Though he was active before 1955, his prime years were between 1955 and 1967, during which time he reshaped modern jazz and influenced generations of other musicians. Coltrane's recording rate was astonishingly prolific: he recorded about fifty recordings as a leader in these twelve years, and appeared on many more led by other musicians. Throughout his career Coltrane's music took on an increasingly spiritual dimension that would color his legacy. He passed away from liver cancer in Huntington Hospital, Long Island, New York.
Coltrane received a posthumous Special Citation from the Pulitzer Prize Board in 2007 for his "masterful improvisation, supreme musicianship and iconic centrality to the history of jazz."
Although there are recordings of Coltrane from as early as 1946, his peers at the time didn't recognize 'genius' in the young musician, though he was a member of groups led by Dizzy Gillespie and Johnny Hodges in the early to mid-1950s. His main career spans the twelve years between 1955 and 1967, during which time he reshaped modern jazz and influenced generations of other musicians.
During the later part of 1957 Coltrane worked with Thelonious Monk at New York’s Five Spot, a legendary gig. Coltrane next played in Thelonious Monk's quartet (July-December 1957), but owing to contractual conflicts took part in only one early recording session of this legendary group. He rejoined Miles in January 1958, staying until April 1960, during which time he participated in such seminal Davis sessions as Milestones and Kind of Blue, and recorded his own influential sessions (notably Giant Steps).
Blue Train, his sole date as leader for Blue Note, featuring trumpeter Lee Morgan, bassist Paul Chambers, and trombonist Curtis Fuller, is widely considered his best album from this period. Four of its five tracks are original Coltrane compositions, and several of them, notably the title track, "Moment's Notice" and "Lazy Bird", have gone on to become standards. Both tunes employed the first examples of Coltrane's chord substitution cycles known as Coltrane changes.
Toward the end of this period he recorded his first album exclusively of his own compositions, Giant Steps (for Atlantic Records) whose title track is generally considered to have the most complex and difficult chord progression of any widely-played jazz composition. Giant Steps utilizes Coltrane changes that Coltrane developed initially on the Blue Train album most notably on the track Moment's Notice. Coltrane's development of these altered chord progression cycles led to further experimentation with improvised melody and harmony that he would continue throughout his career.Steve Kuhn, Pete LaRoca, and Billy Higgins, the lineup stabilized in the fall with pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Steve Davis, and drummer Elvin Jones. Tyner, from Philadelphia, had been a friend of Coltrane's for some years and the two men long had an understanding that the pianist would join Coltrane when Tyner felt ready for the exposure of regularly working with him. Also recorded in the same sessions were the later released albums Coltrane's Sound and Coltrane Plays the Blues.
Still with Atlantic Records, for whom he had recorded Giant Steps, his first record with his new group was also his debut playing the soprano saxophone, the hugely successful My Favorite Things. Around the end of his tenure with Davis, Coltrane had begun playing soprano saxophone, an unconventional move considering the instrument's near obsolescence in jazz at the time. His interest in the straight saxophone most likely arose from his admiration for Sidney Bechet and the work of his contemporary, Steve Lacy, even though Miles Davis claimed to have given Coltrane his first soprano saxophone.
The new soprano sound was coupled with further exploration. For example, on the Gershwin tune "But Not for Me", Coltrane employs the kinds of restless harmonic movement (Coltrane changes) used on Giant Steps (movement in major thirds rather than conventional perfect fourths) over the A sections instead of a conventional turnaround progression. Several other tracks recorded in the session utilized this harmonic device, including "26-2," "Satellite," "Body and Soul," and "The Night Has a Thousand Eyes."
By early 1961, bassist Davis had been replaced by Reggie Workman while Eric Dolphy joined the group as a second horn around the same time. The quintet had a celebrated (and extensively recorded) residency in November 1961 at the Village Vanguard, which demonstrated Coltrane's new direction. It featured the most experimental music he'd played up to this point, influenced by Indian ragas, the recent developments in modal jazz, and the burgeoning free jazz movement. Longtime Sun Ra saxophonist John Gilmore was particularly influential; the most celebrated of the Vanguard tunes, the 15-minute blues, "Chasin' the 'Trane", was strongly inspired by Gilmore's music.
During this period, critics were fiercely divided in their estimation of Coltrane, who had radically altered his style. Audiences, too, were perplexed; in France he was famously booed during his final tour with Davis. In 1961, Down Beat magazine indicted Coltrane, along with Eric Dolphy, as players of "Anti-Jazz" in an article that bewildered and upset the musicians. Coltrane admitted some of his early solos were based mostly on technical ideas. Furthermore, Dolphy's angular, voice-like playing earned him a reputation as a figurehead of the "New Thing" (also known as "Free Jazz" and "Avant-Garde") movement led by Ornette Coleman, which was also denigrated by some jazz musicians (including Trane's old boss, Miles Davis) and critics. But as Coltrane's style further developed, he was determined to make each performance "a whole expression of one's being", as he would call his music in a 1966 interview.
The criticism of the quintet with Dolphy may have had an impact on Coltrane. In contrast to the radicalism of Trane's 1961 recordings at the Village Vanguard, his studio albums in 1962 and 1963 (with the exception of Coltrane, which featured a blistering version of Harold Arlen's "Out of This World") were much more conservative and accessible. He recorded an album of ballads and participated in collaborations with Duke Ellington on the album Duke Ellington and John Coltrane and with deep-voiced ballad singer Johnny Hartman on the album John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman. The Impulse compilation Coltrane for Lovers is largely drawn from these three albums. The album Ballads is emblematic of Coltrane's versatility, as the quartet shed new light on old-fashioned standards such as "It's Easy to Remember." Despite a more polished approach in the studio, in concert the quartet continued to balance "standard" and its own more exploratory and challenging music, as can be seen on the Impressions album (two extended jams including the title track along with "Dear Old Stockholm", "After the Rain" and a blues), Coltrane at Newport (where he plays "My Favorite Things") and Live at Birdland both from 1963. Coltrane later said he enjoyed having a "balanced catalogue."
The Classic Quartet produced their most famous record, A Love Supreme, in December 1964. A culmination of much of Coltrane's work up to this period, this four-part suite is an ode to his faith in and love for God (not necessarily God in the Christian sense — in the liner notes of Meditations he says "I believe in all religions"). These spiritual concerns would characterize much of Coltrane's composing and playing from this point onwards, as can be seen from album titles such as Ascension, Om and Meditations. The fourth movement of A Love Supreme, "Psalm", is, in fact, a musical setting for an original poem to God written by Coltrane, and printed in the album's liner notes. Coltrane plays almost exactly one note for each syllable of the poem, and bases his phrasing on the words. Despite its challenging musical content, the album was a commercial success by jazz standards, encapsulating both the internal and external energy of the quartet of Coltrane, Tyner, Jones and Garrison. Indeed the previous album Crescent recorded only a few months before already shows the adventurousness and rapport between these musicians. The album was composed at Coltrane's home in the Dix Hills neighborhood of Huntington, New York.
The quartet only played A Love Supreme live once — in July 1965 at a concert in Antibes, France. By then, Coltrane's music had grown even more adventurous, and the performance provides an interesting contrast to the original.
After recording A Love Supreme, Ayler's apocalyptic style became more prominent in Coltrane's music. A series of recordings with the Classic Quartet in the first half of 1965 show Coltrane's playing becoming increasingly abstract, with greater incorporation of devices like multiphonics, utilization of overtones, and playing in the altissimo register, as well as a mutated return to Coltrane's sheets of sound. In the studio, he all but abandoned his soprano to concentrate on the tenor saxophone. In addition, the quartet responded to the leader by playing with increasing freedom. The group's evolution can be traced through the recordings The John Coltrane Quartet Plays, Living Space, Transition (both June 1965), New Thing at Newport (July 1965), Sun Ship (August 1965), and First Meditations (September 1965).
In June 1965, he went into Van Gelder's studio with ten other musicians (including Shepp, Pharoah Sanders, Freddie Hubbard, Marion Brown, and John Tchicai) to record Ascension, a 40-minute long piece that included adventurous solos by the young avant-garde musicians (as well as Coltrane), and was controversial primarily for the collective improvisation sections that separated the solos. After recording with the quartet over the next few months, Coltrane invited Pharoah Sanders to join the band in September 1965.
By any measure, Sanders was one of the most abrasive, virtuosic saxophonists then playing. While Coltrane used over-blowing frequently as an emotional exclamation-point, Sanders would opt to overblow his entire solo, resulting in a constant screaming and screeching in the altissimo range of the instrument. The more Coltrane played with Sanders, the more he gravitated to Sanders' unique sound. John Gilmore was also a major influence on Coltrane's late-period music, as well. After hearing a Gilmore performance, Coltrane is reported to have said "He's got it! Gilmore's got the concept! He also took informal lessons from Gilmore.
In 1965 Coltrane may have begun using LSD - informing the sublime, "cosmic" transcendence of his late period, and also its incomprehensibility to many listeners. After Jones and Tyner's departures, Coltrane led a quintet with Pharoah Sanders on tenor saxophone, his new wife Alice Coltrane on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass, and Rashied Ali on drums. Coltrane and Sanders were described by Nat Hentoff as "speaking in tongues." When touring, the group was known for playing very lengthy versions of their repertoire, with many stretching beyond 30 minutes and sometimes even being an hour long. Concert solos for band-members regularly were at least fifteen-minutes or longer.
Despite the radicalism of the horns, the rhythm section with Ali and Alice Coltrane had a more relaxed, random but meditative feel than with Jones and Tyner. The group can be heard on several live recordings from 1966, including Live at the Village Vanguard Again! and Live in Japan. In 1967, Coltrane entered the studio several times; though pieces with Sanders have surfaced (the unusual "To Be", which features both men on flutes), most of the recordings were either with the quartet minus Sanders (Expression and Stellar Regions) or as a duo with Ali. The latter duo produced six performances which appear on the album Interstellar Space.
The Coltrane family reportedly remains in possession of much more as-yet-unreleased music, mostly mono reference tapes made for the saxophonist and, as with the 1995 release Stellar Regions, master tapes that were checked out of the studio and never returned. The parent company of Impulse!, from 1965 to 1979 known as ABC Records, purged much of its unreleased material in the 1970s. Biographer Lewis Porter has stated that Alice Coltrane intended to release this music, but over a long period of time, as her son Ravi Coltrane, responsible for reviewing the material, is also pursuing his own career...
The album My Favorite Things features Coltrane on the cover playing a straight (not curved) soprano saxophone.
In 1957 Coltrane began to shift spiritual directions. Two years earlier, he had married Juanita Naima Grubb, a Muslim convert, (for whom he later wrote the piece "Naima"), and came into contact with Islam, an experience that may have led him to overcome his addictions to alcohol and heroin. Bassist Donald Garrett told Coltrane, "You've got to go to the source to learn anything, and Sufism is one of the best sources there is."
Coltrane also explored Hinduism, the Kabbala, Jiddu Krishnamurti, yoga, math, science, astrology, African history, as well as Plato and Aristotle. He notes "[d]uring 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." In his 1965 album Meditations, Coltrane wrote about uplifting people, "...To inspire them to realize more and more of their capacities for living meaningful lives. Because there certainly is meaning to life.
Moustafa Bayoumi, an associate professor of English at Brooklyn College, City University of New York, argues that Coltrane's "A Love Supreme" features Coltrane chanting, "Allah Supreme. Most Coltrane scholars (Lewis Porter among them) dispute this though, suggesting that Coltrane had abandoned Islam (and, indeed, organized religion in general) by 1964.
In October 1965, 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 Bhagavad-Gita, a Hindu epic. A 1966 recording, issued posthumously, has Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders chanting from a Buddhist text, The Tibetan Book of the Dead, and reciting 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 into world music. He believed not only in a universal musical structure which 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 said: "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.
Although some jazz listeners still consider the late Coltrane albums to contain little more than cacophony, many of these late recordings — among them Ascension, Meditations and the posthumous Interstellar Space are widely considered masterpieces.
The music of Coltrane's modal and Village Vanguard period was the admitted principal influence on what was arguably the first jazz-rock fusion recording, the Byrds' "Eight Miles High" (December 1965). Some of Coltrane's other innovations would be incorporated into the fusion movement, but with diminishing returns of spiritual fervency and earnestness.
The influence Coltrane has had on music spans many different 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 saxophonists and has inspired an entire generation of jazz musicians. In 1965, he was inducted into the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame, and was posthumously awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1992.
His widow, Alice Coltrane, after several decades of seclusion, briefly regained a public profile before her death in 2007. Coltrane's son, Ravi Coltrane, named after the great Indian sitarist Ravi Shankar, whom Coltrane greatly admired, has followed in his father's footsteps and is a prominent contemporary saxophonist.
The Saint John Coltrane African Orthodox Church, an African Orthodox Church in San Francisco, has recognized Coltrane as a saint since 1971. Their services incorporate Coltrane's music, using his lyrics as prayers. A documentary on Coltrane, featuring the church, was produced for the BBC in 2004 and is presented by Alan Yentob.
Coltrane's tenor (Selmer Mark VI, serial number 99626, dated 1965) and soprano (Selmer Mark VI, serial number 125571, dated 1962) saxophones were auctioned on February 20th 2005 to raise money for the John Coltrane Foundation. The soprano raised $70,800 but the tenor remained unsold.
Early Career As sideman
Early solo period, at Prestige and Blue Note
Middle period - Atlantic Records (May 1959 - October 1960)
* * * * * * *