John Coltrane (September 23, 1926 - July 17, 1967) is widely regarded as one of the greatest jazz musicians and saxophonists of all time. Although he was most well-known for his virtuosic improvisation skills, Coltrane was also a prolific composer and bandleader, recording 45 studio albums and 10 live albums as a bandleader.
Coltrane’s career as a musician began during his years stationed on a Navy base in Hawaii, where he learned the language of jazz through frequent gigging and a thorough study of bebop greats like Charlie Parker, Ben Webster, and Coleman Hawkins. After his stint in the Navy, Coltrane moved to Philadelphia, where he began freelancing his way through the local jazz scene, immersing himself in the music of his idols and getting hired to play with already-established figures like Dizzy Gillespie, Earl Bostic, and Johnny Hodges.
Coltrane got a major break in 1955 when he was hired as a tenor saxophonist in Miles Davis’s band. This group, which went on to record the seminal Hard-Bop albums Cookin’, Steamin’, Relaxin’, and Workin’, is now known as Davis’s First Great Quintet. Coltrane’s playing on these sessions marks a major leap from his previous records, both for the saxophonist’s phenomenal technical skill and for his emerging tone and voice. Although the albums were received enthusiastically by the public, the group disbanded shortly after the sessions, partly due to Coltrane’s deepening struggle with heroin.
Despite his troubles with addiction, offers from other bandleaders -- including Thelonious Monk -- began to pour in. In 1957, Blue Note released the live album At Carnegie Hall with John Coltrane to great critical acclaim, and in 1960 Coltrane released his first album as bandleader, Giant Steps. Coltrane, at this point a pivotal figure on the jazz scene, assembled his First Great Quartet, a group that included McCoy Tyner on piano, Steve Davis on bass, and Elvin Jones on drums.
The next seven years were monumental for Coltrane, both artistically and personally. This period saw the saxophonist release 20 studio albums, each more musically adventurous than the last. Although deeply rooted in Blues, Hard Bop, and Bebop, Coltrane’s increasingly free improvisations during this period began to incorporate Indian influences, resulting in a singular body of work distinguished by its blindly technical intensity, its melodic adventurousness, and its uncompromising vision. It was also during this period that Coltrane married the love of his life, Alice, whose sustaining presence helped John free himself from heroin dependency. Coltrane’s latter period is characterized by an intense spiritual practice precipitated by a spiritual epiphany he had in 1957, one that he explains in the liner notes of A Love Supreme. His last years were devoted entirely to his music and to his worship of the divine.
John Coltrane’s influence has been cited by innumerable modern musicians of every conceivable genre. Inducted into the Jazz Hall of Fame in 1965, Coltrane has also earned a posthumous Grammy and a Special Pulitzer Prize.