John Coltrane: Impressions of his life and music

by Marshall Bowden

“The image of the artist as being apart, a personage with special, almost magical skills, descends to us from the Romantic period.” (James Lincoln Collier, The Making of Jazz: A Comprehensive History, Dell Publishing, 1978).

There are few jazz musicians who have been as influential as John Coltrane. Part of the reason this statement can be made is that Coltrane’s influence extended far outside the realm of jazz, a form of music that few were listening to by the time he led his own groups and became famous. John Coltrane became an inspiration and a symbol to those involved with social causes, with world peace, with the music and religion of the East, with rock and roll, with the connection between the musical and the spiritual, with the future of jazz and of the human race in general.

Yet John Coltrane was a conflicted and anxious man, constantly searching, never feeling that he had “arrived” musically or spiritually. He fought hard to overcome addiction, yet was unable to conquer his craving for sweets, he was a vegetarian and spoke for world peace, yet his music is often viscerally violent and disturbing.

The only other jazz musicians with as far-reaching an impact on the cultural terrain are Miles Davis and Louis Armstrong. What all three musicians have in common is an ability to transcend their chosen art form in communicating with the world at large. Armstrong was able to do so by being the consummate entertainer, even though he hid a world of rage and hurt to do so. Davis did it by sheer ambitious determination, gritting his teeth and presenting a confrontational yet often enigmatic image in the face of diversity. John Coltrane was able to do it in spite of, or maybe because of, his quietness, his internal focus. The world might rage around him, but Trane was able to present an air of peacefulness largely by withdrawing into himself and his music.

John Coltrane stamp, U.S. Postal Service

Like so many jazz musicians, Davis and Coltrane both succumbed to heroin addiction early in their careers. Both realized that it was impairing their ability to develop as players and make the musical statements they wanted to make. Both overcame their addiction with sheer willpower. They played together in one of the most influential small jazz groups (the first Miles Davis Quintet) and on one of the most influential jazz recordings of all time (Davis’ Kind of Blue). Somehow, both of these musicians appealed greatly to the imagination of the general public, and both became legends even before their respective deaths.

“I was much disturbed by his music. Here was a creative person who had become a vegetarian, who was studying yoga and reading Bhagavad-Gita, yet in whose music I still hear much turmoil.” –Ravi Shankar–

On the one hand, writing about both musicians has centered either on their mystique or on the fact that their mystique was overblown, that they were flawed humans and that much of their music was similarly flawed. This is something akin to punishing the memory of Beethoven because he had deplorable table manners, or saying that Shakespeare didn’t deserve to become one of world literature’s most influential authors because Titus Andronicus isn’t up to the standards of Hamlet. Both miss the mark-the fact is that Coltrane and Davis created some of the most influential and beautiful music in existence and that, though both were mere mortals, it is necessary to deal with the cult of personality surrounding each in order to understand the impact their work has had and continues to have.


Coltrane was born in the town of Hamlet, North Carolina in 1926. He was raised in High Point, North Carolina, a town now known for its furniture industry. He had a maternal grandfather, one William Blair, who was a widely known and charismatic preacher. John’s father owned and ran a tailor shop, and the entire clan did fairly well economically by the standards of their community and the period of time. His mother and father were apparently both musical, and his early home life is generally considered to have been a fairly happy one. Though he performed well enough in school, John was considered to be a quiet boy and something of a loner.

During his twelfth year, however, both John’s father and grandfather passed away, causing his mother to move alone to Philadelphia in 1941, where the war provided relatively high-paying work. She sent money home to keep the family together. John remained in High Point until 1943 when he moved to Philadelphia with a couple of friends. His mother was at this time working in Atlantic City, and he frequently visited her. Late in 1943, he studied alto saxophone at the Ornstein School of Music, during which time he took work in a sugar refinery to support himself. In 1945 he was drafted and stationed in Hawaii, playing clarinet in a military band.

He returned to Philadelphia after his military time, studying again at Ornstein while playing in a variety of R&B bands, including those led by King Kolax and Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson, who required Trane to switch to the tenor sax, which he didn’t want to do. Over time, though, he began to play mainly the tenor, his style influenced by Dexter Gordon and, of course, Lester Young.

By the end of 1949 he had acquired work with the big band of Dizzy Gillespie, and Gillespie kept him on when economic conditions forced him to cut the group to a small combo. Coltrane stayed with Gillespie until around 1951, moving back to Philadelphia and again embarking on a course of formal study, this time in music theory at the Granoff School of Music. The next year he was working for dance bandleader Earl Bostic, then worked with Johnny Hodges in Hodges’ own band, put together shortly after Hodges left the employ of Duke Ellington.

At the same time, Coltrane was becoming a heroin addict, and by 1954 Hodges was forced to fire him for nodding off during gigs. He again returned “home” to Philly, where he took what gigs he could get. Now twenty-six, he was using heroin, smoking cigarettes, and drinking fairly heavily, gaining weight, and generally not in good spirits. In addition, his teeth hurt him constantly as a result of his inability to control his love of sweets. He consumed candy bars, other sweets, and Coca-Cola so rabidly that his teeth began to deteriorate.

Despite these problems, Coltrane continued on, marrying Juanita Grubbs, the sister of a friend, in late 1955. Juanita was known as Naima, and later Trane would name his most lovely, haunting ballad after her. Before the year was out, Miles Davis called Trane in to play in his newest group, a quintet. This is the time that he picked up the nickname “Trane”, which stuck with him for good. There seems to be no record of who originated it, but by the time he was playing with Davis, everyone called him “Trane”.


The story goes that Miles originally wanted Sonny Rollins to fill the tenor spot in his quintet, but Rollins was in Chicago kicking his own heroin habit and wasn’t yet ready for the gig. Davis had just kicked a heroin habit that had kept his playing from developing properly and served notice at the 1955 Newport Jazz Festival that he was back and a force to be reckoned with.

Coltrane was a formidable hard-bop tenor player at this time in the mold of Dexter Gordon and Rollins himself, so he was a logical choice. The rhythm section consisted of pianist Red Garland, bassist Paul Chambers, and drummer Philly Joe Jones. Over 1956 and into 1957 this group released an amazing string of recordings-Workin’, Relaxing, Steaming, and Cooking-that demonstrated the band’s complete mastery of the musical language of jazz at that time.

Miles Davis Quintet w/John Coltrane, “If I Were a Bell”

It is hardly surprising that both Davis and Coltrane sought new places to go after this group because it seemed there was nothing for them to do within the confines of hard bop but to continue to repeat the perfection they had attained. Coltrane managed to break his drug habit while playing with Miles, but he relapsed and continued to drink a lot as well. Finally, Davis, feeling that the music was suffering (and perhaps motivated, too, by concern for Coltrane’s welfare) asked Trane to leave the group. Davis moved on to make his seminal recordings with arranger Gil Evans while Trane did what he had always done-return to home base in Philadelphia and take whatever gigs were available.

Something happened, though, in 1957, something that can only be characterized as a type of epiphany or spiritual awakening. If you read William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience you can see all the signs of a personal epiphany in Coltrane’s description of what occurred:

“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. I feel this has been granted through His grace. ALL PRAISE TO GOD.”

That description is from the liner notes of Coltrane’s album A Love Supreme, which wasn’t recorded and released until seven years after this event. Yet the intensity with which Coltrane musically conveys the experience is such that it could have happened yesterday. In any case, at this time Coltrane locked himself in a bedroom and consumed nothing but water for a period of several days (less than a week) and went cold turkey from heroin, not to mention alcohol, smoking, and sugar. He was almost completely successful at kicking all his bad habits-he did smoke tobacco from time to time-and from this point on began to develop ferociously as a musician as well as to take on a type of spiritual quest as well, constantly seeking something, though no one, perhaps not even Coltrane, could say just what he was seeking.


Coltrane was now ready to play seriously but lacked a band of his own. Fortunately, he was tapped by Thelonious Monk to play an engagement at New York’s Five Spot Club. The Thelonious Monk Quartet consisted of Monk, Coltrane, bassist Wilbur Ware, and drummer Shadow Wilson. Monk was already known for his Riverside albums, including Brilliant Corners, which he had recorded only the previous year, with none other than Sonny Rollins on tenor (one senses that Coltrane was afforded more than one opportunity by his early stylistic similarities to Rollins).

Monk’s music was harmonically complex and filled with melodic and rhythmic irregularities that were exactly what Coltrane needed to be playing at that time. The Five Spot gig turned out to be a lengthy one, lasting several months and further cementing Monk’s formidable reputation. Those who came to hear Monk play were mostly serious jazz fans, and this gave Coltrane an audience that he didn’t have to “play down to”.

Monk also taught Coltrane a lot about harmonic structure and chords, as Coltrane readily acknowledged: “I would talk to Monk about musical problems, and he would show me the answers by playing them on the piano. He gave me complete freedom in my playing, and no one ever did that before.”

Often, Coltrane had to grapple with Monk’s tunes on the bandstand without the benefit of supporting piano chords from Monk himself. For when Monk had finished soloing he would “stroll”, performing a dervish dance around the bandstand, whirling, stomping his foot, and often conducting an imaginary orchestra. Iggy Termini, co-owner of The Five Spot, recalls:

“I remember Monk doing his dancing bit. But sometimes, after he was through dancing, he’d wander into the kitchen and start talking to the dishwasher about God knows what. Once in a while he’d fall asleep at the piano, and when it was time for him to come in again, he’d wake up and start playing, just like that.”

The group didn’t record much, but there is available an album of six tracks including “Monk’s Mood”, “Ruby My Dear”, and “Nutty.” They demonstrate that Coltrane was beginning to develop what Ira Gitler referred to as “sheets of sound”, which is to say that notes were played so rapidly that they could only be heard as “shapes” rather than as individual notes. Coltrane had absorbed the harmonic changes wrought by bebop and was substituting two or more chord changes for every single chord change in the standards and other compositions he was playing. He needed to play more notes to keep up with these myriad chord substitutions, often playing at a rate of nearly a thousand notes a minute. At this point, he wasn’t always in control of what he was playing, but it did indicate what was to come.

When the engagement with Monk ended, Coltrane was able to return to Miles Davis’ quintet since Sonny Rollins had moved on by that time. Of this period, Coltrane states (in a 1960 piece in DownBeat Magazine):

“On returning, this time to stay until I formed my own group a few months ago, I found Miles in the midst of another stage of his musical development. There was one time in his past that he devoted to multichorded structures. He was interested in chords for their own sake. But now it seemed that he was moving in the opposite direction to the use of fewer and fewer chord changes in songs. He used tunes with free-flowing lines and chordal direction. This approach allowed the soloist the choice of playing chordally (vertically) or melodically (horizontally).”

Davis was, in fact, moving further toward completely modal music, which he explored fully and satisfyingly on the classic Kind of Blue, which featured Coltrane, Julian “Cannonball” Adderly, Paul Chambers, James Cobb, and Bill Evans. Here we hear Coltrane experimenting with what was to become a trademark of recordings from A Love Supreme on: improvising and building not only on chord structure but also on thematic development.

Miles Davis Group with John Coltrane, “So What”

This was something Coltrane had definitely developed during his time with Monk, and he was able to use it to great effect. Cannonball Adderly, who learned a lot about space and silence from Miles, has said that he learned a tremendous amount from John Coltrane during these sessions as well and that Trane was a great influence on him. In any case, Coltrane never really abandoned modal playing even as he continued to move into free jazz and beyond. The same year as Kind of Blue was released, Coltrane recorded his first album as a leader, the incredible Atlantic album Giant Steps. Coltrane had arrived, and jazz would never be the same.


The title track on the Giant Steps album is the one that leads off the album, and it certainly got people’s attention right away. Its basis was a chord progression that generally moved up a minor third and then down a fifth, though this is not always consistent.

Giant Steps

It is a pleasant enough tune that has some of the angularity of Monk’s compositions but is not nearly as jarring. But the chords change with clocklike regularity every two beats, creating a harmonic maze for any musician seeking to improvise on the changes. The tempo is fast, and the overall effect is one of bop taken to its logical extreme. A hard bop track all the way, in which Coltrane plays with the easy, open tone of Sonny Rollins as he pile drives his way through the unusual harmonic structure of the song seemingly without a moment’s hesitation.

Coltrane didn’t forget about his exploration of modal jazz from Kind of Blue, though. Many of the tracks on Giant Steps are modal in nature, either completely or partially-“Cousin Mary”, “Syeeda’s Song Flute”, and “Naima”, which (along with the title song) has become the most widely-played Coltrane composition. On “Countdown” Coltrane applies his three chords for every one substitution to Eddie Vinson’s song “Tune-Up”. According to Nesuhi Ertegun, who produced the original sessions, the group recorded no more than two takes of each tune with no rehearsal time. It was clear to Ertegun that Coltrane must have rehearsed the ensemble elsewhere on his own time, as Jelly Morton is reputed to have done during his Red Hot Peppers sessions in Chicago.

In 1960, Trane released My Favorite Things. The title track, a Rodgers and Hammerstein tune from The Sound of Music, was in waltz time and used the same chords for an extended stretch. The song was a bit unusual in structure for a popular song anyway, because it had a circular structure and didn’t rely on a “hook”. In many ways, it is a melody more reminiscent of certain European folk melodies.

After stating the tune’s melody, Coltrane opted to turn the piece into a total modal statement, two modal chords repeated over which he solos at length, but stays fairly closely within the modes. He also used the soprano sax on this number, a result of his listening to Sidney Bechet and discovering Steve Lacy, a saxophonist who played soprano with Monk and became a leading interpreter of Monk’s music.

Coltrane moved from the Atlantic label to the new Impulse! label where his first recordings were Africa/Brass, a unique recording utilizing large band brass & reed sections arranged by Eric Dolphy, and Impressions, which wasn’t released until 1963. Both Impressions and the live recordings made by the John Coltrane group at the Village Vanguard in November 1961 demonstrate that Coltrane was well aware of the free jazz movement and its leader, Ornette Coleman.

Coleman had brought his revolutionary sound and group to the Five Spot in 1959 and released two albums on Coltrane’s old label, Atlantic. In 1960 Coleman released Free Jazz, a double-quartet recording of pure kinetic energy with no real tempo, time signature, key, or real melodic development. The music clearly interested and appealed to Trane, and from the time he recorded the track “India” for the Impressions album, his music continually developed in the direction of free jazz.

On the Vanguard 1961 dates, Trane’s musical conception was already opening up considerably from that demonstrated on Giant Steps. Some of the more frenetic tendencies in his playing, muted in the recording studio environment, came to the fore in live performance. His quartet was already developing the searching, moody, introspective yet physically punchy and demanding music that would earn it a mystique nearly unrivaled in the jazz canon. And the group had a secret weapon at these performances-Eric Dolphy.

Dolphy first worked with Coltrane in 1954 in Los Angeles and the two kept in contact from then on. Dolphy played a variety of woodwinds-alto sax, flute, and bass clarinet-and his style incorporated many sounds that were suggestive of vocal sounds or cries, a characteristic shared by many free jazz musicians. In fact, Dolphy played on Free Jazz as well as contributing to the Africa/Brass sessions and the Ole album that was Coltrane’s last for Atlantic Records. Dolphy returned from Europe to join the Coltrane group, which played engagements in Los Angeles and Chicago before arriving at the Vanguard in the last week of October.

Many were not prepared for the direction John Coltrane’s music was taking. John Tynan’s famous critique from the November 23, 1961 issue of Downbeat magazine proclaimed “I have to object to the musical nonsense currently being peddled in the name of jazz by John Coltrane and his acolyte, Eric Dolphy.” Tynan was not the only one with reservations, and this clearly took its toll on the group-Dolphy left by spring of 1962, and Coltrane’s next recordings seem to back off a bit, becoming less free and edgy. Indeed, Coltrane’s most popular recording, which was about to come, was far from free jazz, being closer in spirit to the work he had done with Mile Davis on Kind of Blue.


A Love Supreme has always been John Coltrane’s most popular album, occupying a special place in listener’s hearts since the day it was released. Thus it should come as no surprise that this legendary album achieved Gold status in 2001, according to the Recording Industry Association of America. This is the first Coltrane recording to receive this honor, and it speaks well of the lasting influence of Coltrane and his music on a whole new generation of listeners.

A Love Supreme was the culmination of a period of restlessness and searching for John Coltrane, both in his personal and professional lives. Following his release from the Miles Davis Quintet in 1956, Coltrane experienced a period of depression, followed by what he called “a spiritual awakening”. Following intense meditation and prayer, Coltrane gave up drinking, smoking, and his destructive drug habit. During the seven-year period from 1957 to 1964, Coltrane began to become interested in nonwestern music and philosophy. He explored West African music as well as the music of India. Though he had considered himself a Christian all his life, he began to read books about Hinduism, Islam, science, astrology, yoga, and African history.

He began to have dreams in which he believed that God revealed various musical works and concepts to him. In the winter of 1964, A Love Supreme was revealed to Coltrane, in its entirety, through such a dream. He and his quartet recorded the work in December of 1964 in the same order that the tracks are programmed on the recording.

“A Love Supreme–Acknowledgement”

The suite begins with “Acknowledgment”–after a brief invocation Garrison’s bass begins the “Love Supreme” figure, followed by Coltrane’s declamatory statements, which seem to offer a sermon. His playing is incredibly confident and robust, offering the kind of bold and powerful statement not heard since Louis Armstrong’s early recordings. He develops the material rhythmically and moves a series of notes through a modular cycle or repetition, punctuating it with excursions into the altissimo range, finally bursting into a climax of ecstatic celebration. This is followed with the intonation of the mantra, “A Love Supreme”, first on tenor sax, then vocally.

“Resolution” begins with Coltrane’s introduction of the theme, followed by a series of variations that develop in a manner that has more in common with the Indian raga than with the traditional jazz solo development. McCoy Tyner plays an extended and explosive solo that demonstrates his sheer energy and harmonic concentration, not to mention the way he clearly influenced many jazz pianists at the time and afterward. Jones is in high gear also, kicking both Tyner and Coltrane along with constant explosions and commentary. Coltrane returns for another solo before restating the theme and bringing the section to its conclusion.

The final sections, “Pursuance” and “Psalm” are presented without interruption. “Pursuance” begins with a drum solo from Jones that constantly shifts pulse and rhythm. All of the quartet members solo, each one testifying fiercely personal statements of faith and spiritual searching. Garrison finishes the section out with his solo before the majestic “Psalm” begins with Coltrane playing the words to his poem “A Love Supreme” (which are found on the album sleeve) on his saxophone. The piece is a moving statement, as is Coltrane’s instrumental representation of the words he had written.


In 1965, Trane recorded his first truly free jazz outing, Ascension. The piece is not all that dissimilar to Coleman’s Free Jazz with ensemble interludes interspersed between intense, growling solos by musicians that include Freddie Hubbard, Archie Shepp, Pharoah Sanders, Marion Brwon, and John Tchicai in addition to Coltrane’s usual quartet (Tyner, Garrison, and Jones).

The album, which remains controversial to this day, did not repeat the success of A Love Supreme, despite the assertion of some, such as Jefferson Airplane’s Grace Slick, that it represented some sort of acid trip. More likely it represented some sort of God trip, as Trane’s musical direction was tied up, more and more, with his spiritual obsessions.

This is the time when the cult of John Coltrane kicked into high gear, and he began to be seen as more than a saxophonist. To many, he was somehow a near-religious figure, a belief that Coltrane himself did little to encourage or discourage. The fact is that John Coltrane was very much a human being and a conflicted one at that. He had strong spiritual interests and used his music as one way to explore his psyche and the melding of Christianity and various Eastern philosophies, modality and polytonality, structured improvisation and total freedom.

Ravi Shankar, with whom it was rumored that Coltrane would collaborate, said of him: “I was much disturbed by his music. Here was a creative person who had become a vegetarian, who was studying yoga and reading Bhagavad-Gita, yet in whose music I still hear much turmoil.”

Shankar was not the only one who was “disturbed” by Trane’s music. His jazz fans had no idea what to make of his musical direction, though the truth is that he’d shed fans with each new development since Giant Steps. He started working with new musicians, such as drummer Rashied Ali, who played alongside long-time quartet drummer Elvin Jones. Jones and Ali competed fiercely, and it is said that there were times when the other musicians, including Coltrane, could not be heard above the drummers. McCoy Tyner left the group, then Jones, and finally bassist Jimmy Garrison left during a tour of Japan.

John Coltrane at the Newport Jazz Festival, 1966

In 1965 Coltrane had married his second wife, Alice McLeod, and she became the pianist in his group. Alice is one of the few harpists in jazz (John was obsessed by the sound of the harp, even watching Marx Brothers films in order to hear Harpo play), and she also developed a unique style on piano, organ, and a variety of classical Indian instruments. She continued to record following John’s death, working with Rashied Ali, Pharoah Sanders, and other musicians who had played with John or been influenced by his work. Several of her recordings, such as Ptah, the El-Daoud and Journey In Satchidananda are recognized as excellent works in their own right.

By 1966 most of the critics were saying that John Coltrane was now playing with a group of musicians that was inferior to his classic quartet. This may have been the case in as much as these musicians couldn’t play hard bop the way Jones, Tyner, Garrison, and Coltrane himself could, but that was not the music that Coltrane was now playing. And even if it was the case, there are other instances of truly inspired musicians playing with a group that could not possibly have fully grasped what they were doing. This was true of Louis Armstrong’s early Hot Fives recordings (before Earl Hines came along), and of many sessions on which Charlie Parker played with groups that were not his equal.

During late 1966 and into the spring of 1967, John Coltrane was physically and mentally exhausted, whether from critical abuse, his inner demons, or just the sheer act of creating so much music in so short a time. Alice urged him to see a doctor, and he was hospitalized briefly, but then checked himself out. By June he was once again hospitalized, and on June 17, 1967, John Coltrane passed away, leaving his music to speak for itself.

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