John Coltrane (1926 - 1967) Half-Man / Half Amazing
A legend amongst legends, John William Coltrane, also known as Trane, used love, faith, spirituality and his prodigious understanding of music to revolutionize the the Jazz saxophone and Jazz composition in almost mythical proportions. John Coltrane was born on September 23, 1926 in Hamlet, North Carolina where he was raised in a tight community surrounded by family, church and music. At an early age Coltrane began playing, and most importantly studying, the Clarinet and E-flat horn but while in high school his admiration of musicians the likes of Johnny Hodges and Lester Young led his switch to the alto saxophone. In 1943 Coltrane moved to Philadelphia, where he continued his lessons at Granoff Studios and the Ornstein School of Music. Coltrane made his first professinal Jazz appearance in 1945 playing alto in the Jimmy Johnson Big Band. Later that year, during World War II, he was drafted into the United States Navy. While stationed in Hawaii he played clarinet in the Navy band called the Melody Masters. In '46 he returned to Philly to live with his mother and cousin. He started playing alto in the Joe Web band, too.
After being discharged in 1946, Coltrane returned to Philadelphia and joined the Joe Webb Band, than later the King Kolax Band, Jimmy Heath's band and the Howard McGhee All Stars. By the end of the late '40's Coltrane joined a big band led by Dizzy Gillespie, one of the best (many say the greatest) trumpet players of all time and he also had a few brief encounters with the legendary alto saxophonist and composer, Charlie Parker. During this time Coltrane switched from alto to tenor saxophone, leading many to believe this was a direct result of his encounters with Parker. Some say that Coltrane felt that the veteran musician had exhausted all the possibilities on the alto saxophone, but during this same time he joined a band led by Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson, who also played the alto sax, therefore leaving Coltrane no choice but to play tenor. Coltrane would later say, "A wider area of listening opened up for me. There were many things that people like Hawk, and Ben and Tab Smith were doing in the '40's that I didn't understand, but that I felt emotionally."
In the mid to late '50's Trane played with yet two more Jazz legends. First, he was invited to join a new band led by trumpeter extraordinaire, Miles Davis in 1955. Along with pianist Red Garland, bassist Paul Chambers, and drummer "Philly" Joe Jones they formed what would later become know as "The First Great Quintet." And later, around 1957, he worked with mastermind pianist, Thelonious Monk during a legendary six-month gig. It was during this period that Trane began to really experiment with his playing, producing sounds that had never been heard before. He began using the three-on-one chord style, which compressed his playing, entire solos seemed to pass within seconds, playing with rapid runs cascading through hundreds of notes per minute. The technique of playing multiple notes at one time was eventually dubbed "sheets of sound" by Jazz enthusiast. In 1959 Coltrane and the rest of Davis' quintet released the landmark album Kind of Blue, known for its modal sound, playing improvisations based on scales and modes rather than chords. The album became one of the best-selling and highly acclaimed records in the history of Jazz music. At this same session Trane cut his classic Giant Steps album. Although Trane was laying the foundation for his musical revolution, as with every revolutionary icon, he had his nay-sayers who didn't believe in his sound and labeled him the "angry tenor" some went as far as saying that his music wasn't even Jazz music and had no place in the culture.
It was also in the late '50's when Coltrane went through his spiritual revolution. Coltrane was raised in a Christian home, his maternal grandfather; the Reverend William Blair was the presiding elder in the A.M.E. Zion Church in High Point, NC, where Coltrane lived until he moved to Philadelphia. At a very early age he was made aware of religion and spirituality but by the age of 30 his spiritual focus began to grow and he began to study a wide range of world religions and philosophies including, African history, astrology, Hinduism, Jiddu Krishnamurti, Kabbala, maths, science, yoga and Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle. His studies ultimately led him to Islam, and in 1957 he took his Shahahdah and officially converted to Islam. Through this spiritual enlightenment, Coltrane stopped drinking alcohol and using drugs (heroin was very popular and a serious problem for many musicians at this time.) It also gave him the light to eventually produce some of the greatest music in history. Coltrane once wrote, "During the year 1957, I experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening which was to lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life. At that time, in gratitude, I humbly asked to be given the means and privilege to make others happy through music." This was also the year he married Juanita Naima Grubb, also a Muslim, for whom he later wrote the classic piece Naima.
In 1960, Trane formed his own legendary quartet that included pianist McCoy Tyner, drummer Elvin Jones and bassist Jimmy Garrison. Later Trane would add Eric Dolphy and tenor saxophonist Pharoah Sanders. The John Coltrane Quartet, also known as "The Classic Quartet" produced some of the most creative, influential, incendiary pieces in Jazz history. The quartet's first album, My Favorite Things, was a huge commercial success and the title track became known as Trane's signature song. Their emotionally intense improvisations were beautifully harmonic, rhythmic, and melodic and could invoke tears of joy or pain. Coltrane's compositions filled the listener's heart with whatever emotion he sowed into the roots of the notes in every song. He also gave his band members the freedom he learned from Miles and Monk, allowing them to become vanguards in a movement that changed Jazz forever. Coltrane along with Dolphy and Sanders would have ardently passionate solos that would at times give the listener the impression that they were screaming into the horn. This style became known as "The New Thing", than later ?Free Jazz? and eventually "Avant-Garde." Many of Trane's listeners found his apparently chaotic style and timeless solos profoundly impressive, while others still only heard anathematized noise. But Trane was determined to make each performance "a whole expression of one's being" regardless of what critics said. Coltrane's crowning achievement came in 1964 with The Classic Quartet's most popular record, A Love Supreme. It was the culmination of all almost everything Trane had done up to this point. The four-part set is a tribute to his faith in and the Oneness of God. Trane passionately defined God's infinitely inimitable Love, while simultaneously redefining Jazz music. The spirituality of it was not only a combination of everything before it but also the in vitro of everything that was to come after it.
Unfortunately Coltrane died, just two years after the advent of A Love Supreme, from liver cancer in Long Island, NY on July 17, 1967 at the tender age of 40. As it was with most of his life, his death was also laden with controversy from what led to his condition to what how it was treated. John Coltrane will forever be considered one of the most important individuals in music history. His influences are virtually infinite yet it is nearly impossible to find a musician who was able to successfully recreate his sound, even great saxophonist the likes of Sanders, Wayne Shorter and Joe Henderson could come close but still fell woefully short. Instead great musicians follow by example, by experiment, taking chances and following their heart, while religiously devoting themselves to their art.