John Coltrane is today remembered as one of the great minds and spirits of jazz. Over a musical career lasting just 12 years, 'Trane' recorded dozens of albums, working with many of the key jazz personalities of his time. Widely regarded as one of the most significant improvisers in jazz history, his experimental work was also important in the early development of the avant-garde.
John Coltrane was born on 23 September, 1926, in Hamlet, North Carolina. Following a family resettlement, he was educated in New Point, NC, and graduated from Grammar School in 1939. Later that year, after the death of his father, he joined a local community band playing clarinet and E-flat alto horn. During High School, he switched to alto saxophone, which he studied at the Ornstein School of Music after graduation in 1943. He eventually began playing gigs at local night-clubs, before being drafted into the US Navy, stationed at Hawaii in 1945. There he continued to play, and in fact made his first recording as a sea-man, with a quartet of fellow sailors in 19461.
During WWII, Coltrane had been left under the charge of family friends, while his mother moved in search of work in New Jersey. After graduating from high school, Trane had moved to Philadelphia, and it was here he returned after leaving the military in 1946.
That autumn, Trane began playing in the Joe Webb Band, switching in 1947 to the King Kolax band. The following year he moved again, playing under the alto-sax of Eddie 'Cleanhead' Vinson. To avoid clashing with his band leader, Coltrane was forced to switch to tenor saxophone. In mid '48, he moved again, playing with Jimmy Heath's band, until being hired by the great Bop pioneer Dizzy Gillespie's Big Band in the latter half of '49. He remained with this group through its downsizing to septet, and on 1 March, 1951, took his first recorded solo during a version of 'We Love To Boogie'.
Trane and Miles
It was around this time that Coltrane became addicted to heroin, making him difficult to employ. Still not a major voice in the world of jazz at that time, he drifted between small groups in and around Philadelphia. However, his 'big break' came in 1955, when he was taken under the wing of trumpet-player and one-time heroin addict Miles Davis. The Davis quintet (with a rhythm section of Red Garland, piano, Paul Chambers, bass, and 'Philly' Joe Jones, drums) began recording heavily for Prestige. Davis' contract owed Prestige five more albums, which the group recorded over a series of a few marathon recording sessions in 1955-6. These recordings were released over the following six years as Miles, Cookin', Relaxin', Workin', and Steamin'. This work allowed Davis to move to Columbia, an association which was to yield some of jazz's greatest ever works. However, Trane remained with Prestige as a regular sideman. In 1957, he signed formally with the label and, after being fired by Davis for failure to kick his drugs habit, was able to form his own groups. His debut, Dakar, was recorded in April 1957, with a group featuring a frontline of Pepper Adams and Cecil Payne on baritone sax, Mal Waldron on piano, Doug Watkins on bass, and Art Taylor on drums.
In June, Trane joined Thelonious Monk's Quartet, an association which heavily developed the saxophonist's style and technical expertise.
A Kind of Blue Train
One of Coltrane's personal favourites, Blue Train may never have happened if it wasn't for a chance encounter with Blue Note boss Alfred Lion, after Trane wandered into the label's offices in search of Sidney Bechet recordings in 1956. Lion's partner Francis Wolff was the man in charge of contracts, but Trane and Lion agreed to at least one disc over a handshake. A small advance was paid, but then everyone seemed to forget about it. In 1957, Coltrane remembered, and honoured the deal, recording Blue Train with Lee Morgan (trumpet), Curtis Fuller (trombone), Kenny Drew (piano) and Miles Davis' rhythm section of Paul Chambers and 'Philly' Joe Jones.
Coltrane continued, however, to record with Prestige, and was also recalled to Miles Davis' old group (which, in the meantime, had also acquired the alto-sax of Julian 'Cannonball' Adderley). As part of this group, Trane played at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival. John Coltrane has long been a figure that divided opinion, particularly between his early work for Prestige, and his more avant-garde sounds in later years (see below). His performance at this festival was probably the first to evoke widespread discussion and arguments about his work; A Down Beat review described his playing as 'angry', criticizing him for weakening the Davis sextet. In rebuke, the critic Ira Gitler famously described Trane's playing as 'sheets of sound'.
In December 1958, Coltrane completed the work required for his Prestige contract, and he switched to Atlantic Records, first recording for them with vibes-man Milt Jackson on 15 January, 1959. The record was later released as the dual-billing, Bags with Trane.
In March and April that year, Trane worked with the Davis group on the seminal Kind of Blue album. The disc was a turning-point in jazz, introducing a new style of 'modal' playing - soloists improvising around 'modes' (scales) rather than chords. The album was to become the most popular album in jazz history.
Steps Towards the Avant-Garde
Coltrane's first true Atlantic record was his fourth solo-album, yet it was the first comprising totally of Coltrane-originals. The title-piece is famous for its complex chord-changes, but the record also includes some less avant-garde bop styles, along with the now-popular ballad, Naima.
In April 1960, Coltrane left the Davis band, and formally launched his solo career, starting with a performance at the New York Jazz Gallery. His group at this time was backed by Steve Kuhn on piano, Steve Davis on bass and Pete La Roca on drums. Over the next two years (1960-1) he recorded a body of work to be released gradually on the Atlantic albums The Avant-Garde, recorded with Eric Dolphy and released in 1960, Coltrane Jazz (released 1961), My Favourite Things (1961), Coltrane Plays the Blues (1962), and Coltrane's Sound (1964). During this time, Trane developed his use of the soprano saxophone, used to immense effect on the Coltrane-standard 'My Favourite Things', taken from the Rodgers / Hammerstein musical of the same name. In 1961, Eric Dolphy became a member of the working band, which by now had acquired McCoy Tyner on piano, and Elvin Jones on drums.
Trane's final cut for Atlantic, Ole, in February 1962, was the swan-song before moving to newly-formed avant-garde label Impulse. By this time, criticisms were rising, many listeners and critics turning away from this 'New Thing'. John Tynam, writing in Down Beat described the playing as 'anti-jazz'. However, Trane's raw, intense solos attracted many fans, and in November a collection of takes recorded live at the NY Village Vanguard were released, becoming one of his most successful albums.
By the time of Impulse! Trane's 'Classic' quartet comprised McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones, plus newcomer Jimmy Garrison on bass. The band was also frequently joined by Eric Dolphy in live performances. Under the direction of producer Bob Thiele, Trane laid down extensive studio work, far beyond the capabilities of what Impulse! could profitably release - particularly since Prestige and Atlantic were still releasing new, and re-branded Coltrane works from earlier years. In 1963, Thiele organised three albums, Ballads, Duke Ellington and John Coltrane, and John Coltrane with Johnny Hartman. This detached Trane's playing from his Free Jazz sounds, and were met with warm reception.
Coltrane's Impulse! work culminated with A Love Supreme in 1965. The record was to be his best selling piece, and earned him two Grammy nominations for Best Jazz composition and performance.
Coltrane's work post A Love Supreme pushed harder and harder towards the Avant-Garde. Pharoah Sanders joined the group in 1965, after playing in the monumental Ascension. Ascension was a deep, free-playing project, based on the double-quartet system used by Ornette Coleman in his Free Jazz.
By January 1966, the Classic Quartet was no more, internal tensions causing both Elvin Jones and McCoy Tyner to leave. The May '66 live album, Live at the Village Vanguard Again! saw the rhythm section replaced by Coltrane's wife, Alice, on piano, and Rashied Ali on drums.
John Coltrane's last recording was made in New York, on April 23, 1967 at the Olatunji centre of African Culture. The hour-long concert was released by Impulse! in 2001. Two months after this recording, and two days after approving release for the Expression album, John Coltrane was admitted to hospital. He died the next morning, from liver cancer.
If you're looking to explore the music of John Coltrane, try the following records:
Giant Steps on Atlantic - The first true Trane album. Contains both ballads and up-tempo bop grooves. A recently re-released version also includes an extensive collection of alternate versions and takes.
A Love Supreme on Impulse! - The most sublime, and beautiful piece of music ever recorded! If you only ever buy one Jazz album, make it this...
Interstellar Space on Impulse! - Hardcore, avant-garde Coltrane. A series of duets with Rashied-Ali. Although this music may take some getting into, once you're there, you'll realise that this music really is from 'another place'.
Blue Train on Blue Note - This record isn't quite as good as some people would like to make out, but it's still pretty decent jazz, especially if you don't dig anything 'Free'. Make sure you buy the 'enhanced' version, though, complete with essays, interviews, sound-clips and videos.