David and Art - John Coltrane Pt. 1
The story of American musician John Coltrane is one in which music is transformative.
Click to listen.
Click the title above to read along.
“John W. Coltrane, the only son of John Robert Coltrane and Blair Coltrane was born in Hamlet, North Carolina, September 23, 1926. His early childhood was spent in High Point, North Carolina where he graduated from the William Penn High School. In 1943 he moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania where he attended the Ornstein School of Music. He served in the U.S. Navy in World War II.”
Had you been seated in St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in New York City on the morning of July 21, 1967, you would have read those very sentences in Order of Service for John Coltrane’s funeral. He had died a few days earlier at the age of 40 in a hospital on Long Island. His influence on American music, particularly jazz, was already profound, and would echo through ensuing decades up to today. If you’ve listened to this show very much you’ve probably heard me mention him several times. He’s one of my favorite artists.
Both of Coltrane’s grandfathers were ministers and his mother, as he himself often noted, was very religious. His father worked in the laundry business. His mother worked as a maid. They were both musical: she sang and played the piano; he played the violin and ukulele and maybe the clarinet as well. He died when Coltrane was only 12, and that was about the time he himself picked up a musical instrument—first the alto horn and then quickly the clarinet. From the start, making music seemed to connect with him in a profound way. In September 1940 his high school started a band, and he was a founding member. It was then he switched to saxophone. He was a natural. “He played as if he had been playing all the time,” said a friend. His high school went only up to grade 11, so he graduated in May 1943 at age 16. The school yearbook labelled him the “most musical” in his class.
The next month he moved to Philadelphia where he lived with his mother and aunt. Historian Leonard L. Brown notes that in relocating there Coltrane entered one of the richest urban black music scenes in the country at that time. As he began playing around town, Brown says that, people who had been on the scene for years immediately realized that Coltrane could speak the language in ways that could enhance the tradition. He ultimately began playing with Dizzy Gillespie’s band and then with Miles Davis. But he also developed struggles with alcohol and heroin addiction.
Let’s continue his story next week.