100 Jazz Profiles
1926 - 1967
Tenor and soprano saxophonist. Coltrane was the single most influential saxophonist of the 1960s, and his legacy has continued to dominate approaches to his instrument ever since. His most important work was crammed into little more than a decade, beginning when he joined Miles Davis in 1955, and lasting until his premature death from cancer.
In this period he seldom stood still stylistically, although his commanding technique, distinctive tone and prolific ideas always made him immediately recognisable. He was born in North Carolina, but came to Philadelphia in his late teens where he forged several important musical associations, notably with saxophonist Jimmy Heath, in whose band he played.
They joined Dizzy Gillespie's big band together in 1949. Coltrane stayed on when Gillespie scaled down to a small group, and he then worked with Earl Bostic and Johnny Hodges, before joining Davis. Coltrane had got involved in drugs during his time in Gillespie's band, but in 1957 he left Davis, quit using heroin, and returned to the New York scene as a member of Thelonious Monk's quartet.
Immediately the technical advances in his playing became obvious, and in his recordings with Monk he began to demonstrate his ability to play rapid scalar figures which the critic Ira Gitler called 'sheets of sound'. When he rejoined Miles Davis, Coltrane used a similar technique, but the two men also explored the possibility of improvising over a modal background - exemplified by Milestones, and by the album Kind of Blue.
When he left to lead his own quartet, Coltrane continued this approach, initially playing over harmonically dense compositions such as his famous Giant Steps, but eventually simplifying the harmonic basis of his pieces, His version of My Favourite Things (which became a big hit for him) uses a simple modal scale as its backdrop.
His quartet with pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison and drummer Elvin Jones became the leading modern jazz group of the early 1960s, and Coltrane's own improvisations grew ever longer and more complex. While Tyner pared away the harmonies, Jones added a rhythmically dense accompaniment. The high point of the quartet's work was the four-part Love Supreme from 1964.
After this, Coltrane expanded his group, making the free jazz album Ascension, and generally working with another saxophonist, such as Pharoah Sanders, and replacing Jones with the colouristic drumming of Rashied Ali and Tyner with the impressionistic piano of his second wife Alice Coltrane.
His final albums explore his deep spiritual convictions, but without compromising the technical perfection and passionate eloquence of his own playing. His son, Ravi Coltrane (born 1965) has become a world-class saxophonist in his own right.
Lewis Porter: John Coltrane: His Life and Music (Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press) 1998
Coltrane: The Classic Quartet - Complete Impulse Studio Recordings (Impulse IMPD8-280) [8CD set of his great 1960s quartet]
Suggested track: A Love Supreme - Part II - Resolution
Coltrane tribute page
With sound files, MIDI files, pictures, and links
on radio 3
Review of Coltrane (Deluxe Edition)
Review of Traneing In
Review of The Olatunji Concert
Jazz at BBC Music
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