John Coltrane (1926-1967), American saxophone player, composer, and combo (small group) leader, a major figure in the evolution of the jazz styles known as bebop and free jazz. Along with American saxophonist Charlie Parker, Coltrane is considered one of the most influential saxophonists in the history of jazz music. Many tenor saxophonists have adopted his habit of playing long notes without vibrato (a gently wavering pitch). Others have borrowed the piercing, near-scream quality of his high notes; his extended, rapid runs up and down the range of the instrument; or his favorite melodic phrases. Numerous musicians have practiced and imitated entire solos of Coltrane’s, such as his improvisation (music composed at the moment of performance) in “Giant Steps” (1959). Coltrane inspired many to play the soprano saxophone, an instrument rarely used in jazz until he began playing it.
Coltrane was born in Hamlet, North Carolina, and grew up in nearby High Point. He began playing the clarinet in a community band at the age of 13 and switched to the alto saxophone during his final year of high school. After graduating from high school in 1943, he and some friends moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where Coltrane found a job in a sugar refinery and began studying the saxophone at a private music school. In 1945 he was drafted into the United States Navy, eventually serving most of his two-year term with a Navy band stationed in Hawaii. After his return to Philadelphia, Coltrane began playing professionally in local bands. In 1947 he switched to the tenor saxophone and toured with alto saxophonist Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson. When he worked for trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie from 1949 to 1951, Coltrane played both alto and tenor saxophones. In 1953 he joined the band of saxophonist Johnny Hodges. He joined the group of trumpeter Miles Davis in 1955, beginning an important phase of his career; during the two periods he spent with Davis (1955 to 1957 and 1958 to 1960) Coltrane gained an international reputation as a tenor saxophonist.
When Coltrane began playing the alto saxophone in the 1940s, he imitated much of Charlie Parker’s bebop style, in which rapid melodic patterns are continuously improvised over chord progressions. However, by the time of his first important recordings with Miles Davis, Coltrane had developed his own style on the tenor saxophone. His high notes had an intense, emotional quality, and his melodies were extremely ornate and usually played without vibrato. Examples of his work with Davis can be heard on the albums Steamin’ (1956) and Kind of Blue (1959). During the late 1950s Coltrane also led his own recording groups on such albums as Lush Life (1958) and Giant Steps (1959). Several of his compositions on these albums have become part of the standard repertoire for jazz musicians, including “Mr. P.C.” and “Naima” (both from Giant Steps). After leaving Davis’s quintet, Coltrane formed his own quartet and began playing both the soprano and the tenor saxophone.
During the early 1960s, Coltrane and drummer Elvin Jones developed a highly energetic and interactive way of playing jazz, a style that can be heard in the piece “My Favorite Things” (1960). While improvising in one key, Coltrane would often introduce notes from another key (see Tonality). Soon he moved into free jazz, a style in which musicians often ignore the constraints of key signatures, bar lines, or musical form and sometimes create very unusual sounds with their instruments. Some of Coltrane’s music in the 1960s was so dense and complex that it seemed almost chaotic. At other times it was simple and direct, as in “Alabama” (1963), his emotional tribute to four African American children who were killed in a church bombing. Coltrane also configured his recording groups in a variety of ways, sometimes using two bassists or two drummers; once he recorded an album of duets with just himself and a drummer (Interstellar Space, 1967). He was famous for playing very long solos-—up to 20 minutes or more—with an intensity that few others could match. A deeply religious man, Coltrane recorded several albums of his religious compositions, the most famous being A Love Supreme (1964).
In the 1960s Coltrane won several polls conducted by Down Beat magazine in the United States and by Swing Journal in Japan. After his death, the National Academy of the Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) honored Coltrane’s memory with a 1981 Grammy Award and a lifetime achievement award (1992).