John William Coltrane, Jr., was born in Hamlet, North Carolina, on September 23, 1926. Shortly after his birth, his parents joined his mother’s family in High Point, where he was raised. Coltrane probably received his first instrumental training in the fall of 1939; he played alto horn, then clarinet, then alto saxophone in community and high school bands.
Meanwhile, between 1938 and 1940 the family was devastated by the deaths of five members, including John’s father. After his graduation from high school in 1943, John moved to Philadelphia, where he was eventually joined by his mother, his aunt, and his cousin Mary . While working day jobs, he studied music, inspired by two alto saxophonists — first Johnny Hodges, then Charlie Parker.
Coltrane served as a seaman and musician in the navy from August 1945 until August 1946. Returning to Philadelphia, he freelanced around Philadelphia, often with saxophonist Jimmy Heath’s big band; and toured with other bands. He began to play tenor saxophone professionally in late 1948 with the blues singer and saxophonist Eddie Vinson. He played with Dizzy Gillespie from 1949 to 1951 and with the saxophone virtuoso Earl Bostic in 1952, and in 1954 he joined his early idol Johnny Hodges.
In late September 1955, he was working in Philadelphia with organist Jimmy Smith when he was "discovered" by Miles Davis. Coltrane began to record prolifically with Davis and others. Reviewers mostly praised him, though often with reservations, while a minority violently dismissed his work. In either case, it was clear that he had developed a distinctive style. But, like many of his generation, Coltrane had developed addictions that interfered with his performance. After Davis fired him at the end of April 1957 because of his unreliability, he rid himself of heroin by quitting "cold turkey" during a week gigging in Philadelphia.
He immediately began a crucial association with Thelonious Monk, who asked Coltrane to join his group at the Five Spot in Manhattan from July through the end of 1957. The engagement was a turning point for both of them — Coltrane’s playing drew raves from most. Afterward, in early January 1958, Davis rehired Coltrane.
During the spring of 1959, Coltrane appeared on two of the most famous jazz albums ever made, representing two very different approaches: Davis’s Kind of Blue and his own Giant Steps. The former was an attempt to strip the backgrounds behind the soloists, the bases for their improvisations, down to the most bare, uncluttered scales. The latter was an essay in the most difficult and challenging backgrounds possible.
Coltrane left Davis in April 1960 and from then on led his own group. He performed with various musicians but soon settled on McCoy Tyner on piano and Elvin Jones on drums. The bass chair changed around — Reggie Workman played for most of 1961, sometimes in tandem with Art Davis — before finally going to Jimmy Garrison at the end of 1961.
Coltrane had purchased a soprano saxophone around February 1, 1959, and began using it regularly in May 1960. His recording of "My Favorite Things" that October (issued in March 1961) re-established the soprano, which had rarely been used in modern jazz, as a favored instrument.
He was becoming increasingly popular: Down Beat honored him as "jazzman of the year" in its review of the year 1961. He won the magazine’s critic and reader polls that year for best tenor saxophonist and for miscellaneous instrument (soprano saxophone); the critics also voted his group the "new star" combo. But his detractors grew louder with the addition of Eric Dolphy to the group for most of 1961. English critics lambasted him on his European tour that November, while Down Beat’s John Tynan wrote of "a horrifying . . . anti-jazz trend." After Dolphy left, Coltrane’s best-known quartet — with Tyner, Garrison, and Jones — remained intact from April 1962 through the fall of 1965, except for some periods when Jones was absent.
For some years Coltrane had been exploring the music of other cultures — India, parts of Africa, Latin America. He arranged to meet the master sitar player Ravi Shankar in New York in December 1961 for the first of a handful of informal lessons, and named his son after him. It wasn’t only the sound of world music that attracted John Coltrane; he was interested in all kinds of religion, and in astrology, numerology, and mysticism. His mystical, spiritual interests are explicit in A Love Supreme, his best-known album and still his best-selling one as well. It was voted album of the year by both Down Beat and Jazz magazine in 1965.
But he continued to ignite controversy because of his involvement in the so-called avant garde. He regularly let younger players sit in with his group. In June 1965, he gathered ten musicians together for a recording session that produced the landmark album Ascension. By September, tenor saxophonist Pharoah Sanders was a regular member of the group, and Coltrane soon also hired Rashied Ali as a second drummer. Uncomfortable with Coltrane’s new style, Tyner and Jones left shortly after that, and Alice McLeod Coltrane became the group’s new pianist.
John Coltrane had met Alice McLeod in July 1963. His marriage to Naima was then on the rocks, and he and Alice were soon living together. That fall, Coltrane began to cut back on touring and made plans to stay around New York, mostly for family reasons. (He was not yet aware of any serious illness.) He had begun to take control of his own business affairs, forming his own label imprint and planning some self-produced concerts. He spoke of opening a space where rehearsals and performances would be open informally to the public.
But by the spring of 1967 his health was failing rapidly. On April 23, he appeared at the Olatunji Center in Harlem (available on The Olatunji Concert: The Last Live Recording Impulse CD 314 589 120-2). His final performance was in Baltimore on May 7. He died of liver cancer in Huntington Hospital on July 17, 1967. His death was unexpected, it was shocking, and in a very real sense the jazz world never fully recovered from the loss.
Excerpted from: John Coltrane Legacy
Lewis Porter - August 2001