John Coltrane the Experimental Musician
Jazz, taking its roots in African American folk music, has evolved, metamorphosed, and transposed itself over the last century to become a truly American art form. More than any other type of music, it places special emphasis on innovative individual interpretation. Instead of relying on a written score, the musician improvises. For each specific period or style through which jazz has gone through over the past seventy years, there is almost always a single person who can be credited with the evolution of that sound. From Thelonius Monk, and his bebop, to Miles Davis' cool jazz, from Dizzy Gillespie's big band to John Coltrane's free jazz; America's music has been developed, and refined countless times through individual experimentation and innovation. One of the most influential musicians in the development of modern jazz is John Coltrane. In this paper, I examine the way in which Coltrane's musical innovations were related to the music of the jazz greats of his era and to the tribulations and tragedies of his life.
John William Coltrane was born in Hamlet, North Carolina, on September 23, 1926. Two months later, his family moved to High Point, North Carolina, where he lived in a fairly well-to-do part of town. He grew up in a typical southern black family, deeply religious, and steeped in tradition. Both of his parents were musicians, his father played the violin and ukulele, and his mother was a member of the church choir. For several years, young Coltrane played the clarinet, however with mild interest. It was only after he heard the great alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges playing with the Duke Ellington band on the radio, that he became passionate about music. He dropped the clarinet and took up the alto saxophone, soon becoming very accomplished.
When Coltrane was thirteen, he experienced several tragedies that would leave a lasting impression on him and would have a great impact on the music of his later years. Within a year, his father, his uncle, and his minister all died. He lost every important male influence in his life. After graduating from high school in High Point, he moved to Philadelphia in 1943, where he lived in a small one-room apartment and worked as a laborer in a sugar-refinery. For a year, Coltrane attended Ornstein School of Music. Then in 1945, he was drafted into the Navy and sent to Hawaii where he was assigned to play clarinet in a band called the Melody Makers.
Upon his return from Hawaii a year later, Coltrane launched his music career. "With all those years of constant practice in High Point behind him, possessing a powerful inner strength from being raised in a deeply religious family, and with a foundation in musical theory and an innate curiosity about life, Coltrane was well prepared to seriously enter a battle."
In the late nineteen forties, Coltrane began playing with several different R&B groups in small bars and clubs around Philadelphia. It became a tradition in many of the clubs at this time for musicians to "walk the bar" (i.e. to walk on top of the bar while playing one's instrument). Coltrane was ashamed of having to go through this "display" every night. "To any serious musician, it was an incredibly humiliating experience - to someone like Coltrane, who was developing a type of religious fervor for his music, it was devastating." In addition to the negative self-image this experience engendered, critics criticized his music as being too bizarre. Coltrane became very depressed, and searching for a way out, he turned to heroin. Heroin was a very popular drug among black musicians in the forties. It was a uniting force that, initially, brought them together, but in the end caused lives and careers to disintegrate.
In 1949, Dizzy Gillespie invited Coltrane to play in his big band. Gillespie had been a very influential and important figure in the bebop movement. Bebop was a style of jazz,...