There is so much written about jazz legend John Coltrane by music critics, jazz historians, and journalists: Coltrane’s life, his musical genius, how his life intersected with his music, how his life became his music, books, articles, liner notes, documentaries. While the High Point Museum currently hosts the traveling exhibit “A Love Supreme: The Jazz of John Coltrane through the Eyes of Chuck Stewart” curated by the Grammy Museum®, it seems a good time to present an abbreviated look at his life, especially Coltrane’s life in High Point as a boy. Linda Willard, an advocate for the preservation of his childhood home on Underhill Street, presents a two-part blog about the High Pointer celebrated with a local jazz festival every September.
John Coltrane’s early years
John William Coltrane, the son of John R. and Alice Blair Coltrane was born on September 23, 1926, in Hamlet, North Carolina. He was an infant when the family moved to High Point to live with Alice’s parents, Rev. William Wilson Blair, and his wife Alice, at 213 Price Street. Rev. Blair was the minister of St. Stephens AME Zion Church and a presiding elder of the AME Zion Church. Both of Coltrane’s grandfathers were ordained ministers in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Coltrane’s father was a tailor on East Washington Street, the African American business district in High Point. In 1928, Rev. Blair built the house at 118 Underhill Street and, by 1935, his aunt Bettie Lyerly and her family also lived there. Coltrane’s cousin, Mary, was one year younger.
Rev. Blair’s home at 118 Underhill Street in High Point. Coltrane’s parents moved to High Point shortly after he was born, and he grew up in this house. A historical marker placed by the City of High Point gives more information about the home and its occupants.
Coltrane attended Leonard Street Elementary School and graduated from William Penn High School (present-day William Penn-Alfred J. Griffin School for the Arts) in 1943. He was voted “Best Dressed Boy” as a junior, and “Most Musical Boy” as a senior. Said to have been a good student in elementary school, by the time he entered high school, his grades had begun to decline.
His family’s situation changed radically in 1938 when his father and grandfather died, followed by the death of his grandmother in 1939 and by the death of his uncle, Goler Lyerly, in 1940. To support their families, Coltrane’s mother and aunt found work at Emerywood Country Club (present-day High Point Country Club).
Coltrane may have inherited his musical ability from his parents: his father played the violin and ukulele, and his mother was a church pianist. However, his musical talent was first recognized when he joined Warren B. Steele’s community band, formed around the same time that John’s father died. Coltrane started out playing alto saxophone and later took up the clarinet. The success of the community band inspired Samuel Burford, the principal of William Penn High School, to start a school band in 1940. Coltrane joined as a founding member under the direction of Grayce W. Yokely. He was also a member of the Boys Chorus at William Penn High School. Coltrane began practicing the saxophone with Charlie Haygood, a Washington Street restaurant owner. Before graduation, his mother bought him his first saxophone.
Around 1941, Coltrane’s mother and aunt Bettie moved to Philadelphia in search of better employment. Coltrane stayed in High Point in the Underhill Street home to finish his high school education. After graduating from William Penn High School in 1943, he also moved to Philadelphia where he found employment in a sugar refinery and began studying the saxophone at the Ornstein School of Music and Granoff Studios. His cousin, Mary Lyerly, his childhood confidant, moved to Philadelphia in 1944.
On August 6, 1945, Coltrane volunteered for service in the United States Navy rather than risk being drafted into the Army. He was stationed in Hawaii during his tour of duty and joined the Melody Masters. As with all the U.S. armed forces at this time, the Navy was segregated, and the Melody Masters was a segregated Naval band. Coltrane played with the all-white jazz band, where he was acknowledged as a “guest performer,” but the Melody Masters played for white audiences, too. Coltrane performed with the band until his official discharge on July 13, 1946.
John Coltrane’s Navy Enlisted Personnel Qualification Card from his Official Military Personnel File, 1945. (National Archives Identifier 57283291). Note that his hobbies included model airplanes and painting, that he had learned how to weld in high school, and that he had been a professional musician for a year. He also states that in 1942, he was a “soda jerker” part-time after school.
Learn more on John Coltrane’s service in the U.S. Navy through these links:
Linda Willard is an active member of the High Point Historical Society, the High Point Preservation Society, and Friends of John Coltrane among other local history and cultural organizations. Her love of history has led her to research Quakers and High Point’s African American community, including the High Point Normal and Industrial Institute/William Penn High School and Oakwood Cemetery’s “Colored Section.” Linda won a publication award in 2020 from the North Carolina Society of Historians.