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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.

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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.</p>
<p> Photo by Jason Hickey.” /></td>
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<h2>Early Life, Navy Life</h2>
<p>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.</p>
<p>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.</p>
<h2>Philly and Miles</h2>
<p>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.</p>
<p> 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 <b>Miles Davis</b>, 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.</p>
<p>‘ The quartet of albums–titled <i>Cookin</i>‘, <i>Steamin</i>‘, <i>Workin</i>‘, and <i>Relaxin</i>‘–features some of Coltrane’s most famous early playing. His solo on <b>‘If I Were A Bell’</b> from <i>Relaxin</i>‘, recorded when Coltrane was just 30 years old, showcases his tremendous gift for melodic playing and his distinctive tenor sax sound.</p>
<table border=
Miles Davis
Pharoah Sanders
Pharoah Sanders.</p>
<p> Photo by Dmitry Scherbie.” /></td>
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<p>This spiritual direction would guide Coltrane’s music for the remainder of his life. In the mid-1960s, while working with tenor saxophonist <b>Pharoah Sanders</b>, he began recording further explorations of relationships between faith and music. One such experiment is <b><i>Om</i></b> from 1965, a half-hour ‘trackless’ album featuring Indian instruments, free improvisation, and chanting of texts from Hinduism and Buddhism.</p>
<p><h2>Death</h2>
<p>Coltrane died suddenly in 1967 from liver cancer–he was just 40 years old. Various jazz musicians and scholars have blamed his sickness on heroin, hepatitis, and even Coltrane’s insistence on using Eastern medicine and refusing Western doctors. His funeral was attended by many jazz luminaries and featured performances by Albert Ayler and Ornette Coleman. His wife Alice, a pianist, and son Ravi, a saxophonist, continued to make music and pursue jazz careers themselves after John’s death.</p>
<h2>Summary</h2>
<p>John Coltrane, a jazz saxophonist, was born in North Carolina in 1926. Coltrane got his professional start in Philadelphia, although a stint in the Navy interrupted his time there.</p>
<p> After important work with Miles Davis in the 1950s, Coltrane made his name as a bandleader with projects like <i>Blue Train</i>, <i>Giant Steps</i>, and <i>My Favorite Things</i>. An innovative composer, Coltrane was well-known for his use of the Coltrane matrix. Later artistic directions were guided by faith and spirituality, and ranged from the through-composed <i>A Love Supreme</i> to <i>Om</i>, which features free-improvisation and non-musical elements like chanting. Coltrane died from liver cancer in 1967.</p>
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