John Coltrane was an African-American composer and jazz saxophonist. Coltrane, who was also known as “Trane”, is now known to be one of the most significant and influential jazz saxophonists in history.
John William Coltrane was born on September 23, 1926 in Hamlet, North Carolina. At the age of twelve, Coltrane lost his father, aunt, and grandparents in the space of a few months, and he was therefore raised by his mother. At the age of seventeen, Coltrane’s mother bought him an alto saxophone and two years into the instrument, Coltrane put together a group with a pianist and a guitarist which he called the ‘cocktail lounge trio’.
Coltrane enlisted in the United States Navy on the day of the Hiroshima Atomic Bombings; however, his musical talent would not go unnoticed in the face of a rapidly downsizing navy, and soon Coltrane was playing numerous gigs for the Navy. His first recording session was also held while he was in the navy, in which Coltrane played the alto saxophone to jazz standards and other bebop tunes.
Following his discharge from the navy, Coltrane played with numerous bands such as King Kolax. He also furthered his education in music after studying jazz theory with the eminent Dennis Sandole. Coltrane also experimented with the tenor saxophone during the 1940s, and by 1952, he was playing the new instrument for the Eddie Vinson band. Coltrane then joined the Miles Davis Quintet in 1955; which was when he released multiple influential recordings that highlighted his superb talent with the saxophone.
In 1960, Coltrane left the Miles Davis Quintet to form his own Quintet; the lineup, after experimenting with various players, settled with Steve Kuhn, Pete La Roca, and Billy Higgins. During this time, Coltrane also started playing the soprano saxophone, which was highly unusual for a jazz player, however, his experiment turned out to be highly successful. Coltrane released three albums with his new group titled “Coltrane’s Sound”, “Coltrane Plays the Blues”, and “My Favorite Things”, the latter of which was extremely successful. Even so, by the end of 1961, Coltrane started heavily experimenting with the jazz genre, which left audiences and critics perplexed. Some magazines even called Coltrane’s group an “Anti-Jazz” movement.
Coltrane responded to his criticism with new recordings and records, as well as performances in which he improvised his ‘classics’. Amongst his new records were “Duke Elliington and John Coltrane”, “Ballads”, and “A Love Supreme”. “A Love Supreme” actually turned out to be Coltrane’s most famous record of all time. The highly spiritual record was said to be inspired from a near drug overdose from 1957, and was centered, according to Coltrane, on his love and faith in God.
Coltrane’s records started to focus more on spirituality and faith after “A Love Supreme”. Coltrane also started pursuing avant-garde jazz and abstract music; an example of this behavior was his use of multiphonics and of the altissmo register. He also started adding more and more players to his group, including Pharoah Sanders, Rashied Ali, and Archie Shepp. Coltrane was also becoming more and more prolific after 1964, after which he released ground-breaking records such as “The John Coltrane Quartet Plays”, “Transition”, “Living Space”, and “First Meditations”.
John Coltrane died from liver cancer on July 17, 1967. Doctors attributed his death to hepatitis and heavy drug use. The sudden nature of his death came as a huge shock to the musical community.