Jazz Profiles from NPR
John Coltrane: First Impressions
Produced by John Diliberto

John Coltrane  

Bar none, John Coltrane is the most influential tenor saxophonist in jazz history. Whether it's his patented "sheets of sound," his rapid-fire improvisations or his bold cathartic wails, no aspiring jazz saxophonist can afford to neglect the music of Coltrane.

Hear pianist McCoy Tyner, drummer Jimmy Cobb, and saxophonist Jimmy Heath talk about the music of John Coltrane

Born September 23, 1926, in Hamlet, N.C., Coltrane grew up in a working class family -- his father was a tailor and amateur musician. Both of Coltrane's grandfathers were ministers, and he was first introduced to music in church. The family moved with one of his grandfathers to High Point, N.C., when Coltrane was a teenager, playing clarinet and listening to big band music.

After graduating high school in 1943, Coltrane moved to Philadelphia hoping to play music professionally, but taking jobs outside of music. He switched his instrument first from clarinet to alto saxophone, then again to tenor sax, and the city's bustling jazz scene offered many opportunities for both learning and playing.

In 1945, Coltrane entered the Navy and a year later made his first recording with a Navy band called the Melody Masters. When he returned to Philadelphia after the service, Coltrane played with a number of local R&B and jazz groups, including a two-year stint in the late 1940s with Jimmy Heath's band. By the decade's end, Trane was playing in New York, but he returned to Philadelphia in the fall of 1949 and was recruited, along with Heath, by trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie to play in his big band.

Listen to Jimmy Heath talk about Dizzy's influence on him and Coltrane

With Gillespie, Coltrane recorded his first commercial record, "You Stole My Wife...You Horse Thief." Due to financial constraints and the changing trends in jazz, Gillespie trimmed his orchestra to a septet with that included Coltrane on tenor. Trane seemed to be starting to hit stride musically when heroin knocked him off balance.

Fired from several bands throughout the early 1950s, including Gillespie's, Trane found a kindred spirit in former heroin addict Miles Davis, who hired him in late 1955. It was during this period in the mid-1950s that Coltrane developed his signature voice and began to mature as an artist. He still had problems with drug abuse -- even Davis fired him, but soon took him back into the group -- until he finally kicked for good in 1957.

Listen to Heath talk about Coltrane being fired by Gillespie


Coltrane was signed as a solo artist on Prestige, but his next stop was an apprenticeship of sorts with pianist and composer Thelonious Monk (left). With Monk's guidance, Coltrane extended his solos and explored multiphonics. Coltrane also began playing with bassist Paul Chambers and saxophonists Hank Mobley and Sonny Rollins.

Listen to poet Amiri Baraka describe the dynamics between Monk and Coltrane

Coltrane worked again with Davis toward the end of the 1950s, helping out on Milestones and on the best-selling jazz album in history, Kind of Blue. Davis was investigating modal jazz when Coltrane rejoined the group and while the trumpeter was exploring a more minimalist approach to music, Coltrane seemed locked into playing as many notes as possible.


Miles often complained that Coltrane played too much for too long. But it was the long, feverish solos that became the pillars of Coltrane's legacy. Jazz critic Ira Gitler coined the phrase "sheets of sound" to describe Coltrane's playing.

Listen to drummer Jimmy Cobb describe how Miles complained about Coltrane's solos

Feeling artistically frustrated, Coltrane again left the Davis group. After a few months of recording Kind of Blue, Coltrane recorded his own masterpiece, Giant Steps. The album didn't just mark a new musical plateau for Coltrane, it heralded a new era for jazz.

Listen to writer Lewis Porter describe the complexity of Coltrane's "Giant Steps"


View the John Coltrane: First Impressions show playlist


More InfoBrowse the NPR Jazz Web site -- NPRJazz.org

More InfoBrowse the NPR Jazz Feature on John Coltrane

ListenListen to the NPR 100 feature on John Coltrane's A Love Supreme

ListenListen to the NPR Basic Jazz Record Library entry for the album John Coltrane & Johnny Hartmann

ListenListen to the NPR Basic Jazz Record Library entry for John Coltrane's album A Love Supreme

ListenListen to the NPR Basic Jazz Record Library entry for John Coltrane's album Blue Train

ListenListen to the NPR Basic Jazz Record Library entry for the album Duke Ellington & John Coltrane

ListenListen to the NPR Basic Jazz Record Library entry for Miles Davis' album Kind of Blue


  • St. John Coltrane African Orthodox Church