Artist Spotlight: John Coltrane

One rainy night in 1994, I went with my saxophone teacher to Tower Records and bought two CDs: Don’t Try This at Home, by Michael Brecker, who I covered in my last Artist Spotlight ; and Blue Train, by John Coltrane. At the time, I was a high school band dork trying to take my musicianship to the next level, whatever that means. Checking out some professionals was supposed to help with that.

I don’t remember if I put the CDs on in the car or waited until I got home, and I don’t remember which one I listened to first. Both were great, and while I have the utmost respect and love for Michael Brecker, that Coltrane album put me in my place from the very first note.

This song silenced the cacophony of my life at that moment. The swirling emotions and typically confused high school thoughts, the homework and car repairs and girlfriend who didn’t seem to like me very much—the sense of dread hanging over everything, two years after the L.A. Riots, one year after wildfires came within a few miles of my house, less than a year after Kurt Cobain’s suicide. I remember all that, and I imagine myself putting on this CD. Total silence for one second, followed by a focused, intense blues riff far better than any of the diluted big-band crap we played in jazz band. It demanded my attention, to the exclusion of everything else.


The time period from about 1957 to 1966 represents probably the greatest years of jazz music in America. It was the peak of jazz musicians’ creativity, assuming one applies the retroactive standards of what is and is not “true” jazz music. It was also the peak of the music’s popularity as a distinct genre of popular music—after its cultural hegemony of the 1920s and ’30s, but before rock and its related styles took over. Even Thelonious Monk, a cerebral jazz pianist with limited popularity, was featured on the cover of Time in 1964.

Not coincidentally, these were also John Coltrane’s most productive years. He recorded Blue Train in 1957 and rejoined Miles Davis’s band in 1958, after being kicked out three years prior because of his heroin addiction. This group released Kind of Blue, generally considered the greatest jazz record of all time, the following year.

Trane’s solo starts at 3:26, after Miles

Those two records alone would have cemented Coltrane’s legacy, but as is the case for many of the artists we consider great, those early moments of brilliance were just the opening act. Coltrane released Giant Steps the next year, a breakthrough album that showcases several of his trademarks, which every review of his work is contractually obligated to mention. One is his “sheets of sound,” so named by a critic from Down Beat, in which Trane would blow through seemingly unstoppable series of notes, hundreds at a time, in blisteringly fast patterns of scales, arpeggios, modes, and so on. The other innovation is the Giant Steps chord changes, which is hard to explain, but essentially consists of layering additional chords on top of a simpler progression, using a major-third rather than circle-of-fifths pattern. Bottom line: it’s more complicated.

More than fifty years later, jazz musicians still use the Giant Steps changes either as the framework for new songs, or as a substitution/supplement to existing changes in other works.

One thing I learned about Coltrane the musician, as I ate up one CD after another through high school and college, was his ardor for doing more, playing better, and exploring new ideas. He was notorious for how much he practiced, to the point that he glued bottle caps to a stick so that he could “practice” when he was on an airplane or anywhere else he couldn’t play a real horn. His first wife called their marriage “ninety percent saxophone.” For Coltrane, this zeal was related to spirituality—a lifelong seeker, he studied numerous faith traditions and sought to explore them all though his music.

His next move after Giant Steps was to pick up the soprano saxophone, one of instrumental music’s forgotten cousins, and use it to transform Broadway’s then-biggest hit into a 14-minute, minor-key meditation. If his 1961 version of “My Favorite Things” reminds you more of an Indian raga than the Von Trapp children, you’re not alone. The flurry of notes, the off-kilter (to our ears) modes, and pianist McCoy Tyner’s hammering, wide-open piano chords practically transport you to another plane while listening.

Coltrane gave a rare interview to Down Beat in 1962, purportedly so that he could respond to critics who termed his avant garde musical forays—especially those he took with experimental clarinetist-saxophonist Eric Dolphy—as “anti-jazz.” He seems uncertain about what that criticism was all about, but grows more animated when discussing his philosophy toward music:

I think the main thing a musician would like to do is to give a picture to the listener of the many wonderful things he knows of and senses in the universe. That’s what music is to me—it’s just another way of saying this is a big, beautiful universe we live in, that’s been given to us, and here’s an example of just how magnificent and encompassing it is.

Dolphy’s bass clarinet on “India,” from Coltrane’s Impressions, 1963

A statement like that gives you the context for A Love Supreme, Coltrane’s 33-minute, career-defining masterpiece. Released in 1965, its four tracks—“Acknowledgement,” “Resolution,” “Pursuance,” and “Psalm”—resemble a Mass or a classical oratorio more than a collection of jazz compositions. From its opening gong(!) and invocation, to its hypnotic, mantra-esque four-note motif, the recording summons you like a church bell or a call to prayer. Below is the first track, but feel free to find the whole recording on YouTube.

A lot of casual jazz fans would like to believe Coltrane’s career ended here, the same way a lot of people skip “Fitter, Happier” when it comes up on OK Computer. Coltrane spent his career seeking enlightenment through the bell of a saxophone, veering somewhere between descending into a trance and speaking in tongues, and his musical output after A Love Supreme grew increasingly untethered from traditional western harmonies. He found more possibility for spiritual illumination in free jazz improvisation. For instance, his next record, Ascension, is a single, 40-minute-long track that consists of Trane and his bandmates (now including freakout specialist Pharoah Sanders) playing some kind of barely controlled, blaring chaos. For some, it’s an acid trip on fire; for others, a test of character to see how long they can keep listening.

For the artist, this was all very earnest. Coltrane dabbled in Sufism and Ahmadiyya Islam, read the Bhagavad Gita and Tibetan Book of the Dead, and befriended Ravi Shankar years before George Harrison did. The names of his later compositions reflected his mindset at the time: “Offering,” “Vigil,” “Om,” “The Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost.” Carlos Santana used to listen to that last one late at night, and claimed he could hear God speaking through Coltrane. Books have been written on Coltrane and spirituality. He liked Western philosophy too, name-dropping works like Ayers’s Language, Truth and Logic in interviews.

I would be remiss if I did not mention here the tiny, but real, St. John Coltrane African Orthodox Church, which until a few months ago operated out of a storefront location in San Francisco. (They were recently evicted and relocated.) I have not been, but I have seen it on the news and in documentaries many times. While it’s clearly a novelty, there are regular people who attend this church, where the pastor plays “A Love Supreme” on saxophone, and who believe Coltrane is, if not a literal saint, a spiritual being worth using as inspiration.

Anyway, it doesn’t take a genius to see why jazz is no longer cool. You can’t really expect someone to casually pop in Ascension at a party or in their car driving home after dinner. This is something you have to clear your schedule for—turn down your lights, sound-check your headphones, smoke the rest of your hashish, and close your eyes to focus on the experience. Yet what Coltrane is producing here is the logical extension of the trip he was on.

Coltrane died of liver cancer in 1967, right around the time that popular rock acts started playing psychedelic music and the long-underway white flight from jazz crossed the point of no return. Meanwhile, Miles Davis released In A Silent Way in 1969, which launched fusion, the subgenre that split jazz into two factions, old and new. Old was what your parents listened to—not cool. New led irrevocably to smooth jazz and pop garbage like Kenny G. Also not cool.

With its decline in popularity, jazz retreated to the academy, where it became another dead subject for mostly white professors to pore over, while the African American culture that birthed it moved on to new ways of making music outside of the mainstream. The people who would have gotten into jazz in the 1970s started Hip Hop instead. Meanwhile, the most important jazz musician in America is a Grammy-winning Mozart soloist who works at Julliard.

But dreaming of a golden era of jazz, or of achieving nirvana while playing saxophone, is a romantic fantasy, and as Billy Strayhorn said, “romance is mush/stifling those who strive.” I gave up playing jazz a long time ago, which was clearly the right choice for me. So let’s just live a lush life, in some small dive, with the rest of those whose lives are lonely, too.