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John Coltrane Biography

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John William Coltrane (September 23, 1926 – July 17, 1967), nicknamed Trane, was an American jazz saxophonist and composer.

Although recordings of his work from as early as 1946 exist, Coltrane's recording career did not begin in earnest until 1955. From 1957 onward he recorded at an astonishing rate, producing dozens of albums, many of them not released until years after his death.

A hugely influential jazz musician, Coltrane has been credited with reshaping modern jazz and with being the predominant influence on successive generations of saxophonists. Along with tenor saxophonists Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, and Sonny Rollins, Coltrane fundamentally altered expectations for the instrument.

Born in Hamlet, North Carolina, Coltrane grew up in comparatively privileged circumstances in High Point, during an era of racial segregation. He lived in an extended family within the household of his maternal grandfather, Rev. William Wilson Blair, a superintendent of the AME Zion Church, and a dominant figure in High Point's African American community. Midway through Coltrane's seventh-grade school year, his close-knit family suffered three deaths--Coltrane's maternal grandparents, and his father. And soon afterward, his family lost its only remaining male breadwinner, Coltrane's uncle. These blows plunged the family to the brink of poverty, and forced Coltrane's mother and aunt into domestic service. It was during this time that Coltrane began playing music and practicing obsessively.

His early life was influenced by his Southern middle-class upbringing; a heavy emphasis on religion along with exposure to and training in the Western European choral canon, both and equally, affected his later musical career. Coltrane first played Eb horn in a community band, but soon switched to clarinet. In high school, he played in a fledgling school band and also sang in the William Penn High School Boys Chorus. However, it was the latter ensemble that exposed him to challenging and sophisticated musical composition. Coltrane concurrently learned of jazz through the radio, movies, and jukeboxes. As his enthusiasm for jazz blossomed, he once again changed instrument, to alto saxophone, but lost interest in the school band; he did not play in the band at all during his senior year.

Coltrane moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in June 1943, and was drafted into the Navy in 1945, where he played in a Hawaii-based Navy band. The group played then-current bebop standards: Tadd Dameron's "Hot House", Charlie Parker's "Ornithology", and some vocal tunes. Several sides recorded by this band in a single rushed session have since surfaced on compact disc. They are Coltrane's earliest known surviving recordings.

Contemporary correspondence shows that Coltrane was already known as "Trane" by this point, and that the music from the 1946 sessions had been played for Miles Davis - possibly impressing him. Coltrane returned to civilian life in 1946; at this time, he had a few brief encounters with Parker, who was already a dominant influence on his playing. A famous photo shows a young Coltrane in Parker's audience.

He worked at a variety of jobs in the late 1940s until he joined Dizzy Gillespie's big band in 1949 as an alto saxophonist. He stayed with Gillespie through the big band's breakup in May 1950 and switched to tenor saxophone during his subsequent spell in Gillespie's small group, staying until April 1951, when he returned to Philadelphia.

In early 1952, Coltrane joined Earl Bostic's band. In 1953, after a stint with Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson, he joined Johnny Hodges's small group, which was active during Hodges's four-year sabbatical from Duke Ellington's orchestra. Coltrane stayed with Hodges until mid-1954.

In his late (post-"Love Supreme") period, Coltrane showed an increasing interest in avant-garde jazz, purveyed, along with its aforementioned pioneer, Ornette Coleman, by Cecil Taylor, Albert Ayler, Sun Ra, and others. In formulating his late style, Coltrane was especially influenced by the dissonance of Ayler's trio with bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Sunny Murray. Coltrane championed many younger free jazz musicians, (notably Archie Shepp), and under his guidance Impulse! became a leading free jazz record label.

After recording A Love Supreme, the influence of Ayler's playing 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 and dissonant, with greater incorporation of devices like multiphonics, overblowing, and playing in the altissimo register. 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, Dear Old Stockholm (both May 1965), 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. This lengthy 40-minute piece included adventurous solos by the young avant-garde musicians (as well as Coltrane), but 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 saxophonists then playing. Coltrane, who used over-blowing frequently as an emotional exclamation-point, gravitated to Sanders's solos. The aforementioned John Gilmore was 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!" [2] He also took informal lessons from Gilmore.

By the fall of 1965, Coltrane was regularly augmenting his group with Sanders and other free jazz musicians. Rashied Ali joined the group as a second drummer. Claiming he was unable to hear himself over the two drummers, Tyner left the band shortly after the recording of Meditations. Jones left in early 1966, dissatisfied by sharing drumming duties with Ali. It is possible that both men were unhappy with the music's new direction.

Some claim that in 1965 Coltrane began using LSD which would inform 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," an interesting interpretation seen relative to Coltrane's Christian upbringing in the south. The screaming, especially, can be compared to the cadences of black preachers on the pulpit. Concert solos for band-members regularly stretched beyond the fifteen-minute mark. Sanders's voice often dominated the ensemble.

Despite the radicalism of the horns, the rhythm section with Ali and Alice Coltrane had a very different, more relaxed, feel than that with Jones and Tyner. The group can be heard on several live recordings from 1966. In 1967, Coltrane entered the studio several times; though one piece with Sanders has surfaced (the unusual "To Be", which features both Coltrane and Sanders 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. These saxophone-drum duets are generally considered among the finest music Coltrane recorded near the end of his career.

Coltrane died from liver cancer at Huntington Hospital in Long Island, NY on July 17, 1967, at 40. Coltrane's excessive alcohol and heroin abuse during the 40s and 50s likely laid the seed for this illness, which can strike reformed alcoholics years after they quit. In a 1968 interview Albert Ayler revealed that Coltrane was consulting a Hindu meditative healer for his illness instead of western medicine, though Alice Coltrane has denied this. In any event, conventional treatment may have been ineffective.

The Coltrane family reportedly remain 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. Biographer Lewis Porter has stated that Alice Coltrane intends to release this music, but over a long period of time. Impulse! famously purged much of its unreleased material in the 70s.

Coltrane was born and raised a Christian, and was in touch with religion and spirituality from childhood. As a youth, he practiced music in a southern African-American church. In A Night in Tunisia: Imaginings of Africa in Jazz, Norman Weinstein notes the parallel between Coltrane's music and his experience in the southern church.

In 1957, after the age of 30, Coltrane began to shift spiritual directions. He 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; it was a period of "spiritual awakening" that helped him return to the Jazz scene and eventually produce his greatest work. The journey took him through Islam (particularly Sufism). 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, maths, science, astrology, African history, and even Plato and Aristotle [3]. He notes..."During 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." [4]

In October, 1965, Coltrane recorded Om, referring to the sacred syllable in Hindu relgion, 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. It is alleged that Coltrane began taking LSD around the time of the Om session. 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, magickal language of music itself. Coltrane's study of Indian music led him to believe that certain sounds and scales could "produce specific emotional meanings" (impressions). According to Coltrane, the goal of a musician was to understand these forces, control them, and elicit a response from the audience. Like Pythagoras and his followers who believed music could cure illness, 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 many casual 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 1966). Some of Coltrane's other innovations would be incorporated into the fusion movement, but with diminishing returns of spiritual fervency and earnestness. More mainstream rock musicians such as Jimi Hendrix, Carlos Santana, Jerry Garcia, the Stooges, Mike Watt, and OutKast would also seize upon Coltrane's work as inspiration.

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.

Coltrane was an important pioneer in duet playing for saxophone and drums, first with Elvin Jones and then with Rashied Ali.

Coltrane's son, Ravi Coltrane, has followed in his father's footsteps and is a saxophonist of note. His widow, Alice Coltrane recently returned to music after several decades of retirement.

An African Orthodox Church in San Francisco has recognized Coltrane as a saint since 1971.[5] Their services incorporate Coltrane's music, using his lyrics as prayers [6]. An Alan Yentob-directed documentary concerning the church, and Coltrane, was produced for the BBC in 2004 [7].

Earliest period - as sideman
Artist information courtesy of their Wikipedia entry, which is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License.
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