John Coltrane the Experimental Musician


Jazz, taking its roots in African American folk music, has 
evolved, metamorphosed, and transposed itself over the last century to 
become a truly American art form. More than any other type of music, 
it places special emphasis on innovative individual interpretation. 
Instead of relying on a written score, the musician improvises. For 
each specific period or style through which jazz has gone through over 
the past seventy years, there is almost always a single person who can 
be credited with the evolution of that sound. From Thelonius Monk, 
and his bebop, to Miles Davis' cool jazz, from Dizzy Gillespie's big 
band to John Coltrane's free jazz; America's music has been developed, 
and refined countless times through individual experimentation and 
innovation. One of the most influential musicians in the development 
of modern jazz is John Coltrane. In this paper, I examine the way in 
which Coltrane's musical innovations were related to the music of the 
jazz greats of his era and to the tribulations and tragedies of his 

 John William Coltrane was born in Hamlet, North Carolina, on 
September 23, 1926. Two months later, his family moved to High Point, 
North Carolina, where he lived in a fairly well-to-do part of town. 
He grew up in a typical southern black family, deeply religious, and 
steeped in tradition. Both of his parents were musicians, his father 
played the violin and ukulele, and his mother was a member of the 
church choir. For several years, young Coltrane played the clarinet, 
however with mild interest. It was only after he heard the great alto 
saxophonist Johnny Hodges playing with the Duke Ellington band on the 
radio, that he became passionate about music. He dropped the clarinet 
and took up the alto saxophone, soon becoming very accomplished.

 When Coltrane was thirteen, he experienced several tragedies that 
would leave a lasting impression on him and would have a great impact 
on the music of his later years. Within a year, his father, his 
uncle, and his minister all died. He lost every important male 
influence in his life. After graduating from high school in High 
Point, he moved to Philadelphia in 1943, where he lived in a small 
one-room apartment and worked as a laborer in a sugar-refinery. For a 
year, Coltrane attended Ornstein School of Music. Then in 1945, he 
was drafted into the Navy and sent to Hawaii where he was assigned to 
play clarinet in a band called the Melody Makers. 

 Upon his return from Hawaii a year later, Coltrane launched his 
music career. "With all those years of constant practice in High 
Point behind him, possessing a powerful inner strength from being 
raised in a deeply religious family, and with a foundation in musical 
theory and an innate curiosity about life, Coltrane was well prepared 
to seriously enter a battle." 

 In the late nineteen forties, Coltrane began playing with several 
different R&B groups in small bars and clubs around Philadelphia. It 
became a tradition in many of the clubs at this time for musicians to 
"walk the bar" (i.e. to walk on top of the bar while playing one's 
instrument). Coltrane was ashamed of having to go through this 
"display" every night. "To any serious musician, it was an incredibly 
humiliating experience - to someone like Coltrane, who was developing 
a type of religious fervor for his music, it was devastating." In 
addition to the negative self-image this experience engendered, 
critics criticized his music as being too bizarre. Coltrane became 
very depressed, and searching for a way out, he turned to heroin. 
Heroin was a very popular drug among black musicians in the forties. 
It was a uniting force that, initially, brought them together, but in 
the end caused lives and careers to disintegrate.

 In 1949, Dizzy Gillespie invited Coltrane to play in his big 
band. Gillespie had been a very influential and important figure in 
the bebop movement. Bebop was a style of jazz, popular during the 
late thirties and forties. It incorporated faster tempos, and more 
complex phrases than the jazz of earlier years. For the first time in 
many years, Coltrane felt some sense of stability in his life. 
However, after a two-year stint with Gillespie, Coltrane was asked to 
leave because of his unreliability due to his heroin addiction. 
Again, Coltrane was reduced to "walking the bar", and playing in seedy 
clubs. Depressed and dejected, his addiction grew.

 It was during this time that Coltrane became very interested in 
eastern philosophies. "When he was not studying or playing he spent 
most of his time reading and attempting to satisfy his growing 
philosophical curiosity about life. It was an inborn curiosity to a 
certain extent, but one that had also developed from events from his 
early life such as his religious upbringing, and the early deaths of 
the most important men in his life." Life was getting back on track 
for him, as he finally felt the influence of positive forces. At this 
time, he met Naima, a Moslem woman, and an able musician. More than 
anyone, she was able to help Coltrane pick up the broken pieces of his 
life. They were soon married.

In the mid-fifties, he was invited to play with Miles Davis and his 
quintet. The collaboration that developed would change his life. 
Miles Davis had received acclaim at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1955. 
 Davis was dubbed the rising star of the new avant-garde movement, 
cool jazz. Cool jazz was a striking contrast to the more traditional 
jazz popular during the forties. It emphasized experimentation with 
chords, keys, and modes, improvising on scales rather than on 
sequences of chords, producing music that at times was very bizarre. 
This new movement was the beginning of an experimental stage of jazz 
that was very popular during the sixties. The partnership between 
Davis and Coltrane proved to be an incredible learning experience for 
Coltrane. He began to develop a style distinctly his own. "Coltrane 
poured out streams of notes with velocity and passion, exploring every 
melodic idea, no matter how exotic." This became known as Coltrane's 
"sheets of sound period", in which he would explore the scales of the 
saxophone at a speed that no one had ever achieved, creating very 
dense musical textures . 

The Davis band did very well for a time, and made several recordings; 
however, in late 1956, Coltrane was fired from the band because of his 
debilitating heroin addiction. At this point, Coltrane almost gave up 
music. He actually went to the New York Post Office, and filled out an 
application to be a postman. He and Naima moved from New York to 
Philadelphia in November of that year and lived in his mother's house 
there. Again, his life reached a low. Drugs and alcohol controlled 
him. Coltrane realized at this point that he needed to choose between 
drugs or music. He chose music. For two-weeks, he locked himself in 
his room and went through a very painful withdrawal. When he left 
that room, he was a cured man, and never touched heroin or alcohol 
again. During those two weeks, Coltrane had undergone a spiritual 
rebirth that would send him on his quest to find "the mysterious 
sound" . This transformation was documented on his album A Love 
Supreme (1964), considered by many to be the best recording of his 
solo career. On the album cover, Coltrane wrote-
"During the year 1957, I experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual 
awakening which has guided me to a richer, fuller, more productive 
life. At that time, in gratitude, I humbly asked to be given the 
means and privilege to make others happy through music. I feel this 
has been granted through His grace. ALL PRAISE TO GOD." 

 The album is divided into four parts: Acknowledgment, Resolution, 
Pursuance, and Psalm. Each part details a different element of his 
spiritual journey. Coltrane's God was not Christian, Muslim, or 
Jewish; his God was simply a force that provided unity and harmony. 
"He believed that his humanity, his music, the material world, and God 
were all one, and that feeling of unity governed his life." 

 In 1957, Coltrane embarked on the most important learning 
experience of his life - an apprenticeship with the "High Priest of 
Bebop", Thelonius Monk. Coltrane's style had been developed with 
Miles Davis, but it was still somewhat reserved. With Monk, he was 
transformed into a legend. "Monk would provide Coltrane with the key 
to unlock all sorts of musical doors and free the dark and the 
beautiful visions Coltrane had seen throughout his life." With the 
Thelonius Monk quartet, Coltrane learned many techniques that he 
incorporated into his distinctive style. Instead of concentrating on 
the melodies, the group focused on the harmonic structure of a song. 
 At this time, Coltrane was stronger than ever. With his mature 
style, and new sobriety, he was ready to set out on his own.

At the end of 1958, Thelonius Monk disbanded the group; Coltrane was 
about to set out on one of the most highly regarded solo careers in 
the history of jazz. In the same year, he recorded over twenty 
different albums with various artists, and though not famous yet, was 
widely respected by his fellow musicians. His most important work 
from this period was Blue Trane (1957), one of the first of his albums 
that would be widely acclaimed. Critics began to laud him, and 
regularly gave him good reviews. In 1957, Dom Ceruli wrote in Down 
Beat magazine "His playing is constantly tense and searching; always a 
thrilling experience." After the dissolution of Monk's group, 
Coltrane returned to work with Miles Davis, but in 1960, he left to 
form his own band.

 The jazz world of the sixties belonged to Coltrane. He pushed 
the limits of music, while attracting ever-bigger audiences. It was 
during this time that Coltrane searched for the 'mysterious sound'. 
He once said that the sound for which he was searching was like 
holding a seashell to his ear. "However one describes the strange 
sound, it contained some essential truth for him, existing as an 
omnipresent background hum behind the façade of everyday life." With 
the John Coltrane quartet (pianist McCoy Tyner, drummer Elvin Jones, 
and Reggie Workman on bass), he incorporated tribal music from Africa, 
India, and the Middle East with that of the new avant-garde movement, 
'free jazz'. Free jazz or 'the New Thing', like the counter-culture 
of the sixties, was a nonconformist movement. It purposely avoided 
the structured sounds of the cool jazz and bebop movements. Instead, 
it was devoid of any structure, direction, or tonality, and was 
characterized by random improvisation. 

 As the sixties progressed, Coltrane experimented more and more 
with different combinations of sounds and instruments. He became 
obsessed with trying to communicate his musical vision. In 1968, 
Alice Coltrane (his wife at the time) stated "I think what he was 
trying to do in music was the same thing he was trying to do in his 
life. That was to universalize his music, his life, his religion. It 
was all based on a universal concept, all-sectarian or non-sectarian." 
In the mid-sixties, Coltrane began to take LSD fairly regularly, in an 
effort to help him explore in greater depth both himself and his 
music. "For Coltrane and his quest, LSD was a remarkable tool to dig 
deeper into his own being so he could discover the essential and 
absolute truth at the center of his being." Long time fans, however, 
viewed his music in this period as being too radical, and too far-out. 
Coltrane felt he was losing control over his music; his 
experimentation was so far-ranging on that he did not know in what 
direction he wanted to go. Through it all, he never abandoned the 
search for 'the mysterious sound'.

 In late 1966, Coltrane knew that there was something wrong with 
him. He didn't feel right, and by early 1967, he stopped performing 
in public. He knew that his death was imminent. In May of 1967, 
Coltrane was taken to the hospital, suffering from extreme stomach 
pain. He was ordered to stay at the hospital, but left anyway. On 
Monday, July 17, he passed away. The cause was liver cancer.

 John Coltrane's music both led the way and reflected the enormous 
varieties of experimentation and development of American Jazz of the 
1950's and 60's. Today, his influence is heard in the recordings of 
almost every young jazz musician. A man of mysticism, whose life was 
dedicated to sharing his vision of music with others, Coltrane was 
clearly a creative genius.


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