Essentially an unknown, 29-year-old John Coltrane was thrust into the jazz forefront in 1955…into the world of Miles Davis …when he was summoned to fill in for the absent Sonny Rollins in the new Davis quintet. So began Coltrane’s intense musical and spiritual journey that lasted a mere 12 years but left a monumental legacy. Being with Miles until 1960 was a gift because it gave him both the freedom and confidence to develop his abilities. However, early on he knew he had to rid himself of the addictions that plagued him. He left briefly, accomplished his goals, and before rejoining Miles, he worked with Thelonious Monk for several months in 1957. This was a watershed learning experience that truly prepared him for the creativity of the subsequent years. The extended Monk-Coltrane stay at New York’s Five Spot Cafe was a magnetic draw for devoted listeners and musicians, but apparently only one photographer, Don Schlitten.
When playing, John Coltrane was a powerful dynamo with a fiercely searching improvisational style. However, he did not have a flamboyant stage presence, so that a photographer could only image the subtleties in facial expression and body language that measured the increasing intensity of his creations. Nat Hentoff once wrote, “The music sometimes sounding like the exorcism of a multitude of demons…” This would seem to fit an art critic’s description of Claxton’s photograph of Coltrane mounting the stage stairs at Newport as being like a matador entering the ring to do an afternoon’s battle.
Between solos or offstage and in repose, Coltrane was a quiet, gentle man often inwardly directed and meditative. Images of these moments were quite beautifully captured by Don Hunstein, Chuck Stewart, Esmond Edwards, Bob Parent and Herb Snitzer. A Coltrane smile was apparently rare but, as Stewart observed, “…his whole face would light up!” which is quite evident in one of Stewart’s pictures and the one by Joe Alper with Johnny Hartman.
On his own from 1960, he surged through his most creative and spiritually satisfying years with the quartet featuring McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones, and later with various avant garde musicians, constantly experimenting with still freer methods of playing. He succumbed to cancer in 1967.