Anniversary of a Lost Icon: John Coltrane 50th

John Coltrane, the tenor saxophonist, who was considered one of the most gifted modern jazz musicians of this decade, died on this day 50 years ago at Huntington Hospital, Huntington, Long Island. He was 40 years old.

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John Coltrane, the most influential jazz musician of the late 20th century, one of the greatest saxophonists of all time, and the pioneer of jazz without limits.

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.


While in high school, Coltrane’s musical influences shifted to the likes of Lester Young and Johnny Hodges prompting him to switch to alto saxophone. He continued his musical training in Philadelphia at Granoff Studios and the Ornstein School of Music. He was called to military service during WWII, where he performed in the U.S. Navy Band in Hawaii.

After the war, Coltrane began playing tenor saxophone with the Eddie “CleanHead” Vinson Band, and was later quoted as saying, “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.” Prior to joining the Dizzy Gillespie band, Coltrane performed with Jimmy Heath where his passion for experimentation began to take shape.

Miles and Monk period (1955–1957)

In the summer of 1955, Coltrane was freelancing in Philadelphia while studying with guitarist Dennis Sandole when he received a call from Miles Davis. The trumpeter, whose success during the late forties had been followed by several years of decline in activity and reputation, due in part to his struggles with heroin, was again active and about to form a quintet. Coltrane was with this edition of the Davis band (known as the First Great Quintet—along with Red Garland on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and Philly Joe Jones on drums) from October 1955 to April 1957 (with a few absences). During this period Davis released several influential recordings that revealed the first signs of Coltrane’s growing ability. This quintet, represented by two marathon recording sessions for Prestige in 1956, resulted in the albums Cookin’Relaxin’Workin’, and Steamin’. The First Great Quintet disbanded due in part to Coltrane’s heroin addiction.

During the later part of 1957 Coltrane worked with Thelonious Monk at New York’s Five Spot Café, and played in Monk’s quartet (July–December 1957), but, owing to contractual conflicts, took part in only one official studio recording session with this group. Coltrane recorded many albums for Prestige under his own name at this time, but Monk refused to record for his old label. A private recording made by Juanita Naima Coltrane of a 1958 reunion of the group was issued by Blue Note Records as Live at the Five Spot—Discovery! in 1993. A high quality tape of a concert given by this quartet in November 1957 was also found later, and was released by Blue Note in 2005. Recorded by Voice of America, the performances confirm the group’s reputation, and the resulting album, Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall, is widely acclaimed.

Blue Train, Coltrane’s sole date as leader for Blue Note, featuring trumpeter Lee Morgan, bassist Paul Chambers, and trombonist Curtis Fuller, is often considered his best album from this period. Four of its five tracks are original Coltrane compositions, and the title track, Moment’s Notice, and Lazy Bird, have become standards. Both tunes employed the first examples of his chord substitution cycles known as Coltrane changes.

Back with Miles

However, it was his work with the Miles Davis Quintet in 1958 that would lead to his own musical evolution. “Miles music gave me plenty of freedom,” he once said. Miles Davis reached out to Coltrane to join his First Great Quintet band and for two years recorded a bulk of material with the reemerging Davis who had been struggling with drug use and fell out of the public eye.

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A young John Coltrane

Coltrane signed a two-year contract (one year, plus a one-year option) with Atlantic Records in April 1959. He was the leader of all of these sessions except Bags and Trane and The Avant-Garde, where he was featured with Milt Jackson and Don Cherry respectively. Albums from this period include Giant Steps and My Favorite Things. The Heavyweight Champion box collects his recordings for Atlantic, including all known outtakes.

Final Period

Coltrane became the first artist to sign with the new Impulse! Records when it bought out his Atlantic contract in April 1961. He would record for the label until the end of his life, and his success earned Impulse! a reputation as The House That Trane Built. Albums from this final period include the live album Live at BirdlandA Love Supreme, and Ascension.

All of the companies Coltrane worked with during his lifetime have compiled and reissued his material. In addition, Impulse! has issued several previously unreleased live recordings, including Live in Japan and The Olatunji Concert: The Last Live Recording. Coltrane’s concert, television and radio performances generated dozens of unauthorized and bootleg recordings. Pablo Records, a label that specializes in live recordings, purchased rights to several tapes of his performances, and is therefore considered a legitimate source despite never signing him to its label.

Coltrane died of 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.

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