The Smithsonian Institute kicks off Jazz Appreciation Month this April by honoring John Coltrane, one of the most influential saxophone players in Jazz. Coltrane was commemorated with a portrait by artist Joseph Holston for their yearly poster.
Coltrane’s son, Ravi Coltrane, will also donate one of his father’s three principal tenor saxophones to the National Museum of American History. The donation marks the 50th anniversary of John Coltrane’s masterpiece composition “A Love Supreme.”
John Coltrane was born on September 23, 1926 in Hamlet, North Carolina. He grew up in High Point, North Carolina. He enlisted in the US Navy in 1945, where he played in the Navy jazz band once he was stationed in Hawaii. Coltrane returned to civilian life in 1946 and began jazz theory studies. Working in the bebop and hard bop idioms early in his career, Coltrane helped pioneer the use of modes in jazz and was later at the forefront of free jazz.
An important moment in the progression of Coltrane’s musical development occurred on June 5, 1945, when he saw Charlie Parker perform for the first time. Parker became an early idol, and they played together on occasion in the late 1940s. Coltrane later teamed with pianist Thelonious Monk and trumpeter Miles Davis where the rivalry, tension, and mutual respect between Coltrane and Davis was formative for both of their careers.
Coltrane’s debut entitled “Coltrane” was in 1958 on the Prestige label. He followed it with the album “Blue Train” on the Blue Note label. After two other releases, he moved to Atlantic Records in 1960, where he released the iconic album, “Giant Steps”. The recording exemplifies Coltrane’s melodic phrasing that came to be known as “sheets of sound”, and features his explorations into third-related chord movements that came to be known as “Coltrane changes”.
Jazz musicians continue to use the “Giant Steps” chord progression, which consists of a peculiar set of chords that often move in thirds, as a practice piece and as a gateway into modern jazz improvisation. The ability to play over the “Giant Steps” cycle remains to this day one of the benchmark standards by which a jazz musician’s improvising skill is measured. Several pieces on this album went on to become jazz standards, most prominently “Naima” and “Giant Steps. After recording three other albums, including the highly popular “My Favorite Things”, Coltrane moved to the Impulse! Record label, where he would record for the rest of his life.
Coltrane lived a relatively young life, dying at the tender age of 40 in 1967. He was married twice, to Juanita Naima Grubbs in 1955. They separated in 1963 and divorced in 1966. He met pianist Alice McLeod, in late 1963 and had three children, John Jr. (1964), Ravi (1965) and Oranyan (“Oran”) 1967.
The influence Coltrane has had on music spans many genres and musicians. Coltrane’s massive influence on jazz, both mainstream and avant-garde, began during his lifetime and continued to grow after his death. He is one of the most dominant influences on post-1960 jazz saxophonists and has inspired an entire generation of jazz musicians.
Smooth Jazz and More honors John Coltrane and many other music legends this April by including them in our daily playlist. We hope you enjoy the music we share and encourage you discover the history of jazz.
Born in America…enjoyed worldwide!