After Charlie Parker, saxophonist and composer John Coltrane is probably the most widely imitated saxophonist in jazz. Born the son of a minister in North Carolina, he was something of a late-bloomer as a musician; his earliest recordings, from the 1940s, show only a shadow of the genius he would become. But by the mid-1950s, he was one of the most important jazz musicians on the scene, and the recordings he made with Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis (especially Davis’s Kind of Blue from 1959) are now legendary.
A gentle, deeply spiritual man, Coltrane was also obsessed with music: It was not uncommon for him to spend an entire night practicing in his room after playing three sets in a jazz club. His style showed immense authority of his instrument, yet also a deep passion gained from his early exposure to black church music and his experience playing with rhythm-and-blues bands in the 1940s. He is also noteworthy as a composer of such jazz standards as “Impressions,” “Naima,” and “Giant Steps,” the latter — with its complex, rapidly changing chord structure — still a “test” piece for aspiring jazz musicians. Coltrane’s quartet of the 1960s — which featured bassist Jimmy Garrison, pianist McCoy Tyner, and drummer Elvin Jones — was, along with Miles Davis’s Quintet, one of the most important jazz ensembles of the decade. This group recorded, in 1964, what is widely considered Coltrane’s masterpiece: the four-movement suite A Love Supreme. This work, inspired by a “religious awakening” Coltrane experienced in 1957, featured in its last movement the “sermonizing” on saxophone of a text Coltrane wrote himself, which is included with the liner notes. Coltrane also became deeply interested in avant-garde jazz of Ornette Colemen and others, recording in 1965 a 40-minute nearly atonal group improvisation called Ascension. Coltrane was strongly interested in Eastern spirituality and philosophy, and some even came to view him as something of a religious mystic (though he never encouraged this trend himself). To this day there is still a Church of St. John Coltrane in San Francisco, which features weekly performances of music from A Love Supreme. His early death from liver cancer, at age 40, was an immense loss to the jazz community.