John Coltrane: Saxophone Icon, Pt. 2

John Coltrane's rapid stylistic evolution was not always admired as it is today: One critic called a 1961 performance "anti-jazz," and the label stuck with his detractors. (Courtesy of Concord Music Group)closemore
John Coltrane's rapid stylistic evolution was not always admired as it is today: One critic called a 1961 performance "anti-jazz," and the label stuck with his detractors. (Courtesy of Concord Music Group)

After years of playing with Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk, saxophonist and composer John Coltrane began to emerge as a jazz pioneer at the end of the 1950s. A few months after recording the now-venerated Kind of Blue with Miles Davis, Coltrane made a classic album of his own with Giant Steps.

During the early 1960s, Coltrane formed one of the most memorable quartets in jazz, featuring pianist McCoy Tyner, drummer Elvin Jones and bassist Jimmy Garrison. The group's first major recording was 1960's My Favorite Things (featuring the quartet's original bassist, Steve Davis). The title track, a reinvention of a Rogers and Hammerstein tune from The Sound of Music, marked several significant events for Coltrane: It showcased him on soprano saxophone for the first time on record, and was one of the first recordings on which he plainly explored an "open" modality. Coltrane performed the tune frequently throughout his career, modifying his approach to it as his own music changed.

While Coltrane's career was on the upswing, his marriage was deteriorating. According to historian Lewis Porter, one of the main problems Coltrane had with his first wife, Naima, was that she wasn't a musician and couldn't understand his obsessions. Coltrane would later marry an accomplished musician — pianist and harpist Alice McLeod (later Coltrane). Alice often traveled with the quartet, and in the mid-'60s she replaced Tyner in the group.

Though steeped in the feel of swing and the blues, Coltrane's music quickly absorbed influences from around the globe, including Spain and West Africa. Spiritually, he was drawn to the teachings of Hinduism and the music of sitar master Ravi Shankar, and Coltrane also incorporated South Asian textures into his work.

Coltrane's lengthy, boundary-stretching solos were becoming legendary, but they initially turned off many jazz critics. For example, a 1961 performance review in Down Beat magazine described his music as "anti-jazz." Ironically, early in this period of comparatively esoteric exploration, Coltrane's recorded output featured several albums with mainstream appeal — one with Duke Ellington, another with vocalist Johnny Hartman. As a result, some criticized Coltrane as being anti-jazz while others remarked that he was pandering to the recording industry. But Coltrane defended his albums with Ellington and Hartman as strenuously as he did the long, exploratory solos he took on stage.

Among many recordings of the "classic" quartet, Coltrane's most heralded album remains A Love Supreme, made in late 1964. Synthesizing the post-bop of his earlier career and the freer improvisations he was fast developing, A Love Supreme documents a suite of compositions inspired by religious conviction. The album also started a major thematic trend, with Coltrane's spiritual consciousness informing much of his later output.

Drawing more and more heavily from "out" improvisers, Coltrane's music grew in abstraction and harmonically unrestrained intensity. Saxophonists such as Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler influenced Coltrane's more abstract works, including 1965's Ascension and Om. Younger avant-garde musicians including saxophonists Pharaoh Sanders and Marion Brown and drummer Rashied Ali also complemented the classic quartet during its later years.

For all of Coltrane's spiritual awareness, however, the increasingly abstract music caused some discord with original quartet members McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones, and both musicians eventually left the group. Coltrane later explained that his music was simply going in two separate directions at once. Alice Coltrane and Rashied Ali replaced Tyner and Jones, respectively.

Early in 1967, John Coltrane was diagnosed with liver cancer. He continued to perform, but his music was so physically demanding that he had difficulty maintaining his touring schedule. By the time Coltrane's cancer was diagnosed, it was already inoperable. Coltrane died in New York City on July 17, 1967, two months shy of his 41st birthday and two months after playing his last concert in Baltimore, Md.

Although his explorations of the abstract, spiritual side of jazz had barely begun at the time of his death, Coltrane's legacy informed every jazz saxophonist who followed him, and is a continuing influence on jazz today.

Copyright NPR 2016.

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