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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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.
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.