“[John] Coltrane — and especially the Coltrane of Giant Steps — continues to inspire countless budding saxophonists and players of other instruments as well. His sound, once so harshly criticized and even branded ugly, has become part and parcel of the sound of jazz, and his extensions of the possibilities of his instruments have been absorbed into the working vocabulary of the music, though some of the things he could do with a horn remain out of reach.”— Dan Morgenstern, Living with Jazz: A Reader (2004)
Saxophonist John Coltrane died at age 40 of liver cancer in Huntington, NY, on this day in 1967. If jazz might be said to have a Summa Theologica, it might be Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, his classic 1965 album on the glory of God. This gentle, introspective spirit had great reason to be thankful for God, as—having lost high-profile jobs with Duke Ellington and Miles Davis in the 1950s because of his heroin addiction—he had finally managed to pull himself together and get clean.
His spiritual journey was matched by his ceaseless musical experimentation as a sideman and, after 1960, a bandleader and composer in his own right. His layered “sheets of sound” technique has been described in many ways over the years, but perhaps never so memorably as by Coltrane himself: “I start in the middle of a sentence and move both directions at once.”
In 1995, Coltrane was honored by the United States Postal Service with a commemorative postage stamp. In 2007, the Pulitzer Prize Board awarded him a posthumous Special Citation for his “masterful improvisation, supreme musicianship and iconic centrality to the history of jazz.”