In honor of Jazz Appreciation Month (JAM), today we spotlight John Coltrane, a virtuoso and music pioneer whose artistry still resounds in American culture.
Coltrane was born in his parents’ North Carolina apartment on September 23, 1926. In his teens, he learned to play the clarinet and the alto saxophone, and following his high school graduation, he studied music performance and composition at the Ornstein School of Music and Granoff Studios. During World War II, he entered the Navy.
Following that period, he was involved in bebop and blues, though his career would be hampered by drug and alcohol addictions. Despite these struggles, Coltrane spent much of the 1950s collaborating with the big names of his time, like Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis. Virtuosity became one of Coltrane’s defining features: he could play soprano, tenor, alto, and baritone sax, as well as the clarinet.
Come the latter half of the decade, Coltrane kicked his drug habit following a spiritual awakening. Newly inspired, he began to approach his work with a religious fervor. Raised Christian but also a student of multiple faiths, he saw his music as an offering, an impulse most apparent in his 1964 album A Love Supreme, in which each section of the piece mirrors specific stages in Coltrane’s pursuit of the divine.
By the 1960s, Coltrane was seen as one of the leading figures in avant-garde jazz, experimenting with modal playing, free improvisation, and atonality. He pushed his art to the limit, earning him both fans who found his music transformative and critics who disliked the change. Unfortunately, Coltrane’s career was cut short: he died of liver cancer a few months shy of his forty-first birthday. Regardless, his legacy endures and the music remains.
John Coltrane is among the most esteemed artists in jazz history. A saxophonist, composer, and bandleader who revolutionized the art form, his career in the 1950s and 1960s was legendary, only cut off by his untimely death at age 40.