Coltrane’s sound, influence, and commitment to expressing faith through music can go.
I want to be a force for good
The Music is in your heart, your soul, your spirit