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Member of Coltrane family

(b Hamlet, NC, Sept 23, 1926; d New York, July 17, 1967). Tenor and soprano saxophonist, bandleader, and composer, father of Oran and Ravi Coltrane. He was, after Charlie Parker, the most revolutionary and widely imitated saxophonist in jazz.

1. Life.

Coltrane grew up in High Point, North Carolina, where he learned to play E♭ alto horn, clarinet, and (at about the age of 15) alto saxophone. After moving to Philadelphia he enrolled at the Ornstein School of Music and the Granoff Studios; service in a navy band in Hawaii (1945–6) interrupted these studies. He played alto saxophone in the bands led by Joe Webb and King Kolax, then changed to the tenor to work with Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson (1947 – mid-1948). He performed on either instrument as circumstances demanded while in groups led by Jimmy Heath, Dizzy Gillespie (with whom he recorded in 1949), Earl Bostic, and lesser-known rhythm-and-blues musicians. After Gillespie broke up his big band in May 1950, Coltrane joined the trumpeter’s sextet for engagements in New York at Birdland and in Detroit during the first months of 1951. He joined Bostic early in 1952. By the time of his membership in Johnny Hodges’s septet (1954) he was firmly committed to the tenor instrument. He performed infrequently for about a year.

Early in October 1955, two weeks into what promised to be a long affiliation with Jimmy Smith, Coltrane received an even more attractive offer, to replace Sonny Rollins in Miles Davis’s quintet with Red Garland, Paul Chambers, and Philly Joe Jones (1955–7). Throughout the 1950s addiction to drugs and then alcoholism disrupted his career. In October 1956 and April 1957 the exasperated Davis replaced Coltrane variously with Rollins, Bobby Jaspar, or Cannonball Adderley, although Coltrane is heard on all of the quintet's famous albums. Shortly after he had been fired for the second time, in April 1957, Coltrane overcame these problems; later in his career, his album A Love Supreme (1964) celebrated this victory and the profound religious experience associated with it.

Coltrane next played in Thelonious Monk’s quartet (July–December 1957), but owing to contractual conflicts took part in only one early recording session of this legendary group. He rejoined Davis and worked in various quintets and sextets with Adderley; Garland, Bill Evans (ii), or Wynton Kelly; Chambers; and Jones or Jimmy Cobb (1958 – July 1959 and late August 1959 – mid-April 1960). While with Davis he discovered the soprano saxophone, and purchased his own instrument in February 1960.

Having led numerous studio sessions, established a reputation as a composer, and emerged as the leading tenor saxophonist in jazz, Coltrane was now prepared to form his own group; after returning with Davis from a European tour which included many broadcasts that were taped and later issued on LP and disc, Coltrane made his début as a leader at New York’s Jazz Gallery in early May 1960 with Steve Kuhn, Steve Davis (i), and Pete LaRoca. In July McCoy Tyner became Coltrane’s first near-permanent sideman, replacing Kuhn. In September, after the group had begun touring, Billy Higgins briefly replaced LaRoca before giving way in October to Coltrane’s second longstanding colleague, Elvin Jones. Reggie Workman became Coltrane’s bass player early in 1961. Finally, with Jimmy Garrison replacing Workman after a European tour in November 1961, Coltrane had assembled, together with Tyner and Jones, a quartet which would remain together for several years and acquire a deservedly legendary status in jazz history. At times Art Davis added a second double bass to the group. Eric Dolphy also served as an intermittent fifth member on bass clarinet, alto saxophone, and flute from September 1961 to March 1962 and occasionally thereafter to about March 1964; with Dolphy present as well, Wes Montgomery briefly made the quartet a sextet for engagements on the West Coast in September 1961, but the self-effacing guitarist declined Coltrane’s invitation to join permanently, feeling that his playing was not good enough. Roy Haynes was the most regular replacement for Elvin Jones during the latter’s incarceration for drug addiction in 1963.

Coltrane turned to increasingly radical musical styles in the mid-1960s. These controversial experiments attracted large audiences, and by 1965 he was surprisingly affluent. From autumn 1965 his search for new sounds resulted in frequent changes of personnel in his group. Tyner left in December 1965 and Jones in January 1966. New members included Pharoah Sanders, Donald Garrett, Alice Coltrane (his second wife), Rashied Ali (a second drummer until Jones’s departure), and then Frank Butler, Beaver Harris, and Jack DeJohnette as seconds to Ali, and a number of African-influenced percussionists. In his final years, and after his death, Coltrane acquired an almost saintly reputation among listeners and fellow musicians for his energetic and selfless support of young avant-garde performers, his passionate religious convictions, his peaceful demeanor, and his obsessive striving for a musical ideal. He died at the age of 40 of a liver ailment.

2. Music.

The success of Coltrane’s performances in the 1950s depended largely upon their tempo: although mature in his ballad playing and often imaginative at medium tempos, he was frequently shallow in his fast bop solos. At times he rendered ballad themes with little or even no adornment, as in his performances of Naima (named after his first wife) in 1959. In other ballads, such as his version of Monk’s ’Round Midnight (September–October 1956), he alternated paraphrases of the theme with complex elaborations in which brief thematic references served as signposts. In either case, his priority was beautiful sounds. However esoteric his music became in later years, Coltrane remained a great romantic interpreter of ballads.

One of Coltrane’s main objectives was to elaborate the full implications of bop chord progressions. At moderate speeds he could do this without ignoring rhythmic and expressive nuance, for example in his widely varying improvisations on All of You (1956), Blues by Five (1956), and Blue Train (1957). But the faster the piece, the more concentrated was his exploration of harmony at the expense of other considerations. Like Charlie Parker, Coltrane improvised rapid bop melodies from formulae: but unlike Parker he drew on a small collection of formulae, failed to juxtapose these in new combinations, and tended to place them in predictable relationships to the beat. Early solos on Salt Peanuts and Tune-up (both 1956) exemplify this practice, which culminated in a blistering performance in his composition Giant Steps (1959). This solo was impressive because of Coltrane’s huge driving tone, his astonishing technical facility, and his complex harmonic ideas; but rigid, repetitious eighth-note formulae lay just beneath the surface (see also Harmony, §2, and Table ).

Whereas Coltrane was far more important as an improviser than as a composer, he did write several pieces that have become jazz standards (including Moment’s Notice, Giant Steps, Naima, Equinox, and Impressions), and from May 1959 to his death the vast majority of his recordings as a leader were of his own compositions.

By seeking to escape harmonic clichés in pieces such as Giant Steps, Coltrane had inadvertently created a confining, one-dimensional improvisatory style. In the late 1950s he pursued two alternative directions. First, his expanding technique enabled him to play what the critic Ira Gitler called “sheets of sound,” as exemplified in his very fast 16th-note runs during a live performance of Ah-leu-cha recorded at Newport in 1958 (ex.1 ). Such flurries gradually replaced the clarity of his approach in Giant Steps and disguised his excessive reiteration of formulae. Second, when Miles Davis discarded bop chord progressions in favor of relaxed ostinatos, Coltrane abandoned formulae in favor of true motivic development. Davis’s So What on the album Kind of Blue (1959) was the first recording on which Coltrane systematically varied motifs throughout a solo (ex.2 ). This process became increasingly prominent in his most famous recordings, including My Favorite Things and Equinox (1960), Teo and Impressions (1961), Crescent (1964), and the album A Love Supreme (1964). Initially he developed motifs only in performances when neither tempo nor harmonic rhythm was fast.

Ex.1 Coltrane’s improvisation (tenor saxophone) on Ah-leu-cha, from M. Davis: Miles and Monk at Newport (1958, Col. CL2178); transcr. A. White and B. Kernfeld

Ex.2 Motivic relationships in Coltrane’s improvisation (tenor saxophone) on So What, from M. Davis: Kind of Blue (1959, Col. CL1355); transcr. A. White and B. Kernfeld

Eventually Coltrane was also able to avoid repetitive responses at high speeds; for example, large portions of Impressions, played at a metronome marking of 310, gained coherence by his continuous, inventive manipulation of distinctive eighth-note formulae. (These famous recordings of the early 1960s are often referred to as being “modal,” or as exemplifying “modal improvisation” or “modal playing.” The concept has less to do with Coltrane himself – whose complex, chromatic lines usually defy modal analysis – than with Tyner’s accompaniments, some of which suggest modal scales; for example, in My Favorite Things the ostinato based on minor 9th chords on E and F♯ gives rise to a dorian scale starting from E: E-F♯-G-A-B-C♯-D (see also Modal jazz and Forms, §5).)

While consolidating his new manner of organizing melody, Coltrane embarked on a quest for new sonorities. Following Lester Young, Illinois Jacquet, and others, he used “false” fingerings to extend the tone-color and upper range of his instrument. The same quest led him to rescue from oblivion the soprano saxophone, which soon rivaled the tenor as his principal instrument. On both he learned to leap between extreme registers at seemingly impossible speed, and thus to convey the impression of an overlapping dialogue between two voices, as in the latter part of My Favorite Things (1963). Radical timbres akin to human cries dominate his late improvisations as his concern with tonality and pitch waned.

At this time Coltrane also developed a type of meditative, slow, rubato melody based upon black gospel preaching. In Alabama (1963), he interpreted a speech by Martin Luther King, Jr.; later, in Psalm from A Love Supreme (1964), he instrumentally “narrated” his own prayer (ex.3 , with underlaid text from the album jacket). This technique also appears without obvious reference to a written source in several late recordings, including Reverend King (1966) and the album Expression (1967).

Ex.3 Opening of Psalm, on A Love Supreme (1964, Imp. 77); transcr. L. Porter

Coltrane’s expansion of individual sonority went hand in hand with an expansion of group texture. In the quartet, Tyner often kept time and established tonal centers with chordal oscillations, thus freeing Jones to create swirling masses of drum and cymbal accents. Jones (later, Ali) and Coltrane frequently engaged in extended coloristic duets. The addition of Davis’s double bass, Dolphy’s bird- and speech-like sounds on wind instruments, and Sanders’s screaming tenor saxophone intensified the group’s textures. Coltrane moved to the forefront of experimental jazz with Ascension (1965), which presented a sustained density of dissonant sound previously unknown to jazz. Two alto and three tenor saxophonists, two trumpeters, a pianist, two double bass players, and a drummer played through a scarcely tonal, loosely structured scheme; their collective improvisation and many of their “solos” stressed timbral and registral extremes rather than conventional melody. Thereafter, Coltrane’s ensembles concentrated on maintaining extraordinary levels of intensity by filling a vast spectrum of frequencies, tone-colors, and (when he utilized extra percussionists) accents. The albums Om and Meditations (1965), the late versions of My Favorite Things and Naima (1966), and many other recordings exemplify this final stage of his musical evolution.

3. Influence.

Coltrane’s impact on his contemporaries was enormous. Countless players imitated his sound on the tenor saxophone, though few could approach his technical mastery. He alone was responsible for recognizing and demonstrating the potential of the soprano saxophone as a modern jazz instrument; by the 1970s most alto and tenor saxophonists doubled on this once archaic instrument (see Saxophone, §2 and Saxophone, §4). Finally, by selling hundreds of thousands of albums in his final years, he achieved the rare feat of establishing avant-garde jazz, temporarily, as a popular music.

Lead sheets to Coltrane’s recorded compositions appear in J. Aebersold: A New Approach to Jazz Improvisation, xxvii: John Coltrane: Eight Jazz Originals and A New Approach to Jazz Improvisation, xxviii: John Coltrane: Eight Jazz Originals by John Coltrane (both New Albany, IN, 1983).

See also Blues, §12; Harmony, §1, (v), and ex.16 ; Improvisation, §3, Improvisation, §4, (iv), and ex.3 ; and Jazz, §VI, 2, Jazz, §VI, 4

Selected recordings

* composed by Coltrane

Duos with R. Ali

Interstellar Space (1967, Imp. 9277)

As leader

Coltrane (1957, Prst. 7105); Lush Life (1957-8, Prst. 7188); Traneing In (1957, Prst. 7123); Blue Train (1957, BN 1577), incl. *Blue Train, *Moment’s Notice; The Last Trane (1957-8, Prst. 7378); Soultrane (1958, Prst. 7142); Trane’s Reign (1958, Prst. 7213); Black Pearls (1958, Prst. 7316); The Believer (1958, Prst. 7292); Standard Coltrane (1958, Prst. 7243); Stardust (1958, Prst. 7268); Bahia (1958, Prst. 7353); Giant Steps (1959, Atl. 1311), incl. *Giant Steps, *Mr. P. C., *Naima; Coltrane Jazz (1959-60, Atl. 1354); with D. Cherry: The Avant-Garde (1960, Atl. 1451); My Favorite Things (1960, Atl. 1361)

Coltrane Plays the Blues (1960, Atl. 1382); Coltrane’s Sound (1960, Atl. 1419), incl. *Equinox; Africa/Brass (1961, Imp. 6); Olé Coltrane (1961, Atl. 1373); Live at the Village Vanguard (1961, Imp. 10), incl. *Chasin’ the Trane; Impressions (1961-3, Imp. 42), incl. *Impressions; Coltrane (1962, Imp. 21); with J. Hartman: John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman (1963, Imp. 40); Selflessness (1963, 1965, Imp. 9161), incl. My Favorite Things; Live at Birdland (1963, Imp. 50), incl. *Alabama; Crescent (1964, Imp. 66); *A Love Supreme (1964, Imp. 77), incl. *Psalm; Transition (1965, Imp. 9195); Ascension (1965 Imp. 95); Sun Ship (1965, Imp. 9211); First Meditations (1965, Imp. 9332); Live in Seattle (1965, Imp. 9202-2)

Om (1965, Imp. 9140); Kulu se Mama (1965, Imp. 9106); *Meditations (1965, Imp. 9110); Cosmic Music (1966, Coast Recorders 4950), incl. *Reverend King; Live at the Village Vanguard Again (1966, Imp. 9124), incl. My Favorite Things, *Naima; Expression (1967, Imp. 9120), incl. *Expression, *Offering

As sideman

M. Davis: Miles (1955, Prst. 7014); ’Round about Midnight (1955-6, Col. CL949), incl. All of You, ’Round Midnight; Relaxin’ (1956, Prst. 7129); Steamin’ (1956, Prst. 7200), incl. Salt Peanuts; Workin’ (1956, Prst. 7166); S. Rollins: Tenor Madness (1956, Prst. 7047); M. Davis: Cookin’ (1956, Prst. 7094), incl. Blues by Five, Tune up; ’Round Midnight (1956, Prst. 45-413); T. Monk: Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane (1957, Jlnd 946); R. Garland: All Mornin’ Long (1957, Prst. 7130); Soul Junction (1957, Prst. 7181); M. Davis: Milestones (1958, Col. CL1193); Jazz Track (1958, Col. CL1268); Miles and Monk at Newport (1958, Col. CL2178), incl. Ah-leu-cha; Jazz at the Plaza (1958, Col. C32470); C. Adderley: Cannonball Adderley Quintet in Chicago (1959, Mer. 20449); M. Davis: Kind of Blue (1959, Col. CL1355), incl. So What; Someday my Prince will Come (1961, Col. CS8456), incl. Teo; D. Ellington: Duke Ellington and John Coltrane (1962, Imp. 30)


A. White

The Works of John Coltrane, i–v (Washington, DC, 1973)

contd as The Works of John Coltrane: Definitive Coltrane, vi–x (Washington, 1977)

contd as The Works of John Coltrane: the Connoisseur’s Series, xi–xii (Washington, 1994) [further vols. forthcoming]

S. Watanabe

Jazz Improvisation: Transcriptions of John Coltrane’s Tenor Solos for All Instrumental Musicians (Tokyo, 1975)

D. Sickler

The Artistry of John Coltrane, ed. B. Porcelli (New York, 1979)

C. Coan

John Coltrane Solos (Milwaukee, 1995)

Selected films and videos

Theatre for a Story (1959)

Jazz Casual: the John Coltrane Quartet (1963)

The Music of Miles Davis (1978)

The Coltrane Legacy (1987)

L’INA présente Jazz Averty: Bechet, Bolling, Byas, Coltrane (1989)

The World According to Coltrane (1991)


  • I. Gitler: “Trane on the Track,” DB, 25/21 (1958), 16
  • A. Blume: “An Interview with John Coltrane,” JR, 2/1 (1959), 25
  • Z. Carno: “The Style of John Coltrane,” JR, 2 (1959), no.9, p.17; no.10, p.13
  • J. Coltrane: “Coltrane on Coltrane,” DB, 27/20 (1960), 26
  • B. Dawbarn: “John Coltrane: I’d Like to Play your Clubs,” Melody Maker (25 Nov 1961), 8
  • D. DeMichael: “John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy Answer the Critics,” DB, 29/8 (1962), 20
  • J. Goldberg: Jazz Masters of the Fifties (New York and London, 1965/R1980)
  • A. Spellman: “Trane: A Wild Night at the Gate,” DB, 32/26 (1965), 15
  • J. Cooke: “Late Trane,” JazzM, no.179 (1970), 2
  • F. Kofsky: “Revolution, Coltrane, and the Avant-Garde,” Black Giants, ed. P. Rivelli and R. Levin (New York and Cleveland, 1970/R1980 as Giants of Black Music)
  • M. Williams: The Jazz Tradition (New York, 1970, rev. 2/1983)
  • B. McRae: “John Coltrane: the Impulse Years,” JJ, 24/7 (1971), 2
  • E. Jost: Free Jazz (Graz, Austria, 1974/R1994)
  • C. O. Simpkins: Coltrane (New York, 1975)
  • J. C. Thomas: Chasin’ the Trane: the Music and Mystique of John Coltrane (Garden City, NY, 1975/R 1979)
  • D. Wild: The Recordings of John Coltrane (Ann Arbor, MI, 1979) [incl. chronology of activities]
  • D. Baker: The Jazz Style of John Coltrane: a Musical and Historical Perspective (Lebanon, IN, 1980) [incl. transcrs.]
  • B. Kernfeld: Adderley, Coltrane, and Davis at the Twilight of Bebop: the Search for Melodic Coherence (1958–59) (diss., Cornell U., 1981)
  • A. N. White, III: Trane ’n Me: a Semi-autobiography: a Treatise on the Music of John Coltrane (Washington, DC, 1981)
  • G. Filtgen and M. Ausserbauer: John Coltrane: sein Leben, seine Musik, seine Schallplatten (Gauting, Germany, 1983, rev. and enlarged 2/1989)
  • B. Kernfeld: “Two Coltranes,” ARJS, 2 (1983), 7–66
  • L. Porter: John Coltrane’s Music of 1960 through 1967: Jazz Improvisation as Composition (diss., Brandeis U., 1983)
  • A. Gerber: Le cas Coltrane (Marseilles, France, 1985)
  • L. Porter: “John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme: Jazz Improvisation as Composition,” Journal of the American Musicological Society, 38 (1985), 593
  • B. Priestley: John Coltrane (London, 1987) [incl. discography]
  • F. Postif: Les grandes interviews de Jazz hot (Paris, 1989)
  • D. Demsey: “Chromatic Third Relations in the Music of John Coltrane,” ARJS, 5 (1991), 145
  • W. Weiskopf and R. Ricker: Coltrane: a Players’ Guide to his Harmony (New Albany, IN, c1991)
  • E. Nisenson: Ascension: John Coltrane and his Quest (New York, 1993)
  • G. Putschoegl: John Coltrane und die afroamerikanische Oraltradition (Graz, Austria, 1993)
  • I. Monson: “Doubleness in Jazz Improvisation: Irony, Parody, and Ethnomusicology,” Critical Inquiry, 20/2 (1994), 283
  • P. Watrous: “John Coltrane: a Supreme Life,” in The Jazz Musician, ed. M. Rowland and T. Scherman (New York, 1994), 165
  • X. Daverat: John Coltrane (Paris, 1995)
  • Y. Fujioka with L. Porter and Y. Hamada: John Coltrane: a Discography and Musical Biography (Metuchen, NJ, and London, 1995)
  • B. Kernfeld: What to Listen for in Jazz (New Haven, CT, and London, 1995)
  • D. Demsey: John Coltrane Plays Giant Steps (Milwaukee, 1996) [incl. transcrs.]
  • J. Fraim: Spirit Catcher: the Life and Art of John Coltrane (West Liberty, OH, 1996)
  • D. Liebman: “John Coltrane's Meditations Suite: a Study in Symmetry,” ARJS, 8 (1996), 167
  • F.-R. Simon: John Coltrane (Paris, 1996)
  • K. E. Hester: The Melodic and Polyrhythmic Development of John Coltrane’s Spontaneous Composition in a Racist Society (Lewiston, NY, 1997)
  • L. Porter: John Coltrane: his Life and Music (Ann Arbor, MI, 1998)
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