John Coltrane (1926-67) was the most relentlessly exploratory musician in jazz history. He was always searching, seeking to take his music further in what he quite consciously viewed as a spiritual quest. In terms of public recognition, this quest began relatively late. The tenor saxophonist, a native of North Carolina who later moved to Philadelphia, was 28 when he joined the Miles Davis quintet in 1955, after years of paying dues in the big band and combo of Dizzy Gillespie (where he played alto before switching to tenor) and as a supporting player behind saxophonists Johnny Hodges, Eddie "Cleanhead” Vinson, and Earl Bostic.
Coltrane’s anguished tone and multi-noted, rhythmically complex solos with Davis quickly elevated him to the front ranks of jazz, although some commentators were disturbed by the complexities of his style and his insistence on pushing beyond his rapidly diminishing limitations. These traits, as well as these complaints, marked the remainder of Coltrane’s career. His position was quickly solidified, however, when Coltrane began recording extensively under his own name (often with pianist Red Garland’s trio) and as a sideman in 1957, spent a brief yet invaluable stay with Thelonious Monk that same year, then returned to Davis as a featured soloist for the rest of the decade. The incredible technical and harmonic content of his playing at the time led to a style, described as "sheets of sound,” that, by 1960, seemed the last word in chord-based improvising.
During his second stay with Davis, however, Coltrane became immersed in modes and scales, which he began to use in place of standard chord progressions in his music around the time he organized his first quartet in 1960. This group, which featured pianist McCoy Tyner, drummer Elvin Jones, and, ultimately, bassist Jimmy Garrison, became one of the seminal jazz bands, playing with incredible energy and stamina and providing a forum for Coltrane’s growth as a composer. It was also the setting for Coltrane’s adoption of the soprano saxophone, a move that single-handedly repopularized an instrument that (Steve Lacy excepted) had been unheard in modern jazz. The Coltrane quartet, often expanded to include a bassist and (for much of 1961) Eric Dolphy, proved extremely popular without abandoning its exploratory edge, and by 1965 was the premier group in jazz.
Coltrane still heard something more, however, and by the summer of ‘65 he had opened up his rhythmic and textural vocabulary further by incorporating the energy (and often the presence) of younger avant-garde players into his music. Pharoah Sanders joined the band as a permanent second saxophonist; Rashied Ali and Coltrane’s wife Alice replaced Jones and Tyner, respectively; and his music entered yet another phase that generated debate regarding whether Coltrane had not once again gone too far. This final phase, while indeed filled with cataclysmic sounds, also contained music of a new and promising lyricism. When liver disease took Coltrane’s life in July 1967, his legion of disciples was left to ponder what further vistas he had glimpsed in his quest for musical purity.