The Guide to Getting into John Coltrane’s Quasi-Religious Ecstasy

The Guide to Getting into John Coltrane’s Quasi-Religious Ecstasy

The music John William Coltrane wasn’t just a mere passion for his loyal fans; it was a religious experience. Doors drummer John Densmore said he can still feel the energy Coltrane poured into his live performances, an energy he’d never felt before and hasn’t since. His shows became something of a holy ritual for his most passionate stans, who developed a cult-like devotion to their “jazz messiah,” as the historical marker on his birthplace in Hamlet, North Carolina, proclaims him to be. Since his death in 1967, the worship of Coltrane has gone from metaphoric to literal, as he’s been ordained by the Saint John Coltrane African Orthodox Church.

Relative to his peers, Coltrane had little interest in hyping his personal story. He didn’t leave behind a salacious autobiography or hundreds of bombastic interviews, like his counterpart on the trumpet, Miles Davis. He was quiet and reserved, modest and thoughtful. If you were fortunate enough to be in his presence, you may not have even heard his voice.

But when Coltrane put a saxophone in his mouth, boy did you hear it. Years of obsessive practicing armed Coltrane with a mastery of the horn that trumped even the great Charlie Parker, Coltrane’s boyhood idol. In his hard bop period in the late 1950s, the frenetic pace with which notes exploded out of his horn peppered audiences with what was famously dubbed “sheets of sound,” and each flood of arpeggios brought with it new chapters in music theory that have become standard lessons for jazz improvisers today.

Nothing came easy for Coltrane, who endured tragedy at the age of 12 when his father, grandparents, and aunt all died within a few months of each other. After a brief stint in the navy at the end of World War II, Coltrane played for a decade in relative obscurity because heroin addiction kept him from holding down a steady gig. He poured these struggles into his music, deepening jazz’s ability to express pain, anguish, and loss.

Coltrane was a deeply spiritual person who devoured texts on different faiths, which he blended into his own form of universal religion. His search for meaning in humanity was intertwined with his search for how he wanted to play music, two fanatical quests that never ended for him. The grandson of two Methodist ministers, his early soloing has the escalating cadence of fiery sermon, and his last works in free jazz have the incomprehensible chaos of a Pentecostal Baptist speaking in tongues.

Coltrane seemingly came out of nowhere in 1957 but was instantly one of jazz’s brightest stars. And just as abruptly as he’d taken over the genre, he left it in 1967 when he died suddenly of liver cancer, a death that even the famously cold Miles Davis said “fucked everybody up.” But in the 10 years he was in jazz’s spotlight, he pushed his art to extremes few other musicians dared to, earning a spot among the 20th century’s most consequential musical voices in the process.

So you want to get into: Early John Coltrane?

John Coltrane exhibited a heavy interest and devotion to music at an early age, but he wasn’t a prodigy. Coltrane was a late bloomer who toiled for years in Philadelphia living with his mother and doing embarrassing gigs in bars that serious jazz musicians wouldn’t touch. And when he did catch a big break, his drug problem prevented him from capitalizing on it.

He appeared to catch his first look in 1949 when he joined Dizzy Gillespie’s big band as the lead alto player. A year later, Dizzy dumped the big band and formed a quintet and brought Coltrane on as a tenor player. Having witnessed Charlie Parker’s struggle with heroin first hand, Dizzy had strict rules against drugs and fired Coltrane that year. Coltrane begged his way back into the band, but Dizzy fired him for good in 1951. He joined a band a few years later led by saxophonist Johnny Hodges of Duke Ellington fame, but lasted barely six months before he was fired again over heroin.

Recordings of Coltrane during this period are scarce. Recordings of these bands often don’t feature Coltrane himself, and when they do, it hardly sounds like the man whose sound would come to define his instrument. His soloing sounds timid and hesitant, as if he’s not sure what he wants to say. But they’re illustrative for just how unlikely it was that he became one of the most influential sax players of all time. Among his very first studio appearances were supporting roles with crooner Billy Valentine. He also recorded with singer and saxophonist Gay Crosse, as well as alto player Earl Bostic. His recordings with Dizzy are mostly with the trumpet player’s big band. After he joined Miles Davis’s band in 1955, Coltrane’s opportunities expanded, and he recorded with Sonny Rollins, Paul Chambers, and other more established jazz acts.

Playlist: “Beer Drinking Baby” / “Tired of Being Shoved Around” / “Madam Butterfly” / “You Stole My Wife – You Horse Thief” / “Birk’s Works” / “Tenor Madness” / “Trane’s Blues” / “Woody’n You” / “Ah-Leu-Cha”

So you want to get into: “Sheets of Sound” John Coltrane?

John Coltrane loved to practice. When he expressed doubt that he knew how to stop practicing so much, Miles Davis famously suggested “you can start by taking the horn out of your mouth,” according to the Coltrane documentary Chasing Trane. When Coltrane quit heroin cold turkey in 1957, the years of obsessive practicing erupted in his playing. Free of his life’s struggle, Trane’s jubilant soloing during this year suggests even he is amazed by how well he’s playing, like on “Russian Lullaby.”

Coltrane’s hard bop style during the late 1950s was dubbed “sheets of sound” by critic Ira Gitler, as he moves up and down the register of the saxophone with such precision that each run feels like a wave of rain pelting you in the face. Coltrane’s first recording dates as a band leader were with Prestige and resulted in the albums Coltrane (1957) and Soultrane (1958). Prestige issued 10 more Coltrane albums after he’d left the label as his stature grew.

But it was Blue Train (1957), the one-off album Coltrane recorded for Blue Note on which he blows through blues changes with stunning ease, that announced his arrival as the new voice on the saxophone. The apex of Coltrane’s “sheets of sound” era is unquestionably his 1960 record Giant Steps. Not only does he absolutely burn up and down the horn, but he does so in service of complex musical ideas that have since become standard practice among jazz musicians; the chord substitution strategy he employs on the title track is now known simply as “Coltrane changes.”

Playlist: “Countdown” / “Blue Train” / “Trinkle, Tinkle” / “Russian Lullaby” / “Mary’s Blues” / “Giant Steps” / “Be-Bop” / “Nutty” / “Mr. PC”

So you want to get into: Miles and Trane?

It’s impossible to talk about John Coltrane without also talking about Miles Davis. It’s likely Coltrane would have had a notable career even if he hadn’t joined Miles’s band in 1955, but the opportunity moved him from the dregs of Philadelphia’s bar scene to the cutting edge of jazz in New York City overnight.

In the music, Miles provided Coltrane the space to find his identity on the tenor, giving him the freedom to solo however he wanted for as long as he wanted. Off the stage, Miles with his unbridled confidence showed a shy and insecure Coltrane how to lead a jazz band through touring and recording.

In 1956, Miles and Trane hit the studio numerous times for Prestige, most of which would become the quartet of albums Cookin’ (1957), Relaxin’ (1958), Workin’ (1959), and Steamin’ (1961). But it was their work with Columbia Records beginning in 1958 that cemented their status as one of music’s most consequential duos. Milestones (1958) and Kind of Blue (1959), on which they’re joined by alto player Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, are iconic works that transcend the genre.

Playlist: “Dr. Jackle” / “All Blues” / “Half Nelson” / “Blue in Green” / “Milestones” / “Airegin” / “So What” / “Bye Bye Blackbird” / “Someday My Prince Will Come”

So you want to get into: The John Coltrane Quartet?

John Coltrane’s success with Miles Davis made him one of the hottest names in jazz, and when he left to start his own group, musicians from across the country jockeyed for a spot in the band. Pianist McCoy Tyner and drummer Elvin Jones were immediate additions to the group, while he eventually settled on bassist Jimmy Garrison. This lineup today is known as the Classic Quartet.

The Classic Quartet meshed so well together that it’s hard to imagine them playing with anyone other than each other. Tyner’s dense and layered chords provided Coltrane with seemingly unlimited directions in which to explore, and Jones helped pioneer the polyrhythms that would become common practice in jazz in the 60s. Garrison, who played with Jones in Ornette Coleman’s band, drove the band with hard-charging walking lines, and he was every bit as compelling a soloist as his band mates.

Coltrane was under contract with Atlantic when he put the group together, and their first record My Favorite Things was an unexpected pop hit that put all eyes on the tenor sax player. But instead of appeasing the crowd, Coltrane took his band on a search for a new sound that saw him employ dissonant chord structures and grating textures that came to characterize his records for the Impulse! Label, which he joined in 1961.

1962’s Coltrane and Crescent (released two years later) are fascinating albums on which the group’s cosmic sound begins to unfold, but everything the quartet did was leading up to A Love Supreme, a deeply emotional and affecting expression of Coltrane’s devotion to God, released in 1965. The four-part suite was so sacred and personal to Coltrane that he’s only known to have performed anything from the album live a few times.

Playlist: “My Favorite Things” / “Untitled Original 11386 – Take 1” / “Harmonique” / A Love Supreme, Pt. II – Resolution” / Bessie’s Blues” / “Out Of This World” / “Crescent” / “Amen” / “Transition” / “Mr. Knight”

So you want to get into: John Coltrane’s Soft Side?

From the beginning of his tenure with Miles Davis in the mid-1950s, John Coltrane attracted harsh critics who characterized him and his playing as “angry” and “full of anguish.” Given the gentle demeanor of the man himself, this racially tinged criticism was laughable to those who knew the man behind the sound.

Coltrane was a family man who embraced his stepdaughter Syeeda as his own, naming a playful song off Giant Steps for her. When he married a second time to pianist Alice Coltrane, the two wasted no time having children—three boys, including saxophonist Ravi Coltrane. While quiet, Coltrane had a subtle, dry sense of humor that would catch even those closest to him off guard. His boyish coyness came out when he played ballads, which are arguably his most endearing songs.

The pushback against his aggressive soloing may have been on the minds of he and his producers when he recorded three albums composed mostly of slower tunes and old standards for Impulse!, including one simply called Ballads. On the other two, he shared a billing with jazz godfather Duke Ellington and crooner Johnny Hartman on albums that exemplified Coltrane’s stated goal in life—to make music that makes people happy. On ballads, Coltrane’s chaotic fingerwork gives way to the brilliant crystal clear sound that saxophone players have been trying to replicate for decades.

Playlist: “In A Sentimental Mood” / “Dear Lord” / “My One and Only Love” / “Wise One” / After the Rain” / “Big Nick” / “I’ll Wait and Pray” / “Naima” / “Alabama” / “Lush Life”

So you want to get into: Avant-Garde Ascension John Coltrane?

Ornette Coleman’s free jazz in the 1960s was one of the most radical musical movements of the 20th century, and Coltrane was transfixed from the beginning. After A Love Supreme and until his death, Coltrane experimented in atonality and with different personnel in his band, adding a second drummer and other wind instrumentalists such as saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, who would go on to play extensively with Alice after Coltrane’s death.

Coltrane’s séance-like avant garde performances only hardened the devotion of his of most loyal disciples, but it also alienated large swaths of the jazz community, including members of his own band. By the beginning of 1966, Elvin Jones and McCoy Tyner had left the band, the latter being replace with Coltrane’s wife Alice. Ascension is the most ambitious of Coltrane’s final albums, which blend elements of free jazz and eastern influences like Indian music into spiritual sermons that while difficult to listen to, are highly engaging. Interstellar Space (released in 1974)—an engrossing “duet” with drummer Rashied Ali—and Om (released in 1968) are standouts from this period that are worth a listen.

Look, it’s OK if you’re not into this final stage of Coltrane’s career. It’s noisy and chaotic and downright maddening. Even advocates of free jazz are likely to admit it’s not something they exactly put on in the car to drive around and listen to. But these final Coltrane albums are where a musical genius landed when he sought to push his art to its furthest extremes. While some critics believe this period for Coltrane showed he had run out of ideas, it’s hard not to believe that, given his tireless work ethic and boundless talent, Coltrane would have pioneered fresh new movements in jazz had his life not been cut tragically short.

Playlist: “Ascension – Edition I / Pt. 1” / “Lord Help Me To Be” / “Compassion” / “Venus” / “Reverend King” / “Expression” / “Sun Ship” / “Serenity” / “Om”