February 2020, News & Features

John Coltrane: ‘The best of the human spirit’

Black History Month acknowledges and highlights the accomplishments of those who paved the way, and some of the most notable accomplishments have been in music. Before rap there was jazz – a black art form that, like many pioneering efforts of African Americans, endured years of backlash from the wider culture and racial discrimination. Underground and youthful appeal brought it into the mainstream and eventually won it international appreciation and acclaim.

Considered a soothing response to events considered traumatic or soulful, jazz is a uniquely American art form created by African Americans. Compared to more distinctly European musical artforms like classical music or opera, jazz defies convention with spontaneity and improvisation. Whether someone is a jazz fan or not, figures like Charlie Parker, Louie Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, or Miles Davis will certainly ring a bell. It would be difficult to pick out the most popular or influential jazz artists, but John Coltrane would be on any list of the giants of jazz.

Before becoming the legendary tenor saxophonist who played alongside Davis, he was simply John William Coltrane, born in Hamlet, NC, on September 23, 1926. Not long after his birth, his family moved to High Point, NC. Being the grandson of ministers on both sides of his family, he grew up with a strong Methodist upbringing. Historically, black churches were a refuge for African Americans, especially those in the South. With racial tensions growing in the background, God and music was an escape.

Another form of security was, of course, the family, which young Coltrane had with a father, mother, uncle, aunt and grandparents. However, by the time he was 12, all the male figures in his life passed away. Around this time, he became more attached to music, perhaps to cope. He had moved from clarinet to alto saxophone.

After graduating from high school, Coltrane moved to Philadelphia with his mother, working as a signal depot. As he worked, his mother worked to get her son into music. She succeeded by getting him private lessons from a saxophone instructor. Eventually, in 1945, John joined the U.S. Navy and was stationed at Pearl Harbor. While in Hawaii in 1946, Coltrane, with some of his crew mates, made his first jazz recording, playing “Bird Tunes,” mimicking Charlie Parker, whom he thought was a genius. It was not very well received. However, not giving up, Coltrane returned to Philadelphia, where he would head out on the road with various jazz groups, searching for his own creative voice.

On this journey, Coltrane had a lot of disagreements with his bandmates over the direction of their music but he kept an open mind, just in case he had learned something new. In 1949, he joined the band of jazz trumpeter, Dizzy Gillespie. His bandmates were surprised at how committed he was at the saxophone, constantly practicing – even when neighbors told him to stop. After a year, he was caught shooting heroin and he was nearly kicked out of the band. He eventually left the band in April 1951.

Coltrane was in a kind of slump for a period, still having felt as though he had not pushed the envelope. This slump would last until 1955 when he met and collaborated with Miles Davis; a steady and lucrative period of success for Coltrane ensued. But Coltrane still suffered from drug problems, which Davis would not tolerate, kicking him out in 1957. The environment of the jazz musician, like Hollywood celebrities and rock stars, comes with a degree of decadence. Some managed to live a long time under this lifestyle, but several were overtaken by it such as Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker. Davis and Coltrane had repetitive instances of drug abuse – either heroin or cocaine – and alcohol abuse. Luckily, neither died.

Having suffered another great loss, Coltrane decided it was time to return to Philadelphia to his wife and kids, and quit drugs cold turkey. With all of the shaking, sleep deprivation, and sickness, “by the grace of God” he said, he was able to push forward. After going to New York drug free, he had become a better player. In the summer of 1957, he began performing with saxophonist Thelonious Monk and his band. Coltrane’s playing was further nurtured by Monk to such a degree that he was able to craft his first album, simply titled Coltrane, in the same year.

At the end of 1957, Coltrane was back in Miles Davis’ band, with a newfound confidence in his musical ability. Their partnership was better than before, as Davis gave Coltrane space to experiment and let him perform improvised solos. Coltrane was a quiet man, so Davis just let him do what he pleased. Having advanced his skills, his solos would be extensive, which was often unnerving to the other bandmates and audience.
Around this time, the upbeat bebop style of jazz was coming to its end; “cool” jazz was on the rise, with Davis and Coltrane pushing it forward. Coltrane became a solo sensation, pushing boundaries with further albums, starting with “Giant Steps” in 1960. At the time, if a musician played with Miles Davis, that musician’s musical quality and popularity was likely ahead of the curve.

“That’s just how strong his presence was in the field,” said Prof. Harold Jeffreys, Ed.D., coordinator of Saint Augustine’s music program.
After leaving Miles Davis’ Quartet, he formed his own group with Elvin Jones on drums, McCoy Tyner on piano, and Jimmy Garrison on bass. John Densmore, the drummer of The Doors, believed them to be the greatest quartet in jazz, and even admitted in the film “Chasing ’Trane” to mimicking Jones’ style of percussion until he was able to come into his own.

In the early 1960s, Coltrane’s style had become so experimental that sometimes people would leave his shows. “Coltrane was one of the first to really push that outer limit”, said Prof. Jeffreys. “It didn’t have the melodic and harmonic content that you’re accustomed to using. For people to enjoy this music, you have to have something that holds you with consistency. When you go outside of the harmonic boundary or the melodic boundaries, then nothing is consistently there for you to hold on to.”

But Coltrane stuck to his principles no matter what people thought of it. He was a pioneer in the same vein as Rev. Martin Luther King, according to Harvard Professor Cornel West.

“Martin Luther King and John Coltrane go hand in hand,” said Dr. Cornell West in “Chasing ’Trane.” “Why? Because they’re love warriors. They represent the best, not just of black people, not just for Americans. They represent the best of the human spirit.

— Garrett Davis