Regarded as one of the most revolutionary and a widely imitated saxophonist in jazz music, John Coltrane carved a niche for himself in the world of jazz. Despite a relatively brief career spanning over just 12 years, he achieved more than what a normal human musician could ever dream of achieving. This is the reason why he was honoured with numerous awards posthumously. It was amazing to see the record companies, taking advantage of his fame, re-issuing his recordings. Despite of all these achievements, Coltrane was a controversial figure. He was a person who changed his style often over his career that created much confusion in the discography and appreciations of his playing. However, irrespective of the style, no one can question his devotion and commitment to jazz music and the significance of that music in the history of jazz. Though it is hard to find musicians who actually play in his style, he was a great inspiration for musicians to be innovative in their work and devote themselves to the art.
John Coltrane’s Childhood and Early Life
John Coltrane was born in Hamlet in North Carolina on September 23, 1926 to John. R. Coltrane, a tailor and Alice Coltrane, an amateur musician. Two months after his birth, his maternal grandfather, Reverend William Blair was made the presiding elder in A.M.E Zion Church. Thus, the family had to relocate to High Point in North Carolina. John grew up there and attended Penn High School (Now, Penn-Griffin School for Arts). Shortly after he completed his graduation from Grammar School in 1939, his grandparents and his uncle passed away, leaving him, his mother, aunt and cousin. His mother worked as a domestic help to support the family. In the same year, he joined a community band where he played E-flat alto horn and clarinet. He also played alto saxophone in his high school band. During the course of World War II, his mother, aunt and cousin left him with their family friends, as they had to move to towards north and settled in Philadelphia. Gradually, the entire family settled there.
After the school, Coltrane did several odd jobs. In the meantime, he also attended the Ornstein School of Music and studied at Granoff Studios. He also performed in clubs. In 1945, he was inducted into navy and was stationed in Hawaii. In navy, he never saw a combat and continued with his music. In fact, he made his first recording along with a quartet of sailors on July 13, 1946. In the summer of 1946, Coltrane was discharged of his duties in the navy and he returned to Philadelphia. Soon, he started performing for Joe Webb band. In early 1947, he switched on to King Kolax band and in the same year, he shifted to tenor saxophone from alto. He moved on to Jimmy Heath's band in the middle of 1948 and played with the band until 1949, when he returned to Philadelphia. He also became a part of band led by Dizzy Gillespie and remained there until 1951, when the band was trimmed into a septet. On 1 March 1951, he performed his first solo during a performance, ‘We Love to Boogie’ with Gillespie.
This period also witnessed some worst phases in Coltrane’s life. He got addicted to heroin, which made it difficult for him to take up an employment. He performed in various bands during the early 50’s and in 1954, Johnny Hodges hired John. However, in September 1954, Coltran was fired by his employer because of his drug addiction. On his return to Philadelphia, Miles Davis hired him. This marked a new beginning for him. His association with Miles Davis was the biggest break, which saw his transformation into an established jazz musician. Davis was a drug addict himself, who gained recognition in New Port jazz festival in July 1955, after he escaped the worst period. The success in New Port Jazz festival resulted in a contract with Columbia Records and an opportunity to organize a permanent band, which consisted of pianist Red Garland, bassist Paul chambers and drummer Philly Joe Jones. This unit became an instant success. The first fruit of Davis’ association with Coltrane came in April 1956 when ‘The New Miles Davis Quintet’ was released. In the same year, John became part of two marathon sessions of Prestige to whom Davis had some obligations to fulfill. They were released under the names, ‘Cookin’ (1957), ‘Relaxin’ (1957) and ‘Steamin’ (1961).
In the meantime, Coltrane began to perform as a sideman frequently and Davis tried to end his association with Prestige, as he appeared for many of their sessions. By 1960’s he became very popular as Prestige and others trying to repackage the work under his name. During this time, Coltrane tried to escape from the addiction of heroin in which he failed. In October 1956, Davis fired him, though he took him back by the end of November. In 1957, Prestige signed Coltrane as a solo artist while remaining in the Davis band and being a sideman for other bands. In April 1957, Davis fired Coltrane again for his drug addiction, which finally gave him an impetus to stop using of drugs. On 31 May 1957, he recorded his debut as a bandleader, putting together a pick up band.
In 1958, Coltrane returned to Davis group, thus contributing to albums such as ‘Milestones’ (1958) and ‘Kind of Blue’ (1959), both of which are regarded as classic examples of modern Jazz. After ending his association with Davis in 1960, he formed his own quartet, which featured McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones. The John Coltrane Quartet composed some of the most beautiful and expressive music in the jazz history which includes the hit albums such as, ‘My Favorite Things’, ‘Africa Brass’, ‘Impressions’, ‘Giant Steps’, and his epic work ‘A Love Supreme’, which demonstrate the supremacy, splendor, love, and greatness of God. During this time, he also started playing soprano saxophone along with tenor.
The early 1960s saw Coltrane focus on mode based improvisation in which solos were played. During this period, his study on the music of India and Africa made a great impact on his approach towards soprano sax. In the short period between 1965 and 1967, his works expanded into a free inventiveness. This was the most radical phase of his career and his avant-garde experiments divided critics as well as audiences.
Coltrane passed way due to liver cancer on Long island in New York in United States on 17 July 1967 at the age of 40. His cremation was held in St. Peters Church in New York.
In 1982, The African Orthodox Church canonized Coltrane. However, the Saint John Coltrane African Orthodox Church, San Francisco, which is known as ‘Coltrane Church’ is the only African Orthodox Church, which include Coltrane's music and his lyrics as prayers in its liturgy.
John Coltrane married Niama, but later went to live with a friend called Alice McLeod, whom he met in 1960. He married Alice in 1966 after she delivered his second son. They had three children, John Coltrane Junior, Ravi Coltrane and Oran.
Coltrane's best works were developed in a time span of 12 years from 1955–67. However, as his recordings were prolific, his musical development was also well-documented. His cautious, relatively melodious style, which is associated with his early career, can be heard on the Davis-led albums recorded for Prestige and Columbia labels during the period of 1955 and 56. ‘Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane’ (1957) reflects Coltrane's career growth in terms of technique and harmony, a growth which further can be noticed in Davis' albums ‘Milestones’ and ‘Kind of Blue’. Most of Coltrane's early solo albums are of a high quality, as ‘Blue Train’ (1957), which is the best illustration of his early hard bop style. Works such as ‘Giant Steps’ (1959) and ‘My Favorite Things’ (1960), are examples of his last decades and almost all the albums of Coltrane of the early 1960s are regarded as classics. His final venture into avant-garde and free jazz can be seen in ‘Ascension’ and ‘Meditations’ (1965), and in albums, which were released posthumously.
Coltrane’s former house ‘the John Coltrane House’ in Philadelphia was made a National Historic Landmark in 1999. His final home, ‘the John Coltrane Home’ in Dix Hills in New York, where he stayed until his death in 1967 was inducted into the National Register of Historic Places on 2007. In 2002, scholar Molefi Kete Asante included John Coltrane in his list of 100 Greatest African Americans.
Coltrane had a great influence on varied genres and musicians. His influence on Jazz and avant- garde continues even years after his death. He is one of the most significant influences on post-1960 Jazz saxophonists and his use of multi-tonic systems has become popular and is known as ‘Coltrane changes’.
Awards And Accolades
- Coltrane was inducted into the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame, 1965
- A Love Supreme was awarded gold for sale of over half a million copies in Japan, 1972,
- Coltrane was awarded a posthumous Grammy for ‘Best Jazz Solo Performance’ on the album ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’, 1982
- Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, 1997 (posthumously)
- ‘My Favorite Things’, was awarded gold in United States, 2001