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Coltrane, John

Category: Musician or composer

 

John William Coltrane, (September 23, 1926 – July 17, 1967), was an American jazz saxophonist and composer.

The influence Coltrane has had on music spans many genres and musicians. Coltrane's massive influence on jazz, both mainstream and avant-garde, began during his lifetime and continued to grow after his death. He is one of the most dominant influences on post-1960 jazz, and has inspired an entire generation of jazz musicians.  Coltrane remains one of the most significant saxophonists in music history.

In 2002, scholar Molefi Kete Asante named Coltrane one of his 100 Greatest African Americans. Coltrane was awarded a special Pulitzer Prize in 2007 citing his "masterful improvisation, supreme musicianship and iconic centrality to the history of jazz."

 

Working in the bebop and hard bop idioms early in his career, Coltrane helped pioneer the use of modes in jazz and was later at the forefront of free jazz. He led at least fifty recording sessions during his career, and appeared as a sideman on many albums by other musicians, including trumpeter Miles Davis and pianist Thelonious Monk.

He received many posthumous awards and recognitions, including canonization by the African Orthodox Church as Saint John William Coltrane.

The spirituality of John Coltrane

Coltrane was born and raised in a Christian home, and was influenced by religion and spirituality from childhood. His maternal grandfather, the Reverend William Blair, was a minister at an African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in High Point, North Carolina, and his paternal grandfather, the Reverend William H. Coltrane, was an A.M.E. Zion minister in Hamlet, North Carolina.

As many do, who have a yearning desire for transcendence, Coltrane thought drugs were the answer and sunk into an abyss of alcohol and heroin addiction in the 1950s.  In the spring of 1957, his dependence on heroin and alcohol lost him one of the best jobs in jazz. He was playing sax and touring with Miles Davis' popular group when he became unreliable and strung out. Alternately catatonic and brilliant, Coltrane's behavior and playing became increasingly erratic. Davis fired him after a live show that April.

Coltrane's answer was to quit cold turkey, and he later explained that he had heard the voice of God during his anguishing withdrawal. [...] .  This spiritual experience in 1957, directed the whole of his subsequent life.  In the liner notes of A Love Supreme, Coltrane states that, in 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." [John Coltrane's liner notes to A Love Supreme, December 1964]

 

Coltrane set out on the spiritual path, learnt its stages and changed his whole life in order to progress along this path.  In 1966, an interviewer in Japan asked Coltrane what he hoped to be in five years, and Coltrane replied, "A saint."

Like all people who have such experiences, Coltrane came to believe in the universality of the spiritual  realm – a realm which is not confined by religious dogma.  Further evidence of this universal view regarding spirituality can be found in the liner notes of Meditations (1965), in which Coltrane declares, "I believe in all religions."  It is also borne out by Coltrane's collection of books, which included The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, and the Bhagavad GitaHe studied the Qur'an, the Bible, Kabbalah, and astrology with equal sincerity.  He also explored Hinduism, Jiddu Krishnamurti, African history, the philosophical teachings of Plato and Aristotle, and Zen Buddhism.

After A Love Supreme, many of the titles of Coltrane's songs and albums were linked to spiritual matters: Ascension, Meditations, Selflessness, "Amen", "Ascent", "Attaining", "Dear Lord", "Prayer and Meditation Suite", and "The Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost".

Alice, Coltrane's wife shared his beliefs and also
introduced him to other spiritual sources

In October 1965, for example, Coltrane recorded Om, referring to the sacred syllable in Hinduism, which symbolizes the infinite or the entire Universe. Coltrane described Om as the "first syllable, the primal word, the word of power". The 29-minute recording contains chants from the Hindu Bhagavad Gita and the Buddhist Tibetan Book of the Dead, and a recitation of a passage describing the primal verbalization "om" as a cosmic/spiritual common denominator in all things.

Coltrane's spiritual journey was interwoven with his investigation of world music. He believed not only in a universal musical structure that transcended ethnic distinctions, but in being able to harness the mystical language of music itself. Coltrane's study of Indian music led him to believe that certain sounds and scales could "produce specific emotional meanings." According to Coltrane, the goal of a musician was to understand these forces, control them, and elicit a response from the audience.

Coltrane
I would like to bring to people something like happiness. I would like to discover a method so that if I want it to rain, it will start right away to rain. If one of my friends is ill, I'd like to play a certain song and he will be cured; when he'd be broke, I'd bring out a different song and immediately he'd receive all the money he needed.

 

One of the fascinating aspects of Coltrane’s spiritual and music evolution was that they went hand in hand.  Furthermore, he continued to innovate and progress both spiritually and musically, despite some very hostile reactions from the critics [predictable], but perhaps more sadly his fans.  In France, he was booed during his final tour with Miles Davis. In 1961, Down Beat magazine criticised Coltrane and Dolphy as players of "Anti-Jazz", in an article that bewildered and upset both musicians.   Coltrane pushed out the music boundaries based on his spiritual perceptions of technical ideas. But despite opposition, Coltrane's style further developed, he was determined to make each performance "a whole expression of one's being".

Coltrane was a man who also acted out his beliefs, helping young musicians, giving support and encouragement.  He was essentially a good man.  Coltrane championed many younger free jazz musicians such as Archie Shepp, and under his influence Impulse! became a leading free jazz record label.

After Coltrane's death, a congregation called the Yardbird Temple in San Francisco began worshiping him.  The congregation later became affiliated with the African Orthodox Church; at which point  Coltrane's status was changed from a god to a saint. The resultant St. John Coltrane African Orthodox Church, San Francisco is the only African Orthodox church that incorporates Coltrane's music and his lyrics as prayers in its liturgy.

Samuel G. Freedman - New York Times
 the Coltrane church is not a gimmick or a forced alloy of nightclub music and ethereal faith. Its message of deliverance through divine sound is actually quite consistent with Coltrane's own experience and message…….

Coltrane is depicted as one of the 90 saints in the Dancing Saints icon of St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco. The icon is a 3,000-square-foot (280 m2) painting in the Byzantine iconographic style that wraps around the entire church rotunda. It was executed by Mark Dukes, an ordained deacon at the Saint John Coltrane African Orthodox Church, who painted other icons of Coltrane for the Coltrane Church. Saint Barnabas Episcopal Church in Newark, New Jersey, included Coltrane on their list of historical black saints and made a "case for sainthood" for him in an article on their former website.

Life

 

Coltrane was born in his parents' apartment at 200 Hamlet Avenue, Hamlet, North Carolina on September 23, 1926. His father was John R. Coltrane and his mother was Alice Blair. He grew up in High Point, North Carolina, attending William Penn High School (now Penn-Griffin School for the Arts).

Beginning in December 1938 Coltrane's aunt, grandparents, and father all died within a few months of one another, leaving John to be raised by his mother and a close cousin. In June 1943 he moved to Philadelphia. In September of that year his mother bought him his first saxophone, an alto. Coltrane played the clarinet and the alto horn in a community band before taking up the alto saxophone during high school. He had his first professional gigs in early to mid-1945 – a "cocktail lounge trio", with piano and guitar.

To avoid being drafted by the Army, Coltrane enlisted in the Navy on August 6, 1945, the day the first U.S. atomic bomb was dropped on Japan. He was trained as an apprentice seaman at Sampson Naval Training Station in upstate New York, before he was shipped to Pearl Harbor, where he was stationed at Manana Barracks, the largest posting of African-American servicemen in the world.

with his wife Alice

By the time he got to Hawaii, in late 1945, the Navy was already rapidly downsizing. Coltrane's musical talent was quickly recognized, and he became one of the few Navy men to serve as a musician without having been granted musicians rating when he joined the Melody Masters, the base swing band. He continued to perform other duties when not playing with the band, including kitchen and security details. By the end of his service, he had assumed a leadership role in the band. His first recordings, an informal session in Hawaii with Navy musicians, occurred on July 13, 1946. Coltrane played alto saxophone on a selection of jazz standards and bebop tunes.

After being discharged from his duties in the navy, as a seaman first class in August 1946, Coltrane returned to Philadelphia, where he "plunged into the heady excitement of the new music and the blossoming bebop scene." After touring with King Kolax, he joined a Philly-based band led by Jimmy Heath, who was introduced to Coltrane's playing by his former Navy buddy, the trumpeter William Massey, who had played with Coltrane in the Melody Masters.

 

In Philadelphia after the war, he studied jazz theory with guitarist and composer Dennis Sandole and continued under Sandole's tutelage through the early 1950s. Originally an altoist, during this time Coltrane also began playing tenor saxophone with the Eddie Vinson Band. Coltrane later referred to this point in his life as a time when "a wider area of listening opened up for me. There were many things that people like Hawk [Coleman Hawkins], and Ben [Webster] and Tab Smith were doing in the '40s that I didn't understand, but that I felt emotionally." A significant influence, according to tenor saxophonist Odean Pope, was the Philadelphia pianist, composer, and theorist Hasaan Ibn Ali. "Hasaan was the clue to ... the system that Trane uses. Hasaan was the great influence on Trane’s melodic concept."

An important moment in the progression of Coltrane's musical development occurred on June 5, 1945, when he saw Charlie Parker perform for the first time. In a DownBeat article in 1960 he recalled: "the first time I heard Bird play, it hit me right between the eyes." Parker became an early idol, and they played together on occasion in the late 1940s.

Coltrane was a member of groups led by Dizzy Gillespie, Earl Bostic and Johnny Hodges in the early to mid-1950s.

Alice

In 1955, Coltrane married Juanita Naima Grubbs, a Muslim convert, for whom he later wrote the piece "Naima", and came into contact with Islam. They had no children together and were separated by the middle of 1963.

Not long after that, Coltrane met pianist Alice McLeod. He and Alice moved in together and had two sons before he was "officially divorced from Naima in 1966, at which time John and Alice were immediately married." John Jr. was born in 1964, Ravi in 1965, and Oranyan ("Oran") in 1967. According to the musician and author Peter Lavezzoli,

"Alice brought happiness and stability to John's life, not only because they had children, but also because they shared many of the same spiritual beliefs, particularly a mutual interest in Indian philosophy. Alice also understood what it was like to be a professional musician."

Thus in the end the main inspiration for John Coltrane was LOVE, music, and his belief in the spiritual world.

Coltrane died from liver cancer at Huntington Hospital on Long Island on July 17, 1967, at the age of 40. His funeral was held four days later at St. Peter's Lutheran Church in New York City. The service was opened by the Albert Ayler Quartet and closed by the Ornette Coleman Quartet. Coltrane is buried at Pinelawn Cemetery in Farmingdale, New York.

More details of his life are provided in the observations in the context of the music he composed and played.

McCoy Tyner
I couldn't wait to go to work at night [with John]. It was just such a wonderful experience. I mean, I didn't know what we were going to do. We couldn't really explain why things came together so well, you know, and why it was, you know, meant to be. I mean, it's hard to explain things like that.

 

 

References

The discography below lists albums conceived and approved by Coltrane as a leader during his lifetime. It does not include his many releases as a sideman, sessions assembled into albums by various record labels after Coltrane's contract expired, sessions with Coltrane as a sideman later reissued with his name featured more prominently—or posthumous compilations, except for the one he approved before his death..

Prestige and Blue Note Records

  • Coltrane (debut solo LP) (1957)
  • Blue Train (1957)
  • John Coltrane with the Red Garland Trio (1958)
  • Soultrane (1958)

Atlantic Records

  • Giant Steps (first album entirely of Coltrane compositions) (1960)
  • Coltrane Jazz (first appearance by McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones) (1961)
  • My Favorite Things (1961)
  • Olé Coltrane (features Eric Dolphy, compositions by Coltrane and Tyner) (1961)

Impulse! Records

  • Africa/Brass (brass arranged by Tyner and Dolphy) (1961)
  • Live! at the Village Vanguard (features Dolphy, first appearance by Jimmy Garrison) (1962)
  • Coltrane (first album to solely feature the "classic quartet") (1962)
  • Duke Ellington & John Coltrane (1963)
  • Ballads (1963)
  • John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman (1963)
  • Impressions (1963)
  • Live at Birdland (1964)
  • Crescent (1964)
  • A Love Supreme (1965)
  • The John Coltrane Quartet Plays (1965)
  • Ascension (quartet plus six horns and bass, one 40' track collective improvisation) (1966)
  • New Thing at Newport (live album split with Archie Shepp) (1966)
  • Kulu Sé Mama (1966)
  • Meditations (quartet plus Pharoah Sanders and Rashied Ali) (1966)
  • Live at the Village Vanguard Again! (1966)
  • Expression (posthumous and final Coltrane-approved release; one track features Coltrane on flute) (1967)

Observations

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