While in high school he switched horns and gravitated to the saxophone, becoming a master of mellow sounds of the alto sax, the smooth preciseness of the tenor and then the captivating sounds of the soprano horn. Such mastery is evident has he spills out melodic riffs in his unforgettable rendition of “These are My Favorite Things.”
June is Black Music Month!
By BOB FERGUSON
The influence that John William Coltrane made on music spans over many decades. It has crossed musical genres and touched scores of musicians.
Coltrane's massive influence on jazz, both mainstream and avant-garde, began during his early lifetime, and continues to grow today, years after his death. Coltrane is one of the foremost artists of post-1960 jazz saxophonists and he has entertained millions and generations of jazz lovers who have a deep appreciation for his distinctiveness and phenomenal style.
“Trane” as he is affectionately known, rose to the pinnacle of success having started his musical career as a young boy playing the clarinet. While in high school he switched horns and gravitated to the saxophone, becoming a master of mellow sounds of the alto sax, the smooth preciseness of the tenor and then the captivating sounds of the soprano horn. Such mastery is evident has he spills out melodic riffs in his unforgettable rendition of “These are My Favorite Things.”
John Coltrane mastered the saxophone in every category and there has been no other who has been able to duplicate his unique and distinguishable sound. He was born Sept. 23, 1926 in Hamlet, North Carolina, and was raised in a devout Christian home.
Young Coltrane was surrounded by and was highly influenced by religious music. His maternal grandfather was an A.M.E preacher, the Reverend William Blair, who pastored at an African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in High Point, North Carolina. John Coltrane's paternal grandfather, Reverend William H. Coltrane, was also a A.M.E. Zion minister in Hamlet, North Carolina. His parents, John R. Coltrane and Alice Blair met and were introduced at a church function and it was love at first sight.
In 1925 they were married in the same church were they had met and the following year a son John William was born. Although the marriage did not last very long, the details and particulars of exactly how long are sketchy; but it is documented that when John was an infant, his father separated from the family, leaving his mother Alice (Blair) and her sister to raise him.
John was inherently a gifted musician because his father played a number of instruments sparking John’s innate interest in the clarinet while he was in grammar school. His situation changed drastically in the winter of 1938-‘39 when his grandfather and father died within weeks of each other. After the death of his uncle in 1940, Coltrane’s mother and aunt took work at the Emery wood Country Club in High Point, N.C, to support the family.
During this period without a lot of adult supervision, Coltrane found opportunities to explore the new sounds of jazz. It was said by some of John’s classmates that he was very neat, clean and a bright and gifted student throughout school years.
As he matriculated upward, while in high school, Train heard and began to admire the savory sounds of Lester Young and Johnny Hodges prompting him to switch horns from the clarinet to the alto saxophone. He later went to Philadelphia to continue his musical pursuit and training at Granoff Studios and attended the Ornstein School of Music.
He was called to the military service during WWII, where he performed in the U.S. Navy Band.
After his career in the service, his career progressed and his music took on an increasingly spiritual dimension, thus influencing innumerable musicians.
Today John remains one of the most significant tenor saxophonists in jazz history. Like many of his musician counterparts, such as Miles Davis, Billie Holiday, Theolonious Monk and numerous others during the late 1940s, Coltrane struggled with a heroin addiction as well as suffering from alcohol abuse, lasting through the mid-‘50s.
In 1955, he married the very wholesome and lovely Juanita Naima Grubbs, who had become a Muslim convert and Coltrane followed her in her religious studies and beliefs. While Coltrane was freelancing in Philadelphia during the summer and studying with guitarist, Dennis Sandole, he received a call from trumpeter Miles Davis. Davis’ success during the late forties had been dwindling and on the decline in activity and reputation due to his struggles with heroin. From October 1955 through April 1957 Coltrane was with this edition of the Davis band (known as the "First Great Quintet," along with Paul Chambers on bass, Philly Joe Jones on drums, and Red Garland on piano. Coltrane was with Davis during this period when Davis released several influential recordings, thus revealing the first signs of Coltrane's growing ability.
In 1957, Coltrane said he had a religious experience which may have been what finally led him to overcome his addictions to alcohol and heroin. Coltrane once explained his personal vision in Newsweek. "I have to feel that I'm after something," he said, "If I make money – fine. But I'd rather be striving. It's the striving, man, it's that I want.”
He was to later write, “Naima,” was a take off from his life, wife and their Islamic experience. Coltrane also explored Hinduism, the Kabbalah, Jiddu Krishnamurti, African history, and the philosophical teachings of Plato and Aristotle, all in the search of trying to find himself. He also became interested in Zen Buddhism and, later in his career; he visited Buddhist temples during his tour of Japan.
John and Naima had no children and were separated by the summer of 1963.
Not long after their break up, he met pianist Alice McLeod, who soon became his second wife. He and Alice moved in together and had two sons before he was "officially divorced from Naima in 1966, but, immediately after his divorce, John and Alice were married. John Jr. was born in 1964, Ravi was born in 1965, and Oranyan (Oran) was born in 1967.
Alice brought much happiness and stability in to John's life, not only because they had three children, but also because they shared many of the same spiritual beliefs, and particularly a mutual understanding, because she too was a professional musician. In 1965, he was inducted into the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame.
Although he gained recognition while playing with Miles Davis from 1955 to 1960, Coltrane quickly developed a devoted following when in 1960 and formed the John Coltrane Quartet. In 1965 he was names “Jazzman of the Year” by local and international critics. Coltrane was just reaching his prime when he died July 17, 1967, at age 40, in Huntington, New York, due to liver disease.
In 1972, “A Love Supreme” was certified gold by the RIAA for selling over half a million copies. Coltrane is one of only a few jazz musicians who have two albums on the top 100 greatest jazz albums of all time. “Love Supreme,” was number two and “Blue Train” holds number fourteen. In 1982 Coltrane was awarded a posthumous Grammy for "Best Jazz Solo Performance" on the album “Bye Bye Blackbird,” and in 1997, was awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
Coltrane influenced innumerable musicians, and remains one of the most significant tenor saxophonists in jazz history. He has received many posthumous awards and recognitions, including canonization by the African Orthodox Church as “Saint John William Coltrane.”
In 2007, Coltrane was awarded the Pulitzer Prize Special Citation for his "Masterful improvisation, supreme musicianship and iconic centrality to the history of jazz.” During that same year his widow, Alice Coltrane, after several decades of seclusion, was briefly seen in public. She died later that same year.
Although John William Coltrane is no longer with us, his music lives forever and he has truly earned his place in music history -- Trane, R.I.P.