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John Coltrane: An Experimental Musician

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John Coltrane: An Experimental Musician

Jazz, which evolved from African American folk music, has developed and changed over the last century to become an art form in America. It places particular importance on inventive self interpretation. Rather than relying on a written piece, the artist improvises. Jazz has taken many forms over the past seventy years; there is almost always a single person who can be credited with the evolution of that sound. From Thelonius Monk, and his bebop, to Dizzy Gillespie’s big band, to Miles Davis’ cool jazz, or to John Coltrane’s free jazz; America’s music has been developed and refined countless times through individual experimentation and innovation. In my opinion the most noteworthy artist in the development of modern jazz is John Coltrane. In this paper, I will focus on the way in which Coltrane’s musical originality was related to the sounds of his predecessors and to the tribulations and tragedies of his life.

John William Coltrane was born in Hamlet, North Carolina, on September 23, 1926. Two months later, his family moved to High Point, North Carolina. He grew up in a typical black family in the South. The Coltranes were very religious and steeped in tradition. Playing was in his blood. Both of his parents were musicians, his mother was a member of the church choir and his father played the violin. For several years, young Coltrane played the clarinet, however it wasn‘t his passion. It was only after he heard the great alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges playing with the Duke Ellington band on the radio, that he became enthusiastic about music. He dropped the clarinet to take up the alto

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saxophone, before long he had mastered it.

At the young age of thirteen, he experienced several tragedies that would affect his life forever and would greatly impact his music later in life. Within a year, his father, his uncle, and his minister all died. He lost every important male influence in his life. After graduating from high school in High Point, he moved to Philadelphia in 1943, where he lived in a small one-room apartment and worked as a laborer in a sugar-refinery. Here he attended Ornstein School of Music, but only for a year. In 1945, he was drafted into the Navy and sent to Hawaii where he was assigned to play clarinet in a band called the Melody Makers. Upon his return from Hawaii a year later, Coltrane launched his music career. In the late nineteen forties, Coltrane began playing with several different R&B groups in small bars and clubs around Philadelphia. Many of the clubs had a tradition of “walking the bar” (to walk on top of the bar while playing one’s instrument). Coltrane was embarrassed having to go through this custom every night. This give him a negative image about himself and is abilities His self-esteem was crushed even further when critics said his music was too bizarre. Soon Coltrane became very depressed, and searching for a way out, he turned to heroin. Heroin was a very popular drug among black musicians in the forties. It was a form of escape that, at first, brought them together, but in the end triggered lives and careers to collapse.

Coltrane was invited to play in Dizzy Gillespie’s his big band in ‘49. Gillespie had been a very significant figure in the bebop movement. Bebop was a style of jazz, popular during the late thirties and forties. It was characterized by integrating faster tempos, and more complex phrases than the jazz of earlier years. Gillespie’s band offered

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some sense of stability for Coltrane for the first time in a long time. However, after a two-year stint with Gillespie, Coltrane kicked out due to his heroin addiction. Again, Coltrane was reduced to “walking the bar” at in sleazy clubs. He experienced another episode of depression, which caused his addiction to grow.

Again a jazz icon came to the rescue. This time it was Miles Davis. In the mid-fifties, he was invited to play with Miles Davis and his quintet. The collaboration that developed would change his life. Davis was a star on the rise in the next jazz movement, cool jazz. Cool jazz was a striking contrast to the more traditional jazz popular during the forties. It was characterized by experimentation with musical tones, keys, and modes, improvising on scales rather than on sequences of chords, producing music that at times was very bizarre, but none the less popular. This new movement was the beginning of an experimental stage of jazz that was very popular during the sixties. The time spent with Davis was a valuable learning experience for Coltrane. During this time he developed a style distinctly his own. His style captured the scales of the saxophone at a speed that no one had

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