John Coltrane

John Coltrane Jazz, taking its roots in African American folk music, has evolved, metamorphosed, and transposed itself over the last century to become a truly American art form. More than any other type of music, it places special emphasis on innovative individual interpretation. Instead of relying on a written score, the musician improvises. For each specific period or style through which jazz has gone through over the past seventy years, there is almost always a single person who can be credited with the evolution of that sound. From Thelonius Monk, and his bebop, to Miles Davis cool jazz, from Dizzy Gillespies big band to John Coltranes free jazz; Americas music has been developed, and refined countless times through individual experimentation and innovation. One of the most influential musicians in the development of modern jazz is John Coltrane.

In this paper, I examine the way in which Coltranes musical innovations were related to the music of the jazz greats of his era and to the tribulations and tragedies of his life. John William Coltrane was born in Hamlet, North Carolina, on September 23, 1926. Two months later, his family moved to High Point, North Carolina, where he lived in a fairly well-to-do part of town. He grew up in a typical southern black family, deeply religious, and steeped in tradition. Both of his parents were musicians, his father played the violin and ukulele, and his mother was a member of the church choir.

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For several years, young Coltrane played the clarinet, however with mild interest. It was only after he heard the great alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges playing with the Duke Ellington band on the radio, that he became passionate about music. He dropped the clarinet and took up the alto saxophone, soon becoming very accomplished. When Coltrane was thirteen, he experienced several tragedies that would leave a lasting impression on him and would have a great impact on the music of his later years. Within a year, his father, his uncle, and his minister all died. He lost every important male influence in his life.

After graduating from high school in High Point, he moved to Philadelphia in 1943, where he lived in a small one-room apartment and worked as a laborer in a sugar-refinery. For a year, Coltrane attended Ornstein School of Music. Then in 1945, he was drafted into the Navy and sent to Hawaii where he was assigned to play clarinet in a band called the Melody Makers. Upon his return from Hawaii a year later, Coltrane launched his music career. “With all those years of constant practice in High Point behind him, possessing a powerful inner strength from being raised in a deeply religious family, and with a foundation in musical theory and an innate curiosity about life, Coltrane was well prepared to seriously enter a battle.” In the late nineteen forties, Coltrane began playing with several different R&B groups in small bars and clubs around Philadelphia.

It became a tradition in many of the clubs at this time for musicians to “walk the bar” (i.e. to walk on top of the bar while playing ones instrument). Coltrane was ashamed of having to go through this “display” every night. “To any serious musician, it was an incredibly humiliating experience – to someone like Coltrane, who was developing a type of religious fervor for his music, it was devastating.” In addition to the negative self-image this experience engendered, critics criticized his music as being too bizarre. Coltrane became very depressed, and searching for a way out, he turned to heroin. Heroin was a very popular drug among black musicians in the forties. It was a uniting force that, initially, brought them together, but in the end caused lives and careers to disintegrate.

In 1949, Dizzy Gillespie invited Coltrane to play in his big band. Gillespie had been a very influential and important figure in the bebop movement. Bebop was a style of jazz, popular during the late thirties and forties. It incorporated faster tempos, and more complex phrases than the jazz of earlier years. For the first time in many years, Coltrane felt some sense of stability in his life. However, after a two-year stint with Gillespie, Coltrane was asked to leave because of his unreliability due to his heroin addiction.

Again, Coltrane was reduced to”walking the bar”, and playing in seedy clubs. Depressed and dejected, his addiction grew. It was during this time that Coltrane became very interested in eastern philosophies. “When he was not studying or playing he spent most of his time reading and attempting to satisfy his growing philosophical curiosity about life. It was an inborn curiosity to a certain extent, but one that had also developed from events from his early life such as his religious upbringing, and the early deaths of the most important men in his life.” Life was getting back on track for him, as he finally felt the influence of positive forces. At this time, he met Naima, a Moslem woman, and an able musician.

More than anyone, she was able to help Coltrane pick up the broken pieces of his life. They were soon married. In the mid-fifties, he was invited to play with Miles Davis and his quintet. The collaboration that developed would change his life. Miles Davis had received acclaim at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1955.

Davis was dubbed the rising star of the new avant-garde movement, cool jazz. Cool jazz was a striking contrast to the more traditional jazz popular during the forties. It emphasized experimentation with chords, keys, and modes, improvising on scales rather than on sequences of chords, producing music that at times was very bizarre. This new movement was the beginning of an experimental stage of jazz that was very popular during the sixties. The partnership between Davis and Coltrane proved to be an incredible learning experience for Coltrane. He began to develop a style distinctly his own.

“Coltrane poured out streams of notes with velocity and passion, exploring every melodic idea, no matter how exotic.” This became known as Coltranes “sheets of sound period”, in which he would explore the scales of the saxophone at a speed that no one had ever achieved, creating very den …

John Coltrane

“I’ve got to keep experimenting. I feel that I’m just beginning. I have part of what I’m looking for in my grasp, but not all.;quot;
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John Coltrane
This phrase, from the liner notes of “My Favorite Things” clearly defines Coltrane’s life and his search for the incorporation of his spirituality with his music. John Coltrane was not only an essential contributor to jazz, but also music itself. John Coltrane died thirty-two years ago, on July 17, 1967, at the age of forty. In the years since, his influence has only grown, and the stellar avant-garde saxophonist has become a jazz legend of a stature shared only by Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker. As an instrumentalist Coltrane was technically and imaginatively equal to both; as a composer he was superior, although he has not received the recognition he deserves for this aspect of his work.


In composition he excelled in an astonishing number of forms – blues, ballads, spirituals, rhapsodies, elegies, suites, and free-form and cross-cultural works. The closest contemporary analogy to Coltrane’s relentless search for possibilities was the Beatles’ redefinition of rock from one album to the next. Yet the distance they traveled from conventional hard rock through sitars and Baroque obligatos to Sergeant Pepper psychedelia and the musical shards of Abbey Road seems short by comparison with Coltrane’s journey from hard-bop saxist to daring harmonic and modal improviser to dying prophet speaking in tongues. Asked by a Swedish disc jockey in 1960 if he was trying to “play what you hear,” he said that he was working off set harmonic devices while experimenting with others of which he was not yet certain. Although he was trying to “get the one essential . . . the one single line,” he felt forced to play everything, for he was unable to “work what I know down into a more lyrical line” that would be “easily understood.” Coltrane never found the one line. Nor was he ever to achieve the “more beautiful . . . more lyrical” sound he aspired to. He complicated rather than simplified his art, making it more visceral, raw, and wild. And even to his greatest fans it was anything but easily understood. In this failure, however, Coltrane contributed far more than he could have in success, for above all, his legacy to his followers is the abiding sense of search, of the musical quest as its own fulfillment.

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John William Coltrane was born September 23, 1926 in Hamlet, North Carolina to John and Alice Coltrane. Shortly after, he moved to Haig Point, North Carolina to live with his mother’s father, the Reverend Walter Blaire. Walter Blaire would later on be a significant influence on Coltrane’s music and spirituality. Coltrane’s father, a tailor, served to be a source of Coltrane’s interest in music through his fathers ability to play the clarinet, violin, and various other instruments. Furthermore, Coltrane’s mother studied music. Both of Coltrane’s grandfathers were ministers; and through their worship services, Coltrane began to build his roots. John’s first encounters with music were through his father who played various instruments such as the violin, clarinet and ukulele. Other early influences included the religious music and preaching at his grandfather’s community church. In 1938, his grandfather died and soon after, so did his father. At this time, Coltrane listened to the radio, which provided him with music by artists that would later become influences for his own music. These artists included Woody Herman, Lester Young, Johnny Hodges and Artie Shaw. At the age of 15, Coltrane began playing and studying the E-flat alto horn, the clarinet, and the saxophone at William Penn High School Orchestra, while listening to such artists as Woody Herman, Lester Young, and Thelonious Monk. It was in high school when John had his first girlfriend. John’s friend Franklin was interested in one girl, but John stole her away with his music playing. Her name was Dorthea Nelson. John had many classes with her. He used to whistle phrases to her from his clarinet. Of course, John got the girl. They were together for about a year until they broke up because she was moving away. Later in 1943, Coltrane moved to Philadelphia and studied under Mike Guerra at

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