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John Coltrane: Biography, Songs & Death

Instructor: Greg Simon

Greg is a composer and jazz trumpeter. He has a doctorate from the University of Michigan and has taught college and high school music.

This lesson will review the life and music of John Coltrane, the American jazz saxophonist whose work changed the direction of music forever. Learn about his personal journey, his music and ideas, and the evolution of this jazz giant.

More Than A Musician

Most of us know John William Coltrane, or 'Trane,' as a jazz musician--but that just scratches the surface. Coltrane was an innovator, collaborator, and father. Later in his life, he was a spiritual philosopher, and he has even been a religious figure, worshipped by the followers of San Francisco's Yardbird Temple. There's a lot more to Trane than his music, and in this lesson, we'll look at the Giant Steps he took as both musician and man.

John Coltrane on the cover of his album Giant Steps
Cover to the landmark album Giant Steps. Photo by Jason Hickey.

Early Life, Navy Life

John Coltrane was born in a small North Carolina town on Sept. 23, 1926. His childhood was marked by tragedy: At age twelve, Coltrane's father, grandparents, and aunt all died within a few months' time, leaving his mother and cousin to raise him. John's childhood also gave him his first musical experiences: In school, he took up the clarinet and alto horn, later switching to the saxophone. John moved to Philadelphia at the age of 17, playing his first professional gigs a few years later.

The specter of World War II loomed large in the mid-1940s, and in 1945 John enlisted in the Navy to avoid the draft he knew was coming. During his service, his musical talent secured him a place in a Navy base swing band, and it was during this service that he would record his first tracks.

Philly and Miles

After his discharge, Coltrane moved back to Philadelphia and began playing in a band led by saxophonist Jimmy Heath, while studying jazz and music theory with guitarist Dennis Sandole. He remained in Philadelphia for about ten years, performing and studying. During this period, he would also transition to playing tenor saxophone full-time.

In the summer of 1955, Coltrane joined a brand-new quintet founded by trumpeter Miles Davis, who was already a jazz celebrity at the time. This quintet would record a famous set of four jazz albums in the space of one year, all under the name the 'Miles Davis Quintet.' The quartet of albums--titled Cookin', Steamin', Workin', and Relaxin'--features some of Coltrane's most famous early playing. His solo on 'If I Were A Bell' from Relaxin', recorded when Coltrane was just 30 years old, showcases his tremendous gift for melodic playing and his distinctive tenor sax sound.

Miles Davis
Miles Davis. Photo by Tom Palumbo.

Blue Train and Coltrane Changes

Shortly after recording with Miles, Coltrane released his debut as a bandleader: Blue Train, released in 1957 and featuring almost entirely original compositions. Some of Coltrane's tunes from this album, including 'Moment's Notice' and 'Lazy Bird,' have entered the jazz repertoire and are often covered by jazz musicians today.

Blue Train demonstrated to the world Coltrane's talent for composition, and he would go on to develop that talent in later projects. His most famous innovation is a strategy for harmonizing melodies that has come to be called the Coltrane matrix or Coltrane changes. The Coltrane matrix involves changing the harmonies underneath a melody by thirds, an unconventional motion that wasn't commonly found in jazz or other Western music. Doing so gives the music an unstable, shifting key center and a distinctive sound.

Giant Steps, Contrafacts, and My Favorite Things

After a brief return to Miles Davis' band for Birth of the Cool and Milestones, Coltrane moved back to his own projects in the late 1950s. 1960 saw the release of his monumental album Giant Steps, once again featuring original compositions. Many of the album's tracks, including the title track, feature heavy use of the Coltrane matrix. One tune, 'Countdown,' is notable as a contrafact, a tune whose form and harmonic structure are borrowed from another song but with a new melody. Countdown is a contrafact of Miles Davis's 'Tune Up,' replacing key moments in the harmony with Coltrane changes. Coltrane would use this strategy in several other tunes, including:

  • '26-2,' a contrafact of Charlie Parker's 'Confirmation'
  • 'Satellite,' a contrafact of 'How High the Moon' from the Broadway revue Two for the Show
  • 'Fifth House,' a contrafact of Cole Porter's 'What Is This Thing Called Love?'

Coltrane followed Giant Steps with My Favorite Things in 1961, another smashing success. The record's version of the title track features Coltrane playing soprano saxophone, rather than his usual tenor; his emotional and acrobatic solo lasts over three minutes. An edited version became a radio sensation, launching Coltrane to fame outside the jazz world.

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