John Coltrane

Saxophone player John Coltrane (1926-1967) created an innovative form of music that continues to influence modern jazz musicians, even more than two decades after his death.

Legendary saxophone virtuoso John Coltrane continues to influence modern jazz even from the grave. Coltrane's death more than two decades ago only enhanced his reputation as an artist who brought whole new dimensions to a constantly innovative musical form. The "sheets of sound" and other bizarre stylistic elements that characterize Coltrane's jazz sparked heated debate at the time of their composition. Today his work is still either hailed as the very pinnacle of genius or dismissed as flights of monotonous self-indulgence. In an Atlantic retrospective, Edward Strickland calls Coltrane "the lone voice crying not in the wilderness but from some primordial chaos" whose music "evokes not only the jungle but all that existed before the jungle." The critic adds: "Coltrane was attempting to raise jazz from the saloons to the heavens. No jazzman had attempted so overtly to offer his work as a form of religious expression. … In his use of jazz as prayer and meditation Coltrane was beyond all doubt the principal spiritual force in music."


"Last Great Leader"

Andrew White, himself a musician and transcriber of many of Coltrane's extended solos, told Down Beat magazine that the jazz industry "has been faltering artistically and financially ever since the death of John Coltrane. … Besides being one of our greatest saxophonists, improvisors, innovative and creative contributors, Coltrane was our last great leader. As a matter of fact, he was the only leader we've had in jazz who successfully maintained an evolutionary creative output as well as building a 'jazz star' image. He merged the art and the money."

John William Coltrane, Jr., was born on the autumn equinox, September 23, 1926. He was raised in rural North Carolina, where he was exposed to the charismatic music of the Southern church—both of his grandfathers were ministers. Coltrane's father also played several instruments as a hobby, so the young boy grew up in a musical environment. Quite on his own, he discovered jazz through the recordings of Count Basie and Lester Young. He persuaded his mother to buy him a saxophone, settling for an alto instead of a tenor because the alto was supposedly easier to handle.


Showed Saxophone Talent Immediately

Coltrane showed a proficiency on the saxophone almost immediately. After briefly studying at the Granoff Studios and at the Ornstein School of Music in Philadelphia, he joined a typical cocktail lounge band. Then he played for a year with a Navy band in Hawaii before landing a spot in the Eddie Vinson ensemble in 1947. He was twenty-one at the time. For Vinson's band Coltrane performed on the tenor sax, but his ears were open to jazz greats on both alto and tenor, including Charlie Parker, Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, and Tab Smith. After a year with Vinson, Coltrane joined Dizzy Gillespie's group for one of his longest stints—four years. By that time he had "paid his dues" and was experimenting with composition and technical innovation.

The 1950s saw a great flowering of modern jazz with the advent of artists such as Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk. Coltrane played horn for both Davis and Monk; the latter showed him tricks of phrasing and harmony that deepened his control of his instrument. Coltrane can be heard playing tenor sax on Davis's famous Columbia album Kind of Blue, a work that hints of the direction Coltrane would ultimately follow. Strickland writes of the period: "Coltrane's attempt 'to explore all the avenues' made him the perfect stylistic complement to Davis, with his cooler style, which featured sustained blue notes and brief cascades of sixteenths almost willfully retreating into silence, and also Monk, with his spare and unpredictable chords and clusters. Davis, characteristically, paid the tersest homage, when, on being told that his music was so complex that it required five saxophonists, he replied that he'd once had Coltrane."


Exhausted Every Possibility for His Horn

What Coltrane called "exploring all the avenues" was essentially the quest to exhaust every possibility for his horn in the course of a song. He devoted himself to rapid runs in which individual notes were virtually indistinguishable, a style quickly labeled "sheets of sound." As Martin Williams puts it in Saturday Review, Coltrane "seemed prepared to gush out every conceivable note, run his way a step at a time through every complex chord, every extension, and every substitution, and go beyond that by reaching for sounds that no tenor saxophone had ever uttered before him." Needless to say, this music was not easily understood—critics were quick to find fault with its length and monotony—but it represented an evolution that was welcomed not only by jazz performers, but by composers and even rock musicians as well.

In 1960 Coltrane formed his own quartet in the saxophone-plus-rhythm mode. He was joined by McCoy Tyner on piano, Elvin Jones on drums, and Jimmy Garrison on bass, all of whom were as eager as Coltrane to explore an increasingly free idiom. Finally Coltrane was free to expand his music at will, and his solos took on unprecedented lengths as he experimented with modal foundations, pentatonic scales, and triple meter. His best-known work was recorded during this period, including "My Favorite Things," a surprising theme-and-variations piece based on the saccharine Richard Rogers tune from "The Sound of Music." In "My Favorite Things," writes Williams, Coltrane "encountered a popular song which had the same sort of structure he was interested in, a folk-like simplicity and incantiveness, and very little harmonic motion. … It became a best seller."


Extent of Jazz Legacy Realized

By 1965 Coltrane was one of the most famous jazz artists alive, acclaimed alike in Europe, Japan, and the United States. Critics who had once dismissed his work "all but waved banners to show their devotion to him," to quote Strickland. Not surprisingly, the musician continued to experiment, even at the risk of alienating his growing audience. His work grew ever more complex, ametric, and improvisatorial. Coltrane explained his personal vision in Newsweek. "I have to feel that I'm after something," he said. "If I make money, fine. But I'd rather be striving. It's the striving, man, it's that I want."

Coltrane continued to perform and record even as advancing liver cancer left him racked with pain. He died at forty, only months after he cut his album Expression. The subsequent years have revealed the extent of his legacy to jazz, a legacy based on the spiritual quest for meaning and involvement between man, his soul, and the universe. Strickland concludes: "Those who criticize Coltrane's virtuosic profusion are of the same party as those who found Van Gogh's canvases 'too full of paint.' … In Coltrane, sound—often discordant, chaotic, almost unbearable—became the spiritual form of the man, an identification perhaps possible only with a wind instrument, with which the player is of necessity fused more intimately than with strings or percussion. … The whole spectrum of Coltrane's music—the world-weary melancholy and transcendental yearning that ultimately recall Bach more than Parker, the jungle calls and glossolalic shrieks, the whirlwind runs and spare elegies for murdered children and a murderous planet—is at root merely a suffering man's breath. The quality of that music reminds us that the root of the word inspiration is 'breathing upon.' This country has not produced a greater musician."


Further Reading on John Coltrane

Cole, Bill, John Coltrane, Schirmer, 1977.

Terkel, Studs, Giants of Jazz, Crowell, 1975.

Atlantic, December 1987.

Down Beat, July 12, 1979; September 1986.

New Republic, February 12, 1977.

Newsweek, July 31, 1967.

New York Times, July 18, 1967.

Saturday Review, September 16, 1987.