John Coltrane: His Life and Music
by Lewis Porter (University of Michigan Press)
Few jazz fans would hesitate to place saxophonist John Coltrane (1926-1967) among the five most influential forces in the history of improvised music. In fact, calling Coltrane a “saxophonist” is merely a time saving measure. Coltrane was among the important voices in some of the crucial stylistic tendencies of the 1950’s and 60’s, from late Bebop to Avant Garde. His technical prowess on the tenor (and soprano) saxophone has few rivals, even today. A prolific composer, many of his original compositions are required material for both the aspiring jazz student and the seasoned professional musician. One can only speculate as to what he may have created if his career had not ended suddenly at forty-one years of age when one thinks of all of the musical places that Miles Davis, Coltrane’s former employer, was able to visit prior to his own death in 1991.
Lewis Porter, Rutgers University Jazz History Professor, has set out to write the definitive John Coltrane biography and, fortunately for his readership, he has achieved it. Not limiting himself to the purely biographical, Porter offers an overwhelming amount of material, all thoroughly researched, that will be of great interest to Coltrane fans and music scholars alike. Beginning with a genealogical study including birth and census records of Coltrane’s ancestors in his native North Carolina and culminating with an exhaustive chronology which serves as a kind of “gig journal” of all of the saxophonist’s professional activities from as far back as 1944, Porter relies heavily on both published and unpublished interviews with friends, colleagues and relatives of Coltrane. Porter, whose text is duly footnoted, doesn’t hesitate to correct errors found in previous Coltrane biographies and never fails to support his claims.
Porter sheds light on Coltrane’s formative years, especially on his collaborations with Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk. Commentary from Coltrane’s peers is interspersed throughout, the most fascinating being that of fellow saxophonists Jimmy Heath, Benny Golson and Wayne Shorter. Porter gives more than a short glimpse of Coltrane’s musical influences, even his practice habits, with an eye toward understanding how the saxophonist’s style came to be. His theories on the origins of well-known Coltrane compositions such as “Impressions,” “Giant Steps” or “Lazy Bird” are equally thought provoking.
His analyses of the Coltrane milestone A Love Supreme is nothing short of fascinating but is far too technical to be of interest to the average reader. It’s precisely at this point where Porter’s book loses some of its focus. His chapter on "Coltrane: The Man" is largely redundant, containing reminiscences of the saxophonist’s persona that would be more effective in the context of the previous chapters. This is followed by a chapter devoted to the last two years of Coltrane’s life, which contains a complete transcription of Coltrane’s “Venus” from Interstellar Space (along with Porter’s painstaking analysis of the “improvised” duo with drummer Rashied Ali). An odd juxtaposition of material that may surprise some readers who might have believed the previous chapter was a sort of requiem for Coltrane.
The book contains many musical examples, some in Coltrane’s own hand. Porter has gone so far as to transcribe solos from the very earliest recordings of the then twenty-year-old Coltrane playing standards (on alto saxophone) with his U.S. Navy bandmates. A more extensive and comprehensive photo section would add depth to this otherwise very complete portrait of one the most influential figures in Western music. All in all, a very interesting book for the jazz enthusiast and a must-read for the jazz scholar.
In addition to being the Editor's brother, Chris Kase is a renowned trumpeter and music scholar. He can also be murder on the cribbage board. Visit his website at