If he hadn’t knackered his liver through drink and drug abuse in his younger days, it’s quite possible that John Coltrane would be celebrating his 85th birthday today. Indeed, he could still be playing: Ornette Coleman and Sonny Rollins are only a few years younger and remain active. As it is, we’ll just have to content ourselves by saying that John Coltrane was born 85 years ago today on 23 September 1926 and died, aged only 40, in July 1967. It could have been worse, though: if he had only lived as long as Charlie Parker we’d have missed out on much of his best work.

John Coltrane plaque, Philadelphia

John Coltrane plaque, Musicians' Walk of Fame, Philadelphia

To me, one of the things which makes Coltrane so fascinating, but also sometimes exasperating, to listen to is that his music always seemed in a constant state of flux. There’s always a sense of trying out different ideas, striving for something new, which is undeniably exhilarating but means that almost everything he did seems to have some sort of rough edges or ideas which don’t quite come off or are extended beyond their natural length. This in some ways is why is early death was such a tragedy: there’s the sense that he’d have gone on to do still more new things if he’d lived longer. Would he have continued in the free style he’d moved into by the end of his life, or explored some sort of electric jazz, or produced music which consolidated all the things he’d done up to that point?

It strikes me that Coltrane must have had an addictive side to his personality. In his 20s, he was an alcohol addict, then a heroin addict, before having some sort of mystical experience and becoming a god addict. It’s at that point, after he cleaned up, that he produced his great work. But the spirituality wasn’t what made him so great: one of the key things about him is that he was always a saxophone addict. Rashied Ali, who worked with him in his last bands, has said that

He always had an instrument in his hand. He was always playing something. He was always trying to be better than he was and it seemed like, you know, how could he get better? How could he do anything better than that, than what he’s done already? And after playing all these years with all these different people, King Kolax and Eddie Vinson and all these rock and rollers and rhythm and blues artists and jazz artists, the man still had a vision that he could be better than he was and he was still practicing. You know, after awhile you stop practicing. This man was in his 40s, right? And he had played with everybody and he was still playing everyday.

(Full interview at http://www.artsjournal.com/jazzbeyondjazz/2009/08/rashied_ali_1935_-_2009_multi.html)

Trane’s best known record is, of course, A Love Supreme, one of the two jazz records which even non-jazz lovers have in their collection. That’s not to knock it: it was probably the album which, more than any other one, got me seriously interested in jazz. If you’ve listened to a lot of Coltrane, you’ll no doubt have your own favourites. Here are some of mine. Anything I’ve missed? And does anyone have any suggestions about a good place to start on the late stuff, with Pharoah Sanders and/or Alice Coltrane?

  • Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane Live at Carnegie Hall
  • Live at Birdland
  • Afro-Blue Impressions (live recordings from a 1963 European tour, released on Norman Granz’s Pablo label)
  • Sun Ship

Some musicians are great because they come up with innovations which change the way other musicians play. Some are great because they’re simply better than most if not all of their contemporaries. Coltrane was great on both accounts. Now, go and listen to some his music.