John Coltrane


John Coltrane Essay, Research Paper

A Brief Look Into

The Life and Music of


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John Coltrane was born in born in Hamlet, North Carolina on September 23, 1926. John Coltrane was an only child. His father, John was a tailor who played the violin and ukulele, and his mother Alice played piano and sang in the church choir. This was a great environment to foster his love of music. Coltrane soon moved with his family to the town of High Point, where his grandfather was the pastor of the A.M.E. Zion Church. His family was very religious and this instilled in him a deep devotion in religion. At the age of twelve Coltrane’s received his first instrument a clarinet which he played for hours on end, that same year Coltrane?s father died. A year after Coltrane?s father died his mother decided to move away to North to Atlantic City to find a work.

Young Coltrane stayed in North Carolina with relatives. By his senior year, he had learned to play a borrowed alto saxophone and was getting recognition from his classmates and even the locals. Work was hard to find in most of the Southern states in 1943, so when John Coltrane graduated he and two friends decided to move to Philadelphia, where one of the friends’ brothers already lived.

Coltrane would live in Philadelphia off and on until about 1957. His decision to migrate north was a common one, and Coltrane did indeed find work as a laborer in a sugar-refining factory. A couple of months later he enrolled in the Ornstein School of Music on 19th and Spruce Streets. In Philadelphia John

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Coltrane could hear a lot of the blues and jazz which weren’t often broadcast in the South further extending his experience and horizons. He continued to

practice his sax alone in his room until he was drafted into the Navy band in 1945.

He returned to Philadelphia in 1946 after being discharged. At this point in his life Coltrane was totally committed to becoming a professional musician. Coltrane worked a variety of jobs through the late forties until in 1947 he joined Eddie Vinson’s jazz band, switching reluctantly to play the tenor sax to do so. The group toured extensively, particularly in the South and southwest. It?s at this point that he started to drink excessively to top off his already heavy smoking habit. A short while after that he joined many other jazz musicians with his new addiction to heroin. After playing for two years with Dizzy Gillespie, he moved with his mother, cousin, and some friends to Strawberry Mansions which was on Philadelphia’s northwest side which overlooked Fairmont Park. It?s at this time he enrolled at Granoff School of Music for further training on the tenor sax. He was dropped from Johnny Hodges’ band when heroin began interfering with his music. Nineteen fifty five proved to be a big year for Coltrane. He picked up his nickname, “Trane,” and married his wife Naima.

It?s in 1955 that things really took off for Coltrane. He joined Miles Davis’ first legendary quintet, which included Red Garland, Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones. He came to national prominence as a member.

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Coltrane moved to New York in 1956. New York was the home of not only many jazz musicians including Miles Davis, but also record companies and recording studios. But disaster struck, Coltrane was kicked out by Miles because of heroin addiction. Coltrane was crushed and returned to Philadelphia once more in the spring of 1957 to kick his heroin habit and his alcoholism. With the support of his wife and his mother, he spent an entire week in solitude, eating nothing and drinking only water. He later described being ?touched? by God during the time, and dedicated his next recording, ?A Love Supreme?, to his Lord. “My goal,” Coltrane said as if (arising from the ashes) like a phoenix to preach his ?revelation?, “is to live the truly religious life, and express it through my music. If you live it, when you play there’s no problem because the music is part of the whole thing. To be a musician is really something. It goes very very deep. My music is the spiritual expression of what I am, my faith, my knowledge, my being.”

He would get rid of his addictions and rejoin the scene with Thelonious Monk at New York?s Five Spot, which is know to many jazz historians as a ?legendary gig?. He eventually rejoined Miles, by January1958. From this point on, his tenor work displayed amazing fire and invention. His music used basic jazz as a starting point, incorporated Eastern ideas and free-jazz tendencies which included multiple or lengthy soloing with boundless energy. With Miles Davis, Coltrane’s big tone would help make that group one of the greatest jazz

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ensembles ever assembled. While with Miles he participated in such classic Davis sessions as Milestones and Kind Of Blue.

In 1959, Coltrane released “Giant Steps,” a groundbreaking album that firmly established him as a tenor master. His classic Giant Steps album contained the mighty tunes “Giant Steps” and “Countdown?. In 1960, Coltrane formed his own group. This group included McCoy Tyner, Elvin Jones and Jimmy Garrison. This group has be acknowledged as one of the greatest and most celebrated groups in the history of jazz. They recorded and released a series of great albums including “My Favorite Things,” “A Love Supreme,” “Coltrane Live at Birdland,” “Transition,” and others.

Coltrane later formed another innovative group, working with his pianist wife, Alice. Together they went ahead with an extremely free and continuous improvising style.

Coltrane sought to lead a more healthy life, but unfortunately the excesses of his youth resulted in his early death at the age of 41 of liver disease on July 17, 1967.

. It is impossible to grasp the truth behind John Coltrane through a slue of facts and dates. All the facts about his short life, all the memories of his friends and fellow musicians, and all the analysis of his playing style tell us hardly anything about the man Coltrane himself.

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Coltrane?s belief was that Jazz relies heavily on improvisation. He was known to solo for forty five minutes at a time. One of the interesting things is the

same piece might be unrecognizable when he played it month later. The best way to understand Coltrane is to listen to his music. Coltrane broke the jazz sound barrier with his restless experimentation and improvisations, his flamboyant free style of playing drove many listeners away. Joel Dorn describes in The Last Giant: The John Coltrane Anthology;

?It’s hard to realize, if you weren’t there, the size of the controversy that whirled around John Coltrane and his music in the late ’50s and early ’60s. You either dug Trane or you didn’t. They tacked that same shadow on Monk. But it was Trane who really stirred ‘em up. Trane’s music drove critics, fans, even musicians into violently pro- or con-Coltrane camps. I remember seeing guys coming to blows over his music. The fact that he was not even remotely involved in the controversy, just the music, increased its intensity. ?

Other examples of Coltranes demeanor and style could be summed here by Mike Zwerin;

?He (Coltrane) disliked being restricted by any sort of rules whatsoever. He told Wayne Shorter that he was trying to learn how to start in the middle of a sentence and move in both directions at the same time. About Schoenberg’s 12-note system, he said: “Damn the rules. It’s the feeling that counts. You play all 12 notes anyway.”

A quote that I personally feel that exemplifies Coltrane?s music and style would have to be one by Dawn Severson;

?The frequently mentioned dichotomy between Trane’s fiery, explosive musicianship and his quiet, gentle demeanor existed in the midst of this multiplicity, surrounded by the controversies among the critics, whose portraits of Trane ranged from that of a blasphemous perpetrator of “anti-jazz” to that of a

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musician whose career as saxophone soloist, bandleader, and composer defined (and repeatedly redefined) the style of music known as jazz.?

“I think,” Coltrane shared once, “the main thing a musician would like to do is to give a picture to the listener of the many wonderful things he knows and senses in the universe. That’s what music is to me–it’s just another way of saying this is a big, beautiful universe we live in, that’s been given to us, and here’s an example of just how magnificent and encompassing it is. That’s what I would like to do. I think that’s one of the greatest things you can do in life, and we all try to do it in some way. The musician’s is through his music.” John Coltrane couldn?t have said it better, and his universe as perceived through his music is indeed beautiful and fast paced, but at the same time can be slow and methodical. He had an incredible talent, but it is the type of person he was that makes his music so memorable. Listening to him one could come to believe he doesn?t even know your there he just plays his feelings, his thoughts, his memories, and we are given a picture a window so to speak into his world of religious devotion and his aspirations. For that many listeners and even musicians were turned away feeling like he was a rebel who was producing nothing but chaos in a sense, not trying to make something extravagant just making what he feels deep inside. Another way of putting that would be to say he was attacked because he chose “not to bend his concepts of music in order to accommodate the pre-determinations and limitations of the audience’s ear.” But for the same reasons others were drawn to that unique style of music.

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His music was non political for the most part except for “Alabama,” his eulogy for four young black girls killed in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. He incorporated existing musical ideas of his day and

found his own particular niche which was influenced by Indian and African music, and his style continues to influence musicians today. One can only wonder what sorts of jazz music Coltrane may have explored beyond 17th of July 1967. His music lives on in the many recording, and in the music of those who worked with him.

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