He came to New York City like a lot of young jazzmen did in those days, bearing his horn like a six-shooter, dreaming of landing a big gig. By the time he was done, John Coltrane did more than land a gig. He blew himself into the annals of artistic greatness and came to symbolize an era in both American and musical history.
Coltrane died 20 years ago this week at age 40, but his legacy lingers. His music is studied in conservatories and colleges. There isn't a horn player alive who hasn't been touched by his contribution. His image, a seductive one -- the lonely, deep, thoughtful tenor man -- is celebrated and marketed via photos, T-shirts, books and dozens of recordings that seem to grow better with age. Even those not familiar with jazz know his name.
In a society that enjoys its heroes, he's become a martyr, the epitome of the brilliant, searching artist. Yet Coltrane, despite all his mystique, was a shy man of simple, singular purpose -- music. He would likely be astonished to know the thousands of words written and theories postulated about him in the years since his death. He once told an interviewer, "I just play the horn hard."
Coltrane was not merely a jazz player. Indeed, many argue that his greatest contribution to American music was as an innovator. As a composer, he took jazz to places it had never been before -- to India, Africa, musical outer space. He ushered in a world of modal improvisation, using musical forms that employed space and "free" time, as opposed to the traditional swing and be-bop rhythms. This early form of free music, called avant-garde, gave birth to other improvisational forms, including today's "New Age" music. Coltrane also gave new life to the soprano saxophone as a jazz solo instrument.
In addition, Coltrane, nicknamed "Trane," helped introduce to the jazz public a number of brilliant postbop musicians -- composers like Oliver Nelson, saxophonists Eric Dolphy, Albert Ayler, Pharoah Sanders, John Gilmore, Archie Shepp. These were serious jazzmen. Men who didn't smile. Players who defied the stereotypes of what the black jazz musician was supposedly unable to do -- read, orchestrate, write theory and harmony.
Coltrane was not the only major saxophonist of his era, which bridges about two decades beginning with his stint in the Miles Davis Quintet in 1955 to his death in 1967. There were others -- Sonny Stitt, Sonny Rollins, Ornette Coleman, to name a few. But what he did in that span of time, both as a player and composer, stretched far beyond his life.
His resolve to explore previously uncharted territory in the world of jazz had humble beginnings. He was born Sept. 23, 1926, in Hamlet, N.C., the son of a tailor in a deeply religious family, and was raised in nearby High Point. He left home in 1944 for Philadelphia, where he began a fanatical practice routine, from 10 to 12 hours a day, often bringing the sax to dinner with him, sometimes falling asleep with the horn in his hand. After a stint in the Navy, he worked with groups led by Dizzy Gillespie, the late Earl Bostic, and Eddie "Cleanhead" Vincent.
Philadelphia was a musical mecca in those days, a major stop on the black music or "chittlins" circuit, and many of Coltrane's closest musical associates had roots there: McCoy Tyner, Jimmy and Percy Heath, Carl and Earl Grubbs, Hank Mobley, John Gilmore were a few. Many of these musicians, like Tyner and Jimmy Heath, two of Coltrane's closest friends, are among today's jazz standouts. Others, like saxophonist Mobley, a top tenor player in the late '50s, would die in relative obscurity.
Among those floating in and out of Philadelphia in the mid-'50s was a trumpeter out of New York who'd made a name for himself recording with be-bop pioneer Charlie Parker. Miles Davis -- on the heels of another great trumpeter from the Philadelphia area named Clifford Brown -- was just coming into his own then and he was impressed when he heard the young tenorman.
Later, after Coltrane ventured to New York and sat in with Davis' group at Harlem's Audubon Theatre, Davis asked him to join his quintet. The year was 1955, the same year alto saxophonist Charlie Parker, the father of be-bop, died. The essential quintet -- Philly Joe Jones on drums, Paul Chambers on bass, Red Garland at piano, Coltrane on tenor and Davis out front -- would set the course of jazz over the next five years.
In those years Coltrane flourished as a harmonically "inside" jazz player -- that is, a player who improvises within the framework of chord changes. He was still searching for his voice, and snatches of acknowledged influences -- Sonny Stitt, Lester Young, Dexter Gordon -- could be heard during that era. But even then he was fresh, with a technical polish and soulful brilliance that was unmatched by any except perhaps Sonny Rollins, who today still ranks as one of the most important jazz voices in the world.
What Coltrane did with a song like "Good Bait," a simple, friendly tune written by Tadd Dameron for the swinging Count Basie Band, was blow in and out of the harmonic changes until the song burst at the seams. Ballads like "My One and Only Love," recorded in a now-favorite session with jazz vocalist Johnny Hartman, were performed with maturity and pause. Music was always very serious to Coltrane, his solos expressive and emotional, often defying description. His tone was sharp and fluid, but to the untrained ear often sounded abrupt and diffuse.
His solos were long-winded affairs; toward the end of his life, they typically lasted 30 or 40 minutes, and one of many complaints from Coltrane critics concerned their length. While he was a member of the Davis quintet, the temperamental and often explosive Davis confronted Coltrane about their duration. "I don't know what it is," Coltrane told Davis. "It seems like when I get going, I just don't know how to stop."
Davis said, "Why don't you try taking the horn out of your mouth?"
So intense did he become that the post-be-bop music, still based largely on the hard be-bop pioneered by Parker, Gillespie, and drummer Max Roach, became too constraining for him. There is a story that one night, performing in a New York nightclub, Coltrane took a long solo, then sat and read the paper while the rest of the band members played.
The culmination of his be-bop work is "Giant Steps," a Coltrane composition that moves through numerous chord and key changes at blinding speed -- so fast that the pianist on the recording session, Tommy Flanagan, regarded as one of the best in the world, struggled merely to keep up as Coltrane roared through the tune, soloing chorus after chorus.
Today, his "Giant Steps" solo is transcribed and analyzed by jazz students throughout the world; it's a test of a player's technical proficiency -- his ability to sprint through mountains of harmonies with speed and fluency, yet express himself with soul and determination.
After forming his legendary group in 1960 (usually with McCoy Tyner on piano, Paul Chambers and later Jimmy Garrison on bass, and Elvin Jones on drums), Coltrane sought higher and more fertile ground. His recording of "My Favorite Things," a predecessor to his more free avant-garde style, brought him acclaim worldwide. It was accessible to nonjazz listeners, but after that, the music became increasingly difficult.
He launched into deep avant-garde, or free jazz, at a time when critics were not prepared to accept anything other than the status quo be-bop or cool jazz, as practiced by horn players like Stan Getz and Art Pepper. To critics, Coltrane epitomized the new breed of angry jazzmen emerging during the early '60s, a time when a loudmouth kid from Louisville named Cassius Clay knocked out an angry behemoth Negro named Sonny Liston and dared to brag about it, and four cute mopheads from Liverpool invaded America. The critics called Coltrane's horn sound "angry." The irony was, he was anything but.
One of radio's supremely funny moments can be heard in a taped interview of Coltrane by the Marxist social critic Frank Kofsky, who interviewed Coltrane outside Coltrane's home in Huntington, Long Island. Kofsky, author of a thoughtful, provocative book called "Black Nationalism and the Revolution in Music," went on at great length to make Coltrane confess that the "new" jazz was an expression of separatism and segregation on the part of the black musician, but Coltrane steered clear. His music, he told Kofsky, was an expression of his love for truth and God. Black and white was part of it, he said, but by no means all of it.
Yet Coltrane had his share of worldly troubles. A bout with heroin in his early twenties and drinking problems that worsened by 1956 nearly ruined his playing. A friend, bassist Reggie Workman, confronted Coltrane about it and the horn man went off the bottle. His first wife, Naima, was said to help him through the difficult period and he named one of his most beautiful ballads after her. The two eventually separated and Coltrane married pianist Alice McLeod, who later performed with his quintet.
By then Coltrane, nearing the end of his life, had become a popular yet mysterious figure, the leader of the "new thing," or avant-garde, music. He'd long since abandoned be-bop and launched into the outer orbits. He'd become a student of astrology, physics, math and Indian music, and his religious upbringing came to the fore. The titles of his latter-day compositions -- "Ascension," "Dear Lord," "Jupiter," "Venus," "Amen" -- suggested his deeply spiritual mind-set. Perhaps he knew the end was close.
"From 1955 on, he had a sense of urgency," saxophonist Wayne Shorter once said. "Like he couldn't get everything he wanted out." Coltrane Sampler
"Giant Steps," Atlantic, 1311 -- the soloist at the height of his be-bop playing.
"Ballads," MCA-Impulse, MCAC-5885 -- the legendary quartet of McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison, Elvin Jones and Coltrane playing ballads and love songs.
"My Favorite Things," Atlantic, CS-1361 -- a spiritual rendition of the "Sound of Music" composition and a racy version of "Summertime."
"Blue Trane," Blue Note BST-81577 -- be-bop blues.
"John Coltrane," Prestige, 5P-24003 -- be-bop and swing standards.
"Monk/Trane," Milestone, 5M-47011 -- Coltrane with pianist Thelonious Monk.
"Miles Davis: Relaxin', with the Miles Davis Quintet," Fantasy OJC-190.
"Miles Davis: Someday My Prince Will Come," (Columbia PC-8456) -- Coltrane, Miles Davis and Julian (Cannonball) Adderly.
"John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman," MCA/Impulse MCAC-566.