John William Coltrane
Born September 23, 1926, Hamlet, North Carolina.

Died July 17, 1967, Huntington, New York.

American jazz saxophonist, composer and bandleader. Arguably the greatest tenor saxophonist of the 20th Century.

Coltrane’s father was a part time musician and early influence. As a youth, Coltrane studied clarinet and alto saxophone. At the age of 17, Coltrane moved to Philadelphia to study music more formally at the Ornstein School of Music. Coltrane was drafted into the navy in 1945 and played alto sax with a navy band until 1946. In 1947, after a year in the navy, he switched to tenor saxophone in 1947.

Fresh out of the navy in 1947, Coltrane travelled and met new musicians with whom to collaborate. From 1947 – 1951, he began working in New York with Dizzy Gillespie and Johnny Hodges. Fellow musicians immediately recognized Coltrane as having immense gifts. Coltrane’s first recorded solo can be heard on Gillespie’s “We Love to Boogie” (1951).

Coltrane on “We Love to Boogie”

Coltrane’s solo:

Coltrane’s big break came in 1955 when he was noticed by Miles Davis who incorporated him into his famous quintet (Red Garland, piano; Paul Chambers, bass; Philly Joe Jones, drums). Coltrane’s work with Davis culminated in their work together on Kind of Blue.

Coltrane’s use of drugs and alcohol during his period with Davis led to a great deal of unreliability. Davis fired Coltrane in early 1957 and so Coltrane temporarily changed directions, working with Thelonious Monk making recordings under his own name. Monk being more theoretically and technically minded, pushed Coltrane to even greater feats of virtuosity. This ultimately led to what critics called Coltrane’s signature ‘Sheets of Sound’ approach to improvisation. Coltrane and Monk contributed to the musical development known as ‘Hard Bop’

Poet Amiri Baraka described it as: “The notes that Trane was playing in the solo became more than just one note following another. The notes came so fast, and with so many overtones and undertones, that they had the effect of a piano player striking chords rapidly but somehow articulating separately each note in the chord, and its vibrating subtones.” Coltrane himself described the technique: “I start in the middle of a sentence and move both directions at once.”

Perhaps the most prominent and widely anthologized work from this time, including the seminal solo, is Giant Steps, interestingly released the same year as Kind of Blue.

John Coltrane’s Giant Steps

Coltrane’s solo transcribed:

Coltrane’s tone was another important feature in his legendary sound. While clear and concise when needed, it was full bodied and remarkably rich. The great breadth of sound gave a warmth and the precision allowed the sound to focus when needed. Overall, Coltrane’s sound was one of the most comprehensively fascinating sounds in all of jazz history. Certain aspects of Coltrane’s style and sound can be traced back to some of his predecessors Johnny Hodges and Lester Young, both tenor saxophone greats in their own right.

Monk helped Coltrane unlock the technique of multiphonics. This is a technique where the saxophonist can split their air stream into two streams, usually by way of alternative keyhole fingerings, and unconventional embouchure, and so produce two pitches at the same time.

Coltrane’s Harmonique

After ending his association with Davis in 1960, and moving on from collaborations with Thelonious Monk, Coltrane formed his own acclaimed quartet, featuring pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison, and drummer Elvin Jones. At this time Coltrane began playing soprano saxophone in addition to tenor. Throughout the early 1960s Coltrane focused on mode-based improvisation in which solos were played atop one- or two-note accompanying figures that were repeated for extended periods of time.

Coltrane’s rendition of Richard Rogers’ My Favorite Things

 At the same time, his study of the musics of India and Africa affected his approach to the soprano sax. These influences, combined with a unique interplay with the drums and the steady vamping of the piano and bass, made the Coltrane quartet one of the most noteworthy jazz groups of the 1960s. Coltrane’s wife, Alice (also a jazz musician and composer), played the piano in his band during the last years of his life. An overarching influence in these late years of improvisation was the Indian raga.

During the short period between 1965 and his death in 1967, Coltrane’s work expanded into a free, collective (simultaneous) improvisation based on prearranged scales. It was the most radical period of his career, and his avant-garde experiments divided critics and audiences.

John Coltrane, A Love Supreme

Fascinatingly, Coltrane’s best known works span only 10 years.

1955 recordings with Miles Davis

1957 work with Thelonious Monk

1959 Kind of Blue & Giant Steps

1960 My Favorite Things

1964 A Love Supreme

1965 Ascension & Meditations (both released posthumously)

John Coltrane died of liver cancer in 1967. News of his death shocked his contemporaries because he had long kicked his heroin and alcohol addiction. But Coltrane was not afforded quality medical care and some suspect that long running complications of undiagnosed Hepatitis B led to liver complications.