Despite a relatively brief career, saxophonist John Coltrane was among the most important, and most controversial, figures in jazz. Coltrane changed his style radically over the course of his career, causing a critical divide between the adherents of his earlier, more conventional (if still highly imaginative) work and his later, more experimental work. No one, however, questions Coltrane's almost religious commitment to jazz or doubts his significance in the history of the music.
After being discharged from the Navy and returning to Philadelphia, he began playing in the Joe Webb Band in fall 1946. From 1947 to 1951, he played with a series of ensembles, including bands led by Jimmy Heath and Dizzy Gillespie.
During this period, Coltrane became a heroin addict, which got him fired from groups even while he was earning attention for his strong playing. His addiction cost him jobs with Johnny Hodges and, more importantly, Miles Davis. Despite the vital role he played in Davis' influential quintet, he was fired twice, in 1956 and 1957. After that, he finally kicked his drug habit and made his debut for Prestige, entitled Coltrane, the same year.
Coltrane continued recording as a leader while briefly joining the Thelonious Monk Quartet and rejoining Miles Davis' group. After signing with Atlantic, he began recording sessions for them in January 1959. In March and April, he played with Davis on the landmark album Kind of Blue. This album, known for its modal playing, became one of the best-selling and most-acclaimed recordings in the history of jazz. Coltrane's Atlantic debut, Giant Steps, was released in early 1960. The album, consisting entirely of Coltrane compositions, was his breakthrough as a leading jazz performer. He left Davis' band soon afterwards to lead groups that eventually led to his classic quartet with McCoy Tyner, Elvin Jones, and Jimmy Garrison, and produced some of his best and most challenging work.
Coltrane became the flagship artist of the newly formed Impulse! label. By the time he completed his Impulse! debut, Africa/Brass, his playing was frequently in a style alternately dubbed avant-garde, free, or "the New Thing." Like Ornette Coleman, he played seemingly formless, extended solos that some listeners found tremendously impressive and others decried as noise. Coltrane's playing was even dubbed "anti-jazz" by one Down Beat writer the same month Coltrane recorded one of his most celebrated albums, Live at the Village Vanguard.
Coltrane's work with producer Bob Thiele (Ballads, Duke Ellington and John Coltrane, and John Coltrane With Johnny Hartman), helped quiet the critics of Coltrane's more extreme playing. Crescent (1964) seemed to find a middle ground between traditional and free playing and was critically acclaimed, as was 1965's A Love Supreme, one of Coltrane's best-loved albums, which earned him two Grammy nominations and became his biggest-selling record. That same year, Impulse! released Ascension, which featured one of Coltrane's first pairings with Pharoah Sanders and took free jazz to a new level. 1966 saw the release of the albums Kulu Se Mama and Meditations, Coltrane's last recordings to appear during his lifetime. He approved release for his next album, Expression, the Friday before his death in July 1967. He died suddenly of liver cancer, leaving behind a considerable body of unreleased work that came out in subsequent years on Impulse! ~ William Ruhlmann