Browse Topics



Jazz Profiles from NPR
John Coltrane: Giant Steps and Beyond
Produced by John Diliberto

John Coltrane  

After years of playing with Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk, saxophonist and composer John Coltrane began emerging as a jazz pioneer at the end of the 1950s. A few months after recording the epochal Kind of Blue with Miles Davis, Trane made his own statement with Giant Steps.

Hear poet Amiri Baraka, biographer Lewis Porter, and widow Alice Coltrane talk about the music of John Coltrane

During the early 1960s, Coltrane formed one of the most memorable quartets in jazz with pianist McCoy Tyner, drummer Elvin Jones and bassist Jimmy Garrison. The group's first major recording was 1960's My Favorite Things, featuring the quartet's original bassist, Steve Davis.

The title track, a Rogers and Hammerstein tune from The Sound of Music, became an instant classic and showcased Coltrane on soprano saxophone for the first time. It was also one of the first songs on which Coltrane explored a more open modality.

While Coltrane's career was on the upswing, his first marriage was deteriorating. According to writer Lewis Porter, one of the main problems Coltrane had with his wife, Naima, was that she wasn't a musician and couldn't understand his obsessions. After divorcing Naima, Coltrane married an accomplished musician -- pianist and harpist Alice McLeod. Alice often traveled with the quartet and in the mid-'60s replaced Tyner in the group.

Listen to Alice Coltrane describe her husband

John Coltrane  

Coltrane's extended solos were becoming legendary, but they weren't always in favor with some jazz critics. Down Beat magazine described his music as "anti-jazz." But in a famous interview with Leonard Feather, woodwind player Eric Dolphy (left), who played on the Live at Birdland and Africa/Brass albums, defended Coltrane's playing.

Listen to Eric Dolphy defend Coltrane's style of jazz

Although rooted in jazz and blues, Coltrane's music was absorbing influences from Spain, Africa, India and other places around the world. Spiritually, he was drawn to the teachings of Hinduism and the music of sitar player Ravi Shankar and he began introducing Indian instruments into his own music.

During this period of comparatively esoteric exploration, Coltrane still managed to record a couple of mainstream jazz duet albums -- one with Duke Ellington, the other with vocalist Johnny Hartman. Once criticized as being anti-jazz, Coltrane was now being criticized for pandering to the recording industry. But Coltrane defended his albums with Ellington and Hartman with the same quiet intensity used to defend his long-winded solos.

Love Supreme cover  

Coltrane's most significant album during this period was 1964's A Love Supreme. The music on the album was a pure expression of Coltrane's spiritual revelations. After the release of A Love Supreme, Coltrane's spiritual consciousness became the major theme of nearly all of his succeeding albums.

Listen to Alice Coltrane describe her husband's work on A Love Supreme

Trane's solos became even more emotionally raw and drew heavily from the burgeoning avant-garde scene called "The New Thing." The music saxophonists Ornette Coleman, Archie Shepp and Albert Ayler informed Coltrane's more abstract works, including 1965's Ascension and Om. Coltrane's music came close to testing listeners' patience as he would often engage in explosive musical conversations with drummer Jones.

Saxophonists Pharaoh Sanders and Marion Brown and drummer Rashied Ali complemented the quartet during its latter years. For all of Coltrane's spiritual awareness, however, the music soon caused some discord among original quartet members Tyner and Jones. After Tyner and Jones left, Coltrane explained that his music was simply going in two separate directions at once.

Alice Coltrane and Rashied Ali replaced Tyner and Jones, respectively. Early in 1967, Coltrane was diagnosed with liver cancer and as his music was so physically demanding, his energy soon began to wane. In concert, when Coltrane was too exhausted he often used saxophonist Pharaoh Sanders to sustain the intensity.

Unfortunately, by the time Coltrane's cancer was diagnosed, it was inoperable. Coltrane died on July 17, 1967, two months shy of his 41st birthday and two months after his last concert in Baltimore. Although his explorations of the abstract, spiritual side of jazz had barely begun at the time of his death, Coltrane's legacy continues to inform every jazz saxophonist who has come along since.


View the John Coltrane: Giant Steps and Beyond show playlist


More InfoBrowse the NPR Jazz Feature on John Coltrane

ListenListen to the NPR 100 feature on A Love Supreme

ListenListen to the NPR Basic Jazz Record Library entry for A Love Supreme

ListenListen to the NPR Basic Jazz Record Library entry for John Coltrane & Johnny Hartmann

ListenListen to the NPR Basic Jazz Record Library entry for Blue Train

ListenListen to the NPR Basic Jazz Record Library entry for Duke Ellington & John Coltrane

ListenListen to the NPR Basic Jazz Record Library entry for Kind of Blue


  • St. John Coltrane African Orthodox Church