The impact that saxophonist John William Coltrane (pictured) left on the jazz scene is still quite resonant, even 45 years after his passing. As one of the innovators of modal jazz, Coltrane made his name first playing as a sideman in gigs with other jazz greats, such as trumpeter Miles Davis and pianist Thelonious Monk. Coltrane would eventually become one of the pioneers of “free jazz,” a largely improvisational style popularized later by Sun Ra, Chick Corea, and the aforementioned Davis.
Coltrane’s life began in the small town of Hamlet, North Carolina. His family would later move to the city of High Point, which is where his early foundations were formed. After a series of deaths rocked his family, Coltrane would move to Philadelphia in 1943.
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He joined the Navy two years later and returned to Philadelphia in 1946, studying jazz theory under the tutelage of local composer Dennis Sandole. Starting his playing career with the alto sax, Coltrane would begin playing tenor, which impacted him greatly.
Coltrane was inspired by Charlie “Bird” Parker and counted him as an idol and influence. Coltrane would play alongside the saxophonist in the 1940s on occasion. In 1955, Miles Davis reached out to Coltrane to join his “First Great Quintet” band and for two years recorded a bulk of material with the reemerging Davis who had been struggling with drug use and fell out of the public eye. “Trane,” as he was nicknamed, would display dazzling techniques in his playing with a jazz chord progression using his namesake widely known as “Coltrane changes.”
In 1960, he would lead his own band, and in the following year with Atlantic Records, the album “My Favorite Things” spawned a commercial hit with the title track and was a critical success. That same year, Coltrane would go on to Impulse! Records and began his experimental “free jazz” phase or as critics called it then, “The New Thing.”
Listen to “My Favorite Things” here:
Critics were split on accepting the new style of playing, with Coltrane himself admitting he was figuring things out as he went along. He would dial down his playing, perfecting it as part of The Classic Quartet and released the foursome’s most famous piece in “A Love Supreme” in 1964. In 1965, he would find “avant-garde” jazz especially appealing and altered his style even more.
Listen to “A Love Supreme” here:
Coltrane would lose a battle with liver cancer, passing away at the Huntington Hospital at 40 years of age. There has been some speculation that Coltrane’s liver cancer was a result of hepatitis. Writer Lewis Porter alleged that Coltrane’s heroin use contributed to his demise. Coltrane’s fellow luminaries weren’t even aware of his illness and were shocked by his passing.
Coltrane would leave behind a widow, Alice, an accomplished musician herself, and a son, Ravi. Coltrane and his music still evokes debates among jazz fans, with many considering “Trane” the best to ever pick up the instrument. Whether Coltrane was indeed the best saxophonist of his time is entirely subjective but he is without doubt one of the most amazing musicians of all time.