John Coltrane was born September 23, 1926 in Hamlet North Carolina and grew up in High Point, North Carolina, where he learned to play E-flat alto horn, clarinet, and (at about the age of 15) alto saxophone. After moving to Philadelphia he enrolled at the Ornstein School of Music and the Granoff Studios; service in a navy band in Hawaii (1945-46) interrupted these studies. He played alto saxophone in the bands led by Joe Webb and King Kolax, then changed to the tenor to work with Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson (1947-48). He performed on either instrument as circumstances demanded while in groups led by Jimmy Heath, Howard McGhee, Dizzy Gillespie (with whom he made his first recording in 1949), Earl Bostic, and lesser-known rhythm-and-blues musicians, but by the time of his membership in Johnny Hodges’s septet (1953-54) he was firmly committed to the tenor instrument. He performed infrequently for about a year, then leaped to fame in Miles Davis’ quintet with Red Garland, Paul Chambers, and Philly Joe Jones (1955-57). Coltrane was, after Charlie Parker, the most revolutionary and widely imitated saxophonist in jazz.
Throughout the 1950s addiction to drugs and then alcoholism disrupted his career. Shortly after leaving Davis, however, he overcame these problems; his album A Love Supreme celebrated this victory and the profound religious experience associated with it. 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 Davis and worked in various quintets and sextets with Cannonball Adderley, Bill Evans, Chambers, Jones, and others (1958-60). While with Davis he discovered the soprano saxophone, purchasing his own instrument in February 1960.
Having led numerous studio sessions, established a reputation as a composer, and emerged as the leading tenor saxophonist in jazz, Coltrane was now prepared to form his own group; it made its debut at New York’s Jazz Gallery in early May 1960. After briefly trying Steve Kuhn, Pete La Roca, and Billy Higgins, Coltrane hired two musicians who became longstanding members of his quartet, McCoy Tyner (1960-65) and Elvin Jones (1960-66); the third, Jimmy Garrison, joined in 1961. With these sidemen the quartet soon acquired an international following. At times Art Davis added a second double bass to the group; Eric Dolphy also served as an intermittent fifth member on bass clarinet, alto saxophone, and flute from 1961 to 1963, and Roy Haynes was the most regular replacement for Elvin Jones during the latter’s incarceration for drug addiction in 1963.
Coltrane turned to increasingly radical musical styles in the mid-1960s. These controversial experiments attracted large audiences, and by 1965 he was surprisingly affluent. From autumn 1965 his search for new sounds resulted in frequent changes of personnel in his group. New members included Pharoah Sanders, Alice Coltrane (his wife), Rashied Ali (a second drummer until Jones’ departure), several drummers as seconds to Ali, and a number of African-influenced percussionists. In his final years and after his death, Coltrane acquired an almost saintly reputation among listeners and fellow musicians for his energetic and selfless support of young avant-garde performers, his passionate religious convictions, his peaceful demeanor, and his obsessive striving for a musical ideal. He crossed over at the age of 40 July 17, 1967 at Huntington Hospital in Long Island NY of a liver ailment. A videotape tracing his development, The Coltrane Legacy, produced by David Chertok and Burrill Crohn, was issued in 1987.