John Coltrane challenged racial discrimination in his post-bop hits

This biographical article is part of JAZZ.FM91’s supplementary research component to expand on The Journey to Jazz and Human Rights documentary podcast series. Click here to find out more.

John William Coltrane was born on Sept. 23, 1926, in Hamlet, N.C. In his early childhood, Coltrane was introduced to gospel music through his father and grandfather, who were both ministers at the local African Methodist Church. In his father’s past-time, he played many instruments, and as a result, Coltrane gained a passion and aptitude for music. At age 11, Coltrane learned to play the clarinet and the E-flat horn, and eventually switched to the alto saxophone in high school. After graduating high school in 1943, Coltrane and childhood friend Frank Bower left for Philadelphia. Here, Coltrane studied music for two years at the Granoff School of Music, and became top of his class.

After a short stint in the Navy in 1945, Coltrane returned to America eager to learn more about the new kind of jazz that had emerged during the war. The “bebop” revolution was on the rise, and Coltrane was inspired by the new freedom to improvise and show more emotion in jazz numbers. The innovators of this new jazz (including Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker and Miles Davis) highly influenced Coltrane’s playing when he returned to Philadelphia in 1946. By 1947, Coltrane had his first experience playing tenor saxophone, which led to his eventual work with Dizzy Gillespie’s big band in 1949.

After much success with Gillespie’s band, Coltrane began experimenting with alcohol and narcotics (namely heroin) in the early 1950s. Despite his battles with addiction, Coltrane went on to make his mark on jazz when he began playing with Miles Davis in 1955. Davis and Coltrane are known to have championed the “post-bop-cool approach” to jazz, and produced several hit albums (including ‘Round About Midnight) with their Quintet band. In the latter half of the decade, Coltrane established a “distinctive sound” defined by an ability to “play several notes at once amid wondrous cascades of scales,” which was later dubbed the “sheets of sound” technique.

By the 1960s, Coltrane had enjoyed much success with his musical counterparts (Davis and Monk) and began experimenting with the soprano-saxophone (which had been neglected by jazz artists for many decades). This opened up many creative avenues for Coltrane, and he eventually established the Coltrane Quartet. Throughout the 1960s, Coltrane and his band were highly successful, and recorded a series of songs which challenged the political situation for black Americans throughout the civil rights era. Tragically, in 1967, Coltrane succumbed to cancer of the liver, and passed away in July of that year. His musical talent and innovation is still highly revered today.

Alabama (1963)

The hit song Alabama was recorded on Coltrane’s album Live at Birdland in 1963 in response to the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham in September of that year. On Sept. 15, four members of the Ku Klux Klan planted dynamite beneath the front steps of the church. The explosion killed four young girls, and severely injured many others. In response, Coltrane and his Quartet (comprised of McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass, and Elvin Jones on drums) recorded a song inspired by Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech about the bombing. Like his speech, Coltrane’s song “shifts its tone from one of mourning to one of renewed determination for the struggle against racially motivated crimes.”

Equinox (1964)

In June, 1964, Coltrane released Equinox on his album Coltrane’s Sound. The name of the song came from his wife, who recognized Coltrane’s birthday fell on the official autumn equinox in 1926. While the song is not political in nature, Coltrane’s attitude in the composition has been described by individuals such as Dr. Lewis Porter as “a serious blues player, and his blues pieces reflect[ed] the desire to get back to a primal mood, and away from the emotionally lighter, harmonically more complicated and complex blues of the boppers.”


Biography. "John Coltrane: Biography." 12 April, 2014.