Personalities | John Coltrane | Sixties | Jazz & Blues

By the time John Coltrane died in 1967 at the age of 40, he had experienced one of the most remarkable careers in music. ‘Trane’ was a compelling voice who contributed to some of jazz’s greatest innovations, from bebop to free jazz, resulting in both controversy and enduring success through critical and popular acclaim.

Revered during his lifetime almost as a saint by many, Coltrane continued to push musical boundaries throughout his short life and influenced and inspired countless musicians even beyond the field of jazz. Coltrane was a relatively shy, reserved man, which marked him out among the many more flamboyant characters that populated the jazz world in which he matured. An unwilling leader, he was nevertheless driven by a desire to be a recognized figure with influence. He certainly achieved this aim.

From R&B To Bebop

Coltrane was born in 1926 in Hamlet, North Carolina and enjoyed a musical education from an early age, playing alto saxophone in high school and church bands. Johnny Hodges and Lester Young were among his early influences. In 1943 he moved to Philadelphia, where he continued his studies at the Ornstein School of Music. He made his first recordings while in the Army and switched to tenor sax at the encouragement of Eddie ‘Cleanhead’ Vinson.

After beginning to take inspiration from rising stars Charlie Parker and Dexter Gordon, Coltrane’s work in R&B bands led to bebop gigs, and in 1949 Coltrane joined Dizzy Gillespie’s big band. In the post-war period, running a big band was an expensive business and therefore a difficult way to make a living; Gillespie was forced to downsize to a quintet, in which Coltrane also played. By this stage, Coltrane’s interest in unusual musical forms was already becoming apparent. He returned to his studies, this time at the Granoff School of Music and continued to grow musically, although unfortunately, like many of his jazz contemporaries, Coltrane became addicted to heroin.

Playing With The Greats

In 1952 Coltrane joined Earl Bostic’s band, a swing and R&B outfit led by a very accomplished sax player; Coltrane continued to hone his playing style in Bostic’s employ. He was also privileged to play from 1953–54 with one of his early heroes, Johnny Hodges, who had formed his own band after leaving the great Duke Ellington. However, by this stage Coltrane was experiencing a number of physical and mental problems and Hodges was obliged to fire him. In addition to his heroin dependence, an addiction to sweets was causing Trane’s teeth to become extremely painful, and the inevitable drinking and weight gain ensued.

In 1955 Coltrane met Miles Davis and joined his legendary Quintet, which included pianist Red Garland, bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Philly Joe Jones and was among the most popular jazz groups of the day. The band cut several albums for Prestige in the mid-1950s, with Davis and Coltrane on the front line. Coltrane played in a choppy, hard-bop style, which contrasted beautifully...

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Source: The Definitive Illustrated Encyclopedia of Jazz & Blues, founding editor Howard Mandel


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