Oxford AASC: Coltrane, John William

Coltrane, John William

(23 Sept. 1926–17 July 1967),

musician, composer, and bandleader, was born in Hamlet, North Carolina, the son of John Robert Coltrane, a tailor and amateur musician, and Alice Gertrude Blair. A few months after John's birth, the Coltranes moved to nearby High Point to live with his maternal grandfather, the Reverend William Blair. Alice, who had studied music at Livingstone College, accompanied her father's choir on piano. The young Coltrane grew up in a secure middle-class environment in which both religion and music were highly valued. At age twelve he began studying alto horn, then the clarinet, and joined the High Point Community Band. From the outset, Coltrane practiced constantly, a pattern that he sustained throughout his life. By 1942 he was playing clarinet and alto saxophone in his high school band.

After graduating from high school in 1943, Coltrane moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he worked as a laborer in a sugar-refining factory and studied saxophone at the Ornstein School of Music. He made his professional debut in 1945, and in August of that year was drafted into the U.S. Navy. He was posted to Hawaii, where he played clarinet in naval marching and dance bands. Discharged in 1946, Coltrane returned to Philadelphia, resumed his studies at the Ornstein School, and made a living playing saxophone in rhythm-and-blues bands. This was the beginning of a long and thorough musical apprenticeship.

Coltrane developed his distinctive style in a variety of musical contexts. In 1947 and 1948 he toured with the jazz-influenced rhythm and blues group of Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson, playing tenor saxophone for the first time. In 1949 he joined the influential Dizzy Gillespie Big Band and stayed with Gillespie when the band was reduced to a sextet. Coltrane made his recording debut with Gillespie in 1950. In 1952 and 1953 Coltrane was back on the rhythm and blues circuit with Earl Bostic, and in 1953 he joined the Johnny Hodges band. By 1955 Coltrane had developed an identifiable style that combined technical virtuosity with a unique tone. His potential was recognized by the trumpeter Miles Davis, who invited the saxophonist to join his quintet in 1955. This band was one of the key jazz groups of the mid 1950s and joining it transformed Coltrane's career. The quintet toured widely and recorded frequently, and the consequent exposure enhanced his reputation. Within a week of joining Davis in the autumn of 1955, Coltrane married Naima Austin, becoming stepfather to her daughter, Syeeda.

Coltrane, John William

John Coltrane in 1964. (AP Images.)

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By March 1957, Coltrane's alcohol abuse and heroin addiction had so affected his reliability that Davis dismissed him as a permanent member of the group, but Coltrane continued playing intermittently with Davis until 1960. In the ensuing nine months Coltrane rid himself of his addictions and completed his musical apprenticeship with a lengthy residency at the Five Spot Café in New York as part of the Thelonious Monk Quartet. Monk pushed Coltrane to the limit of his creativity. His lengthy solos were characterized by a persistent, relentless, rapid-fire outpouring of notes, to which the description “sheets of sound” would subsequently be applied. Coltrane's music was evolving rapidly. At the end of his gig with Monk, he rejoined Miles Davis as part of a sextet that included Cannonball Adderley. This group recorded two seminal albums, Milestones (1958) and, with Bill Evans in the band, the more subtle and atmospheric Kind of Blue (1959).

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Miles Davis and John Coltrane

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By early 1960 it was clearly time for Coltrane to leave Davis and form his own band. Coltrane had been recording prolifically under his own name since the mid-1950s, initially for Prestige and then for the much more influential Atlantic label. Important albums like Giant Steps, recorded in 1959 and consisting entirely of Coltrane compositions, and Coltrane Jazz, recorded later that same year, further enhanced his reputation, raised his profile, and prepared the way for the launch of his solo career. The John Coltrane Quartet was formed as a permanent unit in April 1960.

The personnel of the band fluctuated during 1960, but when the pianist McCoy Tyner and the drummer Elvin Jones joined the group, Coltrane had the nucleus of the classic quartet that would be at the heart of his musical existence for the next five years. The bassist Jimmy Garrison joined in 1961, the same year in which Coltrane signed a lucrative contract with Impulse Records. The Impulse years produced a rich and diverse musical legacy including an album of ballads, sessions with Duke Ellington and with the singer Johnny Hartman, as well as the larger ensemble used on Africa/Brass, which reflected the influence of African rhythms and Indian concepts of improvisation.

However, the music with which Coltrane and the quartet were more usually associated was exemplified by the sessions recorded live at the Village Vanguard in New York in November 1961. On Chasin' the Trane, Coltrane, spurred on by the ferocious, fragmented, polyrhythmic drumming of Elvin Jones, unleashed an impassioned fifteen-minute solo full of honks, screams, and tonal distortions. This aspect of Coltrane's music met with a mixed reception among both audiences and critics. Some hailed him as an innovator, every bit as important as Louis Armstrong in the 1920s or Charlie Parker in the 1940s. Others, expecting nothing more demanding than renditions of Coltrane's commercially successful and relatively accessible 1960 recording of My Favorite Things, were appalled by what they heard and dismissed it as “anti-jazz” and “musical nonsense.”

There was also disagreement concerning the extramusical significance of Coltrane's music. Some critics sought to link him with those younger African American musicians who, influenced by the ideas of the 1960s Black Power movement, identified their art as a revolutionary black music through which they could express their pain, their anger, and their condemnation of American society. Coltrane's position on issues of this kind was ambivalent. Arguably, if his music had any extramusical content, it lay in its visionary, spiritual quality rather than in any sociopolitical sensibility. It was no coincidence that, by the mid 1960s, Coltrane was releasing albums with titles like Meditations, Ascension, and A Love Supreme. Elvin Jones confirms that Coltrane's music “wasn't any protest against anything. John was all love. Everything that he did was out of his love for music, and his love for people” (Jazz Journal 28. 4 [1975], 4–5). This same love led Coltrane to record his composition Alabama following the death of four young African American girls in a 1963 bombing incident in a Birmingham, Alabama, church. The piece is a lament for the children, and its mood of sadness and desolation constitutes an eloquent response to their death.

In December 1964 the quartet recorded the four-part suite A Love Supreme. The suite, a testament to the continuing richness of their musical creativity and empathy and an expression of Coltrane's religious beliefs, received almost unanimous critical praise and rapidly became Coltrane's most celebrated album. In 1965 Down Beat magazine named A Love Supreme Record of the Year in both its Readers' poll and its International Critics' poll. Coltrane also won awards in the Tenor and Soprano Saxophone categories, was elected to the magazine's Hall of Fame, and named as Jazzman of the Year. Rather than rest on his laurels and exploit his fame, Coltrane moved the creative goalposts. In June 1965 he recorded Ascension, on which the quartet was augmented by such leading avant-garde players as Archie Shepp and Pharoah Sanders. The eleven-strong ensemble played a forty-minute piece in which uncompromising solos alternated with overpowering group improvisation, without much in the way of rhythm, melody, or harmony to anchor it.

Coltrane continued to explore the outer limits of improvised music. This musical policy, and a decision to expand the quartet, was not to the liking of all the original group members. McCoy Tyner left the band in December 1965, followed by Elvin Jones in March 1966. For the next year Coltrane recorded and toured with a group in which Jimmy Garrison remained on bass, with Pharoah Sanders on saxophone and Rashied Ali on drums. The piano chair was taken by Coltrane's partner, Alice McLeod Coltrane, who became his second wife in August 1966, following his divorce from Naima. Between 1964 and 1967 the couple had three sons.

At the age of forty, Coltrane had found happiness in his personal life and was still at the height of his creative powers. He had completed a remarkable musical journey, from rhythm and blues via bebop to the cutting edge of the contemporary avant-garde movement. A series of duets he recorded with Rashied Ali in February 1967, subsequently issued as Interstellar Space, show his tenor playing to be as fierce and uncompromising as ever, but there is also a serenity and lyricism to the music. Whether this was a pointer to the future, or simply another episode in the juxtaposition of anguish and tranquillity evident in so much of Coltrane's music, remains uncertain. John Coltrane died of liver cancer in the Huntington Hospital in Huntington, Long Island.

Since his death, no single figure has dominated the jazz scene the way Coltrane did in the 1960s. He remains one of a select group of jazz musicians who evolved artistically throughout their careers and whose personal growth and development moved the music forward in significant ways. Into the twenty-first century Coltrane's influence remains profound. Long before the term “world music” came into vogue, Coltrane had shown the way by absorbing elements of Indian and African music. His move away from a chordal to a scalar approach helped change the face of jazz improvisation. His unsurpassed instrumental technique and his remarkable ability as an improviser have inspired generations of jazz musicians. Coltrane is dead, but lives on in his remarkable legacy of recorded work and in his continuing influence on the contemporary jazz scene.

Further Reading

  • Porter, Lewis. John Coltrane: His Life and Music (1998)
  • Priestley, Brian. John Coltrane (1987)
  • Thomas, J. C. Chasin' the Trane: The Music and Mystique of John Coltrane (1975).

Obituary:

  • New York Times, 18 July 1967.

Discography

  • Fujioka, Yasuhiro. John Coltrane: A Discography and Musical Biography (1995)
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