John Coltrane Biography

(One of the Most Influential Saxophonists in Music History)

Birthday: September 23, 1926 (Libra)

Born In: HaHamlet, North Carolina, United States

John William Coltrane, also called Trane, was one of the most celebrated jazz saxophonists and composers in America in the mid-20th century. He was surrounded by music from his early childhood; but became immersed in it when he lost his father at the age of 13, often practicing till three o’clock in the morning. However, he did not have any formal training until after the Second World War when he started studying Jazz theory with Dennis Sandole. Concurrently, he began to play with different bands, first as an alto saxophonist and later as a tenor saxophonist. His breakthrough came when he moved New York City at the age of 29 at the invitation of Miles Davis, subsequently establishing himself as a solo artist and leader of his own group, ‘John Coltrane Quarter’. In the last two years of his life, his works became more and more spiritual. Today, he is remembered as an icon of the 20th century jazz.
Quick Facts

Also Known As: John William Coltrane

Died At Age: 40


Spouse/Ex-: Alice Coltrane, Juanita Naima Grubbs (m. 1955–1966)

father: John R. Coltrane

mother: Alice Blair

children: Ravi Coltrane

Quotes By John Coltrane African Americans

Died on: July 17, 1967

place of death: Huntington, New York, United States

U.S. State: North Carolina

Notable Alumni: Combs College Of Music Alumni

More Facts

education: Combs College Of Music Alumni

  • 1

    When did John Coltrane start playing the saxophone?

    John Coltrane started playing the saxophone in the mid-1940s.

  • 2

    What is John Coltrane's most famous album?

    John Coltrane's most famous album is "A Love Supreme," released in 1965.

  • 3

    What is John Coltrane's contribution to jazz music?

    John Coltrane is known for his innovative approach to jazz, incorporating modal jazz and avant-garde styles into his music.

  • 4

    Which famous musicians did John Coltrane collaborate with?

    John Coltrane collaborated with musicians such as Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, and Duke Ellington during his career.

  • 5

    What is the significance of John Coltrane's "Giant Steps?"

    John Coltrane's "Giant Steps" album is considered a landmark in jazz music due to its complex harmonic progressions and technical innovations.

Childhood & Early Years
John William Coltrane was born on September 23, 1926 in Hamlet, North Carolina. His father John R. Coltrane was a tailor and amateur musician, who sang and played the ukulele for pleasure. His mother Alice née Blair Coltrane was a seamstress, who sang and played the piano in her father’s choir.
John, his parents’ only child, spent his early years with his extended family, headed by his maternal grandfather Reverend William Blair. His aunt Betty lived in the same household with her husband Coler and their only child, Mary. Living under the same roof, John and Mary grew up as siblings.
Soon after John’s birth, the entire family moved to High Point, also in North Carolina, where his grandfather had accepted a pastorate. They lived in a lower middle-class neighborhood and although they were not rich, the legendary Jazz composer had a protected and happy childhood there.
He was a good student, doing well in his elementary and grade schools. Although he was quite shy, he had a few close friends with whom he participated in Boys Scouts and neighborhood bands. He got more immersed in music when he started attending ‘William Pen High School’.
In 1939, when John was 13 years old, his father died of stomach cancer. Within a few months, his grandfather too passed away. His uncle and aunt followed them within a span of three years, leaving his mother to take care of the two orphaned children alone.
As the family was undergoing a tragic change, John became more and more involved in music. It is not known whether he was trying to get some comfort out of it, but he started practicing for long hours from the very beginning; sometimes until three or four o’clock in the morning.
Initially, he played alto horn at the community band, but he later switched to clarinet and finally to saxophone. In the fall of 1940, he became a member of his school’s newly formed music band.
In 1943, he graduated from ‘William Pen High School’ and moved to Philadelphia with his mother and Mary. His mother started working in a war time plant there. By September, she had saved enough to buy him a saxophone.
In Philadelphia, John Coltrane briefly joined the ‘Granoff School of Music’ before moving to ‘Ornstein School of Music’, where he studied music theory and saxophone techniques. Very soon, he became known as an excellent student, eager to absorb his lessons.
Sometime in the middle of 1945, he appeared for his first professional performance; but his career in music was cut short by the ongoing Second World War. On August 6, 1945, the 19 years old John Coltrane joined the US Navy as part of his war service.
After being trained as an apprentice seaman at Sampson Naval Training Station, New York, Coltrane was shipped to Pearl Harbor to be stationed at Manana Barracks. Thereafter in late 1945, he was moved to Hawaii. By then, the war was over and the Navy had already started delisting.
At Hawaii, John Coltrane’s musical talent was quickly recognized and very soon, he began to play for the Melody Master, the all-white official swing band of the base, mostly as a clarinetist and saxophonist. Concurrently, he continued to perform his duties in the kitchen and also at the security details.
Although he played regularly, he never got the musician’s rating and was treated as a guest performer. Yet, by the end of his service, he had assumed a leading role in the band, warranting a mention in the local newspaper article, which was lamenting the eminent breakup of the band.
His first recording took place on July 13, 1946, when he played a selection of Jazz standards and bebop tunes on his alto saxophone in an informal session with other Navy musician. One month later, he was discharged from his duty.
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Returning Home
In 1946, John Coltrane returned to Philadelphia, where he resumed his studies at the ‘Ornstein School of Music’, studying Jazz theory with Dennis Sandole and continuing with it until 1955. Meanwhile, he joined King Kolax’s band, where he played alto Saxophone. He also went on a tour with him.
Possibly in 1947, he left Kolax to join Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson’s jazz group, playing tenor saxophone for them. The move opened a wide horizon for him and although he was too young to understand the developments that were taking place in jazz music, he felt an emotional bonding with it.
Sometime in 1948, John Coltrane left Vinson to join Jimmy Heath’s band and started experimenting with his music there. Later, in the fall of 1949, he left Heath as well in order to join a big band, led by the legendry trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie. He remained with it for the next one and a half year.
Although by the end of the 1940s he had made a name for himself, he largely remained underemployed. To earn a living, he often had to undertake jobs that he found demeaning for a serious musician. One such job required him to walk on a bar, while honking and shouting through the horn.
To overcome the humiliations, he now began to take drugs, particularly heroin, which greatly affected his career. Nonetheless in 1954, he began to play with Duke Ellington, temporarily replacing Johnny Hodges. But very soon, his drug addiction began to interfere with the group’s schedules, and he lost his job.
In New York
When John Coltrane was a struggling musician in Philadelphia in 1955, he got a call from Miles Davis, who was about to form a new band called ‘First Great Quintet’. John immediately accepted the offer and moved to New York City in 1956.
Davis allowed John Coltrane considerable freedom, enabling him to develop his own style. During this period, he became known for his ‘three-on-one chord’ approach and ‘sheets of sound’ techniques. The latter involves a method of playing multiple notes simultaneously.
In 1956, ‘First Great Quintet’ made quite a few recordings, resulting in albums like 'Cookin' with the Miles Davis Quintet', 'Steamin' with the Miles Davis Quintet', ‘Relaxin' with the Miles Davis Quintet' and 'Workin' with the Miles Davis Quintet'. Each of these albums reflected Coltrane’s growing talent.
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In spite of his talent, his persistent drug addiction continued to hamper his music career and in April 1957, he was fired by Davis, which might have played some part in sobering him. He eventually gave up heroin and from July that year, he started playing with Duke Ellington at Five Spot Café.
In 1957, John started working to establish himself both as a solo recording artist and band leader, recording ‘Blue Train’ in the same year. All pieces in this album, except for ‘I am Old Fashioned’, were written by him. The album was released in 1958.
In January 1958, he rejoined Miles Davis’s band, remaining with him until April 1960, during which he recorded hit albums like ‘Kind of Blue’ and ‘Milestones’ with Miles. Also in 1958, Coltrane had his fourth album ‘Soultrane’, which showcased his ‘sheets of sound’ style of music, released.
He recorded his fifth album ‘Giant Step’ in 1959. Released in 1960, it was his first collaboration with Atlantic Records. In the same year, he left Davis to form his first quartet, ‘John Coltrane Quartet’.
John Coltrane Quartet
John Coltrane appeared with his quartet at the Jazz Gallery in New York City for a live performance in April 1960. Initially, the troupe included pianist McCoy Tyner, drummer Elvin Jones, and bassist Jimmy Garrison; but by autumn, Jimmy Garrison was replaced by Steve Davis on bass.
In January 1961, Atlantic Records released Coltrane’s sixth jazz album, ‘Coltrane Jazz’. Next in March, they released his seventh album, ‘My Favorite Things’, in which he played a soprano saxophone. It also marked his transition from bebop to modal jazz. In November that year, he played at Village Vanguard, achieving great applause.
In 1962, Jimmy Garrison returned to the quartet, which was now known as the ‘Classic Quartet’. From now on, John Coltrane began to work with Garrison, Tyner and Jones, creating spirituality-driven music. Concurrently he began to study Indian and African music, which had immense influence on his creations.
His next album ‘Coltrane’ was released in August 1962. It was a huge success and music critics like Michel G. Nastos gave it four and a half stars out of five. Incidentally, he had another album by the same name released in 1957; but while the previous work was bebop, the new one was modal jazz.
In 1963, he attended the ‘New Port Jazz Festival’ at Newport, Rhode Island. It inspired his live album, ‘Newport 63’, which was released 30 years later on July 20, 1993 by Bob Thele. The album also includes one track recorded at the Village Vanguard in 1961.
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His albums released in 1963 were ‘Impressions’ and ‘Duke Ellington & John Coltrane’. While his latter album was a collaboration with Duke Ellington, ‘Impressions’ consisted of both live and studio recordings with his quartet.
John’s next album ‘Live at Birdland’ was released in April 1964. In December, the quartet recorded their best-selling album ‘A Love Supreme’. Released by Impulse Records in January 1965, it is now viewed as one of the greatest albums ever made.
In 1965, his band recorded six new albums, i.e. ‘The John Coltrane Quartet Plays’, ‘Living Space’, ‘Transition’, ‘New Thing at Newport’, ‘Sun Ship’, and ‘First Meditations’. All of them except ‘Transition’ (released in 1970), ‘Sun Ship’ (released in 1971) and ‘First Meditation’ (released in 1977) were released in the same year.
In the early 1966, Tyner and Jones left the quartet. John Coltrane now had to form a new team, giving live performances as well as recording new albums. In the same year, he also went a tour of Japan, resulting in ‘Live in Japan’. However, the album could not be released before 1971. His popular album ‘Kulu Se Mama’ released in 1967
In 1966, ‘Meditations’ and 'Live at the Village Vanguard Again' released. These were the last alums to be released in his lifetime. Although he recorded two more albums, ‘Interstellar Space’ and ‘Expression’ in early 1967, he did not live to see them get released.
Major Works
John Coltrane is best remembered for his 1965 album, ‘A Love Supreme’. Widely regarded as his masterpiece, it sold about 500,000 copies by 1970 and in 2003, it was ranked 47 on ‘Rolling Stone’s ‘500 Greatest Albums of All Time’. In 2016, the work was selected for preservation in the ‘National Recording Registry’ because of its "cultural, historic, or artistic significance”.
Awards & Achievements
In 1982, Recording Industry Association of America posthumously awarded John Coltrane their Grammy Award in the Best Jazz Solo Performance category for his 1962 album, ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’
In 2007, the Pulitzer Prize Board awarded him a posthumous Special Citation for his innovative and influential works.
Family & Personal Life
John Coltrane married Naima née Juanita Grubbs in 1955. Already a Muslim convert, she had a daughter named Saeeda, who was adopted by Coltrane after their marriage. Although they broke up in 1963, they were officially divorced in 1966.
In 1963, Coltrane met Alice McLeod, who had a daughter by Kenny Hagood. Until 1966, they lived together, having two sons; John Junior (1964), and Ravi (1965. They got married in 1966 and a third son named Oranyan was born in 1967.
He died of liver cancer on July 17, 1967, at Huntington Hospital on Long Island, at the age of 40. He now lies buried at Pinelawn Cemetery in Farmingdale, New York
In 1995, John Coltrane was commemorated with a postage stamp by the United States Postal Service.
Facts About John Coltrane

John Coltrane was known for his love of practicing and constantly pushing the boundaries of his musical abilities, often practicing for hours on end to perfect his craft.

Coltrane was a deeply spiritual person and his music often reflected his spiritual journey and quest for higher consciousness.

He was a prolific composer, with many of his compositions becoming jazz standards that are still performed and celebrated today.

Coltrane was known for his innovative approach to improvisation, incorporating complex harmonic structures and unique melodic ideas into his solos.


Grammy Awards
2001 Best Album Notes Winner
2001 Best Boxed Recording Package Winner
2000 Best Album Notes Winner
1992 Lifetime Achievement Award Winner
1982 Best Jazz Instrumental Performance, Soloist Winner
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