“I want to be a force which is truly for good.” – John Coltrane
The life and times of John Coltrane mirror the tenets of jazz in general, in that it should come with the mantra: “Be forewarned all ye who enter, this is spiritually heady stuff, and it isn’t for the fainthearted.”
As most lyric-philes from the world of four chords and a catchy chorus would attest, the notion of instrumental music somehow containing profound truths is a perplexing one. Sure, most would agree it could catch a vibe and maybe even prove to be spiritually transcendent, but unearthing truths, enacting change or summoning beauty that resonates beyond the journey of the stylus or the doors of the concert hall seems a stretch. Yet for John Coltrane, this was the reason to play and as an ever-growing legion of fans would testify, he not only achieved it, but he remains a musical paragon of virtues like a pursed-lipped prophet of goodwill and even better jazz.
As Coltrane said himself, “Well, I think that music, being the expression of the human heart or of the human being itself, does express just what it is happening. The whole of human experience at that particular time is being expressed.” But for Coltrane mastery of expression did not come as easy as simply getting something off his chest, even if his prolific spell of brilliance from 1957-67 makes it seem that way.
He was born and raised in North Carolina and this gospel and blues hotbed would later colour the tones of his jazz. His upbringing was a normal one, but then cataclysm struck just as he was starting to take his clarinet seriously. Within a matter of weeks, Coltrane’s father, grandfather, grandmother and aunt all passed away.
His family was in emotional turmoil, but with the resultant financial woes confounding the issue, they could not afford to grieve for long. At this time, as a young boy of 12, Coltrane sought solace in his instrument.
He found escapism, not only in playing and practising, but in the horizon-expanding world of jazz. The young Coltrane absorbed it all, from big band to bebop and everything in between. He listened ardently and found his first two heroes, Johnny Hodges the alto saxophonist in Duke Ellington’s swinging orchestra and the tenor-sax legend Dexter Gordon known for his bristling bebop bravura.
By now, Coltrane was a jazz obsessive, so when the opportunity came to follow fellow family members to Philadelphia in 1943, his bags were packed before they’d finished asking the question. At the time, the city was somewhat of a jazz hive and that would only snowball further after World War II in which Coltrane briefly served in the navy and used his earnings to pay for music lessons after his discharge.
Now, with enough skill to get by and enough passion to play Joan of Arc, he was ready to turn pro. For a solid ten years, he was a horn for hire. And he was a near-perfect one at that, changing to tenor upon request without batting an eye.
However, life on the road was tough and narcotics were rife. Half of the travelling jazz scene was on drugs it would seem and, in the end, Coltrane also succumbed. He endured a heroin addiction for around six years from 1951 onwards, but somehow this dark depth also coincided with his big break.
In 1955 he received a call to audition in Miles Davis’ band and the rest, as they say, is ancient history. He arrived in New York, Davis simply knew he “was a bad motherfucker,” and from then on they formed the most iconic duo in jazz history. Despite both men being remarkably different in character, they shared the same creative need to evolve, and their sounds meddled towards a new zenith in jazz.
However, Coltrane’s narcotic handicap proved too testing in the end. Davis fired him from the band in 1957 in what actually proved to be the next turning point on Coltrane’s meteoric rise. The firing gave him the impetus to change he kicked his narcotic habit the hard way. In its own way, his struggles to overcome addiction were entwined with his view on art, as he said, “I think music is an instrument it can create the initial thought pattern change in the thinking of the people.”
Reinvigorated by the salvation on the other side, his slaloming style was born in a newfound determination to not only practice his way to greatness, but also to propagate something spiritual while he was at it, and something that would hark back to his gospel roots in some way.
Over the next ten years, he produced a string of masterpieces, almost every single one of them bringing something new and utterly revered in the jazz world. Most notably, however, was that he sought to bring change not only to the musical field through his music but to the wider world.
Throughout this time, he had battled the pains of undiagnosed liver cancer which would eventually take his life in 1967. Throughout the tumult of the era, he maintained, “Any situation that we find in our lives, when we think there’s something that should be better, we must exert effort to try to make it better, so it’s the same socially, musically, politically and part of my life.”