This biography of the great jazz musician John Coltrane (also known as “Trane”) jumps out at you from the shelves because of the spectacularly arresting illustrations by Rudy Gutierrez. The mixed media pieces combine actual pictures of Coltrane with vibrant swirling lines and colors that ably convey music and mood.
The focus of the story is on Coltrane’s struggles on the one hand, and his spiritual devotion on the other. Born in 1926, John “had a very sweet life.” But when he was 12, his father, uncle, and grandparents all died, and the surviving family members were profoundly affected. John, his mother, and his aunt had to take job at a “whites-only” country club in town and rent out their house to boarders. John listened to music to feel close to his father, who had played a number of instruments.
When John started high school, a black pastor organized a community band, and John picked up an alto sax. Finally, he felt alive again. The author writes, “Shy and quiet, he let the horn become his voice.”
After high school, the family moved, and John left for Philadelphia, “a city brimming with jazz and blues.” His Mama bought him his own sax, and he loved it so much he even slept with it. He began to play with groups. Going on tour, he felt lonely and alienated, and started drinking and using drugs. His mother and his wife Naima helped him get free of his addictions, and with their help and a return to spirituality, he began to realize personal and professional success.
He died at age 40 in 1967. The author, in an Afterword, writes that he died “from liver cancer that may have been related to his early alcohol and drug use.” Yet, he also notes:
“…it was his commitment to sobriety, for the last ten years of his life, that allowed him to pursue his spiritual vision and to create some of the most enduring music in the field of jazz.”
Evaluation: This is a lovely and sensitive book about a great artist who was a major influence on jazz. Coltrane’s saxophone playing revolutionized jazz music and his influence can still be heard today not only in jazz but in the music of rock and hi-hop artists. In 2007, Coltrane was awarded the Pulitzer Prize Special Citation for his “masterful improvisation, supreme musicianship and iconic centrality to the history of jazz.” His is a story worth knowing, and this book is beautifully done.
Published by Clarion Books, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012
Fortunately Youtube is full of Coltrane’s music. You might listen to “In A Sentimental Mood” while reading…