Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
The jazz output of John Coltrane saw his innovative approach to post-bop forms evolve to express his own take on spirituality. Born in North Carolina in 1926, a series of family deaths in 1938 led him to relocate, with his mother, to Philadelphia by 1943. In high school, Coltrane played the alto saxophone and clarinet while performing in a trio at cocktail lounges. He enlisted in the US Navy in 1945 to avoid being drafted into the Army and, stationed in Hawaii, began to perform with the base’s swing band, the Melody Masters. As it was an all-white band, Coltrane was considered a guest performer in order to avoid segregation regulations and, with members of the band, he made his first informal recordings. Following his discharge from the military, Coltrane returned to Philadelphia, where he saw Charlie Parker perform and became fascinated with the postwar bebop scene. He freelanced in Philadelphia, made a few more recordings and, by 1955, had been picked up by Miles Davis to be part of his first great quintet. The group recorded four albums for Prestige but, by 1957, it had disbanded due in part to Coltrane’s heroin addiction. Coltrane recorded one album for Blue Note, Blue Trane, in 1958 and rejoined Davis’s group through 1960. His 1959 album for Atlantic, Giant Steps, caused a sea change in jazz and featured incredibly complicated chord progressions. In 1961, My Favorite Things saw Coltrane transition to the underused soprano saxophone and form his own group. That year, Coltrane’s contract was bought by the newly formed Impulse! label, and his compositions became more influenced by the burgeoning free-jazz movement. Through 1965, Coltrane’s Classic Quartet work proved to be more conservative than his earlier output, but maintained a through line that expressed the artist’s ideas on spirituality. This reached an apex with 1964’s A Love Supreme, which was commercially successful and explored Coltrane’s relationship with God. By 1965, Coltrane was adding new, avant-garde oriented musicians to his group and he continued exploring spiritual themes with Ascension and Meditations, both released in 1966. Coltrane’s death in 1967 shocked the jazz world. His massive backlog of unreleased material, much of which has been released posthumously, exhibits the new directions the artist would have gone in if not for liver cancer.