John Coltrane was born in Hamlet, N.C., in September 1926, and lived there until moving with his father and mother to High Point, N.C.
Many of his family members died when he was young, including his father when the young Coltrane was just 12-years old. This left him with only his mother and a cousin to raise him, and he clung to music for stability.
Coltrane started playing clarinet in 1938, but found new love for alto sax in September 1943 after moving to Philadelphia with his mother. His first recordings took place as a sailor while he served in the Navy during the tail-end of World War II.
Coltrane’s music career was slowed by World War II. Hesitant to be drafted into the Army, Coltrane instead enlisted in the Navy in August 1945. He trained at the Sampson Naval Training Station in New York as an apprentice seaman. After basic training, he was stationed at Manana, Oahu, Hawaii, in November 1945. His talents as a musician were noticed and, along with his work in security details, he served in the Navy Band: The Melody Masters. However, in the height of segregation, Coltrane was not allowed to be a part of the all-white band. To avoid supervisor scrutiny, he played alto saxophone and clarinet as a “guest performer.” Throughout his time serving in Hawaii, Coltrane was promoted to seaman first class until military downsizing led him to be honorably discharged early in August 1946.
After returning home to Philadelphia, Coltrane thrived in the growing music industry, using resources from the GI Bill to further his music education and connections with Navy friends to tour in bands across Philadelphia. His fame and skills grew, leading him to tour with individuals such as Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk. Their music, with both rivalries and partnerships mixed throughout their careers, became instrumental in the formation of the jazz industry in the 1950s and 1960s. Faith and spirituality heavily influenced Coltrane’s music and life, as it helped him recover from alcoholism and heroin use, which he had been experimenting with since 1948.
Coltrane went on to receive many awards after his death, including a Grammy Award for Best Improvised Jazz Solo in 1981, a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, and eight other Grammy Hall of Fame Awards between 1998 and 2012. He also received a Pulitzer Prize Special Citation in 2007 for his musicianship and its influence on jazz history.
Coltrane died in July 1967 at the age of 40 from liver cancer, a shock to not only his family but many in the musical community.
We honor his service.