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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. Linda Willard, an advocate for the preservation of his childhood home on Underhill Street, presents the second blog about the High Pointer celebrated with a local jazz festival every September.
John Coltrane as a professional musician
After his discharge from the Navy, Coltrane performed as a freelance musician in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in the late 1940s and early 1950s. He played alto and tenor saxophone with many bands including notable jazz and blues performers Joe Webb, King Kolax, Eddie Vinson, Jimmy Heath, Johnny Hodges, and Dizzy Gillespie. In 1955, Coltrane received a phone call from rising star Miles Davis with an invitation to join the “First Great Quintet.”
Also in 1955, Coltrane married Juanite (Naima) Grubbs, a Muslim convert and a deeply spiritual person. At the time of her marriage to Coltrane, she had a five-year-old daughter from a previous relationship. Coltrane adopted the daughter. In 1956, the Coltrane family left Philadelphia and moved to New York City.
While moving from band to band in the jazz culture of the late 1940s and early 1950s, Coltrane became addicted to heroin, cigarettes, and alcohol. Due to his unreliability, Davis fired him from his band in 1956 and again in 1957.
After being fired from Davis’ band, Coltrane had a religious experience in 1957 that may have helped him overcome his addictions. Coltrane stated, “I experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening which was to lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life.”
During the later part of 1957, Coltrane worked with Thelonious Monk at the Five Spot Café in New York City. Davis re-hired Coltrane in 1958 after he had overcome, at least temporarily, his addictions. He appeared on Davis’ acclaimed Kind of Blue album recorded in 1959. Coltrane remained with Davis until 1960, but by then had signed as a solo artist with Prestige Records. He recorded albums for Prestige, for Impulse, and for Atlantic Records and was on his way to becoming both a critical and commercial success.
Coltrane was known to be obsessive with his saxophone practice. While other band members were relaxing, Coltrane was off by himself practicing. He suffered from bad teeth which made playing and practicing his music painful. He overcame this by gluing a pad to the mouthpiece of the saxophone.
He met pianist Alice McLeod in 1963. McLeod and Coltrane moved in together and had two sons before his divorce from his first wife, Naima, was official. He married Alice in 1965, and she often performed with her husband.
In 1964, Coltrane wrote what is considered his greatest work, A Love Supreme. A Love Supreme is a poem to God. He called it a way of saying “THANK YOU, GOD” through his work, an offering in gratitude for his spiritual re-awakening in 1957.
Death at 40
Coltrane reached the zenith of recognition and fame during the last painful year of his life. For several weeks before his death, he had suffered from severe stomach pains but refused to see a doctor and continued to perform and record. John Coltrane died from liver cancer on July 17, 1967. His funeral service was held at St. Peter's Lutheran Church in New York City. The Albert Ayler Quartet opened the funeral service, and the Ormette Quartet closed it. He is buried at Pinelawn Cemetery in Farmington, New York. In 2007, 60 years after his death, Coltrane was awarded a special posthumous Pulitzer Prize Citation.
During his short lifetime, Coltrane performed with the best musicians of his day, yet with his mastery of instrumental music, poetry, and his ultimate mastery of the saxophone, Coltrane surpassed them all.
Gone from High Point, but not forgotten
In 2004, a group of citizens in High Point began working to raise funds for a statue of Coltrane, to recognize the legend in his hometown. On September 20, 2006—on what would have been Coltrane’s 80th birthday—the Downtown Improvement Committee dedicated the statue by artist Thomas Jay Warren. A kiosk with information about the man and his music as well as a historical marker are nearby.
Coltrane statue in downtown High Point, North Carolina, at the corner of East Commerce and South Hamilton Streets.
Coltrane’s childhood home has been recognized with a historical marker, dedicated on August 30, 2019. Remarkably, the house has survived intact from the way it appeared when Coltrane lived there. Visitors were invited to come inside the home and view a display of photos and artifacts dealing with the house and Coltrane. It is owned by the City of High Point.
Saint John Coltrane
During a 1966 tour of Japan, Coltrane was asked how he wanted to be remembered. He responded, “I would like to be a saint.”
After his death, a congregation called the Yardbird Temple in San Francisco, California began worshipping Coltrane as the God Incarnate. The congregation later became affiliated with the African Orthodox Church in San Francisco. This group changed Coltrane’s status from a god to a saint. This is the only African Orthodox church that incorporates Coltrane’s music and lyrics as prayers in its liturgy.
For more information about John Coltrane’s life, music, and legacy:
Information on Coltrane compiled at the time of his special Pulitzer Prize citation in 2007
Debuted in 2007, the “Traneumentary” was a pioneering documentary podcast series devoted to the artistry and recordings of John Coltrane. The series was produced by Joseph Vella and ran in weekly installments throughout the year. An illustrious collection of guests including Jimmy Cobb, McCoy Tyner, Sonny Rollins, and many more share their personal accounts of John Coltrane and his music.
For supporters of PBS NC, stream “Jazz” a film by Ken Burns to learn more about the history of jazz music: https://www.pbs.org/kenburns/jazz/
More on Thelonious Monk, born in Rocky Mount, NC: https://www.theloniousmonkmusic.com/bio
Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane at the Five Spot, 1957: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Go0Ft6ZDYpk
More on Alice Coltrane’s life and music: https://www.npr.org/artists/15394451/alice-coltrane
More on the St. John Coltrane Church: https://www.npr.org/2020/09/23/915846867/five-decades-on-an-eclectic-church-preaches-the-message-of-john-coltrane
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.