“I’ve got to keep experimenting. I feel that I’m just beginning. I have part of what I’m looking for in my grasp, but not all.;quot;
This phrase, from the liner notes of “My Favorite Things” clearly defines Coltrane’s life and his search for the incorporation of his spirituality with his music. John Coltrane was not only an essential contributor to jazz, but also music itself. John Coltrane died thirty-two years ago, on July 17, 1967, at the age of forty. In the years since, his influence has only grown, and the stellar avant-garde saxophonist has become a jazz legend of a stature shared only by Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker. As an instrumentalist Coltrane was technically and imaginatively equal to both; as a composer he was superior, although he has not received the recognition he deserves for this aspect of his work.
In composition he excelled in an astonishing number of forms – blues, ballads, spirituals, rhapsodies, elegies, suites, and free-form and cross-cultural works. The closest contemporary analogy to Coltrane’s relentless search for possibilities was the Beatles’ redefinition of rock from one album to the next. Yet the distance they traveled from conventional hard rock through sitars and Baroque obligatos to Sergeant Pepper psychedelia and the musical shards of Abbey Road seems short by comparison with Coltrane’s journey from hard-bop saxist to daring harmonic and modal improviser to dying prophet speaking in tongues. Asked by a Swedish disc jockey in 1960 if he was trying to “play what you hear,” he said that he was working off set harmonic devices while experimenting with others of which he was not yet certain. Although he was trying to “get the one essential . . . the one single line,” he felt forced to play everything, for he was unable to “work what I know down into a more lyrical line” that would be “easily understood.” Coltrane never found the one line. Nor was he ever to achieve the “more beautiful . . . more lyrical” sound he aspired to. He complicated rather than simplified his art, making it more visceral, raw, and wild. And even to his greatest fans it was anything but easily understood. In this failure, however, Coltrane contributed far more than he could have in success, for above all, his legacy to his followers is the abiding sense of search, of the musical quest as its own fulfillment.
John William Coltrane was born September 23, 1926 in Hamlet, North Carolina to John and Alice Coltrane. Shortly after, he moved to Haig Point, North Carolina to live with his mother’s father, the Reverend Walter Blaire. Walter Blaire would later on be a significant influence on Coltrane’s music and spirituality. Coltrane’s father, a tailor, served to be a source of Coltrane’s interest in music through his fathers ability to play the clarinet, violin, and various other instruments. Furthermore, Coltrane’s mother studied music. Both of Coltrane’s grandfathers were ministers; and through their worship services, Coltrane began to build his roots. John’s first encounters with music were through his father who played various instruments such as the violin, clarinet and ukulele. Other early influences included the religious music and preaching at his grandfather’s community church. In 1938, his grandfather died and soon after, so did his father. At this time, Coltrane listened to the radio, which provided him with music by artists that would later become influences for his own music. These artists included Woody Herman, Lester Young, Johnny Hodges and Artie Shaw. At the age of 15, Coltrane began playing and studying the E-flat alto horn, the clarinet, and the saxophone at William Penn High School Orchestra, while listening to such artists as Woody Herman, Lester Young, and Thelonious Monk. It was in high school when John had his first girlfriend. John’s friend Franklin was interested in one girl, but John stole her away with his music playing. Her name was Dorthea Nelson. John had many classes with her. He used to whistle phrases to her from his clarinet. Of course, John got the girl. They were together for about a year until they broke up because she was moving away. Later in 1943, Coltrane moved to Philadelphia and studied under Mike Guerra at