John Coltrane – an artist supreme

John Coltrane quote

We’re continuing to celebrate Black History month by featuring important African American musicians. John Coltrane is an icon of modern jazz, a true revolutionary of the genre, whose influence is felt in music to this day. Coltrane helped to pioneer the use of modes and was one of the early recordings of free jazz.


Born and raised in North Carolina, Coltrane was exposed to music from an early age. His father (who was a part-time musician), played a few stringed instruments and his mother played the piano. In High School, Coltrane played clarinet and alto horn in a community band before switching to the saxophone.  

After completing High School, Coltrane moved to Philadelphia, which at the time became an important center for jazz artists. There he worked odd jobs and took saxophone lessons. In Philadelphia John Coltrane was exposed to many musical styles, particularly the music of Charlie “Bird” Parker. In an interview, Coltrane recalled: “The first time I heard Bird play, it hit me right between the eyes.” Later Coltrane got a chance to play with Charlie Parker on a few occasions. 

John Coltrane joined the Navy 1945-1946, where he played in the base swing band. After being discharged from the service, Coltrane moved back to Philadelphia where he took music lessons, and continued to study various jazz styles. He was an incredibly dedicated musician – Coltrane became fanatical about practicing and developing his craft; it was common for him to fall asleep with the horn still in his mouth or practice a single note for hours on end.

In the 1950s, Coltrane joined the Miles Davis Quintet. Coltrane and Davis worked on a style called “modal jazz,” which influenced Coltrane’s music for the rest of his career. “Modal playing” refers to improvisation based on modes rather than chords, and gives musicians more freedom and are able to play a greater variety of notes. In the 195os, Coltrane also worked with the legendary pianist Thelonius Monk. Coltrane experimented with Monk’s more challenging and unconventional compositions.

John Coltrane


John Coltrane’s seminal work developed when he formed his own Quartet in 1960, and focused on modal jazz. In addition to Coltrane on tenor and soprano saxophone, the Quartet featured McCoy Tyner on piano, Elvin Jones on drums, and Steve Davis on bass (other bassists included Art Davis and Reggie Workman, and finally Jimmy Garrison). The Quartet famously recorded the modal-playing classic My Favorite Things (1960), the spiritual suite A Love Supreme (1964), Meditations (1965), and a variety of exceptional small group sessions and the “new music summit” Ascension (1965). John Coltrane Quartet’s modal explorations influenced everyone from saxophonists Wayne Shorter, Joe Henderson, and Jackie McLean to trumpeter Freddie Hubbard and organist Larry Young. The Quartet disbanded by January 1966.

The last group John Coltrane lead included Coltrane’s wife Alice on piano, Rashied Ali on drums and bassist Jimmy Garrison.

Read full biography of John Coltrane HERE


In 1960, when John Coltrane assembled his own Quartet, he started taking modern jazz to new heights. This group recorded some of Coltrane’s most important works of his earlier period, including a classic modal jazz version of “My Favorite Things”. Composed by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein for the musical “The Sound Of Music,” the song is part of the Great American Songbook. Coltrane was shown the sheet music of the tune in a jazz club, and the music piqued his interest. Unlike the original joyful waltz, Coltrane’s version is a moody and hypnotic 14-minute jam. “My Favorite Things” went on to become one of the most recognizable and influential songs in Jazz history.   

Here’s John Coltrane’s Quartet performing My Favorite Things Live in Comblain-La-Tour in 1965 (John Coltrane – Soprano Saxophone, Mccoy Tyner – Piano, Jimmy Garrison –  Bass, Elvin Jones – Drums) 

Learn more about the legendary recording of John Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things” HERE


Coltrane’s tone on the tenor sax was huge and dark, with clear definition and full body, even in the highest and lowest registers. His vigorous, intense style was original, but traces of his idols Johnny Hodges and Lester Young can be discerned in his legato phrasing and portamento (or, in jazz vernacular, “smearing,” in which the instrument glides from note to note with no discernible breaks). From Thelonious Monk he learned the technique of multiphonics, by which a reed player can produce multiple tones simultaneously by using a relaxed embouchure (i.e., position of the lips, tongue, and teeth), varied pressure, and special fingerings. He employed the technique more frequently, in passionate, screeching musical passages.

“My music is the spiritual expression of what I am – my faith, my knowledge, my being.”
– John Coltrane


John Coltrane passed away in 1967 at the age of 40 but his legacy is felt to this day. Coltrane’s compositions and recordings are now permanent parts of the canon of great American music, recognized by the Library of Congress, with many inducted into The Grammy Hall of Fame. The artist’s music is required study for young students learning about the jazz tradition. In 1997, John Coltrane was bestowed the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. The National Endowment for the Arts chose “My Favorite Things” for its list of 360 Songs Of The Century. In 2007, Coltrane was awarded a Pulitzer Prize, as a Special Citation for a lifetime of innovative and influential work.

Among many fans of John Coltrane is Former US President Barack Obama. He hanged a famous photo of Coltrane (taken by the photographer Jim Marshall) in the White House. A beautiful way for one Black revolutionary to honor another. 

“I think the main thing a musician would like to do is give a picture to the listener of the many wonderful things he knows of and senses in the universe.”
– John Coltrane


Arkadia Records put together a very special Album, commemorating John Coltrane. This album, the “Arkadia Jazz All-Stars: Thank You, John! – Our Tribute to John Coltrane”, nominated for a Grammy Award for “My Favorite Things”, is a testament and tribute, from the elite Arkadia roster, to the awesome accomplishments and musicality of John Coltrane. From Bebop to Hip-Hop to Bossa Nova, all of the artists on this album have benefited from Saxophonist John Coltrane’s music, teaching, and influence. The Album features performances by Benny Golson, David Liebman, Billy Taylor, and other Jazz greats. 
“5 STARS! …”Thank You, John!” is a look at the sax genius’ music with stars from the (Arkadia) label. The variety of performers produces a range of approaches… …an album that will leave you humming – and respecting Coltrane.” – Bob Karlovits, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
Learn more about “Thank You, John! – Our Tribute to John Coltrane” on the Album’s page
Happy listening!


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