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Jazz Great (1926-1967)

John Coletrane was born in Hamlet, North Carolina.  As a child, he played clarinet as well as alto saxophone.  During his early years he played orchestral and march music rather than jazz.  In 1943, he moved to Philadelphia and was in a Navy Band by 1945.  He recorded and privately issued four songs in 1946.  He began his jazz career with King Kolax, but left in 1947 to play with Eddie "Cleanhead Vinson."  His first big gig was with Dizzy Gillespie's Big Band in 1949.  They broke up in 1950 but for the next year, he worked with Gillespie's quintet before returning to Philadelphia.  He played with several different groups after leaving Gillespie including Gay Crosse (1952), Earl Bostic (1952), Johnny Hodges (1953-54), and Jimmy Smith (1955). 

In 1955, Miles Davis started a quintet and John Coltrane came on to play tenor.  Davis was actually criticized for taking Coltrane, but he was a good judge of talent and stayed with Coltrane.  He played with Davis until 1957 when he was fired for his heroin addiction.  He permanently stopped taking heroin and found himself competing with Sonny Rollins for the number one tenor in America.  Next, he went to New York to play at New York's Five Spot with Thelonious Monk.  He then rejoined Miles Davis in 1958, until 1960 when he began his own quartet.  He had recorded as a leader as early as 1957, with Blue Train, but now went solely as a group leader.  This time Davis was reluctant to let him go.  By the end of the year, his band featured McCoy Tyner on piano, Elvin Jones on drums, and Reggie Workman on bass. 

A year later the band was joined by the great Eric Dolphy, Coltrane is best known for his experimentation that had him labeled eccentric, unorthodox, and even unmusical.  Some of these experimentation's included playing the same chord three or four different ways within a single measure and overlapping chords before the change was intended to occur.  In 1960, he played "My Favorite Things" on the straight soprano and single-handedly revived the instrument that is now often played in jazz bands.  In 1961, he began a series of recordings at the Village Vanguard that were often called "anti-jazz" to try to counter the criticism he recorded in a quartet with Duke Ellington, but he continued to record in his own group.  His intense solos were sometimes 45 minutes in length.  In 1964, he played "A Love Supreme," which is known as his greatest album. 

In 1965, he almost stopped playing melodies at all and simply continued to experiment.  He brought on Pharaoh Sanders, another tenor, and then Rashid Ali as a second drummer.  This friction caused McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones to leave.  In 1966, his band consisted of Sanders, Ali, his wife Alice on piano, and Jimmy Garrison.  His final major album, "Expression", featured Coltrane on flute with Pharaoh Sanders on piccolo.  By 1967, he was truly overworked.  He would practice ten to twelve hours a day, besides a number of performances that included a tour of Japan during the summer.  It was just after returning from Japan that he died prematurely on July 17, 1967.  The cause of death was liver cancer, but it was probably a combination of overworking and alcohol.


Revised: July 18, 2013.