John W. Coltrane

Jul 22nd, 2011 | By | Category: Arts & Entertainment
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John W. Coltrane1926 – 1967  John Coltrane, widely known as “Trane,” was the finest tenor saxophonist of his era, a superb composer, and the leading experimentalist among the “free jazz” avant garde. His stunning innovations, infused with spiritual urgency, changed the direction of music and have inspired legions of fans, critics, and musicians to this day.

Early in “Trane’s” Career

Coltrane was born in Hamlet, North Carolina and grew up in High Point, NC. His father played several instruments, and young Coltrane performed on clarinet and alto saxophone. In 1943 he moved to Philadelphia and began music studies, interrupted by induction into the Navy, where he played in the Navy Band from 1945-1946. He returned to Philadelphia after his service, and spent the late 1940s working with Joe Webb, King Kolax, and Eddie Vinson (with whom he began playing tenor sax). Coltrane’s first notable engagement came in 1949 when he joined Dizzy Gillespie’s big band. That band dissolved in 1950, at which time Gillespie formed a small band. Coltrane remained with that group until 1951, by then exclusively on tenor.

Coltrane’s early work continued with Earl Bostic in 1952, and Johnny Hodges in 1953-1954. In 1955, he was asked to join a new quintet being formed by Miles Davis. This marked the beginning of Coltrane’s intensely formative period. He stayed with Davis’ quintet through 1957, even though his emerging and highly original style led many to question his talent and Davis’ judgment. But it was during this period that Coltrane’s special genius first became widely evident. On another level, Coltrane was much less successful at this time; his growing problems with heroin addiction and alcoholism contributed to the breakup of the quintet. But the fact that he cured himself of his addiction within one year stands as testimony to the musician’s drive and inner strength; the spiritual awakening that accompanied this experience would inform every aspect of his life and work thereafter.

In 1957, he began performing with Thelonius Monk at the Five Spot in New York City, one of the premiere venues in the jazz world. Coltrane’s innovations now began attracting notice for their unique improvisational style. In 1958, he returned to Davis’s new sextet for two years, during which period he participated in what is widely considered one of the great jazz works of all time, “Kind of Blue.” The critic Ira Gitler described Coltrane’s emerging style as “sheets of sound,” referring to the saxophonist’s use of multiple chord phrasings within a bar, anticipated chord changes, and cascading runs of hundreds of notes compressed into brief bursts of sound. Coltrane also discovered the soprano sax during this period, and began recording his own sessions as leader including “Blue Train” and “Giant Steps.” By 1960, he had achieved distinction as a sideman, soloist, recording artist, and composer. His continued work on soprano sax led to the masterful “My Favorite Things,” a piece that would popularize the instrument for generations of musicians and which remains his signature piece for many fans.

With pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison, and drummer Elvin Jones, Coltrane then created the ideal vehicle for his musical journey and produced what is widely considered to be his masterpiece, 1964’s “A Love Supreme.” This musical meditation is an artistic and spiritual statement of mankind’s highest aspirations. Now signed with the new jazz label Impulse, the group was often joined by multi-instrumentalist and pioneer Eric Dolphy, and recorded such classic sessions as “Africa Brass.” Coltrane continued his creative risk-taking through 1965 with “Meditations” and “Ascension” (voted Album of the Year by both Down Beat and Jazz magazines) while simultaneously delving deeper into his quest for self-knowledge and truth. By mid-decade, this was widely considered jazz’s finest ensemble.

Generous, Caring and Immune to Controversy

Coltrane’s increasingly inventive experimentation led to changes in the members of his group as well as his sound, and ultimately led to the departure of Jones and Tyner. Many listeners had difficulty with these later developments, and the work of a new ensemble featuring Pharaoh Sanders on tenor sax, his new wife Alice Coltrane on piano, and Rashied Ali on drums. Always unperturbed by controversy and even aloof from the popular press, Coltrane was known as an exceptionally caring, generous man, who would devote time and energy to helping younger musicians while stretching the improvisatory dimensions of his art form. The jazz critic Nat Hentoff said, “Rarely, I think, in any form of music has one man so thoroughly revealed himself in the act of music.”

Coltrane died from liver cancer on Long Island, NY on July 17, 1967. His alcohol abuse was almost certainly complicit; overwork may have been a factor. Toward the end of his odyssey, Coltrane kept a demanding touring schedule while practicing 10 or 12 hours daily. His recorded output was prodigious, with over 50 releases in 12 years as a bandleader, and dozens led by others on which he appeared. In 1997, the Recording Industries Association of America posthumously awarded Coltrane the organization’s highest honor, the Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2001, the RIAA joined with the National Endowment for the Arts to release 360 “Songs of the Century,” which includes Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things.” His son, Ravi Coltrane, survives him as a musician and saxophonist.


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