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Birth name John William Coltrane
Also known as "Trane"
Born September 23, 1926(1926-09-23)
Origin Hamlet, North Carolina,
Died July 17, 1967 (aged 40)
Genre(s) Avant-garde jazz, bebop, post-bop, hard bop, free jazz, modal jazz
Occupation(s) Saxophonist, composer, bandleader
Instrument(s) Tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone, alto saxophone, flute, bass clarinet
Years active 19461967
Label(s) Prestige, Blue Note, Atlantic, Impulse!
Associated acts Miles Davis Quintet, John Coltrane Quartet, John Coltrane Quintet
John William Coltrane (September 23, 1926 in Hamlet, North Carolina July 17, 1967 at Huntington Hospital in Long Island, NY) was an American jazz saxophonist and composer. Born in Hamlet, North Carolina, Coltrane grew up in High Point, North Carolina and moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in June 1943. He was inducted into the Navy in 1945 and returned to civilian life in 1946. Coltrane worked a variety of jobs through the late forties until he joined Dizzy Gillespie's big band in 1949 as an alto saxophonist. He stayed with Gillespie through the band's breakup in May 1950 and, now on tenor saxophone, worked with Gillespie's small group until April 1951, when he returned to Philadelphia to go to school.
In early 1952, Coltrane joined Earl Bostic's band. In 1953, after a stint with Eddie Vinson, he joined Johnny Hodges's small group during Hodges's short sabbatical from Duke Ellington's orchestra, staying until mid 1954.
Throughout his career Coltrane's music took on an increasingly spiritual dimension that would color his legacy. His conception of expression in jazz became increasingly mystical, gnostic and cathartic.
Coltrane received a posthumous Special Citation from the Pulitzer Prize Board in 2007 for his "masterful improvisation, supreme musicianship and iconic centrality to the history of jazz."
Early life and career (19261954)
Statue of Coltrane in High Point, North Carolina - his birthplace.John Coltrane was born on September 23, 1926. Coltrane grew up in High Point NC, moving to Philadelphia PA in June 1943. He was inducted into the Navy in 1945, returning to civilian life in 1946. Contemporary correspondence shows that Coltrane was already known as "Trane" by this point, and that the music from the 1946 sessions had been played for Miles Davis possibly impressing him.
Although there are recordings of Coltrane from as early as 1946, his peers at the time didn't recognize 'genius' in the young musician. His real career spans the twelve years between 1955 and 1967, during which time he reshaped modern jazz and influenced generations of other musicians. Coltrane was freelancing in Philadelphia in the summer of 1955 when he received a call from trumpeter Miles Davis. Davis, whose success during the late forties had been followed by several years of decline, was again active, and was about to form a quintet. Coltrane was with this first edition of the Davis group from October 1955 through April 1957 (with a few absences), a period which saw influential recordings from Davis and the first signs of Coltrane's growing ability.
This classic First Quintet, best represented by two marathon recording sessions for Prestige in 1956, disbanded in mid-April due partially to Coltrane's problematic heroin addiction. Coltrane would use much of what he learned with Davis to run his own groups, namely allowing musicians to solo and improvise with their own sensibilities as well as eschewing involvement with his audience and remaining aloof to press.
During the latter part of 1957 Coltrane worked with Thelonious Monk at New Yorks Five Spot, a legendary gig. He rejoined Miles in January 1958, staying until April 1960, during which time he participated in such seminal Davis sessions as Milestones and Kind of Blue, and recorded his own influential sessions (notably Giant Steps).
Throughout the 1950s addiction to drugs and then alcoholism disrupted his career. Shortly after leaving Davis, however, he overcame these problems; his album A Love Supreme celebrated this victory and the profound religious experience associated with it. Coltrane next played in Thelonious Monk's quartet (July-December 1957), but owing to contractual conflicts took part in only one early recording session of this legendary group. He rejoined Davis and worked in various quintets and sextets with Cannonball Adderley, Bill Evans, Chambers, Jones, and others (1958-60). While with Davis he discovered the soprano saxophone, purchasing his own instrument in February 1960.
Miles and Monk period (19551959)
Coltrane was freelancing in Philadelphia in the summer of 1955 while studying with guitarist Dennis Sandole when he received a call from trumpeter Miles Davis. With a few absences, Coltrane was with this edition of the Davis band (known as the "First Great Quintet" to distinguish it from Miles's later group with Wayne Shorter) from October 1955 through April 1957, a period which saw influential recordings from Davis and the first signs of Coltrane's growing ability.
Blue Train, his sole date as leader for Blue Note, featuring trumpeter Lee Morgan, bassist Paul Chambers, and trombonist Curtis Fuller, is widely considered his best album from this period. Four of its five tracks are original Coltrane compositions, and several of them, notably the title track, "Moment's Notice" and "Lazy Bird", have gone on to become standards.
Davis and Coltrane again
Coltrane rejoined Davis in January 1958. In October 1958, jazz critic Ira Gitler coined the term "sheets of sound" to describe the unique style Coltrane developed during his stint with Monk and was perfecting in Miles' group, now a sextet. His playing was compressed, as if whole solos passed in a few seconds, with rapid runs cascading in hundreds of notes per minute. He stayed with Davis until April 1960, working with, in due course, alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley; pianists Red Garland, Bill Evans, and Wynton Kelly; bassist Paul Chambers; and drummers Philly Joe Jones and Jimmy Cobb. During this time he participated in such seminal Davis sessions as Milestones and Kind Of Blue, and the live recordings, Miles & Monk at Newport and Jazz at the Plaza.
Toward the end of this period he recorded his first album exclusively of his own compositions, Giant Steps (for Atlantic Records) whose title track is generally considered to have the most complex and difficult chord progression of any widely-played jazz composition. Coltrane had already begun to experiment with harmony and to solo extensively.
My Favorite Things
Coltrane formed his first group, a quartet, in 1960. After moving through different personnel including Steve Kuhn, Pete LaRoca, and Billy Higgins, the lineup stabilized in the fall with pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Steve Davis, and drummer Elvin Jones. Tyner, from Philadelphia, had been a friend of Coltrane's for some years and the two men long had an understanding that the pianist would join Coltrane when Tyner felt ready for the exposure of regularly working with him. Also recorded in the same sessions were the later released albums Coltrane's Sound and Coltrane Plays the Blues.
Still with Atlantic Records, for whom he had recorded Giant Steps, his first record with his new group was also his debut playing the soprano saxophone, the hugely successful My Favorite Things. Around the end of his tenure with Davis, Coltrane had begun playing soprano saxophone, an unconventional move considering the instrument's near obsolescence in jazz at the time. His interest in the straight saxophone most likely arose from his admiration for Sidney Bechet and the work of his contemporary, Steve Lacy, even though Miles Davis claimed to have given Coltrane his first soprano saxophone.
The new soprano sound was coupled with further exploration. For example, on the Gershwin tune "But Not for Me", Coltrane employs the kinds of restless harmonic movement (Coltrane changes) used on Giant Steps (movement in major thirds rather than conventional perfect fourths) over the A sections instead of a conventional turnaround progression. Several other tracks recorded in the session utilized this harmonic device, including "26-2," "Satellite," "Body and Soul," and "The Night Has a Thousand Eyes."
The first years with Impulse Records (1960-1962)
Shortly before completing his contract with Atlantic in May 1961 (with the album Olé Coltrane although Atlantic would continue to release recordings from their vaults for many years), Coltrane joined the newly formed Impulse! Records label, with whom the "Classic Quartet" would record. It is generally assumed that the clinching reason Coltrane signed with Impulse! was that it would enable him to work again with recording engineer Rudy Van Gelder, who had taped both his and Davis's Prestige sessions, as well as Blue Train. It was at Van Gelder's new studio in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey that Coltrane would record most of his records for the label.
By early 1961, bassist Davis had been replaced by Reggie Workman while Eric Dolphy joined the group as a second horn around the same time. The quintet had a celebrated (and extensively recorded) residency in November 1961 at the Village Vanguard, which demonstrated Coltrane's new direction. It featured the most experimental music he'd played up to this point, influenced by Indian ragas, the recent developments in modal jazz, and the burgeoning free jazz movement. Longtime Sun Ra saxophonist John Gilmore was particularly influential; the most celebrated of the Vanguard tunes, the 15-minute blues, "Chasin' the 'Trane", was strongly inspired by Gilmore's music.
During this period, critics were fiercely divided in their estimation of Coltrane, who had radically altered his style. Audiences, too, were perplexed; in France he was famously booed during his final tour with Davis. In 1961, Down Beat magazine indicted Coltrane, along with Eric Dolphy, as players of "Anti-Jazz" in an article that bewildered and upset the musicians. Coltrane admitted some of his early solos were based mostly on technical ideas. Furthermore, Dolphy's angular, voice-like playing earned him a reputation as a figurehead of the "New Thing" (also known as "Free Jazz" and "Avant-Garde") movement led by Ornette Coleman, which was also denigrated by some jazz musicians (including Trane's old boss, Miles Davis) and critics. But as Coltrane's style further developed, he was determined to make each performance "a whole expression of one's being", as he would call his music in a 1966 interview.
Classic Quartet period (19621965)
In 1962, Dolphy departed and Jimmy Garrison replaced Workman as bassist. From then on, the "Classic Quartet", as it would come to be known, with Tyner, Garrison, and Jones, produced searching, spiritually driven work. Coltrane was moving toward a more harmonically static style that allowed him to expand his improvisations rhythmically, melodically, and motivically. Harmonically complex music was still present, but on stage Coltrane heavily favored continually reworking his "standards": "Impressions", "My Favorite Things", and "I Want to Talk about You."
The criticism of the quintet with Dolphy may have had an impact on Coltrane. In contrast to the radicalism of Trane's 1961 recordings at the Village Vanguard, his studio albums in 1962 and 1963 (with the exception of Coltrane, which featured a blistering version of Harold Arlen's "Out of This World") were much more conservative and accessible. He recorded an album of ballads and participated in collaborations with Duke Ellington on the album Duke Ellington and John Coltrane and with deep-voiced ballad singer Johnny Hartman on the album John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman. The Impulse compilation Coltrane For Lovers is largely drawn from these three albums. The album Ballads is emblematic of Coltrane's versatility, as the quartet shed new light on old-fashioned standards such as "It's Easy to Remember." Despite a more polished approach in the studio, in concert the quartet continued to balance "standard" and its own more exploratory and challenging music, as can be seen on the Impressions album (two extended jams including the title track along with "Dear Old Stockholm", "After the Rain" and a blues), Coltrane at Newport (where he plays My Favorite Things) and Live at Birdland both from 1963. Coltrane later said he enjoyed having a "balanced catalogue."
A Love Supreme
The Classic Quartet produced their most famous record, A Love Supreme, in December 1964. A culmination of much of Coltrane's work up to this period, this four-part suite is an ode to his faith in and love for God (not necessarily God in the Christian sense in the liner notes of Meditations he says "I believe in all religions"). These spiritual concerns would characterize much of Coltrane's composing and playing from this point onwards, as can be seen from album titles such as Ascension, Om and Meditations. The fourth movement of A Love Supreme, "Psalm", is, in fact, a musical setting for an original poem to God written by Coltrane, and printed in the album's liner notes. Coltrane plays almost exactly one note for each syllable of the poem, and bases his phrasing on the words. Despite its challenging musical content, the album was a commercial success by jazz standards, encapsulating both the internal and external energy of the quartet of Coltrane, Tyner, Jones and Garrison. Indeed the previous album Crescent recorded only a few months before already shows the adventurousness and rapport between these musicians. The album was composed at Coltrane's home in the Dix Hills neighborhood of Huntington, New York.
The quartet only played A Love Supreme live once in July 1965 at a concert in Antibes, France. By then, Coltrane's music had grown even more adventurous, and the performance provides an interesting contrast to the original.
Avant-garde jazz and the second quartet (19651967)
In his late period, Coltrane showed an increasing interest in avant-garde jazz, purveyed by Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, Sun Ra and others. In developing his late style, Coltrane was especially influenced by the dissonance of Ayler's trio with bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Sunny Murray, a rhythm section honed with Cecil Taylor as leader. Coltrane championed many younger free jazz musicians, (notably Archie Shepp), and under his influence Impulse! became a leading free jazz record label.
After recording A Love Supreme, Ayler's apocalyptic style became more prominent in Coltrane's music. A series of recordings with the Classic Quartet in the first half of 1965 show Coltrane's playing becoming increasingly abstract, with greater incorporation of devices like multiphonics, utilization of overtones, and playing in the altissimo register, as well as a mutated return to Coltrane's sheets of sound. In the studio, he all but abandoned his soprano to concentrate on the tenor saxophone. In addition, the quartet responded to the leader by playing with increasing freedom. The group's evolution can be traced through the recordings The John Coltrane Quartet Plays, Living Space, Transition (both June 1965), New Thing at Newport (July 1965), Sun Ship (August 1965), and First Meditations (September 1965).
In June 1965, he went into Van Gelder's studio with ten other musicians (including Shepp, Pharoah Sanders, Freddie Hubbard, Marion Brown, and John Tchicai) to record Ascension, a 40-minute long piece that included adventurous solos by the young avant-garde musicians (as well as Coltrane), and was controversial primarily for the collective improvisation sections that separated the solos. After recording with the quartet over the next few months, Coltrane invited Pharoah Sanders to join the band in September 1965.
By any measure, Sanders was one of the most abrasive, virtuosic saxophonists then playing. While Coltrane used over-blowing frequently as an emotional exclamation-point, Sanders would opt to overblow his entire solo, resulting in a constant screaming and screeching in the altissimo range of the instrument. The more Coltrane played with Sanders, the more he gravitated to Sanders' unique sound. John Gilmore was also a major influence on Coltrane's late-period music, as well. After hearing a Gilmore performance, Coltrane is reported to have said "He's got it! Gilmore's got the concept!" He also took informal lessons from Gilmore.
Adding to the quartet
By late 1965, Coltrane was regularly augmenting his group with Sanders and other free jazz musicians. Rashied Ali joined the group as a second drummer. This was the end of the quartet; claiming he was unable to hear himself over the two drummers, Tyner left the band shortly after the recording of Meditations. Jones left in early 1966, dissatisfied by sharing drumming duties with Ali. Both Tyner and Jones subsequently expressed displeasure in interviews, after Coltrane's death, with the music's new direction, while incorporating some of the free-jazz form's intensity into their own solo projects.
In 1965 Coltrane may have begun using LSD - informing the sublime, "cosmic" transcendence of his late period, and also its incomprehensibility to many listeners. After Jones and Tyner's departures, Coltrane led a quintet with Pharoah Sanders on tenor saxophone, his new wife Alice Coltrane on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass, and Rashied Ali on drums. Coltrane and Sanders were described by Nat Hentoff as "speaking in tongues." When touring, the group was known for playing very lengthy versions of their repertoire, with many stretching beyond 30 minutes and sometimes even being an hour long. Concert solos for band-members regularly were at least fifteen-minutes or longer.
Despite the radicalism of the horns, the rhythm section with Ali and Alice Coltrane had a more relaxed, random but meditative feel than with Jones and Tyner. The group can be heard on several live recordings from 1966, including Live at the Village Vanguard Again! and Live in Japan. In 1967, Coltrane entered the studio several times; though pieces with Sanders have surfaced (the unusual "To Be", which features both men on flutes), most of the recordings were either with the quartet minus Sanders (Expression and Stellar Regions) or as a duo with Ali. The latter duo produced six performances which appear on the album Interstellar Space.
Coltrane died from liver cancer at Huntington Hospital in Long Island, NY on July 17, 1967, at the age of 40. In a 1968 interview Albert Ayler revealed that Coltrane was consulting a Hindu meditative healer for his illness instead of Western medicine, though Alice Coltrane later denied this. In any event, conventional treatment may have been ineffective.
The Coltrane family reportedly remains in possession of much more as-yet-unreleased music, mostly mono reference tapes made for the saxophonist and, as with the 1995 release Stellar Regions, master tapes that were checked out of the studio and never returned. The parent company of Impulse!, from 1965 to 1979 known as ABC Records, purged much of its unreleased material in the 1970s. Biographer Lewis Porter has stated that Alice Coltrane intended to release this music, but over a long period of time, as her son Ravi Coltrane, responsible for reviewing the material, is also pursuing his own career.
Coltrane was born and raised a Christian, and was in touch with religion and spirituality from childhood. As a youth, he practiced music in a southern African-American church. In A Night in Tunisia: Imaginings of Africa in Jazz, Norman Weinstein notes the parallel between Coltrane's music and his experience in the southern church.
In 1957 Coltrane began to shift spiritual directions. Two years earlier, he had married Juanita Naima Grubb, a Muslim convert, (for whom he later wrote the piece "Naima"), and came into contact with Islam, an experience that may have led him to overcome his addictions to alcohol and heroin; it was a period of "spiritual awakening" that helped him return to the jazz scene and eventually produce his greatest work. The journey took him through Islam. Bassist Donald Garrett told Coltrane, "You've got to go to the source to learn anything, and Sufism is one of the best sources there is.''
Coltrane also explored Hinduism, the Kabbala, Jiddu Krishnamurti, yoga, math, science, astrology, African history, and even Plato and Aristotle . He notes..."During the year 1957, I experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening which was to lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life. At that time, in gratitude, I humbly asked to be given the means and privilege to make others happy through music." In his 1965 album Meditations, Coltrane wrote about uplifting people, "...To inspire them to realize more and more of their capacities for living meaningful lives. Because there certainly is meaning to life."
In October 1965, Coltrane recorded Om, referring to the sacred syllable in Hindu religion, which symbolizes the infinite or the entire Universe. Coltrane described Om as the "first syllable, the primal word, the word of power". The 29-minute recording contains chants from the Bhagavad-Gita, a Hindu epic. A 1966 recording, issued posthumously, has Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders chanting from a Buddhist text, The Tibetan Book of the Dead, and reciting a passage describing the primal verbalization "om" as a cosmic/spiritual common denominator in all things.
Coltrane's spiritual journey was interwoven with his investigation into world music. He believed not only in a universal musical structure which transcended ethnic distinctions, but in being able to harness the mystical language of music itself. Coltrane's study of Indian music led him to believe that certain sounds and scales could "produce specific emotional meanings" (impressions). According to Coltrane, the goal of a musician was to understand these forces, control them, and elicit a response from the audience. Like Pythagoras and his followers who believed music could cure illness, Coltrane said: "I would like to bring to people something like happiness. I would like to discover a method so that if I want it to rain, it will start right away to rain. If one of my friends is ill, I'd like to play a certain song and he will be cured; when he'd be broke, I'd bring out a different song and immediately he'd receive all the money he needed."
John Coltrane House
(U.S. National Historic Landmark)
Location: 1511 North 33rd Street
Coordinates: 39°58′49.15″N 75°11′20.9″W / 39.9803194, -75.189139Coordinates: 39°58′49.15″N 75°11′20.9″W / 39.9803194, -75.189139
Architect: Wilson, E.A.
Architectural style(s): Colonial Revival
Added to NRHP: January 20, 1999
NRHP Reference#: 99000628
Governing body: Private
Although some jazz listeners still consider the late Coltrane albums to contain little more than cacophony, many of these late recordings among them Ascension, Meditations and the posthumous Interstellar Space are widely considered masterpieces.
The music of Coltrane's modal and Village Vanguard period was the admitted principal influence on what was arguably the first jazz-rock fusion recording, the Byrds' "Eight Miles High" (December 1965). Some of Coltrane's other innovations would be incorporated into the fusion movement, but with diminishing returns of spiritual fervency and earnestness.
The influence Coltrane has had on music spans many different genres and musicians. For example, Jimi Hendrix, John McLaughlin, Carlos Santana, Primal Scream, Jah Wobble, Tom Verlaine, Allan Holdsworth, Jerry Garcia, the Stooges, The Doors, Erykah Badu, Mike Watt, Phil Lesh, OutKast, Christian Vander, and Duane Allman have cited Coltrane's work as inspiration.
Coltrane's massive influence on jazz, both mainstream and avant-garde, began during his lifetime and continued to grow after his death. He is one of the most dominant influences on post-1960 jazz saxophonists and has inspired an entire generation of jazz musicians. In 1965, he was inducted into the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame, and was posthumously awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1992.
His widow, Alice Coltrane, after several decades of seclusion, briefly regained a public profile before her death in 2007. Coltrane's son, Ravi Coltrane, named after the great Indian sitarist Ravi Shankar, whom Coltrane greatly admired, has followed in his father's footsteps and is a prominent contemporary saxophonist.
The Saint John Coltrane African Orthodox Church, an African Orthodox Church in San Francisco, has recognized Coltrane as a saint since 1971. Their services incorporate Coltrane's music, using his lyrics as prayers. A documentary on Coltrane, featuring the church, was produced for the BBC in 2004 and is presented by Alan Yentob.
His former home in Philadelphia was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1999.
See also: John Coltrane House
Main article: John Coltrane discography
Early Career As sideman
'Round About Midnight
Kind of Blue;
Someday My Prince Will Come
Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall
Early solo period, at Prestige and Blue Note
Coltrane (debut solo LP, 1957)
Kenny Burrell and John Coltrane - (1957)
The Cats (1957)
Traneing In (1958)
Blue Train (1957)
Lush Life (1958)
Middle period - Atlantic Records (May 1959 - October 1960)
Bags and Trane w Milt Jackson
Giant Steps (1959) - the first album entirely of Coltrane compositions
Coltrane Jazz (1959)
The Avant-Garde with Don Cherry
My Favorite Things,
Coltrane Plays the Blues,
Olé Coltrane (1961) - w compositions by Coltrane and McCoy Tyner.
Africa/Brass (brass arranged by Tyner & Eric Dolphy, 1961. A second volume was released in 1974.)
Live! at the Village Vanguard (featuring Eric Dolphy, first appearance by Jimmy Garrison - 1961)
Coltrane (first album to solely feature the "classic quartet" -1962)
Duke Ellington & John Coltrane (1962)
John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman (1963)
Live at birdland (1963) -
A Love Supreme (1964) -
The John Coltrane Quartet Plays (1965) -
Live at the Half Note: One Up, One Down (1965) -
Ascension (1965) - the 11-piece free improvisation
Living Space - (1965) - the last studio recordings on the soprano, posthumously released collection
Transition (1965) - another step towards freedom
Sun Ship (1965, released 1971)
First Meditations (final "classic quartet" session, 1965) and Meditations (quartet plus Pharoah Sanders and Rashied Ali, 1965)
Live at the Village Vanguard Again! (featuring Alice Coltrane, as well as Sanders and Ali, 1966)
Live in Japan - (July 1966) - 4-disc set, two nights in Tokyo
Stellar Regions (Sanders absent; released 1995, recorded 1967)
Expression(final Coltrane-approved release; one track features Coltrane on flute, 1967)
Interstellar Space (final studio session, 1967; Coltrane duets with drummer Rashied Ali)
The Olatunji Concert: The Last Live Recording (2001; recorded 1967)
Kahn, Ashley (2002) A Love Supreme: The Story of John Coltrane's Signature Album (1st ed.), New York: Viking. ISBN 0-12-345678-9
Porter, Lewis (1998) John Coltrane: his life and music, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, ISBN 0-472-10161-7.
Thomas, J.C. (1975), Chasin' the Trane, (Reprint of 1975 ed. published by Doubleday) Garden City, New York: Da Capo, ISBN 0-306-80043-8
Woideck, Carl (editor) (1998). The John Coltrane Companion (1st ed.), New York: Schirmer Books, ISBN 0-02-864790-4
Ratliff, Ben (2007) Coltrane: The Story of a Sound, Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
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