John Coltrane: A Story of Jazz Excellence

Abigail Miles

I, and many others, find listening to jazz music cathartic. Without words, often without more than five instruments, jazz has the ability to express a range of feelings and tell a story. 

John Coltrane was a pioneer in jazz, and his use of the saxophone to tell a story, to emote, is unmatched. Born on September 23, 1926 in North Carolina, Coltrane was raised in the Jim Crow South. He suffered the tragic death of his father, grandmother and aunt within a few months of each other, leaving him alone for the majority of his childhood with only his mother and cousins. It was his mother that bought Coltrane his first alto saxophone in Philadelphia, shortly before he enlisted in the navy in 1945. 

What if Jazz Giant John Coltrane Had Lived?
John Coltrane performing, image courtesy of The Daily Beast

In the navy, Coltrane was stationed at Pearl Harbor as a member of the largest African-American regiment. Coltrane began to demonstrate his musical prowess while serving. Although he never received official recognition for his musical talents, he was a member of the Melody Masters, an all white naval band. Despite his permanence and talent, Melody Masters only considered Coltrane a guest performer.

After he was discharged in 1946, Coltrane returned to Philadelphia with a heightened ardor for jazz music. During his first years back, he picked up several new instruments, including the tenor saxophone and clarinet. He also received help from notable mentors as he 

plunged into the bebop scene, including Hasaan Ibn Ali.

Coltrane’s career took off in 1955, when he was contacted by famous trumpeter Miles Davis. With Davis and three others, Coltrane became an integral member of the “First Great Quintet”. The quintet, through Davis, would release several albums including Cookin’ and Workin’. The group disbanded prematurely in part because of Davis’ struggle with heroin, but Coltrane’s career had only just begun. After the quintet separated, Coltrane worked with Thelonious Monk in New York City, which led to a famous duet at Carnegie hall. 

In 1958, Coltrane would rejoin Davis and work with him until 1960. In 1959, he recorded Giant Steps, his first album with Atlantic Records and one of the most difficult chord progressions of any jazz composition to date. This progression was so groundbreaking it was named Coltrane changes, emboldening his legacy as a pioneer in jazz music. 

Coltrane would change his style dramatically from this original composition pattern, which received criticism from others as “anti-jazz”. At only age 40, Coltrane passed away from liver cancer in New York. Coltrane’s legacy as one of the greatest jazz saxists still remains today. Posthumously, a religion was started about Coltrane that claimed his musical abilities were divine and transcendent. In 2007, he received a Pulitzer Prize.

What impresses me most about Coltrane’s story is not simply his overwhelming talent, but rather his perseverance. Any other person would have likely quit after being denied recognition of their abilities time and time again -as Coltrane was in the Navy. Instead, Coltrane became more passionate and enthused about the saxophone. Later in his career, he was booed off stage because his style change had angered fans. No amount of criticism stopped Coltrane from pursuing music and jazz.  His dedication not only to playing but to every aspect of music: studying chord progressions, theories and patterns, embodies John Coltrane’s legacy as a bebop and jazz musician.  

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