John William Coltrane, modern jazz saxophonist, and composer, was born in Hamlet, the son of Alice Blair and John W. Coltrane, Sr. By the time of his death, he had achieved international eminence as one of the most talented, and creative figures in the history of jazz. In 1955, Coltrane joined the Miles Davis Quintet, which was to become the outstanding jazz group of its day. With Davis's group, Coltrane first attracted public and critical attention for his distinctive style of saxophone jazz. Coltrane's music, although influenced by many forms, was unique in its development and exploration of sixteenth notes as a rhythmic base for jazz. His superb technical skill on the saxophone enabled him to experiment freely with the broadest improvisation in avant-garde jazz, thus making him a central figure in the field.
“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.”
In his book The Making of Jazz: A Comprehensive History, James Lincoln Collier wrote that “the history of jazz is filled with names of musicians who have been extravagantly admired. . . . But no jazz musician has ever received the extreme adulation visited on John Coltrane.” In his native state, two towns make claims on Coltrane.
John William Coltrane, the modern jazz saxophonist, and composer, was born in Hamlet, the son of Alice Blair and John W. Coltrane, Sr. By the time of his death, he had achieved international eminence as one of the most talented, creative, and controversial figures in the history of jazz. His training in music began in high school, where he studied the E-flat alto horn, clarinet, and saxophone. He continued his musical training at the Granoff Studios and Ornstein School of Music in Philadelphia, making his professional debut in 1945 as a member of a cocktail party combo. He served in Hawaii with the U.S. Navy Band in 1945–46 and, upon returning to civilian life, toured as a sideman with Eddie Vinson's rhythm and blues band in 1947–48. He played in Dizzie Gillespie's big band from 1949 to 1951 and then with Earl Bostic in 1952–53 and Johnny Hodges in 1953–54.
John Coltrane was born on Bridges Street in Hamlet. The building has recently been restored and now houses the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and several businesses. It bears a small cornerstone noting the fact of his birth. At three months of age, Coltrane and his family moved to High Point where they lived on Underhill Street. That house also remains. Coltrane lived there until age seventeen and completed his education at William Penn High School, where he played clarinet and saxophone. A cultural center named for Coltrane is planned for the campus. (A privately sponsored historical marker dedicated to Coltrane stands in High Point.)
After high school, Coltrane moved to Philadelphia where he attended music school. He made his professional debut in 1945 and collaborated with Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, and Miles Davis in milestone recordings before forming his own group in 1960. In the years before his death at age forty, he “achieved the rare feat of establishing avant-garde jazz, temporarily, as popular music,” according to critic Martin Williams. One measure of Coltrane’s significance is the fact that he has been the subject of at least four biographies.
In 1955, Coltrane joined the Miles Davis Quintet, which was to become the outstanding jazz group of its day. With Davis's group, Coltrane first attracted public and critical attention for his distinctive style of saxophone jazz. In the summer and fall of 1957, he worked with Thelonious Monk at the Five Spot in New York City. In January 1958 he rejoined Davis's quintet, remaining with the band until April 1960, when he organized his own quartet. The Coltrane band was one of the most original and influential groups in jazz during the period from 1961 to 1965. Coltrane reached the peak of his public acclaim in 1965, winning the Down Beat Award as America's best tenor saxophonist, Hall of Fame selection, and Jazzman of the Year, while his composition and recording of A Love Supreme was voted Record of the Year.
From 1965 to 1967, he experimented broadly in the instrumentation of his group and developed a growing predilection for modality and multi horn group improvisation. Coltrane's music, although influenced by Indian, Oriental, and African forms, was unique in its development and exploration of sixteenth notes as a rhythmic base for jazz. His superb technical skill on the saxophone enabled him to experiment freely with the broadest improvisation in avant-garde jazz, thus making him a central and controversial figure in the field.
Coltrane recorded for numerous companies, including Columbia, Riverside, Blue Note, Prestige, Atlantic, and Impulse. Among his important recordings are Straight, No Chaser, Blue Train, Kind of Blue, Giant Steps, My Favorite Things, Impressions, Chasin' the Trane, Crescent, A Love Supreme, Ascension, Naima, Locomotion, In a Sentimental Mood, Expressions, Soultrane, and Kulu Se Mama.
He was married to Alice McLeod, a jazz pianist who performed with his group on many occasions. He died in Huntington, N.Y., with memorial services at St. Peter's Lutheran Church in New York City.