John William Coltrane, also known as “Trane” (September 23, 1926 – July 17, 1967), was an American jazz saxophonist and composer. Working in the bebop and hard bop idioms early in his career, Coltrane helped pioneer the use of modes in jazz and was later at the forefront of free jazz. He led at least fifty recording sessions during his career, and appeared as a sideman on many albums by other musicians, including trumpeter Miles Davis and pianist Thelonious Monk.
As his career progressed, Coltrane and his music took on an increasingly spiritual dimension. Coltrane influenced innumerable musicians, and remains one of the most significant saxophonists in music history. He received many posthumous awards and recognitions, including canonization by the African Orthodox Church as Saint John William Coltrane and a special Pulitzer Prize in 2007. His second wife was pianist Alice Coltrane and their son Ravi Coltrane is also a saxophonist.
Coltrane in 1963
|Birth name||John William Coltrane|
|Also known as||“Trane”|
|Born||September 23, 1926
Hamlet, North Carolina, U.S.
|Died||July 17, 1967 (aged 40)
Huntington, New York, U.S.
|Genres||Avant-garde jazz, hard bop,modal jazz, free jazz|
|Occupation(s)||Musician, composer, bandleader|
|Instruments||Tenor, soprano and altosaxophone|
|Labels||Prestige, Blue Note, Atlantic,Impulse!|
|Associated acts||Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis Quintet,|
Early life and career
Coltrane was born in his parents’ apartment at 200 Hamlet Avenue,Hamlet, North Carolina on September 23, 1926. His father was John R. Coltrane and his mother was Alice Blair. He grew up in High Point, North Carolina, attending William Penn High School (now Penn-Griffin School for the Arts). Beginning in December 1938 Coltrane’s aunt, grandparents, and father all died within a few months of one another, leaving John to be raised by his mother and a close cousin. In June 1943 he moved to Philadelphia. In September of that year his mother bought him his first saxophone, an alto. Coltrane played the clarinet and the alto horn in a community band before taking up the alto saxophone during high school. He had his first professional gigs in early to mid-1945 – a “cocktail lounge trio”, with piano and guitar.
To avoid being drafted by the Army, Coltrane enlisted in the Navy on August 6, 1945, the day the first U.S. atomic bomb was dropped on Japan. He was trained as an apprentice seaman at Sampson Naval Training Station in upstate New York before he was shipped to Pearl Harbor, where he was stationed at Manana Barracks, the largest posting of African-American servicemen in the world. By the time he got to Hawaii, in late 1945, the Navy was already rapidly downsizing. Coltrane’s musical talent was quickly recognized, though, and he became one of the few Navy men to serve as a musician without having been granted musicians rating when he joined the Melody Masters, the base swing band. He continued to perform other duties when not playing with the band, including kitchen and security details. By the end of his service, he had assumed a leadership role in the band. His first recordings, an informal session in Hawaii with Navy musicians, occurred on July 13, 1946. Coltrane played alto saxophone on a selection of jazz standards and bebop tunes.
After being discharged from his duties in the Navy, as a seaman first class in August 1946, Coltrane returned to Philadelphia, where he “plunged into the heady excitement of the new music and the blossoming bebop scene.” After touring with King Kolax, he joined a Philly-based band led by Jimmy Heath, who was introduced to Coltrane’s playing by his former Navy buddy, the trumpeter William Massey, who had played with Coltrane in the Melody Masters. In Philadelphia after the war, he studied jazz theory with guitarist and composer Dennis Sandole and continued under Sandole’s tutelage through the early 1950s. Originally an altoist, during this time Coltrane also began playing tenor saxophone with the Eddie Vinson Band. Coltrane later referred to this point in his life as a time when “a wider area of listening opened up for me. There were many things that people like Hawk [Coleman Hawkins], and Ben [Webster] and Tab Smith were doing in the ’40s that I didn’t understand, but that I felt emotionally.” A significant influence, according to tenor saxophonist Odean Pope, was the Philadelphia pianist, composer, and theorist Hasaan Ibn Ali. “Hasaan was the clue to … the system that Trane uses. Hasaan was the great influence on Trane’s melodic concept.”
An important moment in the progression of Coltrane’s musical development occurred on June 5, 1945, when he saw Charlie Parker perform for the first time. In a DownBeat article in 1960 he recalled: “the first time I heard Bird play, it hit me right between the eyes.” Parker became an early idol, and they played together on occasion in the late 1940s.
Contemporary correspondence shows that Coltrane was already known as “Trane” by this point, and that the music from some 1946 recording sessions had been played for trumpeter Miles Davis—possibly impressing him.
- 1.1Early life and career (1926–1954)
- 1.2Miles and Monk period (1955–1957)
- 1.3Davis and Coltrane
- 1.4Period with Atlantic Records (1959–1961)
- 1.5First years with Impulse Records (1961–1962)
- 1.6Classic Quartet period (1962–1965)
- 1.7Avant-garde jazz and the second quartet (1965–1967)
- 1.8Adding to the quartet
- 1.9Death and funeral
- 2Personal life and religious beliefs
- 3Religious figure
- 9Further reading
Death and funeral
Coltrane died of liver cancer at Huntington Hospital on Long Island on July 17, 1967, at the age of 40. His funeral was held four days later at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in New York City. The service was opened by the Albert Ayler Quartet and closed by the Ornette Coleman Quartet. Coltrane is buried at Pinelawn Cemetery in Farmingdale, New York.
One of his biographers, Lewis Porter, has suggested that the cause of Coltrane’s illness was hepatitis, although he also attributed the disease to Coltrane’s heroin use. In a 1968 interview Ayler claimed that Coltrane was consulting a Hindu meditative healer for his illness instead of Western medicine, although Alice Coltrane later denied this.
Coltrane’s death surprised many in the musical community who were not aware of his condition. Davis said that “Coltrane’s death shocked everyone, took everyone by surprise. I knew he hadn’t looked too good… But I didn’t know he was that sick—or even sick at all.”
Personal life and religious beliefs
In 1955, Coltrane married Naima (born Juanita Grubbs). Naima Coltrane, who was already a Muslim convert, heavily influenced his spirituality. When they married, Naima had a 5 year old daughter named Antonia (later named Saeeda). Coltrane adopted Saeeda and loved her as his own child. Coltrane met Naima at the home of bassist Steve Davis in Philadelphia. The love ballad he wrote to honor his wife, “Naima” was Coltrane’s favorite composition. It was a love ballad to her. In 1956 the couple left Philadelphia with their 9 year old daughter in tow and moved to New York City. In August 1957, Coltrane, Naima and Saeeda moved into an apartment on 103d St. and Amsterdam Ave. in New York, near Central Park West.
A few years later, John and Naima Coltrane purchased a home on Long Island on Mexico Street. This is the house where they would would eventually break up in 1963. Said Naima about the break in J.C. Thomas’ Chasin’ the Trane: “I could feel it was going to happen sooner or later, so I wasn’t really surprised when John moved out of the house in the summer of 1963. He didn’t offer any explanation. He just told me there were things he had to do, and he left only with his clothes and his horns. He stayed in a hotel sometimes, other times with his mother in Philadelphia. All he said was, ‘Naima, I’m going to make a change.’
Even though I could feel it coming, it hurt, and I didn’t get over it for at least another year.” But Coltrane kept a close relationship with Naima, even calling her in 1964 to tell her that 90% of his playing would be prayer. Coltrane would be dead in four years, but he always kept in touch with her. Naima bought serenity and a calmness into his life. All who knew Naima describe her gentle spirit and serenity. They remained in touch until his death in 1967. Naima Coltrane died of a heart attack in October 1996.
In 1955, Coltrane later wrote the piece “Naima“, and came into contact with Islam. Coltrane and Naima were officially divorced in 1966. In 1963, Coltrane met pianist Alice McLeod. He and Alice moved in together and had two sons before he was “officially divorced from Naima in 1966, at which time John and Alice were immediately married.” John Jr. was born in 1964, Ravi in 1965, and Oranyan (“Oran”) in 1967. According to the musician and author Peter Lavezzoli, “Alice brought happiness and stability to John’s life, not only because they had children, but also because they shared many of the same spiritual beliefs, particularly a mutual interest in Indian philosophy. Alice also understood what it was like to be a professional musician.”
Coltrane was born and raised in a Christian home, and was influenced by religion and spirituality from childhood. His maternal grandfather, the Reverend William Blair, was a minister at an African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in High Point, North Carolina, and his paternal grandfather, the Reverend William H. Coltrane, was an A.M.E. Zion minister in Hamlet, North Carolina. Critic Norman Weinstein noted the parallel between Coltrane’s music and his experience in the southern church, which included practicing music there as a youth.
In 1957, Coltrane had a religious experience that may have helped him overcome the heroin addiction and alcoholism he had struggled with since 1948. In the liner notes of A Love Supreme, Coltrane states that, in 1957, “I experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening which was to lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life. At that time, in gratitude, I humbly asked to be given the means and privilege to make others happy through music.” The liner notes appear to mention God in a Universalist sense, and do not advocate one religion over another.Further evidence of this universal view regarding spirituality can be found in the liner notes of Meditations (1965), in which Coltrane declares, “I believe in all religions.”
After A Love Supreme, many of the titles of Coltrane’s songs and albums were linked to spiritual matters: Ascension, Meditations, Om,Selflessness, “Amen”, “Ascent”, “Attaining”, “Dear Lord”, “Prayer and Meditation Suite”, and “The Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost”. Coltrane’s collection of books included The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, the Bhagavad Gita, and Paramahansa Yogananda‘s Autobiography of a Yogi. The last of these describes, in Lavezzoli’s words, a “search for universal truth, a journey that Coltrane had also undertaken. Yogananda believed that both Eastern and Western spiritual paths were efficacious, and wrote of the similarities between Krishna and Christ. This openness to different traditions resonated with Coltrane, who studied the Qur’an, the Bible, Kabbalah, and astrology with equal sincerity.” He also explored Hinduism, Jiddu Krishnamurti, African history, the philosophical teachings of Plato and Aristotle, and Zen Buddhism.
In October 1965, Coltrane recorded Om, referring to the sacred syllable in Hinduism, which symbolizes the infinite or the entire Universe. Coltrane described Om as the “first syllable, the primal word, the word of power”. The 29-minute recording contains chants from the Hindu Bhagavad Gita and the Buddhist Tibetan Book of the Dead, and a recitation of a passage describing the primal verbalization “om” as a cosmic/spiritual common denominator in all things.
Coltrane’s spiritual journey was interwoven with his investigation of world music. He believed not only in a universal musical structure that transcended ethnic distinctions, but in being able to harness the mystical language of music itself. Coltrane’s study of Indian music led him to believe that certain sounds and scales could “produce specific emotional meanings.” According to Coltrane, the goal of a musician was to understand these forces, control them, and elicit a response from the audience. Coltrane said: “I would like to bring to people something like happiness. I would like to discover a method so that if I want it to rain, it will start right away to rain. If one of my friends is ill, I’d like to play a certain song and he will be cured; when he’d be broke, I’d bring out a different song and immediately he’d receive all the money he needed.”
In 1947, when he joined King Kolax‘s band, Coltrane switched to tenor saxophone, the instrument he became known for playing primarily. Coltrane’s preference for playing melody higher on the range of the tenor saxophone (as compared to, for example, Coleman Hawkins or Lester Young) is attributed to his start and training on the alto horn and clarinet; his “sound concept” (manipulated in one’s vocal tract—tongue, throat) of the tenor was set higher than the normal range of the instrument.
In the early 1960s, during his engagement with Atlantic Records, he increasingly played soprano saxophone as well. Toward the end of his career, he experimented with flute in his live performances and studio recordings (Live at the Village Vanguard Again!, Expression). After Dolphy died in June 1964, his mother is reported to have given Coltrane his flute and bass clarinet.
Coltrane’s tenor (Selmer Mark VI, serial number 125571, dated 1965) and soprano (Selmer Mark VI, serial number 99626, dated 1962) saxophones were auctioned on February 20, 2005 to raise money for the John Coltrane Foundation. The soprano raised $70,800 but the tenor remained unsold.
The influence Coltrane has had on music spans many genres and musicians. Coltrane’s massive influence on jazz, both mainstream and avant-garde, began during his lifetime and continued to grow after his death. He is one of the most dominant influences on post-1960 jazz saxophonists and has inspired an entire generation of jazz musicians.
In 1965, Coltrane was inducted into the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame. In 1972, A Love Supreme was certified gold by the RIAA for selling over half a million copies in Japan. This album, as well as My Favorite Things, was certified gold in the United States in 2001. In 1982 he was awarded a posthumous Grammy for “Best Jazz Solo Performance” on the album Bye Bye Blackbird, and in 1997 he was awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2002, scholar Molefi Kete Asante named Coltrane one of his 100 Greatest African Americans. Coltrane was awarded a special Pulitzer Prize in 2007 citing his “masterful improvisation, supreme musicianship and iconic centrality to the history of jazz. He was inducted into the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame in 2009.
His widow, Alice Coltrane, after several decades of seclusion, briefly regained a public profile before her death in 2007. A former home, the John Coltrane House in Philadelphia, was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1999. His last home, the John Coltrane Home in the Dix Hills district of Huntington, New York, where he resided from 1964 until his death, was added to the National Register of Historic Places on June 29, 2007. One of their sons, Ravi Coltrane, named after the sitarist Ravi Shankar, is also a saxophonist.
The Coltrane family reportedly possesses much more unreleased music, mostly mono reference tapes made for the saxophonist, and, as with the 1995 release Stellar Regions, master tapes that were checked out of the studio and never returned. The parent company of Impulse!, from 1965 to 1979 known as ABC Records, purged much of its unreleased material in the 1970s. Lewis Porter has stated that Alice Coltrane intended to release this music, but over a long period of time; Ravi Coltrane is responsible for reviewing the material.
The discography below lists albums conceived and approved by Coltrane as a leader during his lifetime. It does not include his many releases as a sideman, sessions assembled into albums by various record labels after Coltrane’s contract expired, sessions with Coltrane as a sideman later reissued with his name featured more prominently—or posthumous compilations, except for the one he approved before his death. See main discography link above for full list.
Prestige and Blue Note Records
- Coltrane (debut solo LP) (1957)
- Blue Train (1957)
- John Coltrane with the Red Garland Trio (1958)
- Soultrane (1958)
- Giant Steps (first album entirely of Coltrane compositions) (1960)
- Coltrane Jazz (first appearance by McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones) (1961)
- My Favorite Things (1961)
- Olé Coltrane (features Eric Dolphy, compositions by Coltrane and Tyner) (1961)
- Africa/Brass (brass arranged by Tyner and Dolphy) (1961)
- Live! at the Village Vanguard (features Dolphy, first appearance by Jimmy Garrison) (1962)
- Coltrane (first album to solely feature the “classic quartet”) (1962)
- Duke Ellington & John Coltrane (1963)
- Ballads (1963)
- John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman (1963)
- Impressions (1963)
- Live at Birdland (1964)
- Crescent (1964)
- A Love Supreme (1965)
- The John Coltrane Quartet Plays (1965)
- Ascension (quartet plus six horns and bass, one 40′ track collective improvisation) (1966)
- New Thing at Newport (live album split with Archie Shepp) (1966)
- Kulu Sé Mama (1966)
- Meditations (quartet plus Pharoah Sanders and Rashied Ali) (1966)
- Live at the Village Vanguard Again! (1966)
- Expression (posthumous and final Coltrane-approved release; one track features Coltrane on flute) (1967)
John Coltrane My Favorite Things (1961) [Full album]
John Coltrane – In A Sentimental Mood