John William Coltrane was born in his parents' apartment at 200 Hamlet Avenue in Hamlet, North Carolina, on September 23, 1926. His father was John R. Coltrane, and his mother was Alice Blair. He grew up in High Point, North Carolina and attended William Penn High School. While in high school, Coltrane played clarinet and alto horn in a community band before switching to the alto saxophone, after being influenced by the likes of Lester Young and Johnny Hodges. Beginning in December 1938, his father, aunt, and grandparents died within a few months of one another, leaving him to be raised by his mother and a close cousin. In June 1943, shortly after graduating from high school, Coltrane and his family moved to Philadelphia. In September that year, his mother bought him his first saxophone, an alto. From 1944 to 1945, Coltrane took saxophone lessons at the Ornstein School of Music with Mike Guerra. From early to mid-1945, he had his first professional work: a "cocktail lounge trio" with piano and guitar.
An important moment in the progression of Coltrane's musical development occurred on June 5, 1945, when he saw Charlie Parker perform for the first time. In a DownBeat magazine article in 1960 he recalled: “the first time I heard Bird play, it hit me right between the eyes.”
To avoid being drafted by the Army, Coltrane enlisted in the Navy on August 6, 1945, the day the first U.S. atomic bomb was dropped on Japan. He was trained as an apprentice seaman at Sampson Naval Training Station in upstate New York before he was shipped to Pearl Harbor, where he was stationed at Manana Barracks, the largest posting of African American servicemen in the world. By the time he got to Hawaii in late 1945, the Navy was downsizing. Coltrane's musical talent was recognized, and he became one of the few Navy men to serve as a musician without having been granted musician's rating when he joined the Melody Masters, the base swing band. As the Melody Masters was an all-white band, however, Coltrane was treated merely as a guest performer to avoid alerting superior officers of his participation in the band. He continued to perform other duties when not playing with the band, including kitchen and security details. By the end of his service, he had assumed a leadership role in the band. His first recordings, an informal session in Hawaii with Navy musicians, occurred on July 13, 1946. He played alto saxophone on a selection of jazz standards and bebop tunes. He was officially discharged from the Navy on August 8, 1946. He was awarded the American Campaign Medal, Asiatic–Pacific Campaign Medal and the World War II Victory Medal.
Discharge from Military and Music Career
After being discharged from the Navy as a seaman first class in August 1946, Coltrane returned to Philadelphia, where he "plunged into the heady excitement of the new music and the blossoming bebop scene." Coltrane used the G.I. Bill to enroll at the Granoff School of Music, where he studied music theory with jazz guitarist and composer Dennis Sandole. Coltrane would continue to be under Sandole's tutelage from 1946 into the early 1950s. After touring with King Kolax, he joined a band led by Jimmy Heath, who was introduced to Coltrane's playing by his former Navy buddy, trumpeter William Massey, who had played with Coltrane in the Melody Masters. Although he started on alto saxophone, he began playing tenor saxophone in 1947 with Eddie Vinson.
Coltrane called this a time when "a wider area of listening opened up for me. There were many things that people like Hawk [Coleman Hawkins], and Ben [Webster] and Tab Smith were doing in the '40s that I didn't understand, but that I felt emotionally." A significant influence, according to tenor saxophonist Odean Pope, was the Philadelphia pianist, composer, and theorist Hasaan Ibn Ali. "Hasaan was the clue to...the system that Trane uses. Hasaan was the great influence on Trane's melodic concept." Coltrane became fanatical about practicing and developing his craft, practicing "25 hours a day" according to Jimmy Heath. Heath recalls an incident in a hotel in San Francisco when after a complaint was issued, Coltrane took the horn out of his mouth and practiced fingering for a full hour. Such was his dedication it was common for him to fall asleep with the horn still in his mouth or practice a single note for hours on end.
Coltrane remains one of the most influential artists in music history and has received numerous posthumous awards, including a special Pulitzer Prize, and was canonized by the African Orthodox Church.