Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(b 23 September 1926, Hamlet NC; d 17 July 1967, NYC of liver cancer) Tenor and soprano sax, composer. The most popular and influential jazz musician of the 1960s, for the spiritual integrity of his quest as much as his music. His father was a tailor and an amateur musician; he made his pro debut in Philadelphia in 1945 with a cocktail trio; played in a US Navy band in Hawaii '45-6; toured with Eddie Vinson R&B band '47-8; played alto, tenor and recorded with Dizzy Gillespie big band, sextet '49-51 (met Yusef Lateef, who introduced him to Islamic literature and philosophy). Worked for Earl Bostic '52 (Art Blakey said later, 'If Coltrane played with Bostic ... he learned a lot.') Worked for Johnny Hodges '53-4, fired because he was a drug addict. He brought Benny Golson's tune 'Stablemates' e.g. to his first LP with the Miles Davis quintet on Prestige '55; it became a jazz standard. Then there were recording sessions led by Davis's bassist Paul Chambers '55-6; Two Tenors with Hank Mobley; Tenor Conclave with Coltrane, Mobley, Al Cohn, Zoot Sims; as well as the classic series of Davis LPs on Prestige and Columbia. Also Tenor Madness with Sonny Rollins, the other most influential tenorist of the time, and Mating Call in a Tadd Dameron quartet, both '56. Davis let Coltrane go partly because of his drug problem; he spent most of '57 with Thelonious Monk including a long gig at NYC's Five Spot; on the Monk sextet album Monk's Music from June '57 (with Coleman Hawkins) Monk can be heard yelling 'Coltrane, Coltrane!' allegedly because he was nodding. He subsequently shut himself in a room for several days, taking nothing but water, gave up drugs and alcohol for good and put his music first.

A newly discovered concert recording in excellent sound made by the Voice of America in November 1957, Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall, was one of the surprises of 2005, and a revelation. In those few months he had learned Monk's music, serving one of the most valuable apprenticeships in jazz.

He searched for means to more harmonic richness, using strings of notes as though to play every note in a chord (a technique soon called 'sheets of sound' by Ira Gitler). Other LPs: Blowing Session (Mobley, Coltrane, Johnny Griffin on tenors); Mal Waldron Sextet; John Coltrane/Paul Quinichette Quintet with Waldron; Sonny's Crib with Sonny Clark; Art Blakey Big Band; four LPs with Red Garland, Davis's pianist; Wheelin' And Dealin' (by 'Prestige All Stars') and others, all '57. LPs as leader '57-8 included Blue Train on Blue Note; also a dozen LPs on Prestige including the darkly beautiful, driving Dakar with Waldron and two baritone saxes (Pepper Adams and Cecil Payne); Coltrane Plays For Lovers with Dameron, two discs with the Gene Ammons All Stars (Ammons, Waldron, Quinichette, Adams etc). When Davis asked Coltrane why he'd played such a long solo his reply was 'It took that long to get it all in.' Another story was that Davis said, 'Why don't you try taking the horn out of your mouth?' Yet although Davis's style was changing from improvisation on standards to originals with fewer chords and longer melody lines, seemingly away from Coltrane's urgency, he called Coltrane back, although he also had Cannonball Adderley (on alto). They recorded for Columbia and at the Newport Jazz Festival '58; in February '59 on Mercury without Davis as the Cannonball Adderley Quintet in Chicago; then in March on Columbia the full sextet made the modal Kind Of Blue, one of the most influential albums of the decade.

Coltrane played high on tenor as though on alto, superimposing chords, exploring overtones; a music teacher had recommended soprano sax some years earlier, Coltrane stopped at the Selmer factory in Elkhart IN in '59, picked up a soprano and began practising on it. Two quartet LPs on Atlantic '59 were a taste of things to come: with Chambers, Tommy Flanagan and drummer Art Taylor on Giant Steps, Wynton Kelly and Jimmy Cobb on Coltrane Jazz. A version of the up-tempo 'Giant Steps' made in April was succeeded by the issued version in May with Flanagan and Taylor, its power, swing and joy showing what some then regarded as a quirky style fully under control; Giant Steps was a breakthrough and a classic album, also including 'Naima', named for his wife. (The superb drummer Taylor [b 6 April 1929, NYC; d 6 February 1995,] played on hundreds of recording sessions, moved to Europe, published Notes And Tones '77, interviews with black musicans expressing startling, candid anger about racism.)

Coltrane formed his own quartet in April 1960 for an eight-week gig at the Jazz Gallery NYC, with Steve Davis, bass; Steve Kuhn, piano (b 24 March 1938, Brooklyn); Pete La Roca, drums (b Peter Sims, 4 April 1938, NYC; d 19 November 2012. La Roca had played with Sonny Rollins and many others; left music to study law but came back and made his third album as a leader in 1997. See Chick Corea's entry). Kuhn was soon replaced by McCoy Tyner, La Roca by Billy Higgins, then by Elvin Jones, and the group widely regarded as one of the most influential in jazz had Coltrane's harmonic urgency, Jones's angry, barely controlled polyrhythms with Tyner pouring oil on troubled water. Echoes Of An Era was made with Higgins for Roulette; then one-off The Avant Garde with Ornette Coleman sidemen Don Cherry, Charlie Haden and Ed Blackwell (Coltrane played soprano for the first time on record); then My Favorite Things, Coltrane Plays The Blues and Coltrane's Sound with his own quartet, all on Atlantic '60. Some critics were still puzzled by Coltrane, but not the public; My Favorite Things soon sold 50,000 copies, compared to 5,000 for most jazz albums. The title song was recorded again '65 in the studio and '66 live at the Village Vanguard; the seemingly banal tune from The Sound Of Music was turned into an exercise in mysticism by Coltrane's soprano, the chestnut 'Softly, As In A Morning Sunrise', folksong 'Greensleeves' and 'Chim Chim Cheree' (from Mary Poppins) used the same way on other albums.

Reggie Workman, then Jimmy Garrison (b 3 March 1934, Miami) replaced Steve Davis on bass; Coltrane made another LP with Miles's sextet (Someday My Prince Will Come '61, with Mobley on second tenor) and Olé Coltrane '61 with the quartet plus Eric Dolphy, Freddie Hubbard, second bass Art Davis on Atlantic. Then he began an association with the Impulse label in May '61 which lasted the rest of his life. The quartet was often augmented, as on Africa/Brass '61, a big-band set produced by Creed Taylor. Taylor left and Bob Thiele came in as producer at Impulse, who allowed Coltrane to record whatever and whenever he liked, resulting in a body of work that is still being studied. Live At The Village Vanguard '61 was the first of a series of LPs with tracks from an early epochal gig, finally compiled in a four-CD set The Complete Village Vanguard Recordings '97. More quartet albums included Impressions, Coltrane and Ballads '61 as well as Duke Ellington And John Coltrane, on which the leaders duetted with each other's rhythm sections. Ellington assured Coltrane the perfectionist that the first take of 'In A Sentimental Mood' was good enough: 'Why play it again? You can't duplicate that feeling. This is it.' Johnny Hodges later called it 'the most beautiful interpretation I've ever heard'. Next came With Johnny Hartman (ballads/vocals), The Definitive Jazz Scene and Live At Birdland '63; Crescent and A Love Supreme (four-part composition central to his canon, one of his best sellers), both '64; Transition, Sunship, Live In Seattle and Meditations '65; Kulu se Mama '65 with its side-length Latin-influenced title track including Pharoah Sanders and Donald Garrett on bass and bass clarinet, Frank Butler on drums, Juno Lewis, percussion and vocal; the ambitious LP-length work Ascension '65 used eleven pieces: Coltrane, Sanders, Hubbard, Tyner, Jones, Garrison, Art Davis, and Marion Brown and John Tchicai (b 28 April 1936, Copenhagen, of Danish and Congolese parents; d 7 October 2012; one of the first European 'free jazz' players, he also played with Archie Shepp, Jazz Composers' Guild NYC, etc) on alto saxes, Dewey Johnson (trumpet). Selflessness had two tracks from '63, the title track from the Kulu se Mama session; Cosmic Music, Live At Village Vanguard Again and Concert In Japan were all '66; Expression, Interstellar Space (a duet of Coltrane and Ali playing tenor sax, bells and percussion) and Stellar Regions from the same sessions, all '67.

Albums issued posthumously included tapes controversially dubbed with her own harp playing by his second wife Alice. Unreleased sets from the vaults were produced for issue by Michael Cuscuna (e.g. First Meditations for quartet, an earlier version of '65 Meditations); concert recordings continued to appear (e.g. Bye Bye Blackbird on Pablo, exciting live takes of title tune and 'Traneing In' made in Europe '62). The '66 Live In Japan set, a single LP, was expanded to four CDs '91, two complete concerts from that year with Sanders, Alice on piano, Garrison on bass and Rashied Ali on drums: the Japanese concerts are exhausting listening; in his quest for more musical colour Coltrane had added Ali to the group, whereupon Jones had left, saying that the music didn't make sense any more (Tyner had left when Alice was added, partly because he wanted his own solo career). Coltrane's soprano sax was compared to the sound of Indian and African oboe-like instruments; he closely questioned Ravi Shankar about Indian music (and named one of his sons after him). He was also inspired by his friend Olatunji, the African drummer; at one point he used two basses, because the sound reminded him of African water drums.

His music was a broad church, sometimes with chanting, atonal passages next to tonal ones, but none of it ever used gratuitiously; the music's transparent integrity fulfilled the 'love and peace' era of the '60s better than the flower-power brigade by addressing the hearts of listeners rather than the media. He was followed by jazz fans and by hippies, and by religious people for whom his spiritual side was an open book. Artie Shaw was an admirer; Shankar admired his music but was troubled by it, because its passion was a troubled passion. A gentle, honest man loved by everyone who met him, Coltrane put everything he had into a vision of a world conquered by love. After Eric Dolphy died, his parents gave his bass clarinet and his flute to Coltrane, who played them both. The album Expression was made in February '67 by the quartet plus Sanders on 'To Be': Coltrane on flute and Sanders on piccolo accompanied each other, and on the rest of the album Coltrane played tenor; it is a relatively quiet album, but reduced to an emotional essence, understated but complete, unrelieved and harrowing.

Coltrane had a lot of imitators, but the question of his lasting influence is an open one. Bassist Chuck Israels had played on the Cecil Taylor album originally called Hard Driving Jazz, on Transition in 1958, subsequently reissued as Coltrane Time, with Coltrane, Kenny Dorham on trumpet and Louis Hayes on drums. Israels said that myths about the session were just that -- "Everybody was professional, everybody did his job" -- but later also said that "John Coltrane was not yet John Coltrane", and that Taylor had been doing something rhythmically different from everybody else on the session. Israels later played with Bill Evans for six years, and after a long career was teaching in Washington state. Asked in 2008, in an interview by Randy L. Smith for Cadence, if it was fair to say that Coltrane was overrated, Israels replied,

I think so. I think Coltrane played into the aesthetic of the '60s...I don't know that it's easy to put in a few words, but basically, the repetitive whirling-dervish, mantra-like characteristic of his playing--one of the things for which he is most well-known--plays into a kind of listening that does not require a recognition of form or development. It's the psychedelic experience, the experience in which you are not really controlling your thinking...

There can be no doubt that much of Coltrane's impact in that decade was extramusical. Yet it must be said that before he became the most famous jazz musician of his generation he had already played a lot of powerful and influential music, and finally, although he died too young, we cannot imagine what more he could have done. Where could his troubled, spiritual passion have gone? 

Lewis Porter's John Coltrane: His Life And Music '98 is a definitive book. The John Coltrane Reference 2008 is edited by Porter, an exhaustive labor of love with several authors, a day-by-day chronology of Coltrane's career and a discography of every scrap of tape known to exist.

Alice Coltrane (b 27 August 1937, Detroit; d 12 January 2007, Los Angeles) recorded for Impulse after John died, settled in L.A. and started an ashram, changing her name to Turiyasangitananda, and became a much respected spiritual inspiration. At first she performed very occasionally as Alice Coltrane, then gave it up entirely; she released a comeback album Translinear Light 2004 on Impulse, and in 2006 came back to a major tour after 25 years, culminating in a gig with her son Ravi, Roy Haynes on drums and Charlie Haden on bass. Ravi became a substantial musician; see his entry.

Rashied Ali (b Robert Patterson 1 July 1935; d 12 August 2009) was a highly regarded all-round musician who kept his interest in all kinds of music, touring the college pub and concert circuit with Jorma Kaukonen's trio in the 1980s, with Jaco Pastorius on bass, sometimes billed as Hot Tuna. During the 1990s he co-led a big band called Prima Materia with Louie Belogenis, playing the music of Coltrane, personnel variously including William Parker, Butch Morris and Uri Caine, with guests John Zorn, Ahmed Abdul-Malik, Dave Douglas, Andrew Cyrille, etc. He had also been a clubowner, but quit that because he missed playing.