Profile: John Coltrane (1926-1967)

John Coltrane was an acclaimed American saxophonist, bandleader and composer, becoming an iconic figure of 20th-century jazz with albums like ‘Giant Steps,’ ‘My Favorite Things’ and ‘A Love Supreme.’


Who Was John Coltrane?

John Coltrane was born on September 23, 1926, in Hamlet, North Carolina. During the 1940s and ’50s, he continued to develop his craft as a saxophonist and composer, working with famed musicians/bandleaders Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington and Miles Davis. Coltrane turned the jazz world on its head with technically marvelous, innovative playing that was thrillingly dense and fluid in its understanding of the genre; his virtuosity and vision could be heard on the now revered albums Giant Steps, My Favorite Things and A Love Supreme, among others. He died from liver cancer at 40 years old on July 17, 1967, in Huntington, Long Island, New York.


Miles Davis’ Albums and Songs

From ‘Blue Train’ to ‘Giant Steps’

In 1957, after having previously fired and rehired his bandmate, Miles Davis fired Coltrane again, after he failed to give up heroin. Whether that was the exact impetus for Coltrane finally getting sober isn’t certain, but the saxophonist finally kicked his drug habit. He worked with pianist Thelonious Monk for several months while also developing as a bandleader and solo recording artist, heralded by the release of albums like Blue Train (1957) and Soultrane(1958). At the start of a new decade, Coltrane made his debut on Atlantic Records with the groundbreaking Giant Steps (1960), penning all of the material himself.

By this time, Coltrane had nurtured a distinctive sound defined in part by an ability to play several notes at once amid wondrous cascades of scales, dubbed in 1958 by critic Ira Gitler as a “sheets of sound” technique. Coltrane reportedly described it this way: “I start in the middle of a sentence and move both directions at once.”

‘My Favorite Things’

In autumn 1960, Coltrane led a group that included pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Steve Davis and drummer Elvin Jones to create My Favorite Things (1961). With its title track and additional standards “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye,” “Summertime” and “But Not for Me,” the enduring album was also heralded for Coltrane’s performance on the soprano sax. The bandleader was catapulted to stardom. Over the next several years Coltrane was lauded — and, to a smaller degree, criticized — for his sound. His albums from this period included Duke Ellington and John Coltrane (1963), Impressions (1963) and Live at Birdland (1964).

‘A Love Supreme’

A Love Supreme (1965) is arguably Coltrane’s most globally acclaimed record. The succinct, four-suite album, a big seller that went gold decades later (along with My Favorite Things), is noted not only for Coltrane’s astounding technical vision but for its nuanced spiritual explorations and ultimate transcendence. The work was nominated for two Grammys and is considered a hallmark album by jazz historians around the world.

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