- Category : Musician - Jazz
- Type : GP
- Profile : 2/5 - Hermit / Heretic
- Definition : Split - Small (1,20,33)
- Incarnation Cross : RAX The Vessel of Love 3
John William Coltrane (September 23, 1926 – July 17, 1967), nicknamed Trane, was an American jazz saxophonist and composer.
Although recordings of his work from as early as 1946 exist, Coltrane's recording career did not begin in earnest until 1955. From 1957 onward he recorded and produced dozens of albums, many of them not released until years after his death.
A hugely influential jazz musician, Coltrane has been credited with reshaping modern jazz and with being the predominant influence on successive generations of saxophonists. Along with tenor saxophonists Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, and Sonny Rollins, Coltrane fundamentally altered expectations for the instrument.
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 (1926–1954)
Born in Hamlet, North Carolina, Coltrane grew up in comparatively privileged circumstances in High Point, during an era of racial segregation. He lived in an extended family within the household of his maternal grandfather, Rev. William Wilson Blair, a superintendent of the AME Zion Church, and a dominant figure in High Point's African American community. Midway through Coltrane's seventh grade school year, his close-knit family suffered the deaths of both of his maternal grandparents and his father. Soon afterward, his family lost its only remaining male breadwinner, Coltrane's uncle. These events plunged the family to the brink of poverty, and forced Coltrane's mother and aunt into domestic service. It was during this time that Coltrane began playing music and practicing intensively.
His early life was influenced by his Southern middle-class upbringing; a heavy emphasis on religion along with exposure to and training in the Western European choral canon, both and equally, affected his later musical career. Coltrane first played alto horn in a community band, but soon switched to clarinet. In high school, he played in a fledgling school band and also sang in the William Penn High School Boys Chorus. The latter ensemble exposed him to challenging and sophisticated musical compositions. Coltrane learned of jazz through the radio, movies, and jukeboxes. As his enthusiasm for jazz blossomed, he changed instruments again, to alto saxophone, but lost interest in the school band; he did not play in the band at all during his senior year.
Coltrane moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in June 1943, and was drafted into the Navy in 1945, where he played in a Hawaii-based Navy band. The group played then-current bebop standards: Tadd Dameron's "Hot House", Charlie Parker's "Ornithology", and some vocal tunes. Several sides recorded by this band in a single rushed session have since surfaced on compact disc. They are Coltrane's earliest known surviving recordings.
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. Coltrane returned to civilian life in 1946; at this time, he had a few brief encounters with Parker, who was already a dominant influence on his playing.
He worked at a variety of jobs in the late 1940s until he joined Dizzy Gillespie's big band in 1949 as an alto saxophonist. He stayed with Gillespie through the big band's breakup in May 1950 and switched to tenor saxophone during his subsequent spell in Gillespie's small group, staying until April 1951 when he returned to Philadelphia. It was at around this time that Coltrane became addicted to heroin.
In early 1952, Coltrane joined Earl Bostic's band. In 1953, after a stint with Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson, he joined Johnny Hodges's small group, which was active during Hodges's four-year sabbatical from Duke Ellington's orchestra. Coltrane stayed with Hodges until mid-1954.
Miles and Monk period (1955–1959)
Image:John Coltrane-Miles Davis-So What-The Sound of Miles Davis.png
Soloing on "So What" for CBS in April 1959; Miles Davis in background.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. Davis's success during the late 1940s had dissipated during several years of heroin abuse, but he had now cleaned up, become active again, and was ready to form a regularly working quintet. 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.
This trend-setting group, best represented by two marathon recording sessions for Prestige in 1956, disbanded in mid-April. Coltrane would go on to adopt some of Davis's leadership traits for his future groups, such as allowing his musicians to solo with little interference, eschewing bandstand banter or tune identification, and remaining detached from both his audience and the press. Coltrane's style at this point was loquacious, and critics dubbed his playing angry and harsh. One especially harsh critic, Harry Frost, called Coltrane's solos "extended double-time flurries notable for their lack of direction." A Down Beat critic meanwhile stated that "the philosophical ramifications of Coltrane's playing are best left within the confines of his own tortured psyche."
In the early part of 1957, Coltrane succeeded in kicking his heroin addiction. He simultaneously experienced a spiritual epiphany that would lead him to concentrate wholly on the development of his music. He began to practice obsessively, incorporating violin and harp exercises. The resulting increase in his technical ability allowed him to play at wider intervals during his solos. From this point until almost the end of his life, Coltrane was well-known for his intensive practicing.
During the latter part of 1957, Coltrane worked with Thelonious Monk at New York City's Five Spot Cafe during a legendary six-month gig. Unfortunately, this association was not extensively documented, and the best-recorded evidence demonstrating the compatibility of Coltrane with Monk, a concert at Carnegie Hall on November 29, 1957, was only discovered and issued in 2005 by Blue Note, along with another of their recordings, The Complete 1957 Riverside Recordings. His extensive recordings as a sideman and as a leader for Prestige have a mixed reputation. Blue Train, his sole date as leader for Blue Note, is widely considered his best album from this period.
He 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. Also towards the end of this period he recorded his own influential sessions (notably Giant Steps whose title track is generally considered to have the most complex and difficult chord progression of any widely-played Jazz composition).
Around the end of his tenure with Davis, Coltrane began 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 radical change in his tenor style after leaving the Davis group was due partially to a problem with his mouthpiece and acute pain in his gums, another possible reason for taking up the soprano.
Classic Quartet period (1960–1965)
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 Art 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.
While still with Miles, Coltrane had signed a contract with Atlantic Records, for whom he recorded the aforementioned Giant Steps. His first record with his new group was the hugely successful My Favorite Things, whose title track, a catchy waltz by Rodgers and Hammerstein (as well as Cole Porter's "Every Time We Say Goodbye"), featured Coltrane on soprano. This new sound was coupled with further exploration. For example, on the Gershwin tune "But Not for Me," Coltrane employs the kinds of restless harmonic movement of his Giant Steps period (movement in major thirds rather than conventional perfect fourths) over the A sections instead of a conventional turnaround progression.
Shortly before completing his contract with Atlantic in May 1961 (with the album Olé Coltrane), Coltrane joined the newly formed Impulse! 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. 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.
In 1962, Dolphy departed and Jimmy Garrison replaced Workman. 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 and Johnny Hartman. The album Ballads is emblematic of Coltrane's versatility, as he 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 along its exploratory and challenging path. Coltrane later said he enjoyed having a "balanced catalogue."
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 — Coltrane often mentioned that he worshipped all gods of all religions). Its spiritual concerns would characterize much of Coltrane's composing and playing from this point until his death in 1967. The fourth movement of the suite, "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. They only played the suite 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 (1965–1967)
In his late (post-A Love Supreme) period, Coltrane showed an increasing interest in avant-garde jazz, purveyed, along with its aforementioned pioneer, Ornette Coleman, by Cecil Taylor, Albert Ayler, Sun Ra, and others. In formulating his late style, Coltrane was especially influenced by the dissonance of Ayler's trio with bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Sunny Murray. 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, the influence of Ayler's playing 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 and dissonant, with greater incorporation of devices like multiphonics, overblowing, and playing in the altissimo register. 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, Dear Old Stockholm (both May 1965), Living Space, Transition (both June 1965), New Thing at Newport (July 1965), Sun Ship (August 1965), and First Meditations (September 1965). Only Plays and New Thing at Newport were released during Coltrane's lifetime.
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. This lengthy 40-minute piece included adventurous solos by the young avant-garde musicians (as well as Coltrane), but 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 saxophonists then playing. Coltrane, who used over-blowing frequently as an emotional exclamation-point, gravitated to Sanders' uniquely shrill solos. The aforementioned John Gilmore was 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.
By the fall of 1965, Coltrane was regularly augmenting his group with Sanders and other free jazz musicians. Rashied Ali joined the group as a second drummer. 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." Concert solos for band-members regularly stretched beyond the fifteen-minute mark.
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!. 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. Coltrane's excessive alcohol and heroin abuse during the 1940s and 1950s quite possibly laid the seed for this illness, which can strike reformed alcoholics years after they quit. 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 is also pursuing his own career.
Coltrane's religious beliefs
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 (particularly Sufism). 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."
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, Carlos Santana, Allan Holdsworth, Jerry Garcia, the Stooges, The Doors, Mike Watt, OutKast and Duane Allman cite 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. He 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, 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.