Another jazz great from the Carolinas, John Coltrane effectively re-defined and expanded the facility of the tenor saxophone through zealous hard work and near fervent diligence. As with a notable number of Carolina-born jazz artists, Coltrane actually grew up musically in Philadelphia, PA, where he received his first formal musical training. As a professional he started out on the alto saxophone, but as later took up the tenor saxophone. Thus did he escape the prohibitive shadow of his idol Charlie Parker.
Though some of his early work came in larger bands, led by artists such as King Kolax, Dizzy Gillespie, and Earl Bostic, for most of the rest of his career John Coltrane was a supreme small band member and leader. In the 1950s he worked with fellow Philadelphian Jimmy Heath, Ellington alto man Johnny Hodges, and bop trumpeter Howard McGhee, before joining the Miles Davis Quintet. There he came alive as a force on his instrument. After Davis bounced him from the band, he joined Thelonious Monk’s Quintet for a memorable 17-week stint at the Five Spot Cafe. Numerous freelance opportunities found him in the recording studios, and in 1960 he introduced his own quartet.
The John Coltrane Quartet crystallized with his hiring of pianist McCoy Tyner, drummer Elvin Jones, and bassist Jimmy Garrison in 1961. The playing of improvisations based not on standard chord changes, but rather on modes -- or modal playing -- that Coltrane had engaged in with Miles Davis band, became standard operating procedure for the Coltrane quartet. As his modal playing advanced Coltrane began playing lengthier improvisations that often included hour-long tenor solos. He had also begun playing the soprano saxophone and is credited with re-introducing that instrument’s tricky intonation to modern jazz. And he also became increasingly abstract to some as his and the quartet’s playing became freer, less bound by convention.
In his saxophone playing, his writing, and in his life practices John Coltrane had begun a quest for higher degrees of spiritualism that often bordered on the ecstatic in performance. In the mid-60s he experimented with multiple drummers in the band and began having Tyner increasingly “lay-out” when the improvisation became especially heated. He hired his wife Alice to replace Tyner. Having once engaged Eric Dolphy in his band as a second reed and flute voice, he later hired tenor saxophonist (and Coltrane acolyte) Pharoah Sanders in the manner of a kind of musical relay between the tenors. No musician before or since has come close to matching the spiritual zeal and ferocious appetite for improvisation that is the legacy of John Coltrane.
John Coltrane playing Acknowledgement live in France, 1965.