John Coltrane :: Biography

His High Ascendency

While he eventually would become the most revolutionary and influential saxophonist in modern jazz since Charlie Parker, John Coltrane's humbler beginnings took place in North Carolina. Born on September 23, 1926 in Hamlet, he grew up in the town of High Point, N.C. where he took up alto saxophone and clarinet at about the age of 15. He later moved to Philadelphia where he enrolled in the Ornstein School of Music and began playing alto saxophone professionally with local rhythm-and-blues musicians. He first changed to tenor saxophone when working with Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson in 1947 and for the next five years switched between the two instruments as circumstances dictated in his work with the bebop groups of Jimmy Heath, Howard McGhee, Dizzy Gillespie, and others. By the time of his membership in Jonhnny Hodges septet in 1953 he had chosen to play tenor exclusively and it was on this instrument that he burst into fame with the Miles Davis quintet (which also featured Red Garland, Paul Chambers, and Philly Joe Jones) beginning in 1955. In July, 1957 he left Davis to play in Thelonious Monk's quartet for five months but then rejoined Davis and worked in his various quintets and sextets (with Cannonball Adderley on alto saxophone) for remainder of the decade.

It was during this period working as a sideman with Miles that Coltrane began to develop his own unique voice on the tenor saxophone and also began to record dates under his own leadership. Coltrane had a recording contract with Prestige during this period and recorded prolifically for them throughout the mid-to-late-1950s. Sessions such as Soultrane and others for Prestige contain formidable blowing and provide documentation of Coltrane's musical objective at the time to build upon the traditional implications of bop chord progressions; however, none of his Prestige output can compare to the one (and only) record he did for Blue Note during this period, Blue Train. Blue Train is certainly Coltrane's most famous album recorded during this period of his career and; moreover, is one of the classic jazz records in the history of the music, providing testimony to both the genius of Coltrane and the uniqueness of the Blue Note label.

The Blue Train session is notable for the both the quality of performance achieved by Coltrane and the rest of the ensemble as well as the compositions penned for the date. As was standard for all Blue Note sessions of the time the musicians used on the September 15, 1957 date were of the highest caliber and included Trane's bandmates with Miles, Paul Chambers on bass and Philly Joe Jones on drums as well as pianist Kenny Drew, trombonist Curtis Fuller, and the brashy young trumpeter who had recently begun his own recording career with Blue Note after receiving acclaim with Dizzy Gillespie's orchestra, Lee Morgan.

The playing on Blue Train is of extraordinarily high merit both in the tight ensemble performance of Coltrane's compositions and the individual expression to be found in the solo work. Two examples of classic improvisations are found in Trane's labrynthine statement over the rigorous chord changes of "Moment's Notice and Lee Morgan's solo on "Locomotion", considered by many to be one of the finest trumpet solos ever recorded. In addition to the fortuitous performances on Blue Train, the other reason the date is so highly regarded relates to the four compositions Coltrane composed for the session. Apart from a beautifully interpreted ballad "I'm Old Fashioned" the rest of the material is Coltrane original's all which have since become modern jazz standards. First, there is "Blue Train" a simple medium-tempo blues riff which was played in unison by the horns and which has been so widely reinterpreted that the line is familiar to millions. Next, there is the up tempo, densely chorded "Moment's Notice, a song which is representative to the development of Coltrane's unique harmonic thinking during this period (eventually to peak two years later with "Giant Steps"). Blue Train also includes "Locomotion," a uniquely structured blues-with-a-bridge, as well as the beautifully lyrical "Lazy Bird."

An important after thought with regards to the recording of these highly original compositions and the musicians ability to execute them on record in such a polished manner relates to the Blue Note Label itself. Blue Train is a classic, polished record because the date was preceded by a planning session and a few days of paid rehearsals- a habitual practice involved in all Blue Note record dates. Blue Note afficianado Michael Cuscuna writes that this practice "reflected not only in the perfect execution of the musical ensembles, but also in the varied and ambitious compositions that the musicians were able to tackle. Alfred Lion (Blue Note's founder) knew that the proper preparation before the studio date allowed the musicians to be spontaneous and creative with challenging material when the tapes finally rolled." Certainly with this in mind, it seems that without Blue Note Blue Train never would have happened.

Coltrane's career after his brief stint with Blue Note (and long relationship with Miles) took more turns as he was always searching, both musically and spiritually. Furthermore, during this period he achieved a level of success few jazz musicians have ever shared. In 1959 his expansionion of bop harmony reached it's pinnacle when he recorded "Giant Steps"- a recording akin to Charlie Parker's masterpiece over a decade earlier "Koko" in its sheer power, velocity and harmonic innovation. However, soon after Coltrane, following Miles' lead, rejected chord progressions in favor of a more open modal approach and changed his improvisatory style towards motivic development. It was during this stage that he formed his classic quartet with McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison, and Elvin Jones.

By the mid-1960s Coltrane once again abandoned his musical approach, this time in favor of free playing, focusing on loosely structured themes and an expansion of individual sonority and group texture. Coltrane died in mid 1967 during this period in his musical approach, still searching both musically and philosophically. His impact on his contemporaries as well as today's musicians is enormous and after Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker, Coltrane is arguably the most influential musician in the history of Jazz.