John Coltrane

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John Coltrane Pencil Portrait
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If the Chinese are to be believed and that nobody dies before their time, then John Coltrane’s all too brief forty years were long enough to make his mark on the world. In his brief career, he made dozens of recordings, and his persistent growth and exploration provide each of his stylistic stages with energy and excitement that are as yet unmatched. His innovations are permanent fixtures in jazz theory, his phrasing and melodic approach heard in many of the top saxophone players since his time, with his devotional connection to his craft making him undoubtedly one of the true jazz icons of all time.

When Adolphe Sax made the first saxophone in 1841, he could never have imagined how popular it would become. Just as the guitar is the main instrument of rock and roll, the saxophone is perceived by many to be the main instrument of jazz. Its players have frequently been some of the most progressive and experimental musicians in history. While some would argue that the trumpet is the most important instrument in jazz, it is undeniable that whenever a new development occurred in jazz, a saxophonist was never too far away.

The saxophone is a single-reed musical instrument that is a staple in jazz bands. Adolphe Sax’s father, Charles, was a maker of musical instruments. During his youth, Adolphe studied the clarinet and flute at Brussel’s Conservatory. His father’s passion for creating musical instruments influenced him greatly and he began plans of improving the tone of the bass clarinet. What he came up with was a single-reed instrument constructed from metal that has a conical bore and overblows at the octave.

Bar none, John Coltrane is the most influential tenor saxophonist in jazz history. Whether it’s his patented “sheets of sound,” his rapid-fire improvisations or his bold cathartic wails, no aspiring jazz saxophonist can afford to neglect the music of Coltrane.

He had a unique mastery of the instrument including the challenging ‘slap tongue’ technique, a versatile and interesting effect. Not all saxophonists know how to slap tongue but an increasing number are learning the technique. The “melodic” slap and “slap tone” are produced by holding the tongue against about 1/3 to 1/2 of the tip end of the reed surface – a centimeter or so – and creating a suction-cup effect between tongue and reed. This is accomplished by pulling the middle of the tongue slightly away from the reed while keeping the edges and tip of the tongue sealed tight against it. The tongue is then quickly released by pushing it forward and downward away from the reed, creating suction between the tongue and the reed; this tongue motion is accompanied by sudden slight impulse of air. The release of the suction between tongue and reed creates the “slap” sound, and the impulse of air helps it to resonate and be heard as a specific pitch. Almost no air from the lungs actually enters the mouthpiece, however, unless the “slap tone” effect is desired. Without the mouthpiece in the mouth, the slap tonguing technique can be simulated by placing the tongue against the roof of the mouth (just behind the front teeth) instead of placing it against the reed. When done correctly, the result sounds and feels rather like forcefully producing a sound midway between “t!” and “th!”

Even more importantly, he was displaying improvisational skills at a tender age. Recalling his regular lessons at the Granoff Studios circa 1941/2, Isadore Granoff, in a 1969 interview, noted the young Coltrane’s desire to revolutionise the instrument. This aspirational inclination was supported by a tenacious work ethic, an average of seven or eight hours practice each day.

Born September 23, 1926, in Hamlet, N.C., Coltrane grew up in a working class family — his father was a tailor and amateur musician. Both of Coltrane’s grandfathers were ministers, and he was first introduced to music in church. The family moved with one of his grandfathers to High Point, N.C., when Coltrane was a teenager, playing clarinet and listening to big band music.

After graduating high school in 1943, Coltrane moved to Philadelphia hoping to play music professionally, but taking jobs outside of music. He switched his instrument first from clarinet to alto saxophone, then again to tenor sax, and the city’s bustling jazz scene offered many opportunities for both learning and playing.

In 1945, he entered the Navy and a year later made his first recording with a Navy band called the Melody Masters. When he returned to Philadelphia after the service, Coltrane played with a number of local R&B and jazz groups, including a two-year stint in the late 1940s with Jimmy Heath’s band. By the decade’s end, Trane was playing in New York, but he returned to Philadelphia in the fall of 1949 and was recruited, along with Heath, by trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie to play in his big band. Listen to Jimmy Heath talk about Dizzy’s influence on him and Coltrane

With Gillespie, Coltrane recorded his first commercial record, “You Stole My Wife…You Horse Thief.” Due to financial constraints and the changing trends in jazz, Gillespie trimmed his orchestra to a septet with that included Coltrane on tenor. Trane seemed to be starting to hit stride musically when heroin knocked him off balance.

Fired from several bands throughout the early 1950s, including Gillespie’s, Trane found a kindred spirit in former heroin addict Miles Davis, who hired him in late 1955. It was during this period in the mid-1950s that Coltrane developed his signature voice and began to mature as an artist. He still had problems with drug abuse — even Davis fired him, but soon took him back into the group — until he finally kicked for good in 1957. Listen to Heath talk about Coltrane being fired by Gillespie

Coltrane was signed as a solo artist on Prestige, but his next stop was an apprenticeship of sorts with pianist and composer Thelonious Monk (left). With Monk’s guidance, Coltrane extended his solos and explored multiphonics. Coltrane also began playing with bassist Paul Chambers and saxophonists Hank Mobley and Sonny Rollins.

Coltrane worked again with Davis toward the end of the 1950s, helping out on Milestones and on the best-selling jazz album in history, Kind of Blue. Davis was investigating modal jazz when Coltrane rejoined the group and while the trumpeter was exploring a more minimalist approach to music, Coltrane seemed locked into playing as many notes as possible.

Miles often complained that Coltrane played too much for too long. But it was the long, feverish solos that became the pillars of Coltrane’s legacy. Jazz critic Ira Gitler coined the phrase “sheets of sound” to describe Coltrane’s playing.

Feeling artistically frustrated, Coltrane again left the Davis group. After a few months of recording Kind of Blue, Coltrane recorded his own masterpiece, Giant Steps. The album didn’t just mark a new musical plateau for Coltrane, it heralded a new era for jazz.

Recommended listening

The ten best John Coltrane albums to own on vinyl


John Coltrane - Avant Garde Jazz

One for the musicologists, an academic thesis by Scott Anderson, analysing the evolution of Coltrane’s increasingly avant garde style from 1960 to 1965 by comparing four different recordings of “My Favourite Things.”

Highly recommended but make sure your thinking cap is on!\