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John Coltrane Biography

John Coltrane is not only one of the most influential jazz artists of the past 35 years, he is one of the most influential artists of all times. While Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker are the best known Jazz musicians, John Coltrane's influence on jazz and on all of music may have been more significant.

John Coltrane was born in Hamlet, North Carolina in September, 1926. John played both clarinet and alto saxophone as a child, and in the early forties would serve as a clarinetist in the U.S. Navy marching band. In 1945, Coltrane moved to Philadelphia, where he would begin his professional music career. Over the next decade Coltrane would play with such artists as Dizzy Gillespie, Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson, Earl Bostic, Johnny Hodges, and even Charlie Parker. In 1955, Coltrane had switched to tenor sax and would join the legendary rhythm section in the Miles Davis Quintet. His stint with Miles Davis would characterize his career to come. Coltrane was misunderstood, seen as eccentric or weird. Critics blasted his unorthodox playing and labeled him as jagged, or simply unmusical. Coltrane once said he felt forced to play everything, for he was unable to "work what I know down into a more lyrical line."

Coltrane left the Miles Davis Quintet for the first time in April, 1957. It is not clear whether he left or was dropped from the band, but it is clear that heroin and alcohol addiction had begun to consume Coltrane, as it had so many other jazz artists. Coltrane beat these problems the same year and would soon team with Thelonious Monk for several months together at the Five Spot. After this, he rejoined Miles Davis and would continue to pursue his study and experimentation with chord changes and variations. It is said that Coltrane would often play the same chord three or four different ways within a single measure, or would overlap chords before the intended change was supposed to occur. Later Miles Davis would pay tribute to this style. When told that his music was so complicated that it required five saxophonists, Mr. Davis replied that he'd once had John Coltrane.

While Coltrane recorded numerous albums with numerous labels, his career is marked by a short stint with Atlantic followed by over seven years with Impulse Records. After his final break with Davis, in October 1960, Coltrane released "My Favorite Things," in which he revived the straight soprano sax. His mastery of the soprano sax would inspire rising musicians for generations to come to pursue the instrument. "My Favorite Things" still remains Coltrane's signature album. The overwhelming power Coltrane displayed throughout his career carried over to his arrangements and composition. Coltrane even experimented with two drummers, Elvin Jones, arguably the most powerful drummer at the time, and Rashied Ali. Adding Ali to the quartet, which also included McCoy Tyner and Jimmy Garrison, resulted in a feud between Ali and Jones. Jones would eventually leave the group, but Coltrane's risk would leave an indelible mark on his career and on jazz as a whole.

Coltrane's music also took on a spiritual and political aspect. This is evident in "Alabama," Coltrane's tribute to the victims of a Sunday morning church bombing in Birmingham in 1963. In 1965, Coltrane directed his religious and spiritual dedication into the making of "A Love Supreme," which he recorded with Elvin Jones, Jimmy Garrison, and McCoy Tyner. Critics and fans alike acknowledge "A Love Supreme" as Coltrane's masterpiece, although others point out it is not a groundbreaking album, but more of a summation. "Meditation" would again redefine Coltrane (as it seemed every new album did). Again, Coltrane's spiritual self helped form the album. Coltrane's final album was "Expression," on which he played flute while fellow tenor Pharoah Sanders played piccolo. This eerie album is similar to Coltrane's final years, in which the horizons he explored were known only to him (if even him). When John Coltrane died of liver failure at the age of forty on July 17, 1967, he was still misunderstood and underappreciated. Now, twenty years later, people are finally beginning to understand and appreciate John Coltrane's music. Perhaps Coltrane knew that music, just as life, is not simple.

Information for this biography obtained from The Atlantic Unbound, 1987

Source information:  (March 27, 2004)


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