Pioneering jazz artist, Coltrane destroyed any pre-conceived notion of what jazz should be. Most famous for his incomparable tenor saxophone playing, Coltrane matured from free, modal jazz recordings like Live at Birdland to Ascension and the beginnings of ecstatic jazz, a movement including Pharoah Sanders, Sun Ra, and others. Trane may be remembered as the most important musician of the 20th century.

1926-1967. Born in Hamlet, North Carolina, raised, in part, in Philadelphia. The Tenor Saxophonist Known as Trane. He is God or something - apparently there are still some Coltrane churches around, 30 years after his death (see: Trane is God); America's the Fountain of Weird sometimes. His recorded career went from the mid 50's to the late 60's, and had more twists and turns and changes of music and persona than David Bowie's career. A disciple of Charlie Parker who cut his teeth in rhythm and blues bands, his big break came upon joining Miles Davis' classic hard bop quintet.

With Miles Davis, his solos made grand or oblique entrances and exits, and, in between, he might try to fit ten solos worth of notes into them - a trait that was to continue throughout his metamorphoses. Was also, at the time, a junkie; he kicked heroin by using alcohol as a crutch - he became an alcoholic. Eased out of the Davis quintet (Cannonball Adderley was the David Gilmour to Trane's Syd Barrett), he dried out and found God.

While exiled from Davis, he joined up with Thelonious Monk and took his loquacious style to another level - heard on his varied '57-58 recordings with Monk, Davis, and under his own name. Then came Giant Steps, in which he stretched the boundaries of bebop by breaking from its usual chord progressions; the main sequence of chords in "Giant Steps" provided an entry point for obliterating the language of bop to create a whole New Thing.

After Giant Steps, he formed his own group; it became the classic John Coltrane Quartet. By finding a way out of the harmonic stasis of modal jazz, they became the shock troops of free jazz, alongside the groups of Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman. The group divided jazz fans; some called the solos of Trane and Eric Dolphy "anti-jazz" for their "extreme" lengths and disregard for tonal centers. To others, it was like the second chapter of Acts.

With A Love Supreme and his later works, Trane put the God Stuff to the fore (a vague Hinduism with Baptist roots - see Om) and led a whole generation of free jazz musicians already musically inspired by him (e.g. Pharoah Sanders) off the deep end of wacko spirituality. The last ten years of his life featured an ongoing addiction to junk food (with Fat and Svelte sets of clothes, for cycling through the binge and health-nut Phases of the Trane), and he - like his friend Dolphy - was a musical workaholic.

Trane became a patron saint to the young free-jazz musos, just like Parker had been for those of Trane's generation. Unlike the other musicians in the genre, Trane made a good living, thanks to his original Davis Quintet notoriety; A Love Supreme was a big hit (as jazz albums go), and he used his drawing power to help avant-gardists like Archie Shepp and Marion Brown get much-needed exposure.

And After A Love Supreme, some of those young avant-garde players joined the Quartet/Quintet - Pharoah Sanders and Rashied Ali joined on a permanent basis, others would sit in on live gigs, and Trane's wife Alice became the pianist. The music they made in those last years often made Trane's earlier "anti-jazz" sound tame in comparison - Ali abstracted "swing" into a rumor, while Sanders' harsh vocal effects infected Trane's style; it was either gibberish or glossolalia, depending on who you asked. Recordings like Concert in Japan are an acquired taste - yummy for me, but YMMV.

But this period was cut short by illness, as Trane a-hum-ma-ni-pad-me-hum'd his way out of the picture, dying of liver cancer at the age of 40; like Parker, he wore himself out long before his alloted three-score-and-ten years. And, like Parker, he lives on in the thousands of saxophone players today who copy his sound, even though the vast majority of them are unable to emulate his effect.

Missed by many. It was, at the time of his death, probably a little like God dying, perhaps.

An important addition to the other writeups: Trane (by some accounts) singlehandedly made the soprano saxophone cool with his 1960 album My Favorite Things. The title track is a cover of the Rodgers & Hammerstein song from The Sound of Music, and Coltrane uses the familiar melody as a takeoff point for some amazing improvisations that bridge traditional and free jazz. I found this album to be really helpful in developing my ability to understand abstract jazz.

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