John Coltrane (or just “Trane,” as he was known to many) was the last great innovator to profoundly influence the course of jazz. John William Coltrane was born September 23, 1926, in Hamlet, North Carolina. He first played the clarinet taught to him by his father, then alto saxophone in high school. Upon graduation he moved to Philadelphia and continued to study music, winning several scholarships. After playing in a Navy band in Hawaii, he started his professional career with rhythm and blues bands, joining Dizzy Gillespie's big band (on alto) in 1949. When Gillespie scaled the band down to a sextet in 1951, he had Coltrane switch to tenor saxophone. After stints with two great but very different alto saxophonists, Earl Bostic and Johnny Hodges, Coltrane was hired by Miles Davis in 1955. At first some musicians and listeners didn't care for what they felt was Coltrane's harsh sound, but as the Davis Quintet became the most popular jazz group of its day, Coltrane was not only accepted but began to influence younger players. He briefly left Davis in 1957 to work with Thelonious Monk and further develop what was already a highly original style. Back with Davis, he participated in the great Kind of Blue record dates.
In 1959, while still with Davis, Coltrane composed and recorded “Giant Steps,” a piece so harmonically intricate that it staggered most of his fellow saxophonists. Coltrane later formed his own quartet with pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison, and drummer Elvin Jones. In 1960 they recorded the song “My Favorite Things” from the musical and film The Sound of Music in a performance that featured Coltrane's soprano saxophone and lasted more than fifteen minutes. This performance became such a hit with the jazz audience that it sustained Coltrane's popularity even when he began to experiment with unusual and demanding music. The quartet became one of the most tightly knit groups in jazz history; the empathy between Coltrane and Elvin Jones was astonishing, and in their live performances, the four musicians would sometimes play for more than an hour, creating music so intense that some listeners likened it to a religious experience.
Coltrane was a deeply spiritual man. One of his masterpieces, the suite “A Love Supreme” and an accompanying poem, was his offering to God. The quartet's live recordings at the Village Vanguard and Birdland became instant classics, and Coltrane was regarded as the leading figure of the avant-garde jazz of the 1960s. The quartet broke up in 1966, and Coltrane searched for new modes of expression, never complacent about his work at any time in his career. His death at forty-one of liver cancer came as a shock to the jazz world. He died on July 17, 1967. Coltrane has become a legend whose influence continues, though few have attempted to emulate the unconventional style of his later years when he stretched the limits of his instrument.
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