September 23, 1926 - July 17, 1967
John William Coltrane was born on September 23, 1926 in Hamlet, North Carolina. At the age of three his family moved to High Point, NC, where young Coltrane spent his early years. His father, John Robert Coltrane, died in 1939, leaving twelve year-old John and his mother on their own. His mother, Alice Blair Coltrane, moved to New Jersey to work as a domestic while John completed high school. John played first the clarinet, then alto saxophone in his high school band. His first musical influence was the tenor saxophonist Lester Young of Count Basie's band. In June of 1943, after graduation, Coltrane moved to Philadelphia to be closer to his mother.
After a yearlong stint in the Navy (1945-46), Coltrane began playing gigs in and around Philadelphia. During this time he became involved in drug and alcohol use, vices that would follow him throughout his career and ultimately lead to his death. In late 1949 Coltrane was invited to play alto sax with Dizzy Gillespie's band; the first recording session was on November 21 of that year. When the big band broke up in May of 1950 Coltrane moved to the tenor saxophone and played with Gillespie's small band until May of the next year. Coltrane played with Earl Bostic's group in 1952, switching to the band of his early idol Johnny Hodges in 1953. Problems with drug and alcohol abuse, however, forced Coltrane out of the group in 1954.
Miles Davis called upon Coltrane in the summer of 1955 to join a group he was forming. The Miles Davis quintet's first recording was made in October of 1955, the same month in which Coltrane was married to Naima Grubbs. The quintet was comprised of Davis on trumpet, Coltrane on tenor sax, Red Garland on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and Philly Joe Jones on the drums. It was in his years with this quintet that Coltrane's abilities were truly recognized and appreciated. In April 1957, though, Coltrane was again forced to take a break from playing to deal with his substance abuse problems; Davis replaced him with Sonny Rollins. He played briefly with Thelonious Monk in late 1957 before rejoining the Miles Davis quintet in January 1958. Coltrane played with this group until April 1960, when he set out to form his own group.
The John Coltrane quartet first formed in April of 1960 with Coltrane playing tenor saxophone, McCoy Tyler on piano, Elvin Jones on drums, and Jimmy Harrison on bass. It was during the first years of this group that Coltrane graduated from an above-average tenor saxophonist to an elite bandleader, composer, and improvisor. "My Favorite Things", the epic album featuring "Every Time We Say Goodbye", "Summertime", "But Not For Me", and the title track, was recorded in 1960. This was undoubtedly Coltrane's most successful and popular album, and granted him the commercial success that had eluded him thus far in his career. Perhaps due to this success, Coltrane's approach to his music began to shift during 1961-62, moving towards a more experimental, improvisational style. This "free-jazz" alienated many of the fans Coltrane had collected after "My Favorite Things", but at the same time expanded the horizons and definition of jazz. Among the more popular recordings of the quartet in the following years were "Africa Brass" (1961), "Ballads" (1962), "A Love Supreme" (1964), and "Meditations" (1965), as well as concerts recorded at The Village Vanguard (NYC) in 1961 and at Birdland, also in New York, in 1963. Coltrane's continuing desire to break new boundaries with his music, though, led to the end of the group in January 1966.
During the mid-1960's the turmoil in Coltrane's professional life was mirrored by disruptions in his personal life. In the summer of 1963 he moved out of the house he shared with his wife, Naima, and moved in with Alice McLeod. Coltrane had met Alice, a pianist, in 1960, and they had been friends since then. A son, John Coltrane Jr., was born to Coltrane and Alice on August 8, 1964; this was followed on August 6, 1965 by a second son, Ravi. A year later Coltrane divorced Naima and married Alice. A final son, Oran, was born to Coltrane and Alice on March 19, 1967. On July 17, 1967, John Coltrane died due to complications arising from his years of alcohol and drug abuse.
Blue Note Biography
Oxford University Press