Tuesday, 25 February 2020 16:08

John Coltrane: Hamlet's contribution to jazz

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Jazz legend John Coltrane was born in Hamlet in 1926. Jazz legend John Coltrane was born in Hamlet in 1926. Dutch National Archives

One of the most influential musicians in jazz history was (technically) from Hamlet.  Saxophonist and composer John William Coltrane was born in his parents’ apartment at 200 Hamlet Ave. on Sept. 23, 1926 and, though he moved with his family to High Point less than two years later, his birthplace is acknowledged by the North Carolina Historical Commission with a roadside commemorative plaque on Spring Street.

Photo by John Martin - Richmond Observer

The son of John Robert and Alice Blair Coltrane, John’s childhood years were difficult. Not only did he endure the typical trials and tribulations experienced by many young African-Americans during the early 20th century, but at the age of 12 he lost several members of his immediate family within a few months. Beginning in December 1938, his father, aunt, and grandparents all died within a few months of each other, leaving him to be raised by his mother and a close cousin. It was during this period that he began to turn to music for solace.  

Moving to Philadelphia with his mother in June of 1943, Coltrane was given his first saxophone, an alto, by her. He soon learned to play clarinet and drums as well, joining  a “cocktail lounge trio” community band in 1945. He continued to practice diligently with the saxophone before joining the Navy in July of 1945.

It was his stint in the Navy that fostered Coltrane’s “discovery” and subsequent progression into becoming a musical icon. Enlisting in July of 1945, he was stationed at Pearl Harbor as the war was ending; it was there that he was provided with the first major opportunity to be officially recognized for his musical talents. A member of the base band (the Melody Masters) was alerted to Coltrane’s skills with the saxophone and this led to an invitation for him to “join” the group. However, since the band was officially all-white, Coltrane was relegated to the status of “guest performer” in order to minimize racially based tension and conflict. It was with this group that Coltrane’s first recordings were made in July of 1946.

Returning to Philadelphia after his discharge, Coltrane became known for his dedication and relentless pursuit of musical perfection. On his way to being acknowledged as one of the all-time greats, he worked directly with the biggest recognized jazz musicians of his time. Coltrane led more than 50 recording sessions and appeared with contemporaries — including Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Pharoah Sanders, Duke Ellington and Cheraw, South Carolina's Dizzie Gillespie — who openly admired and publicly lauded his talents in various aspects and facets of the jazz industry (e.g., bebop, hard bop, free jazz, modal jazz, avant-garde jazz, etc.).

Unfortunately, drug use probably contributed to his untimely death. Coltrane began to experiment with heroin, and later LSD, eventually developing liver disease and dying on July 17, 1967 at Huntington Hospital in Long Island, New York. He is buried in Farmingdale, New York, at Pinelawn Cemetery. 

Coltrane was honored posthumously with canonization by the African Orthodox Church and receipt of a 2007 Pulitzer Prize in music.