“John Coltrane was a key figure in jazz, a pioneer in world music, and an intensely emotional force whose following continues to grow.”
This succinct description by author Lewis Porter in his book about the legendary Jazz musician, John Coltrane, is completely accurate. John Coltrane is to Jazz music what Neil Armstrong was to the successful Moon landings of 1960’s. He is revered not just by those involved in the world of Jazz but by people from around the world for his deep spirituality and his recognition and support of the civil rights movement in the early 1960’s.
To this day, John Coltrane remains to be the only Jazz musician to have become a saint post-humous, which was given to him by the African Orthodox Church. He also was one of the few Jazz musicians who could compete with the emerging Rock n’ Roll scene in the early 1960’s. His most famous album, titled “Love Supreme” released in 1964 was partially why Coltrane surged to popularity at a level equal to bands like The Beatles and The Beach Boys. What he lacked in terms of longevity in his career and sadly, his life, John Coltrane’s passion for Jazz and the spirituality his music had along with the masterful skill, improvisation he displayed playing the tenor saxophone continues to resonate today. Along with Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane is one of the few Jazz musicians to have received a Special Citation for the Pulitzer Prize in the study of music.
As a musician, John Coltrane’s contributions were immense especially during the relatively short amount of years he was on the top of the Jazz scene compared to other legends of the era. He was influential in promoting new forms of Jazz such as avant-garde and free form, which became popular during the 1960’s. Throughout his career, Coltrane was the leader of more than fifty recording sessions and then partnered along other musicians such as Miles Davis, Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk. John Coltrane started recording music in 1945 right after the conclusion of World War II for which he was enlisted in the U.S. Navy.
One of the first musicians to recognize John Coltrane’s inherent musical talent was fellow saxophonist, Charlie Parker, who played and recorded together with Coltrane during the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. His most famous albums included Giant Steps (1960), My Favorite Things (1961) and A Love Supreme (1965). All three of these Jazz albums that he produced with Atlantic and then Impulse! Records are some of the best-selling albums of all time. He is also noted for collaborating with Miles Davis on some of his most famous recordings including Kind of Blue (1959) and Milestones (1958). In addition, over the course of his career, John Coltrane created many standards in Jazz music such as “Moment’s Notice”, “Lazy Bird”, “Impressions”, “My Favorite Things” and “I Want to Talk About You.”
The influence of spirituality and religion on Coltrane’s life and music is what makes him unique and rememberable more than forty years after his death. While Ornette Coleman was the musician who is credited with leading the “Free Jazz” and “Avant Garde” movements, it completely changed the perceptions of what Jazz should be to young musicians like Coltrane who were originally more technical in their play originally who adapted more of a free-form style as they encountered different influences and perspectives. His philosophy on music and life in general was that it had to be “a whole expression of one’s being.”
More than most Jazz artists of his time and era, John Coltrane was a deeply spiritual and religious person who sought out the teachings and beliefs of not just Christianity but also Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc. Coltrane is said to have had a religious experience, which may have held him break his heroin and alcohol addictions in the late 1950’s. When asked about this pivotal point in his life that allowed him to produce the landmark records of A Love Supreme and Meditations, Coltrane states that, “During the year 1957, I experienced, by the grace of God, which has led me to a richer, fuller, more productive life. At that time, in gratitude, I humbly asked to be given the means and privilege to make others happy through music.” John Coltrane made many references to spirituality and different religions in many of his songs and albums. Specifically, those songs titles, “Ascension”, “Om” (Hinduism), “Amen”, “Dear Lord”, and the opening movement of Meditations which is titled, “the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.” He studied the Bible, Qu’ran, Kabbalah and other Buddhist and Hindu texts making him more of a Universalist than a subscriber to any certain religion. He incorporated chants and sayings into the few lyrics within his songs as well. Coltrane worked with Indian sitar player Ravi Shankar and even named his first son after him.
Beyond Jazz, John Coltrane dove into an idea of a universal musical structure and to take these spiritual influences from around the world and implement them within his own play and style. He was not political but he desired for his own country to get beyond racial and ethnic differences such as those that were plaguing America during the early 1960’s. Through his music, he spoke out against discrimination and supported the civil rights movement and gave an emotional ode to Dr. King in the song, “Alabama” after his assassination. Despite his death at the age of 40, Coltrane inspired a new generation of Jazz musicians to carry on his free-form style and his ability to reach out to different genres of music. He has been immortalized in certain Christian churches as a saint and his birthday is often a cause of celebration around the world. It is clear that he was not over-rated and that his legacy will continue to go on as long as his music is played for all.