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John Coltrane BiographyBorn in Hamlet, North Carolina, on September 23, 1926, John Coltrane grew up in racially segregated High Point. Shortly after he graduated from grammar school in 1939, his closely knit family was devastated by the deaths of the family patriarch Reverend William Blair, as well as his father and an uncle. This left him in the care of his mother who supported the family by working as a domestic, his aunt and his cousin. Around this time, Coltrane dedicated himself to his clarinet which he practiced and played obsessively. Later, after developing an interest in jazz, he switched to the alto sax.
To find work, Coltrane's mother, aunt, and cousin headed north to New Jersey leaving John with family friends. After completing high school, Coltrane moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and was, eventually, reunited with his family.
"I've always felt that even though a man was not a Christian, he still has to know the truth some way or another... The truth itself doesn't have any name on it and each man has to find this for himself." ~ John Coltrane
He then served a brief stint in the navy during which he performed with the navy band. It was during this time that he made his first known recording with a quartet of other sailors on July 13, 1946 - a performance of Tadd Dameron's "Hot House."
Though he had studied briefly at the Ornstein School of Music and the Granoff Studios in Philadelphia, his real music education started when he returned from the service and started playing around Philadelphia. He played alto or tenor saxophone with Joe Webb, King Kolax, Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson (1947-48), Jimmy Heath, Howard McGhee, Dizzy Gillespie, Earl Bostic, and many lesser-known musicians.
"So I haven't reached this point yet to where the piano is a drag to me to that degree. Only thing, we don't follow what the piano does anymore because we all movin' (in) our own directions." ~ John Coltrane
By the time he joined the Johnny Hodges's septet (1953-54) he had committed himself to the tenor sax. His major break came when he joined the Miles Davis quintet with Red Garland, Paul Chambers, and Philly Joe Jones (1955-57). Coltrane's playing at this point in his career has been described as "angry and harsh." Harry Frost referred to his solos as "extended double-time flurries notable for their lack of direction."
"It's just one of those things, anything that they haven't heard yet and is a little different - they're goin' to reject it at first. But the tide - it will roll around - the time (will come) when they will like it." ~ John Coltrane
He was fired by Davis twice because of problems associated with his heroin addiction, but rejoined the group later after he kicked his habit and was present for many of Miles' seminal recordings. Having played briefly with Thelonious Monk and on many recordings as a sideman, his music had evolved at and extraordinary rate. It was around this time that he discovered the soprano saxophone, purchasing his own instrument in February 1960. His interest in the straight sax may have sprung from his admiration for Sidney Bechet and Steve Lacy. He had also been experiencing problems with his tenor mouthpiece causing pain in his gums.
Established as the leading avant garde tenor saxophonist, Coltrane had recorded a couple albums with himself as the frontman. In 1960, he formed his own quartet. Steve Kuhn, Pete La Roca, and Billy Higgins served brief stints with the foursome which quickly evolved into the group we now readily associate with Coltrane's music. Added to the mix were McCoy Tyner (1960-65), Elvin Jones (1960-66), and Jimmy Garrison, who joined in 1961. On occasion, Art Davis added a second double bass to the group. Eric Dolphy often served as a fifth member on bass clarinet, alto saxophone, and flute from 1961 to 1963, and Roy Haynes was a regular replacement for Elvin Jones during Jones's incarceration for drugs in 1963.
"I don't care too much for the playing in clubs consistently. There was a time when this felt alright to me, because with my music I felt I had to play a lot to work it out. But now I don't think that was absolutely where it was at, but I had to find that out myself." ~ John Coltrane
John Coltrane's life was cut short by liver cancer on July 17, 1967. He was 40 years old. Though we will never know to where his music may have led, there are volumes of examples of where it has been. He left behind a wealth of recorded material, including more than 40 albums. Among his classic albums are Blue Train, Coltrane, My Favorite Things and A Love Supreme. Material on those albums, along with the many tracks he made as a sideman, have been reshuffled and presented in numerous combinations under various titles.
Today, forty years after his death, he is still much venerated as a man who reshaped modern jazz and influenced generations of musicians who followed. John Coltrane, the man whose cascading runs were once described by Jazz critic Ira Gitler as "sheets of sound," shall forever stand among jazz immortals.
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