Thursday, March 9, 2023

John Coltrane: Jazz Great and Navy Sailor

By Zach Smyers
HRNM Educator

The son of a preacher, John Coltrane was born on September 23, 1926, in High Point, North Carolina. He came from a religious family, and gospel music was a big influence in his life. In high school, Coltrane played the clarinet, alto horn, and saxophone. He graduated from high school in 1943 moving to Philadelphia with his mother. There, Coltrane’s mother bought him his first alto saxophone, and he began taking lessons at the Ornstein School of Music. In 1945 Coltrane saw the legendary Charlie Parker perform, and during that performance, Coltrane knew what he wanted to do with his life. But his dream of being the next jazz great would have to wait.

John Coltrane in the studio (

With World War Two still raging in the Pacific, John Coltrane joined the Navy to avoid being drafted into the Army. On August 6, 1945, Coltrane traveled to Naval Training Center Sampson, located in upstate New York, for basic training. The Second World War ended on September 2, 1945, and Coltrane completed basic training in October 1945. Due to his ability to play two musical instruments, he received orders to the Navy band in Hawaii.

John Coltrane's enlistment photo (

When he arrived in Hawaii in November 1945, Coltrane began performing with the base swing band called the “Melody Masters.” The majority of the band members in the Melody Masters were white since segregation in the armed forces was still in effect. Because of this, Coltrane was not listed as an official member of the band and instead was referred to as a “guest performer.” During his tour of duty in Hawaii, Coltrane carried out his regular duties as a Sailor and continued to play with the band. He made his first recordings as a musician during his time in the Navy, playing some bebop and jazz songs with other members of the band.

Seaman 1st Class Coltrane was honorably discharged on August 11, 1946, after serving one year of his two-year enlistment. He returned home to Philadelphia and used his GI Bill to continue studying music at the Granoff School of Music. Coltrane studied music theory, continued to take saxophone lessons, and focused his energy on becoming a professional musician.

Coltrane's discharge papers (

After World War Two, Philadelphians needed musicians to perform at the various theaters, clubs, and bars, all of which offered live music. For Coltrane, he was in the right place at the right time to continue honing his musical skill. Instead of focusing on just one genre of music, Coltrane learned a variety of genres and over time became a seasoned musician. From 1946 to 1955, Coltrane played with a variety of groups, eventually making his way to the big bands with well-known leaders like Johnny Hodges and Dizzy Gillespie. It was during his time with Dizzy Gillespie that Coltrane switched from alto saxophone to tenor saxophone.

In 1955 Coltrane’s status as a musician would rise to a whole new level when he auditioned to play with trumpeter Miles Davis. From 1955 to 1959, Coltrane continued to develop his signature style (described as “sheets of sound”) as a tenor saxophonist. Davis and Coltrane went on to record Kind of Blue in 1959, which many jazz fans consider to be the definitive jazz album.

Album cover for Kind of Blue (

Eventually, Coltrane started recording his own music and released his first album, Blue Train, in 1958. By 1960 he was one of the most famous musicians in the world, and in 1964, he released what is regarded as his masterpiece, A Love Supreme. Additional hit recordings include In a Sentimental Mood, My Favorite Things, and Blue In Green.

A Love Supreme album cover (

Tragically, John Coltrane passed away from liver cancer in 1967 at the age of 40. After his death he earned numerous awards, including a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award received thirty years later. His music continues to inspire new musicians and entertain fans around the world. As John Coltrane once said: “I know that there are bad forces, forces that bring suffering to others and misery to the world. I want to be the opposite force. I want to be the force which is truly for good.”

Coltrane with his tenor sax (

No comments: