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During multiple stints with Miles Davis' groups of the 1950s and early '60s, John Coltrane began to develop his signature sound.
During multiple stints with Miles Davis' groups of the 1950s and early '60s, John Coltrane began to develop his signature sound. Evening Standard/Getty Images
More than 40 years after his death, John Coltrane remains the most influential tenor saxophonist in jazz history. Whether it's his patented "sheets of sound," his rapid-fire improvisations or his bold, cathartic wails, all aspiring jazz saxophonists know the music of Coltrane. His career was characterized by a constant, exponential advancement in improvisational technique and ideas.
Born Sept. 23, 1926, in Hamlet, N.C., Coltrane grew up in a working-class family — his father was a tailor and amateur musician. Both of Coltrane's grandfathers were ministers, and he was first introduced to music in church. The family moved with one of his grandfathers to High Point, N.C., when Coltrane was a teenager, playing clarinet and listening to big band music.
After graduating from high school in 1943, Coltrane moved to Philadelphia hoping to play music professionally, but still taking jobs outside of music. He switched his instrument first from clarinet to alto saxophone, then again to tenor sax, and the city's bustling jazz scene offered many opportunities for both learning and playing.
Coltrane entered the Navy in 1945 and made his first recording the next year, with a Navy band called the Melody Masters. When he returned to Philadelphia after his service, Coltrane played with a number of local R&B and jazz groups, including a two-year stint with Jimmy Heath's band in the late 1940s. By decade's end, Trane was playing in New York, but he returned to Philadelphia in the fall of 1949 and was recruited, along with Heath, by trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie to play in his big band.
With Gillespie, Coltrane made his first commercial record, "You Stole My Wife, You Horse Thief." Due to financial constraints and the changing trends in jazz, Gillespie trimmed his orchestra to a septet that included Coltrane on tenor.
Trane seemed to be starting to hit his musical stride when a heroin addiction knocked him off balance. Fired from several bands in the early 1950s, including Gillespie's, Trane found a kindred spirit in former heroin addict Miles Davis, who brought him into his quintet in late 1955. It was during this period, in the mid-1950s, that Coltrane developed his signature voice and began to mature as an artist. He still had problems with drug abuse — even Davis fired him, but soon took him back into the group — until he finally kicked the habit for good in 1957.
Coltrane was then signed as a solo artist on Prestige Records, but his next career stop was an apprenticeship of sorts with pianist and composer Thelonious Monk. Under Monk's guidance, Coltrane extended his solos and explored multiphonics.
Toward the end of the 1950s, Coltrane again teamed with Davis, contributing to classic albums like Milestones and Kind of Blue, the best-selling jazz album in history. Davis was investigating modal jazz when Coltrane rejoined the group. While the trumpeter was exploring a more minimalist approach to music, Coltrane seemed locked into playing as many notes as possible. Coltrane's long, feverish solos became the pillars of his legacy; jazz critic Ira Gitler coined the phrase "sheets of sound" to describe Coltrane's playing during this period.
A few months after Kind of Blue, Coltrane recorded his first masterpiece LP, Giant Steps. The album didn't just mark a new musical plateau for Coltrane — it also heralded a new era for jazz.