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John Coltrane: Development of a Tenor

Saxophonist, 19501954
Carl Woideck
Published online: 21 Apr 2009.

To cite this article: Carl Woideck (2008) John Coltrane: Development of a Tenor Saxophonist,
19501954, Jazz Perspectives, 2:2, 165-213, DOI: 10.1080/17494060802373390
To link to this article:


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Jazz Perspectives
Vol. 2, No. 2, November 2008, pp. 165213

John Coltrane: Development of a

Tenor Saxophonist, 19501954

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Carl Woideck
John Coltrane (19261967) was 29 years old in early 1956, when Miles Daviss first LP
featuring the tenor saxophonist was released to the public.1 By this time, Coltrane
had been a professional musician for nearly ten years and was well on his way to
establishing a distinct improvisational style. The albums liner notes simply describe
Coltranes sound as a mixture of Dexter Gordon, Sonny Rollins and Sonny Stitt,2
however few jazz critics and enthusiasts of the time were aware of a much larger
sphere of influences upon Coltrane, and of the process by which he had assimilated
those influences to arrive at his own improvisational approach of the time. This lack
of general knowledge about Coltranes early development was understandable. Before
joining Davis, Coltrane had been commercially recorded only occasionally. Merely a
small number of these recordings feature solos by Coltrane, and as far as this author
can determine, only one record containing a Coltrane solo lists him in print. That
one issued selectionWe Love to Boogie, recorded in 1951 under Dizzy Gillespies
leadershipincludes a 21-measure Coltrane solo lasting 31 seconds. Of course, such
a briefand nearly five-year-oldsolo was insufficient for anyone in 1956 to
imagine how Coltranes approach to improvisation had developed over the
intervening time.
Before joining Davis, Coltrane had also commercially recorded a handful of
uncredited tenor sax solos that were issued to the public. Jazz scholars have searched
for these titles, and have further debated which recordings might include Coltrane in
an improvisational role. Some of the recordings strongly seem to be Coltrane; others
are debatably by him. But even if all of these pre-Davis solos were indeed by Coltrane,
the entire sample of his commercially issued, pre-Miles Davis tenor sax solos would
amount to less than 240 measures.

The New Miles Davis Quintet (a.k.a. Miles), Prestige 7014, 1955, LP; reissued as Original Jazz Classics
OJCCD-006, 1992, compact disc. The release was reviewed in Down Beat, May 30, 1956, 21. This
Davis group had already recorded four selections for the Columbia label on October 26, 1955, but these
tracks were not released until 1957.
Ira Gitler, liner notes to The New Miles Davis Quintet, Prestige 7014. Around 1956 or 1957, on a form
for Leonard Feathers Encyclopedia of Jazz series, Coltrane listed his favorite performers on his
instrument (but not necessarily influences upon him) as Sonny Stitt, Dexter Gordon, Sonny Rollins,
[and] Stan Getz. John Coltrane, Jazz Encyclopedia Questionnaire, in Carl Woideck, The John
Coltrane Companion (New York: Schirmer Books, 1998), 85. This form may be the source of Gitlers list
of influences upon Coltrane. Although he admired Rollins, Coltrane never spoke of being influenced by
Rollins. I have found in Coltranes 19491954 tenor sax solos no explicit and transcribable influence of
either Rollins or Getz.
ISSN 1749-4060 print/1749-4079 online # 2008 Taylor & Francis
DOI: 10.1080/17494060802373390

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166 John Coltrane: Development of a Tenor Saxophonist

By contrast, Miles Davis, who was born in the same year as Coltrane, had by late
1955 (i.e., the time of Coltranes joining Daviss group) been a recording artist for ten
years and had participated in over forty recording sessions for various labels. The
trumpeters hours of recorded and credited improvised solos released by 1955
document in detail his artistic evolution and technical progress. Of course, when
Coltrane joined the Davis quintet, the saxophonist began to be recorded more often,
and by 1957 he was one of the more frequently recorded musicians of jazz. From then
until his death in 1967, every major stage in Coltranes artistic evolution was
documented in authorized commercial recordings (and unauthorized, non-professional ones).
Even though we have so few commercially-recorded Coltrane solos made before
his tenure with Davis, much may be learned from certain non-commercially
recorded, pre-Davis examples of Coltrane improvising. Most of these recordings have
been issued without the artists permission on bootleg LPs and CDs. There also
exist a few early Coltrane selections that remain unissued in any form and these
materials have only circulated among scholars and collectors. Perhaps because the
bootlegs and unissued material have never had the wide distribution of Coltranes
authorized recordings, those early Coltrane solos have not often been scrutinized by
scholars or musicians and do not appear in books of Coltrane solo transcriptions.
These noncommercial and unissued recordings are essential in helping us to
understand how Coltrane initially developed as a saxophonist and as a jazz
In this article, I will explore for the first time in detail Coltranes recorded
improvisational work on tenor saxophone from 1950 (the earliest of the possible
examples known to scholars) through 1954 (the year of his last-known recordings
before joining Miles Davis). Through Coltranes own statements, I will first examine
Coltranes early saxophone influences before he adopted the tenor sax, and then I will
detail his influences while playing that instrument during the 195054 period. I will
further discussin approximate chronological orderthe recording sessions of the
period in which Coltranes participation as soloist is either established, accepted by
scholars, or at least possible on the basis of his known career and various musical
evidence. Through transcription and analysis, I shall discuss in detail the
characteristics of his 19501954 tenor saxophone style(s) and, when in question,
assess the likelihood of each recorded soloist being Coltrane. This latter assessment
will involve in part cross-referencing between two or more recording sessions in
search of common phrases or characteristics that may indirectly suggest Coltranes
participation. In this detailed examination of his early tenor saxophone recordings, I
will additionally discuss a number of musical traits that are associated with his later,
more-often-analyzed improvisational work. We will also see that Coltranes wellknown, and highly-characteristic, steady turnover in musical vocabulary was already
evident in this early period. Indeed, before he joined Miles Davis, Coltrane was
already much more than a mixture of Dexter Gordon, Sonny Rollins and Sonny

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The Earliest Coltrane

In 1960, John Coltrane recalled, Pres [Lester Young] was my first real influence, but
the first horn I got was an alto, not a tenor. I wanted a tenor, but some friends of my
mother advised her to buy me an alto because it was a smaller horn and easier for a
youngster to handle. This was 1943.3 In the 1930s, Coleman Hawkinss style was the
standard by which most tenor saxophonists were evaluated, but by the early 1940s,
Lester Youngs style became equally influential among young jazz musicians.
Certainly Youngs less theoretically grounded, stepwise, horizontal approach to
improvisation was easier for the young Coltrane to emulate than Hawkinss more
studied, arpeggiated, vertical approach. Since he was playing the alto sax (rather
than the tenor), Coltrane of course also listened to musicians who played that
instrument. In 1960, Coltrane said, Johnny Hodges became my first main influence
on alto, and he still kills me.4 Youngs and Hodgess styles were not particularly similar,
but they shared a highly melodic and spontaneous approach to improvisation.
No recordings exist of this earliest stage of Coltranes development. In any case, the
Young and Hodges influences were superseded after Coltrane first heard alto saxophonist
Charlie Bird Parker in concert, when Parker was playing with John Birks Dizzy
Gillespie on June 5, 1945, at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia. Coltrane later said of
Parker, when I had first heard Bird, I wanted to be identified with him to be consumed
by him.5 In important and compelling ways, Parker combined the spontaneous
invention and exuberant swing of Lester Young with a harmonic understanding (gleaned
in part from Dizzy Gillespie) more comparable with Coleman Hawkins.
This stage in Coltranes development is best documented in private (noncommercial) recordings made by Coltrane on July 17, 1946, in Hawaii while he was
on duty with the U.S. Naval Reserve. These eight recordings were made strictly for the
musicians own use and not intended for release to the public.6 Scant Lester Young
influence is discernible in part because Coltrane is playing alto, not tenor sax, and
because Coltranes frequently awkward and sometimes disjunct solos have little in
common with Youngs grace and continuity. The influence of Hodges is heard in
Coltranes scooping of pitches, especially in the upper register. However, the Parker
influence is much more ascendant, as can be heard in Coltranes overall melodic,
harmonic, and rhythmic language. More discussion of these Coltrane alto sax
recordings would be outside the scope of this paper.7

John Coltrane and Don DeMicheal, Coltrane on Coltrane, Down Beat, September 29, 1960, 2627.
Previous to 1943, while Coltrane played both clarinet and saxophone, he did not own a sax.
Ira Gitler, Trane on the Track, Down Beat, October 16, 1958, 1617.
Only one of Coltranes early alto sax recordings, the track Hot House, has been released to the public
in any form. This can be found on John Coltrane, The Last Giant, Rhino R2 71984, 1993, compact disc.
The other selections were made available to the author by Lewis Porter with permission of Norman
Poulshock, who was the pianist on these recordings.
Readers can find a transcription and discussion of one Coltrane solo (Sweet Miss) from this 1946
session in Lewis Porter, John Coltrane: His Life and Music (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press,
2000), 46.

168 John Coltrane: Development of a Tenor Saxophonist

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Coltrane Moves to Tenor

John Coltrane first bought a tenor saxophone to play in alto saxophonist Eddie
Cleanhead Vinsons band, which he joined in November 1948. Coltrane later said
of his switch to the tenor sax, I found I was able to be more varied in my musical
interests. On alto, Bird had been my whole influence, but on tenor I found there was
no one man whose ideas were so dominant as Charlies were on alto. Therefore, I
drew from all the men I heard during this period.8
After the Vinson engagement ended, Coltrane continued to play alto sax when
required. For example, he joined Dizzy Gillespies big band in September 1949 as an
alto player. This group with Coltrane recorded twice for the Capitol label in 1949 and
1950, with Jimmy Heath and Coltrane playing alto saxes, and with Paul Gonsalves
and Jessie Powell on tenors. Although there has been some question whether
Coltrane ever soloed on tenor sax while in the Gillespie big band,9 I have established
through photographic evidence that Coltrane did indeed improvise on the tenor with
this band at least in performance.10 Jan Evensmo conjectured that Coltrane may solo
on tenor sax on the January 9, 1950, recordings of Coast to Coast (the first tenor
solo, for 12 measures) and Ooh-La-La (32 measures).11 If these performances are
indeed by Coltrane, these would be his earliest-known recorded tenor sax solos. The
saxophonist in question on these recordings has a dark tone quality thatwhile not
identical to the positively identified Coltrane of the 1950sis Dexter Gordoninfluenced, in a manner quite similar to Coltrane on his 1951 Dizzy Gillespie small
group recordings.12 The tone quality in these January 1950 recordings is also

Coltrane and DeMicheal, Coltrane on Coltrane, 2627.

Jimmy Heath is paraphrased as having said that Coltrane would not have soloed on tenor in the band.
Trumpeter Willie Cook, also in the band at the same time, is paraphrased as saying that a Coltrane tenor solo
is possible, since Coltrane did have his tenor around to practice. Porter, John Coltrane, 84.
Jazz (New York: Guernseys Auction House, 2005), 115. This is a collage of seven photos of Coltrane
playing in public with Gillespies big band. The upper two photos show Coltrane playing alto as part of
the sax section. The remaining shots show him soloing on tenor in front of the band. (The length and
angle of the saxophone neck, plus the length of the bell of the horn establish that this is a tenor.) No date
or location is evident in this auction catalog, but since Jimmy Heath and Paul Gonsalves are also visible
in the section, the photos are from the same period of the Capitol recordings in question.
Porter, John Coltrane, 8384. Porter initially agreed with Evensmo that there is a tenor soloist present who is
neither Powell nor Gonsalves, but he now thinks that the soloist is Paul Gonsalves. The John Coltrane Reference,
ed. Lewis Porter (New York: Routledge, 2007), 273. The tenor sax solo on Tally-Ho (recorded by the
Gillespie big band on November 21, 1949) closely matches in timbre, swing, and melodic line the solos by
Gonsalves that were made before his stint with Gillespie (with Count Basie for Victor on December 8 and 9,
1947) and immediately after (with Duke Ellington for Columbia on December 19, 1950). But the tenor sax
soloist in question on Coast to Coast and Oo-La-La does not resemble in those respects Gonsalves on
Tally-Ho (or Gonsalves on the aforementioned Basie and Ellington recordings). The first soloist on Coastto
Coast and the soloist on Ooh-La-La is neither Jessie Powell nor Paul Gonsalves, and may well be Coltrane.
The tenor saxophonist in question on Coast to Coast and Oo-La-La has a tone quality that is
more open and throaty than most Coltrane recordings of the 1950s. However, on his first session with
Miles Davis (October 26, 1955, for the Columbia label), Coltrane displays an uncharacteristically open
sound. It may be that his approximately 19501955 mouthpiece/reed combination and approach to
embouchure produced a more open sound as compared with his more compact sound as heard in his
later-1950s work. That Coltrane could, and probably did, change his tone quality at times is discussed in
regard to the Billy Valentine sides later in this article.

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strikingly similar to the Coltrane-like soloist heard on the circa 1952 Gay Crosse/Christine
Kittrell sides. (These 19511952 sessions will both be discussed later in this article.)
The most lengthy passage that resembles the later, positively identified Coltrane
comes in Coast to Coast in which the first tenor sax soloist begins with a prepared
five-note motive (a) and related four-note motive (a) that are presented sequentially
a total of four times, thereby paralleling the chromatic chord progression played by
the bassist. (See Example 1.) In the next two measures, the saxophonist superimposes
over a single chord (without a corresponding bass line) a new four-note motive (b)
that is presented sequentially four times as it descends. As will be seen below (in a
discussion of the 1951 Dizzy Gillespie broadcasts and the 1954 Johnny Hodges live
recording), such sequencing of short motivic units was already present in Coltranes
solos in the early 1950s; such techniques would of course become even more
common in his later work.

Example 1.

(Note that all transcriptions are in concert key and sound one octave lower than
written. Measure numbers are counted from the beginning of the first chorus in
which the saxophonist in question solos. If a solo is more than one chorus in length,
chorus numbers are identified in boxes. Score example timings count the minutes
and seconds from the beginning of the overall musical performance.)
The last two measures of the above example are largely repeated by the second
soloist (in a different key) later in the recording:

Example 2.

This occurrence leads to the question: Is it possible that the first and second soloist
are the same person? This hypothesis undercuts the premise that there is an
unidentified saxophonist present on the Gillespie big band recordings. That said, they

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170 John Coltrane: Development of a Tenor Saxophonist

are probably not the same person, because the second soloist employs a different
timbre, a more prominent vibrato on longer notes, and a more sure rhythmic
execution that distinguish him (Gillespie did not have any female members in this
band) from the first soloist. As I will later demonstrate, the presence of a similar short
passage in two different solos can be a key initial tool in identifying a soloist, but we
must then examine every other factor applicable to the music and musician in
question to build a more complete case study.
In Ooh-La-La, the saxophonist shows his awareness of modern jazz harmonic
practice by playing a line that first rises to the 13th of the D7 chord and then descends
to the #11 (marked in m. 27 in Example 3). (This device will be discussed in
connection with the later Crosse/Kittrell and Hodges sessions below.) To this author,
the passage from mm. 2629 seems rhythmically and harmonically awkward. This
begins with the jerky sixteenth-eighth-sixteenth moment in m. 26 that seems to
displace what follows by one beat, thus creating an odd rhythmic feel and setting up
the clashing major thirds (F#) against the D-minor harmony on beats one and three
in m. 29. Although one cannot say for certain if the harmonic effect is accidental or
intentional, eliminating the sixteenth-eighth-sixteenth unit places the phrase one beat
earlier in time and creates a passage that would have harmonically matched the
prevailing chord progression.

Example 3.

This awkward rhythmic moment and another in Coast to Coast (m. 7; at 0:52)
may indicate that the saxophonist was still learning his craft at the time.13 Whether
the saxophonist on Ooh-La-La and Coast to Coast is Coltrane or another player,

These execution problems could also be the effect of alcohol or another drug.

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his rhythmic execution and swing are generally more solid than Coltrane had been on
his first amateur recordings on alto sax (from 1946; see above).
A brief but significant similarity between the Gillespie saxophonist in question and a
soloist on the 1952 Crosse/Kittrell sessions comes in Ooh-La-La, as the saxophone
soloist scoops slightly into the circled G (the fifth degree of the operative key of C) at
the top of the staff on Example 4, drops to the G an octave below and then rises a whole
step to the sixth of the key (the triplet in m. 25 is ornamental). This fragment,
admittedly brief, is echoedboth in melodic contour and tone qualityby the
saxophonist in the Gay Crosse recording of No Better for You, to be discussed below.

Example 4.

In assessing the likelihood that this tenor saxophonist on the Gillespie big band
recordings is Coltrane, we can note the following: the melodic-harmonic style of this
saxophonist most resembles the Coltrane of the later 1950s in his use of sequenced
patterns on Coast to Coast. Overall, his tone quality is similar to the positively identified
Coltrane solos on the 1951 Dizzy Gillespie small group recordings. That tone quality, the
use of the 13th to #11th descent, and the octave/whole-step device (discussed above), all
resemble that of the unidentified saxophonist of the 1952 Crosse/Kittrell sides yet to be
discussed. The saxophone solos on those two sets of recordings reinforce each others
likelihood of being by John Coltrane. Given the above evidence, and the fact that Coltrane
definitely soloed on tenor in performance with the Gillespie big band, there is a distinct
possibility that this 1950 Gillespie big band tenor saxophonist is Coltrane.
The Valentine Recordings
During the period that Coltrane was playing alto sax with the Gillespie big band, he
may have been recorded playing tenor sax with singer-pianist Billy Valentine.
Valentine was an early rhythm and blues (R&B) singer whose smooth voice and easygoing delivery were similar to Charles Browns. (Indeed, Valentine replaced Brown in
Johnny Moores Three Blazers in 1949.) Valentine favored the twelve-bar blues form
and often used jazz musicians in his band. Coltrane was not in Valentines working
band, but tenor saxophonist George Big Nick Nicholas reportedly said that
Coltrane had recorded with Valentine around this time.14

Phil Schaap, in a telephone conversation with the author, September, 2001. Nicholas was a friend of
Coltranes and also recorded with Valentine for Mercury Records in New York on a session around April,
1950, and was thus in a good position to know the activities of Coltrane and Valentine during this period. See
Michel Ruppli and Ed Novitsky, The Mercury Labels: A Discography, vol. 1 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press,
1993), 191. Schaap played one or more of these recordings for Nicholas who said that he is not the
saxophonist in question. (As stated by Phil Schaap, WKCR-FM broadcast, September 23, 1997.) Indeed, the
style of the player in question does not even superficially resemble that of Big Nick Nicholas of the early 1950s.

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172 John Coltrane: Development of a Tenor Saxophonist

The tenor saxophonist in question solos on three Valentine titles: I Aint Gonna
Cry No More; I Want You to Love Me; and Beer Drinking Baby.15 (The fourth
title from the session is How Long, How Long Blues, without a saxophone solo.)
These recordings were issued at the time on 78-rpm records by the Mercury label; an
unissued and complete alternate take of each title featuring the saxophonist was
recorded and is present on the acetate disc or discs discovered by jazz scholar Phil
Schaap. The take numbers referred to below are based on the engineers slates at
end of each full attempt. (Note that only compete takes were assigned take numbers.)
Two pairs of dates and locations for this session have been suggested: November 7,
1949, in Los Angeles,16 or March 1, 1950, in New York City.17 Considerable
circumstantial evidence suggests the latter date and location. The acetate disc of the
recording session has the date March 1, 1950, written on it. According to Schaap, the
engineers voice heard on the disc is that of one of the engineers who worked at Bob
Fines New York recording studio.18 Mercury Records bought an advertisement in
The Billboard magazines March 25, 1950, issue to present Valentine to the music
industry and to announce his first single for the company, How Long, How Long
Blues and Beer Drinking Baby, both from the session in question.19 Valentine is
known to have recorded for the Mercury label in New York in the first half of 1950.20
Before examining the solos for Coltranes stylistic traits, it is important to
determine whether Coltrane could have been in Los Angeles or New York on either of
the dates in question. Coltranes whereabouts on the November 11, 1949, date are
unknown; he had possibly joined Gillespies big band in September of that year.21
Neither Porter nor Vail list any dates for the band in the western United States
around this time.22 The Gillespie big band was far from Los Angeles ten days later
(November 21, 1949) when they recorded in New York for Capitol Records. Turning
to the other possibility, Coltrane was definitely in New York on the March 1, 1950,
session date; that night, the Dizzy Gillespie big band (with Coltrane on alto sax)
ended an engagement at New Yorks Bop City nightclub.23 Given the date written

The last title was also known as Beer Drinkin Baby.

This date is based on research published in Ruppli and Ed Novitskys The Mercury Labels, 180. The
recording sessions matrix numbers (3188 through 3191) support the early date.
Phil Schaap, telephone conversation, September 2001.
Schaap does not know the engineers name, but recognizes the voice from other Fine recording studio
sessions. Telephone conversation with the author, September 2001.
Mercury Records present Americas No. 1 Rhythm and Blues Star Billy Valentine with His Own
Group FIRST RELEASE (uppercase in original), The Billboard, March 25, 1950, 38. The first single
was reviewed by the magazine in the April 15, 1950, issue (p. 122); the second single from the session (I
Want You to Love Me and Aint Gonna Cry No More) was reviewed by the magazine in the May 13,
1950, issue (p. 139).
The May 27, 1950, issue of The Billboard (p. 35) reports on the Spring 1950 New York recording
activities of members of Johnny Moores Three Blazers: Featured members of the group, Oscar Moore
and Billy Valentine, recorded on their own for the Columbia and Mercury labels respectively.
John Coltrane Reference, 35.
Ibid., and Ken Vail, Dizzy Gillespie: The Bebop Years 19371952 (Cottonham, UK: Vail Publishing,
2000), 79.
John Coltrane Reference, 46.

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Jazz Perspectives


on the acetate, the New York engineers voice on that discand, to a lesser
degree, the definite placing of the Gillespie group with Coltrane at the proper
date and citythe March 1, 1950, New York City date and location are
entirely possible for this session. This tentative date will be used for matters of
Upon first listening, the saxophonists improvisational solos on the Valentine
recordings do not strongly resemble that of other, conclusively identified, Coltrane
solos of the early 1950s. For example, the saxophonists tone quality seems modest
in size, light and airy, without the large and solid sound of either the unidentified
player on Coast to Coast and Oo-La-La or the positively identified Coltrane
on the 1951 Dizzy Gillespie broadcasts, yet to be discussed. The melodic lines and
harmonic vocabulary exhibited by this player are often more consistent with those
of Lester Young than with a player who is influenced by Charlie Parker and
modern jazz. These traits do not eliminate Coltrane from consideration, however.
Years later, Coltrane said that during this journeyman period of his career, he often
adapted his style as the bandleader required: You see, I stayed in obscurity for a
long time, because I just played what the others expected from me, without trying
to add anything original. I saw so many guys get fired from a band because they
tried to be innovative that I got a little discouraged from trying anything
One factor that makes this saxophonists tone quality seem airy or diffuse is that
the player seldom blows forcefully and tends to stay in the mezzo piano to mezzo forte
range. In the few cases in which he uses more force (the second takes of Beer
Drinking Baby and I Want You to Love Me), his tone quality indeed resembles
Coltrane. Another factor that affected the saxophonists apparent timbre here is that
much of the time he was evidently not playing close to the microphone. Increased
distance from a microphone tends to diffuse a saxophonists tone quality. Finally, if
this is indeed Coltrane, it is possible that some of the diffuse tone quality here may
come from a temporary change in mouthpiece and/or the type of reed used for this
recording. (Coltrane was known to be a career-long collector of saxophone
The Lester Young influence is not limited to timbre; Young is also the most
prevalent influence upon this saxophonists melodic line. Looking back in 1960 on
his own tenor sax style of the mid-1940s (before the time of this recording), Coltrane
said: The reason I liked Lester so was that I could feel that line, that simplicity. My
phrasing was very much in Lesters vein at this time.25 A Young-like simplicity of
melodic line is evident in the saxophonists solo on the first take of the blues I Want
You to Love Me. His first measure and a half is parallel to (or is a quote of) Youngs
1939 composition Lester Leaps In, and the slurred articulation and timbre are
reminiscent of Young:

Francois Postif, trans. Porter (with consultation of Postif), in Porter, John Coltrane, 88.
Coltrane and DeMicheal, Coltrane on Coltrane, 2627.

174 John Coltrane: Development of a Tenor Saxophonist

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Example 5.

The unidentified saxophonists melodic language on the Valentine recordings is

largely consistent with Youngs, a mix of stepwise and simple arpeggiated motion
with few larger leaps. Most of the scale language is diatonic, with some so-called
minor pentatonic scales included in the tradition of the blues.
Another aspect of Youngs style that the saxophonist borrowed from Young for the
Billy Valentine recording date was the use of alternate fingerings to produce voicelike timbral and pitch variations on one note, a technique that is sometimes called
worrying a note. Coltranes friend, the saxophonist Jimmy Heath, stated that he
and Coltrane used to observe Young because Lester Young [was] one of the
leading innovators in saxophone fingering.26 One can hear this technique clearly in
the opening of Youngs 1937 solo on Count Basies One OClock Jump, which is
shown in Example 6. (The alternate fingerings are marked with a +.)

Example 6.

This technique is also found in the beginning of the sax solo on the second take of
Billy Valentines Aint Gonna Cry No More:

Example 7.


Douglas Henry Daniels, Lester Leaps In: The Life and Times of Lester Pres Young (Boston: Beacon
Press, 2002), 320. Brackets, ellipsis, and italics in the original.

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Jazz Perspectives


Coltrane used a closely related type of Young-derived alternate timbral fingerings

on his June 20, 1951, recording of A Night in Tunisia with Dizzy Gillespie (see
below), making this technique a clear similarity between the Billy Valentine-session
tenor player and a known Coltrane solo of the period. In the late 1950s and especially
the 1960s, Coltrane built on this Lester Young technique by actively developing an
extensive repertoire of alternate saxophone fingerings, many of which manipulated
timbre and pitch.
Neither the saxophonist nor the band utilize many substitute chord changes, nor
do they employ many chord alterations. Of course, bebop-derived harmonic devices
were not usually called for in such an easy-going, light R&B setting. In fact, a reviewer
of the time felt that the conservative accompaniment on Aint Gonna Cry No More
was too jazzy: Disking loses some commercial effect with use of too legitimate jazz
support.27 The stylistic expectations of early R&B meant that any modern jazzoriented saxophonist would have to improvise somewhat atypically on this session.
This situation obviously makes it more difficult to identify the player in question.
Nevertheless, there are some significant moments that show that the saxophonist has
more modern jazz knowledge than is apparent at first, and these passages are
generally consistent with early Coltrane. For example, on the second complete take of
I Want You to Love Me, the player ends his solo with some decidedly boppish
double-timing in mm. 11 and 12:

Example 8.

And between vocal phrases during the second vocal chorus of the second complete
take, the saxophonist comfortably tosses in a similarly bop-influenced fill that (in
conjunction with the bassist) creates a tritone substitution (A7) leading into the
subdominant (Ab13) in m. 5:

Example 9.

The Billboard, May 13, 1950, 139.

176 John Coltrane: Development of a Tenor Saxophonist

Among these saxophone solos, only a few phrases directly derive from Charlie Parkers
vocabulary; one is the arpeggio-based figure seen in Example 10, which is found in the
first take of Aint Gonna Cry No More. Parker scholar Thomas Owens labels it Parker
figure 1B, and he found that in the 1950s, Coltrane used a figure similar to it.28

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Example 10.

Overall, the soloists occasional displays of comparatively modern approaches to

melodic line and harmony show that he has more skills and knowledge than the
recording session required. Although Coltrane had been for about five years under the
sway of Charlie Parker and modern jazz in general, Valentines laid-back approach to the
blues would not have called for the techniques of bebop; what was called for was to fit in
with the singers mellow style. Regardless of who the saxophonist is, he is clearly
simplifying his modern jazz approach for the occasion, therefore apparent simplicity of
style does not eliminate Coltrane from consideration.
From a timbral standpoint, despite the saxophonists prevalent airy sound, there
are a few moments during which he blows more forcefully and produces a more
compact and focused sound that resembles the known Coltrane of the 1950s. In this
example, from the second take of I Want You to Love Me, he produces that
compact sound while repeatedly wailing (perhaps forte, although he is not close to
the microphone) on an Eb pitch (see Example 11), very much like Coltrane on the
Gillespie and Hodges recordings discussed below. Also note that all pitches except the
penultimate F derive from a minor pentatonic scale, a practice thatwhile not
unique to Coltranewill be noted in later Coltrane recordings.

Example 11.

Although not particularly notable for its tenor saxophone solo, the second take of Beer
Drinking Baby finds the drummer switching from brushes to sticks and the saxophonist

Thomas Owens, Bebop: The Music and Its Players (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 31 and
90. Owens discusses at length vestiges of Parkers vocabulary heard in Coltranes playing after he had
joined Miles Davis.

Jazz Perspectives


responding by playing forcefullycloser to the microphoneand displaying a tone quality

and terminal vibrato that are highly reminiscent of known Coltrane. Because many of the
moments that this saxophonist has in the foreground resemble Lester Young as much as
they do known Coltrane, this player cannot be absolutely identified as Coltrane (although
Big Nick Nicholas can be ruled out). Given the saxophonists timbral characteristics noted
directly above, his most advanced harmonic and melodic moments, and techniques that
are also heard in later Coltrane, coupled with Big Nick Nicholass recollection that Coltrane
recorded with Valentine around this time, the saxophonist on this Billy Valentine session is
probably John Coltrane, playing what the others expected of him.

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The Gillespie-Era Solos

Although Coltranes soloistic participation on the Dizzy Gillespie big band and Billy
Valentine small group dates is debatable, Coltrane definitely solos on tenor
saxophone on numerous recordings of Gillespies small group of 195051.29 These
include one piece recorded in the studio and at least fourteen pieces recorded noncommercially in a nightclub and/or taken from radio broadcasts. In 1993, two of
these Gillespie-led selections (one studio and one live recording) were issued on
CD,30 but the other performances have been available only on unauthorized bootleg
LPs and CDs. This large and rich source of early Coltrane has long been available to
scholars and collectors, but is little-discussed in Coltrane literature.31
The Gillespie small group recordings provide an excellent glimpse of Coltranes
early style for a number of reasons. There are many Coltrane solos (fourteen) and
they are on average much longer than those on the Gillespie big band and Valentine
small group recordings. And because his and Gillespies musical interests were
similar, Coltrane did not have to rein in his imagination or be selective as to what
style he projected as he would on an R&B recording session.
Coltranes Gillespie-era improvisations have some clear distinctions from the Billy
Valentine tenor solos. For example, a more weighty, dark tone quality replaces the
light, airy tone quality heard with Valentine. In these broadcasts, Coltrane blows
forcefully throughout, and as discussed above, this approach can have an effect upon
tone quality. Coltranes Gillespie-era solos are also more harmonically aware,
Coltrane wrote of his presence on the Gillespie studio sides (Coltrane, Jazz Encyclopedia
Questionnaire, 85); Coltranes name appears on the label of some of the 78-rpm singles drawn from
the studio session; Coltranes participation on the live nightclub recording has been confirmed by
saxophonist Jimmy Heath, who was also in Gillespies band at the time and is heard on the recording.
See Yasuhiro Fujioka, Lewis Porter, and Yoh-Ichi Hamada, John Coltrane: A Discography and Musical
Biography (Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1995), 10. On at least some of the original recordings of the
broadcasts (made by Boris Rose), announcer Symphony Sid Torin specifically mentions Coltranes
participation (e.g., the January 13, 1951, broadcast). These announcements have been edited out of the
bootleg issues of these broadcasts.
We Love to Boogie and Good Groove. Both have been reissued on John Coltrane, The Last
For example, Porters excellent study of Coltrane only includes one brief transcription from this group
of recordings.

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178 John Coltrane: Development of a Tenor Saxophonist

rhythmically varied, and overall more exploratory than the earlier improvisations. This
expansion is to be expected, given the aesthetic example provided by Gillespie and the
freedom that he gave to Coltrane, at least at this time and place. With Gillespies group,
Coltrane could display his commitment to modern jazz. Not surprisingly though, there
is some continuity in saxophone style between the Valentine and Gillespie recordings,
especially in the use of Young-like alternate fingerings and in his occasional use of the
minor pentatonic scale while playing over a blues chord progression.
Chronologically, the first of these Gillespie-led sessions comes from a late 1950
noncommercial recording of the Gillespie sextet at Chicagos Silhouette Club.32 The
fidelity of this never-issued tape (which circulates among scholars and collectors) is
extremely poor. The band was evidently recorded (or copied by microphone) at a
distance, and occasionally a train (no pun intended), possibly on Chicagos elevated
rapid transit system, is heard going by!33 Because of the poor recording, we generally
cannot tell if Coltrane is tonguing or slurring, nor can we make solid conclusions
about his tone quality.
One characteristic of Coltranes later playing that first appears in the Silhouette
Club recording is his use of the tenor saxophones altissimo range. Coltranes horn
had a nominal highest note of concert Eb, but he was already in 195034 reaching a
whole step higher than that (concert F), as seen in Example 12 (whose pitch has been
corrected from the tape circulating among collectors). Note also the alternate
fingering in m. 20, a specific device that Coltrane would use throughout his career.

Example 12.

The personnel in this sextet were: Dizzy Gillespie (trumpet), Jimmy Heath (alto sax), John Coltrane
(tenor sax), Milt Jackson (vibraphone and piano), Percy Heath (bass), and Charles Specs Wright
The train sounds may be on the original recording or may have been added inadvertently while
copying from the original tape by means of a microphone.
Jimmy Heath recalled working with Coltrane on their altissimo registers while both were alto
saxophonists in Philadelphia in the late 1940s. Lewis Porter, John Coltrane, 63.

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Jazz Perspectives


On the Silhouette Club recording, Coltranes upper-register intonation seems

unusually unstable. The glissando notations in mm. 18 and 19 of Example 12
represent moments when Coltranes intonation seems to slide between pitches in a
rather wobbly (not blues-derived) manner. This pitch instability is not merely caused
by poor tape quality. On the tape, alto saxophonist Jimmy Heath, while employing
some scooping into pitches, does not approach Coltranes intonational variability.
Coltrane goes beyond scooping, and his intonation sounds a bit out of control. In the
mid-1950s, Coltrane indeed had occasional intonation problems, and in 1956, one
reviewer even criticized Coltrane as being out of tune.35
Much better recordedand therefore much more conducive to transcription and
discussionare the other early Coltrane solos with Gillespie small groups, all from early
1951. These derive primarily both from live recordings from five New York City radio
broadcasts36 and from one studio recording of the group. (Certain compositions were
performed on more than one broadcast; in such cases, the broadcast date of the example
under discussion will be identified on the transcription.)
Although Coltrane displays more modern jazz than Swing Era traits in his playing,
the earlier influence of Lester Young is still in evidence in Coltranes solo work on A
Night in Tunisia. Here, Coltrane uses a Young-like alternate fingering. (See
Example 13.) The technique is of course reminiscent of the tenorist on the Billy
Valentine recordings discussed above.

Example 13.

In addition, beginning in the 1940s, Young became well known for rhythmically
honking on low notes, especially during his appearances with the Jazz at the
Philharmonic concert series. Occasionally while honking he would overblow those
low notes to produce overtones deriving from the fundamental pitch. The excerpt
shown in Example 14 is from a Young improvisation on the 1939 Decca Count Basie
recording of Taxi War Dance.37 Young uses the two low notes on his saxophone
Bill Coss, Miles Davis, Metronome, July 1956, 27. Coltranes reputation for intonation problems was
common enough that in 1959 another author refuted the notion by insisting that Coltrane indeed did
play in tune (which he consistently did by that stage of his career). Zita Carno, The Style of John
Coltrane, The Jazz Review, October 1959, 18. Reprinted in Woideck, John Coltrane Companion, 10.
Recordings of these broadcasts circulate among jazz scholars and have also appeared on bootleg LPs:
John Coltrane, Tranes First Ride 1951: First Broadcasts, vol. 1, Broadcast Tributes 009, n.d., LP, and
Tranes First Ride 1951: First Broadcasts, vol. 2, Oberon 5100, n.d., LP.
Count Basie and His Orchestra, Taxi War Dance, Vocalion 4748, 1939, 78 rpm; reissued on Count
Basie, Americas #1 Band, Columbia/Legacy AC4K 87110, 2003, compact disc.

180 John Coltrane: Development of a Tenor Saxophonist

(concert B and Bb; his low C# and C respectively) to produce overtones at the
octave. The notes that Young fingered are represented by standard note heads and the
overtones produced are represented by x note heads. Also notice the alternate
fingerings used.

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Example 14.

Many saxophonists (often in the R&B idiom) learned this technique from Young,
and Coltrane was likely among them. Here, on Congo Blues, Coltrane plays a
fingering sequence that in part involves overblowing a low concert Bb (his low C
fingering) to produce higher Bb and F pitches at the octave and twelfth respectively:

Example 15.

In his well-known 195559 recordings with Miles Davis and others, Coltrane deemphasized this technique, preferring to put forth melodies composed of a single note at
a time. Beginning around 1960, however, Coltrane re-emphasized this technique, as seen
in this brief A Love Supreme excerpt from 1964, which is from a minor blues (from
Pursuance) in concert Bb where he overblows the lower Bb and Ab pitches (his lowest
C and Bb respectively) to produce overtones at the octave and twelfth:

Example 16.

This overblowing of harmonic overtones became an essential part of Coltranes later

approach to the saxophone and was one of the techniques that his detractors found
alienating. However, it was already a well-established part of the saxophone tradition
and derived in part from one of the most revered of all Swing Era saxophonists,
Lester Young.

Jazz Perspectives


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Although Coltrane had a few years earlier found that switching from alto to tenor
sax had the effect of lessening his dependence on Charlie Parkers improvisational
style, Parkers influence upon Coltrane can understandably still be heard in 1951.
One device, spread to modern jazz musicians by Parker and Gillespie (although not
developed by them), was a double semitone voice-leading device (referred to here as
device no. 1) in which a chord toneoften but not always the rootis approached
first from a semitone above and then from a semitone below before resolving to the
chord tone in question.38 Here is an example from Coltranes solo on Birks
Works, which offers one of several instances of Coltrane using that device in the
Gillespie live broadcasts:

Example 17.

Even more associated with Parker (spread by, but not originated by him) is a
voice-leading device (here referred to as device no. 2) that is an extension of the
one just discussed.39 It involves leading to a chord tone from a semitone above
and then from two semitones below and is seen below in Example 18 in a 1946
Parker solo on Moose the Mooche. Another Parker-associated device, a scalar
descent from the 3rd of the ii7 chord to the 3rd of the V7 chord followed by a
diminished seventh leap up to the b9 of the V7 chord, is seen here in a 1947
Parker solo on Dexterity (see the middle stave of Example 18). Coltrane showed
his Parker roots by combining these two devices in his solo on the Gillespie Bb
blues The Champ, performed March 17, 1951.40 (See the bottom stave of
Example 18; both Parker examples are transposed into Coltranes key for ease of
The tone quality and articulation displayed by Coltrane during the Gillespie
broadcasts is quite reminiscent of Dexter Gordon, who has been called the first bebop
tenor saxophonist.41 This similarity is not surprising because Gordons melodic line

Scott DeVeaux finds this figure in Gillespies playing by 1943 and in the trumpeters composition, A
Night in Tunisia. Scott DeVeaux, The Birth of Bebop: A Social and Musical History (Berkeley: University
of California Press, 1997), 260261.
Thomas Owens conjectures that Parker may have learned this voice-leading figure from the opening of
Duke Ellingtons Concerto for Cootie, first recorded on March 15, 1940. See Owens, Bebop, 32.
Parker used the figure as early as November 30, 1940. See Carl Woideck, Charlie Parker: His Music and
Life (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996), 79.
Thomas Owens calls the combined phrase motive M.3A.c. See Thomas Owens, vol. 2, Charlie Parker:
Techniques of Improvisation (Ph.D. diss., University of California Los Angeles, 1974), 1.
In his Jazz Styles (9th edition), Mark Gridley calls Gordon the first tenor saxophonist to be
recognized as a bebop player. Mark Gridley, Jazz Styles: History and Analysis, 9th ed. (Upper Saddle
River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1996), 152.

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182 John Coltrane: Development of a Tenor Saxophonist

Example 18.

and sense of swing were deeply influenced by Lester Young. In a mid-1950s

questionnaire, Coltrane listed Gordon as one of his favorite saxophonists. Similarly,
in 1958, Coltrane looked back upon his early days as a tenor saxophonist and
named Gordon as one of two influences: At that time, I was trying to play like
Dexter Gordon and Wardell Gray. I liked what they were doing. I heard in them
lots of the ideas of Lester Young, who was my first influence. So when I made the
switch to tenor, I was trying to play like them.42 In 1977, Gordon himself
recognized his influence upon Coltrane, saying: Again, its the same lineLester
to Bird to Dexter to Trane. There was evolution, of course, but really the same
line.43 Even at this early stage, however, Coltrane was beginning to depart from
Gordon in displaying a more keening tone quality, especially in Coltranes upperregister playing.
Gordons influence upon Coltrane is primarily found in a tendency to improvise in
strings of unbroken eighth notes (as opposed to Parkers wider variety of note
values), using prevalent legato tonguing (as contrasted with Youngs prevalent
slurring) and employing a dark, weighty timbre (as opposed to Lester Youngs lightcolored and light-weight timbre).
Example 19 shows a passage of Gordon playing a B-flat minor blues progression
(an A section of Blues Bikini, recorded in 1947) and Coltrane playing a similar
chord progression in the same key (Birks Works, recorded with Gillespie in 1951).
The excerpts similarities are greatest in tone quality and legato tonguing (neither of
which is evident in the transcriptions), and also that both are constructed primarily
in eighth notes. Note also Coltranes use of a whole-tone scale (used by Gillespie


Barbara Gardner, John Coltrane, Down Beat Music 1962 (an annual supplement), 67.
Dexter Gordon quoted in Chuck Berg, Dexter Gordon Making His Great Leap Forward, Down
Beat, February 10, 1977, 42.

Jazz Perspectives


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Example 19.

among many others) marked in m. 10. Coltrane recorded Birks Works again in
1957, harkening back to his days with Gillespie.44
The only studio-recorded Gillespie item with a Coltrane solo is We Love to
Boogie.45 It too shows a Dexter Gordon influence in its eighth note-based passages,
timbre, and articulation, although the wailing high notes predict Coltranes post1954 style. Coltranes solo begins four measures into a G concert blues:

Example 20.

As seen directly above, one aspect found in Coltranes playing with Gillespie is his
emphasis on his instruments upper register, a tendency found in his playing into the
early 1960s.46 Certainly he uses a fairly wide rangelow to highon his instrument
in these recordings, but his preference is for an average tessitura that is slightly higher
than Gordons of the same period, and Coltrane certainly tends to choose notes that
are on average higher than, say, Coleman Hawkinss or Ben Websters. Coltrane
shows interest in the saxophones altissimo range, hitting high concert F (a whole
step above his saxophones nominal highest note) on Birks Works (the January 13
version), Good Groove, and A Night in Tunisia (the January 20 version). That
last example finds Coltrane in m. 29 chromatically working his way up from his

Red Garland Quintet, Soul Junction, Prestige 7181, 1957, LP; reissued as Prestige PRCD-30169,
2007, compact disc.
Dizzy Gillespie, We Love to Boogie, Dee Gee 4005, 1951, EP, and possibly Dee Gee 3060, 1951,
78 rpm; reissued on Coltrane, The Last Giant.
In the 1960s, Coltrane never discontinued his playing in the upper and altissimo ranges; he did begin
playing in his lower register more than before. Discussed in Frank Kofsky, Black Nationalism and the
Revolution in Music (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1970), 237.

184 John Coltrane: Development of a Tenor Saxophonist

highest built-in pitch of Eb to altissimo E and F, slightly scooping to give a wailing

quality highly associated with his post-1954 work:

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Example 21.

A related upper-register practice is heard in his tendency to approach high notes

lying in his palm key range (the nominally highest four pitches on his saxophone; not
altissimo) with lead-in pitches from below. These gestures are either glissandi of
varying lengths that are fingered, or short scoops that are lipped up to the goal pitch.
Author Mark Gridley has noted that lipped scoops were common in the playing of
Duke Ellingtons longtime alto saxophonist, Johnny Hodges, one of Coltranes early
models. An example of Coltrane using a Hodges-like lipped glissando will be
discussed with regard to In a Mellotone below. Gridley suggests that Coltranes
fingered chromatic glissandi were an adaptation by Coltrane of the Hodges scooping
device.47 This is a practice that Coltrane utilized quite often in the second half of the
1950s and into the 1960s, especially while performing ballads. Illustrating the fingered
type of glissando, Example 22 shows a chromatic glissando of a major seventh up to
high D concert (the high E, a palm key) in Coltranes performance of Good Bait.48
Coltrane would record Good Bait again in 1958, once more revisiting his Gillespie

Example 22.


Gridley, Jazz Styles, 241.

In the passage, Coltrane refers to the melody of Josef Myrows 1941 pop song Autumn Nocturne.
John Coltrane with the Red Garland Quintet, Soultrane, Prestige 7142, 1958, LP; reissued as Prestige
30006, 2006, compact disc.

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Jazz Perspectives


Another significant influence upon Coltranes improvisational style was his own
highly active study of saxophone technique. Lewis Porter has documented how,
during this period, Coltrane in part practiced out of C. L. Hanon and Carl Czerny
piano technique books.50 Porter interviewed Dennis Sandole, Coltranes late-1940s/
early-1950s music instructor, who described the course of study that he gave
Coltrane. This approach included what Sandole called ultrachromaticism and
synthetic scales.51 Around this time, Coltrane became interested in patterns based on
chromatic intervallic architecture, both for practice and as a source of melodic
material (usually presented sequentially) for his solos. We know from recordings that
by the mid-1940s, two musicians in Coltranes sphere of listening, Charlie Parker52
and Dizzy Gillespie, occasionally presented chromatic patterns motivically in
sequence, and it could have been one of them, Sandole, and/or some other source
that inspired Coltrane in this practice. Example 23 shows an example of Coltrane
playing a pattern (in his performance on The Champ) that involves semitones and
major thirds; the motive (marked in brackets) descends sequentially by whole tones:

Example 23.

Of course, in the later 1950s and 1960s, Coltrane was known for incorporating
sequential chromatic patterns into his solos. This tendency clearly began many years
earlier when Coltrane was an apprentice with leaders such as Gillespie. From 1957,
here is a motive built on a diminished scale that is presented sequentially, as heard on
Coltranes composition Moments Notice53:

Example 24.

As would be expected, many aspects of Coltranes style of this period are

techniques too general to be traceable to a particular artist. One is his use of a wide

Porter, John Coltrane, 8183.

Sandole refers to nonatonic and decatonic scales. Ibid., 51.
See Woideck, Charlie Parker, for examples of Parker using chromatic sequences.
This pattern was first discussed, transcribed, and published in Carno, The Style of John Coltrane, 1819.

186 John Coltrane: Development of a Tenor Saxophonist

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variety of scales, which is certainly consistent with the experimentation associated

with modern jazz. As did the Valentine-session saxophonist, Coltrane occasionally
uses minor pentatonic scales, most oftenbut not alwayswhile improvising over a
blues chord progression. Unlike the Valentine saxophonist, Coltrane with Gillespie
several times employs what is today called the blues scale (formed by taking a minor
pentatonic scale and inserting an additional chromatic tone between the perfect 4th
and 5th degrees).
Also notable is Coltranes use of tonic-based harmonic and melodic (ascending)
minor scales. (Two of the compositions in this group, A Night in Tunisia and
Birks Works, are in minor keys; none of the pieces previously discussed were in
minor.) In this solo break leading on A Night in Tunisia, Coltrane ascends using D
melodic minor and descends with D harmonic minor:

Example 25.

Even more common is his use of a whole-tone scale passage at V7-I or V7-i
cadences, an approach that was also not employed in the Valentine session. Here is an
example in a minor key from Coltranes performance of Birks Works (note also
the voice-leading device no. 1, discussed above):

Example 26.

Coltrane was only 24 years old at the time of the Gillespie small group recordings.
Not surprisingly, he was still developing as a musician. One notable misstep in his
playing occurs on the later of two versions of Good Bait, during which Coltrane
goes down the wrong harmonic alley at the B section. The chord structure of the
A section of Good Bait resembles in various ways the popular songs I Got
Rhythm, You Took Advantage of Me, and Between the Devil and the Deep Blue
Sea, but the B section of Good Bait does not follow that of any of those pop
songs. Instead, the A section progression is simply transposed up a perfect fourth
for the B section. In Example 27 (the upper stave), which is taken from the
January/February recording of Good Bait, we see Coltrane initially trying to use the
B chord progression of I Got Rhythm (D7, followed by G7, C7, and F7). This

Jazz Perspectives


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was evidently just a momentary lapse, not a lack of harmonic knowledge. As seen in
Example 27 (in the lower stave), on the earlier Gillespie live recording of Good Bait,
Coltrane then navigated the proper B section clearly.

Example 27.

As mentioned at the opening of this essay, Coltranes style was said in 1955 to
resemble that of tenor saxophonist Edward Sonny Stitt. In 1962, Coltrane spoke of
being attracted to Stitts approach during Coltranes time with Gillespie: Sonnys
playing sounded like something I would like to do. He sounded like something
between Dexter [Gordon] and Wardell [Gray], an outgrowth of both of them.54
When Stitt improvised in strings of eighth notes, he was more likely than Gordon or
Coltrane to slur rather than legato-tongue. More strikingly, Stitt was more likely than
Gordon or Coltrane to double-time at medium tempos.55 Stitt was also known for
developing a large repertoire of prepared phrases that could be mixed and matched
while improvising. If there is a detectable Stitt influence in the recordings studied in
this article, it might come in Coltranes general usage of prepared phrases while
negotiating rapid tempos (see The Champ, above, although that Coltrane solo does
not resemble Stitt in detail).56 Perhaps because both Coltrane and Stitt were
influenced by Charlie Parker and Lester Young, it is difficult to pinpoint a more
specific Stitt influence on these Gillespie recordings.

Gardner, John Coltrane, 67.

Although tenorists Stitt and Coltrane were both influenced by Lester Young and Charlie Parker, Stitt
retained Parkers rhythmic characteristics to a greater degree at this time. Comparing Coltranes solo on
the blues We Love to Boogie (discussed in this article) with Stitts October 17, 1949, recording
Buds Blues, Stitt shows far greater rhythmic variety than Coltrane. Sonny Stitt, Buds Blues,
Prestige 706, 1949, 78 rpm; reissue on Stitts Bits: Bebop Recordings, 19491952, Prestige PRCD3-300432, 2006, compact disc.
Mark Gridley has found similarities between Coltranes solo on Oleo (with Miles Davis, recorded
October 26, 1956) and Stitts solo on The Eternal Triangle (with Dizzy Gillespie, recorded December
19, 1957), both out of the time-frame of this article. The solos find the two saxophonists using in part
prepared, boppish phrases at a rapid tempo. Miles Davis Quintet, Relaxin with the Miles Davis Quintet,
Prestige PLP 7129, 1956, LP; reissued as Prestige CPRCD-8104-2, 2006, compact disc. Sonny Stitt,
Sonny Side Up, Verve MGV 8262, 1958, LP; reissued as Verve 731452142627, 1997, compact disc. Also
see Gridley, Jazz Styles, 254.

188 John Coltrane: Development of a Tenor Saxophonist

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On the Dizzy Gillespie small group recordings, Coltrane is clearly a player in

transition, as he is still assimilating his influences and gradually finding his own
way. Remnants of the styles of Lester Young, Dexter Gordon, Johnny Hodges, and
Charlie Parker are evident. As would be expected with a more experienced player,
gone are the problems of rhythmic execution that were so prevalent in his much
earlier 1946 recordings on alto sax (and, in the 1950 Gillespie big band recordings,
if that player was indeed Coltrane). He shows solid command of his instrument
and a Parker/Gillespie-influenced harmonic vocabulary. Anticipating his later,
better-documented style, Coltrane shows an interest in sequential chromatic
patterns, displays a tenor saxophone range that extends slightly above his nominal
highest pitch, and wails on high notes, sometimes with lipped or fingered lead-in
With Kittrell and Crosse
In March 1951, after his tenure with Dizzy Gillespies group, Coltrane returned to
Philadelphia where he freelanced (when not on the road) with various R&B-oriented
bandleaders. During this period, Coltrane may have occasionally made commercial
recordings with these regional bandleaders and may have taken improvised solos on
those records. As of this writing, three sets of recordings from this period have been
discovered that may contain Coltrane tenor sax solos. Unfortunately, none of the
accompanying musicians were credited on the records labels.
The first two sets of recordings were made for the Republic label of Nashville,
Tennessee. One set (with four selections) was led by the Louis Jordan-influenced
vocalist and sometime saxophonist Gay Crosse; the other set (with two selections)
was led by vocalist Christine Kittrell, with second vocalist Crosse and some or all of
Crosses band as accompanists. The exact date(s) of recording are unknown; the six
selections were released in three batches in late 1952 and early 1953.
Coltrane was definitely in the Crosse band during January, February, and March of
1952.57 Coltrane left Crosse and joined Earl Bostics band around April 1,58 and tenor
saxophonist Joe Alexander replaced Coltrane in Crosses band around that time, and

For example, evidence of this connection can be found in two Cleveland Call and Post articles from
early 1952. One January announcement notes that Crosses new tenor man, John Cole Trane [sic],
formerly with Dizzy Gillespie, will rock the house with the best of them, is handsome, personable, and
young. The Cleveland Call and Post, Saturday, January 19, 1952, p. 4-D. In the next month, it was
reported that Crosse revealed that he has some new men in the combination which open at the Rose
Room on March third. They are James Robertson on the trumpet, John Coletrane [sic] on tenor sax and
Specs Wright on drums. The same article further adds that Gay said last week that he and the Good
Humor Six will cut another disc for GOTHAM soon, No Better For You, on the other side of which is
Slow And Easy written by bassman Lathan. (Uppercase in original.) The Cleveland Call and Post,
Saturday, February 23, 1952, p. 4-D. Thanks to William E. Anderson for researching this at my request
and for providing photocopies of both clippings.
Based on a press release, Lewis Porter (John Coltrane, 315) reports that Bostics tour began on April 1.
Coltrane recorded on tenor saxophone with Bostic on April 7 and August 15, 1952, but he did not solo
on any of those selections.

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Jazz Perspectives


most certainly by April 26th.59 The first of the Crosse-led selections were released
around November, 1952,60 so at first glance, both Coltrane and Alexander would be
candidates for the tenor sax soloist in question. But based on aural evidence (e.g.,
several of his recordings from the mid-1950s), Alexander is most likely not the tenor
sax soloist in question on these recordings.61
One older discography suggests that the Kittrell selections were probably recorded
in January 1952,62 consistent with Coltranes early 1952 tenure with Crosse. However,
in December 1952, Kittrell was reported to have only recently signed with Republic,63
so late 1952 (or early 1953) is a more realistic time frame for her session. Crosses
No Better for You and Tired of Being Shoved Around were reviewed as new
releases in November 1952,64 and thus these titles are more likely to have been
recorded in the latter part of 1952 rather than early in the year as previously thought.
(Independent R&B labels commonly rushed new releases to reviewers, disc jockeys,
and the public as soon as possible after recording.)
According to previous chronologies of Coltranes career, by that time, Coltrane
had long been out of Crosses group (in part because he had been working with Earl
Bostic). Thus, he would not likely have participated in later-1952 Crosse recording
sessions.65 However, new research reveals that after his stint with Bostic, the
saxophonist rejoined Crosse for an undetermined period around the time of the
Crosse selections likely recording dates. Crosse had musical jobs in Cleveland from
November 10 to 16 and December 1 to 13, 1952, and Coltranes later tenure in
Crosses band is confirmed both by a postmarked letter that he wrote during the
earlier engagement66 and by a newspaper article that was published during the second

The Cleveland Call and Post reported that backing Gay up are Joe Alexander, Stanley OLaughlin,
James Robertson, Oliver (Junior) Jackson, and John Lathan. The Cleveland Call and Post, Saturday,
April 26, 1952, p. 6D. Thanks to Chris DeVito for supplying this clipping.
No Better for You and Tired of Being Shoved Around were reviewed as new releases in
November, 1952. The Billboard, November 8, 1952, 89. (The magazine was published in Cincinnati and
mailed to subscribers some days before the cover date. The copies I consulted were received in Portland,
Oregon, one or two days before the cover dates.) Easy Rockin and G. C. Rock were reviewed as
new releases in March, 1953. The Billboard, March 14, 1953, 48.
Tadd Dameron, Fontainebleau, Prestige PLP 7037, 1956, LP; reissued as Original Jazz Classics OJC055, 1991, compact disc. Alexander solos on Delirium and Bula-Beige. Compared with positively
identified Coltrane solos of the period and the jazzier soloist with Crosse/Kittrell, Alexanders tonguing is
a bit less legato and his tessitura is slightly lower. Alexanders melodic line is more stepwise and less
arpeggiated than Coltranes, and, unlike Coltrane, he seldom develops melodic motives. Alexander does
briefly use Lester Young-style repeated alternate timbral fingerings on Bula-Beige, but that passage is
one of few notable similarities between mid-1950s Alexander and Coltrane of the 1950s.
Fujioka, Porter, and Hamada, John Coltrane: A Discography, 18.
The Billboard, December 20, 1952, 43. Those two performances were reviewed as new releases in
February, 1953. See The Billboard, February 7, 1953, 28.
The Billboard, November 8, 1952, 89. Easy Rockin and G. C. Rock were reviewed as new
releases in March, 1953. The Billboard, March 14, 1953, 48.
It is unknown when Coltrane left Earl Bostics band. He was likely with the group at least through
August 24, 1952, when the band finished its engagement in Los Angeles, where Coltrane had recorded
but not soloed with Bostic on August 15.
Coltrane wrote his mother from Cleveland and mentions being there with Crosse. The envelope is
postmarked November 12, 1952. Jazz (Guernseys), 95.

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190 John Coltrane: Development of a Tenor Saxophonist

job.67 Exactly when he rejoined the Crosse band is not clear, but given the
approximate period of his departure from Earl Bostic, Coltrane could have rejoined
Crosse as soon as late August 1952, thereby giving him plenty of time to record the
selections in question. Coltrane could have been asked to record with Crosse and
then rejoined the group for performances. How long Coltrane stayed with this band
this time is not known.
Of the four Crosse-led selections, No Better for You and Easy Rockin best
exhibit the style of the jazz-oriented tenor saxophonist in question. Judging from
general tone quality and upper-register wailing, the tenor soloist on Tired of Being
Shoved Around is the same player, but the passage is almost completely set (not
improvised) and reveals little of the players individual tendencies. G. C. Rock
features an uncredited alto saxophone solo that is not central to this article because
this performance is not played on the tenor sax. Of the two Kittrell-led pieces, only
Gotta Stop Loving You reveals much about the jazz-oriented tenor saxophonist.
Slave to Love features a tenor saxophonist whose timbre and phrasing does not
resemble the other tenor solos. It must be said, however, that the players R&Boriented bending of notes and use of a growling and raspy subtone tend to mask the
musicians identity. It could be Crosse himself, who, although associated with playing
alto sax, could have played this simple passage on the tenor (as could have countless
professional saxophonists of the time). Based on aural evidence, I assume that the
tenor saxophonist on Crosses No Better for You, Easy Rockin, Tired of Being
Shoved Around, and Kittrells Gotta Stop Loving You is the same player, and that
the growling tenor sax soloist on Slave to Love is another musician.
Like Coltrane in the early 1950s, the Crosse/Kittrell soloist also seems to display a
Charlie Parker influence (Gotta Stop Loving You, below). The tenorists legato
tonguing of strings of eighth notes generally resembles Coltranes work with the
Gillespie small groups (and that of the unidentified Gillespie big band soloist). The
soloists open and dark tone quality is closer to that of Coltranes work with Gillespie
than that of the unknown soloist with Billy Valentine. There is a bit more grit or
sizzle in the Crosse/Kittrell players tone quality than in Coltranes jazz playing of the
1950s, although some of that sizzle seems to come from the worn surface of the
original records. The saxophonist nearly always plays at a forte dynamic level, but
during one moment in Easy Rockin, where he plays at mezzo forte, the grittiness
dissipates and a keening tone quality emerges that sounds much like later Coltrane:

The Cleveland Call and Post reported that with Gaye now are Stanley OLaughlin on piano, Oliver
Jackson on drums, Ali Jackson who plays a terrific bass, John Coletrane [sic] on tenor sax. See No
Door Charges: Gaye Crosse Goes Large at Ebony, The Cleveland Call and Post, December 6, 1952,
p. 7-B. The Ebony Club engagement began December 1, 1952. Crosse and his band were also at the
Ebony from November 10 to 16, 1952, and although no personnel was listed in the newspaper for
that engagement, the letter discussed in the previous footnote above establishes Coltranes presence. See
The Cleveland Call and Post, November 8, 1952, p. 7-B, and November 15, 1952, p. 5-B. Thanks to
William E. Anderson for researching this matter in Cleveland at my request. This research has since been
published in John Coltrane Reference, 7778.

Jazz Perspectives


Example 28.

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The saxophone soloist also displays a sure command of blues phraseology, as would
be essential in this context. This characteristically bluesy phrase is just one of many in
this Easy Rockin solo:

Example 29.

(This phrase will also be discussed below with regard to a nearly identical passage in
the Coatesville Harris recording Ham Hocks and Hominy.)
The saxophonists average tessitura is again higher than Dexter Gordons of the
period. On display is the tenorists altissimo register, including two very confident
and wailing high concert Gs (A on the tenor sax; a major third above his tenor saxs
nominal highest note, and a whole step above Coltranes highest pitch on the Dizzy
Gillespie sessions) on Easy Rockin. As was seen in the Billy Valentine recordings,
note here the minor pentatonic descents in mm. 13 and 18 and the ascending blues
scale in m. 14:

Example 30.

The tenor soloist on the Christine Kittrell-led Gotta Stop Loving You begins with
the same strong altissimo concert G pitch heard twice on Easy Rockin. That,
along with identical tone qualities heard on the other Crosse recordings, establishes
that the same tenor saxophonist is a soloist on both the Crosse and Kittrell

192 John Coltrane: Development of a Tenor Saxophonist

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Along with tone quality, tessitura, and use of altissimo, one very brief instance on
the Crosse recordings that relates to Coltranes solos with the Gillespie small groups is
the use of a single alternate timbral fingering (see the next example). That said, this
technique is employed only once and without the Lester Young-like immediate
repetition heard in the Gillespie and Valentine recordings.
One technique that Coltrane would later use (see the Coatesville Harris session
below) that is heard in one performance here is the saxophonists manipulation of
short motives to unify an improvisational passage. In the No Better for You
excerpt shown in Example 31, the two-note motive is marked by a bracket, and an
alternate fingering marked with a +:

Example 31.

When playing strings of eighth notes, as in the No Better for You pickup and m.
1 shown in Example 32 below, the soloists melodic lines and articulations resemble
those of Dexter Gordon, and of the Gordon-influenced Coltrane on the Gillespie
small group broadcasts. As did Coltrane, the saxophonist in question has a tendency
to approach high notes lying in the palm key range with lead-in pitches from below.
The following No Better for You example includes both a short scoop lipped up to
the goal pitch (m. 2) and a fingered glissando (m. 3, albeit too rapid to notate
individual pitches):

Example 32.

The last two measures of the above example contain the melodic device discussed
above with regard to Oo-La-La, specifically the octave drop followed by a major
second rise. Example 33 shows a comparison between No Better for You and OoLa-La with the octave drop-major second melodic movement circled. (Here, OoLa-La has been transposed into the same key as No Better for You for easy

Jazz Perspectives


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Example 33.

(The triplet figure in m. 25 of Oo-La-La is ornamental, and is not central to my

discussion of the melodic movement.) Heard back-to-back, the two excerpts have a
similar open-throated tone quality, although the former is slurred and the latter is
legato tongued.
At a quarter-note tempo of 82 bpm, Gotta Stop Loving You is the slowest
performance examined thus far in this article. This recording shows how the
saxophonist is able to double-time in sixteenth notes in a modern jazz fashion. After
a minor pentatonic descent from the wailing opening high G mentioned above, in m. 4,
the saxophonist implies a modern jazz-influenced substitute progression (ii7-V7 of IV)
over the basic tonic chord that is in effect:

Example 34.

In mm. 5 and 6, over the subdominant, the saxophonist pivots between a lower Eb
and higher Ab in a way that recalls Charlie Parkers second solo of the master take
(take 5) of the 1948 Parkers Mood, where Parker (also in mm. 5 and 6, over the
subdominant) pivots between a lower Eb and either a higher C or Db. Note in
Example 35 (which includes this excerpt), how Parker also begins his passage with an
implied ii7-V7 in the area of the subdominant in m. 4.

Example 35.

194 John Coltrane: Development of a Tenor Saxophonist

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The strong, phrase-beginning altissimo concert Gs heard in both Easy Rockin

and Gotta Stop Loving You give us another basis for comparison between the
unknown saxophonist and known Coltrane recordings. In the 1950s, he developed
the ability to confidently approach and depart from his altissimo range. (Possibly
because of changes in embouchure and mouthpiece, this was not always true in the
1960s.) That he could begin a phrase with such a strong concert high G is
demonstrated in a live 1960 All Blues recording made while Coltrane was touring
with Miles Davis. Note that Coltrane, like the saxophonist in Gotta Stop Loving
You, also descends a minor 13th to a midrange Bb as the lowest note of the phrase:

Example 36.

The Crosse/Kittrell saxophonist in question in No Better for You is clearly a

contemporary player who is influenced by then-popular modern jazz harmonic
concepts, as seen in the descent from the 13 to the #11 in m. 17 (recalling Oo-La-La,
above, and presaging In a Mellotone, below), and the b9 and b5 alterations in
mm. 1920:

Example 37.

Although Coltrane primarily played tenor sax with Gay Crosse, he also played alto
sax with the band, as James Moody remembered: I heard him in Cleveland playing
alto saxophone with a bandleader name[d] Gay Crosse, and I said damn, who was
that cat? Trane was smokin. He had another kind of drive. He sounded different
from Charlie Parker and Dexter Gordon.68
Like the tenorist on No Better for You, the altoist on G. C. Rock also descends
from the 13th to the #11 on a dominant chord. And like tenorist Coltrane on The


Doug Ramsey, liner notes to John Coltrane in the Fifties (p. 11), in John Coltrane, John Coltrane:
The Prestige Recordings, Prestige 16PCD-4405-2, 1991, 16 compact discs. Thanks to Chris DeVito for
pointing this out.

Jazz Perspectives


Champ (discussed in the Gillespie sessions above), the altoist uses the modern jazzassociated voice-leading device no. 2:

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Example 38.

This particular 13 to #11 descent recalls Charlie Parker. Scholar Thomas Owens
found approximately 40 examples of Parker using this basic phrase in recordings.69
It would be valuable to this article if the transcriptions of the altoist on G. C.
Rock could help determine whether or not the Crosse/Kittrell tenorist is Coltrane.
Both play versions of the descending 13 to #11 device, but this device was common
among modern jazz players of the time, and the passage is too brief to make a positive
correlation solely on that basis. The altoists melodic style is clearly influenced by
bebop, and understandably this style has some elements in common with known
Coltrane solos, including the modern jazz-associated voice-leading device no. 2
discussed above (also a common device and not conclusive). But the saxophonists
tone quality does not resemble that of Coltrane playing alto while in the Navy in
1946,70 and only somewhat the sound of him playing the instrument under Gene
Ammonss leadership in 1958.71 This players overall tone is without a lot of edge,
rather like Gigi Gryce or early Art Pepper. Coltrane described Crosses sax style as
something like Louis Jordan.72 The alto sax soloist on G. C. Rock plays in a style
more modern than Jordan, and given the limited instrumentation of Crosses Good
Humor Six (two saxes, trumpet, piano, bass, and drums), the player is more likely the
jazz tenor soloist discussed above, doubling on alto. If it is indeed Coltrane, perhaps
he was playing on a borrowed horn whose mouthpiece and reed combination
produced a tone quality unlike his other work on alto sax.
Given the Crosse/Kittrell jazz tenorists tone quality when playing mezzo forte,
tessitura, use of altissimo, manipulation of a short motive, and one-time use of an
alternate fingering, the tenor saxophone soloist could be John Coltrane emphasizing
his Dexter Gordon roots. Also, the similar aspects (tone quality and the noted

Owens, vol. 2, Charlie Parker: Techniques of Improvisation, 6.

The Navy-era session was recorded non-commercially July 13, 1946. One selection from the session,
Hot House, was released on Coltrane, The Last Giant.
Gene Ammons, Groove Blues, Prestige PLP 7201, 1958, LP; reissued as Original Jazz Classics OJCD
723, 1995. Gene Ammons, The Big Sound, Prestige PLP 7132, 1958, LP; reissued as Original Jazz
Classics 651, 1991, compact disc. Coltrane borrowed Ira Gittlers alto sax for this recording.
The full quote reads: He [Crosse] used to be with Louis Jordan one time, his band. He had a little
band that was patterned after Louis band. He sang and played something like Louis. John Coltrane,
unpublished tape interview by August Blume, June 15, 1958. Transcribed by the author.

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196 John Coltrane: Development of a Tenor Saxophonist

melodic device) found in both the unidentified Gillespie big band soloist (discussed
above) and the Crosse/Kittrell jazz soloist tend to reinforce the idea that the two
soloists might be the same person. Finally, the nearly identical phrase found in both
the Gay Crosse and the Coatesville Harris recordings (below) reinforces the notion
that both of those soloists might be the same person.
If the saxophonist is indeed Coltrane, what could we observe about his stylistic
development since the Dizzy Gillespie small group recordings? This is a difficult
question because Coltrane enjoyed greater artistic freedom with Gillespie than he did
in his R&B freelance work. (As quoted above, during this period he played what the
others expected of him.) In addition, the Crosse/Kittrell sessions offer a smaller
soloistic sample to analyze compared with the Gillespie sessions. Nevertheless, No
Better for You, Gotta Stop Loving You, and Easy Rockin show limited
adaptation to R&B aesthetics, and thus form the best basis for comparison. If this
musician is Coltrane, he displays a generalized continuing influence of Gordon and
Parker and a lessened influence of Lester Young (as evidenced in the use of only one
timbral fingering). Techniques heard in the Dizzy Gillespie recordings but not heard
in the Crosse/Kittrell sessions are sequential chromatic patterns and whole-tone
passages. Lack of these devices is to be expected, given the more conservative R&B
context. The main technical development heard here is the display of confident
double-timing on Gotta Stop Loving You. Over time, Coltrane may have gained
the technical assurance required to employ the technique, and/or the slower tempo of
Gotta Stop Loving You made the double-timing easier. Few similar melodic
phrases are heard in both the Gillespie and Crosse/Kittrell recordings, but that would
not be surprising given Coltranes well-known penchant for gradually overhauling his
musical vocabulary over time.

With Coatsville Harris

The next possible Coltrane recording to be discussed has not been dated with any
certainty, but may be from late 1952 or sometime in 1953. This document is a
recording by drummer James Coatesville Harris for the Nestor label, a small
independent Philadelphia company. Coltrane had known Harris at least as early as
April 1951,73 but several clues point to a later date for this specific recording. Further,
Robert L. Campbell has pointed out74 that on one selection, Ham Hocks and


In April, Coltrane and the Heath group were working at the Zanzibar nightclub, where they
encountered drummer Coatesville Harris. Lewis Porter found this notice in the April 14, 1951, issue of
the Philadelphia Tribune: Coatesville Harris, visiting with Jimmy Heath and his boopers [sic], including:
John Coltrane, tenor, Specs Wright, drums; Tom Bryant, bass, and James Forman, piano. Porter, John
Coltrane, 349 (no page number for the Philadelphia Tribune article is supplied). It is not clear what
visiting means in this statement, but Harris either dropped by the club and chatted with Heath, et al.,
or he sat in with the group.
Robert L. Campbell, email communication to the Jazz Research listserv, July 30, 2001. Willie Mabon,
I Dont Know, Parrot 1050 and Chess 1531, both 1952, 78 rpm.

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Jazz Perspectives


Hominy, singer Rodney Smith uses an exaggerated pronunciation of the word

baby that is a distinct reference to singer Willie Mabons I Dont Know, which
debuted on Billboards R&B chart on December 6, 1952.75 So, most likely, this
recording was made after the release of the Mabon recording in late 1952.76 The
Nestor label was reportedly active from approximately 19531955, although those
dates are not firm.77
The possible Coltrane connection with this disc was first noticed by Swiss
saxophonist and collector Mario Schneeberger.78 Although recording sessions
intended to produce R&B singles routinely yielded four or more selections, only
one disc with two selections by Harris with Coltrane has been found thus far.
The two tenor sax solos total only about 29 measures, making this session the
briefest sample of possible or definite Coltrane solos in the period covered in this
The songs are Ham Hocks and Hominy (with a tenor sax solo of 16-plus
measures) and Strange Things All the Rage (with a solo of 12-plus measures), both
sung by vocalist Rodney Smith.79 The songs are written in the novelty R&B/jump
blues style popularized by Louis Jordan. They are performed in a manner that is
more energetic than the Billy Valentine early R&B session but not as aggressive as
many gutbucket R&B records of the time. The saxophonist responds to this
stylistic mood by playing forcefully, but without any honking or squealing. The sax
solos are almost entirely in the then-current modern jazz style. The soloist does
not use alternate timbral fingerings, although that is not surprising; by Coltranes
initial 19551956 recordings with Miles Davis, Coltrane seldom used those
fingerings (and, more specifically, he did not use them repetitively in the manner
of Lester Young). Most importantly (and impossible to notate), the soloists
timbre strongly resembles that of Coltrane of the mid- to late-1950s in its keening
The solo section of Ham Hocks and Hominy is based on the A section chord
progression to I Got Rhythm, but this passage is set in the key of F instead of the
customary Bb. The tenor saxophonists explicit use of the Charlie Parker vocabulary
is minimal; the most concrete instance can be seen in Example 39, which shows the
one figure (m. 14 of the sax solo) that recalls the arpeggio-based figure already
discussed with regard to Aint Gonna Cry No More. More substantially, the
saxophonist shows a basic grasp of modern jazz harmony, employing a tritone


Mabon also used the same vocal device on Im Mad which debuted on April, 25, 1953. Willie
Mabon, Im Mad, Chess Matrix U4328, 1953, 78 rpm.
Of course, Rodney Smith could have heard Mabon sing in that manner in live performance, before the
release of the recording I Dont Know.
Bob McGrath, vol. 2, The R&B Indies (West Vancouver, BC: Eyeball, 2000), 836. Email
communication by Robert Campbell to Jazz Research listserv, July 30, 2001.
This copy of the Coatesville Harris 78-rpm record was owned by collector Otto Fluckiger. Armin
Buettner posted the discovery to the Jazz Research listserv, July 26, 2001.
Rodney Smith, Strange Things Are All the Rage, Nestor JG-06, n.d., 78 rpm.

198 John Coltrane: Development of a Tenor Saxophonist

substitution (Cb7 for F7) in m. 5 and implying a b9 alteration over the V7 (C7)
in m. 8:

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Example 39.

The soloists most prominent nod to an R&B aesthetic comes with a bluesy phrase
that peaks on an altissimo concert F (Coltranes altissimo G) at the end of his solo on
Ham Hocks and Hominy. The phrase is nearly identical (although in a different
key) to one in the Gay Crosse Easy Rockin solo discussed above. The phrase was
not unique to Coltrane or any other player (for example, Wardell Gray, who influenced
Coltrane, played a very similar phrase80), but its occurrence in two solos recorded by
two groups at two different times at least raises the possibility that the two solos may
have been played by the same saxophonist. In Example 40, Easy Rockin has been
transposed into the same key as Ham Hocks and Hominy for easy comparison:

Example 40.

The soloists solid harmonic knowledge is seen in his confident arpeggiation of

chords, a tendency that is of course associated with many of Coltranes late 1950s
recordings.81 As seen in Example 41, the opening of the solo on Strange Things All
the Rage (a blues in F minor) is based on a simple three-note arpeggiated motive

Wardell Gray plays a very similar phrase on Tootsie, recorded by Count Basie for the Columbia
label on November 3, 1950. Count Basie and His Orchestra, Tootsie, Columbia CL901, 1950, 78
rpm; reissued on Count Basie and His Orchestra, 19501951, Classics CD1228, 2002, compact disc. The
beginning of the phrase (the first five notes) in Easy Rockin of course derives from Charlie Parkers
alto sax solo on Billies Bounce, recorded for the Savoy label on November 26, 1945. Charlie Parker,
Billies Bounce, Savoy 573, 1945, 78 rpm; reissued on Charlie Parker, Nows the Time, Savoy SVY17587, 2006, compact disc.
Coltranes interest in arpeggiation during the 1950s partly stemmed from his interest in tenor
saxophonist Coleman Hawkins. No early recordings survive that document Coltrane sounding strongly
reminiscent of Hawkins, and most likely the Hawkins influence was always indirect. In 1960, however,
Coltrane said: The first time I heard Hawk, I was fascinated by his arpeggios and the way he played. I got a
copy of Body and Soul and listened real hard to what he was doing. And even though I dug Pres, as I grew
musically, I appreciated Hawk more and more. Coltrane and DeMicheal, Coltrane on Coltrane, 30.

Jazz Perspectives


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(marked below) that he creatively develops and uses to suggest harmonies over the
course of the opening six measures, as well as later in mm. 1011. Note also the
previously discussed voice-leading device no. 1 at the end of the solo.

Example 41.

Of all of the sessions discussed thus far with an unidentified tenor saxophone
soloist (i.e., those with the Dizzy Gillespie big band, Billy Valentine, and Gay Crosse/
Christine Kittrell), the Coatesville Harris soloist most resembles known Coltrane. The
soloists timbre, tessitura, confidence in the altissimo range, occasional wailing high
notes, creative arpeggiation, use of motivic development, and sense of swing suggest
the Coltrane heard on the 1954 Johnny Hodges recordings (discussed below) and the
19551956 Miles Davis sessions. Indeed, for the first time in the period studied here,
Coltrane has absorbed his influences and found his own voice to the point that he is
very easily recognizable. I feel confident in saying that this tenor sax soloist is John
Coltrane. Regardless, assuming this saxophonist is indeed Coltrane, what can we
observe about his stylistic development beyond his work in the Dizzy Gillespie small
group recordings (and provisionally, the Crosse/Kittrell recordings)? Again, the small
sample allows only tentative conclusions.
Compared with the Gillespie small group recordings, Coltrane on the Harris sides
perhaps displays less reliance on Dexter Gordon-like strings of eighth notes over
swing accompaniment (e.g., in Ham Hocks and Hominy). His tone quality, while
still comparatively large and throaty (as in the Gillespie small-group recordings
above), has become a bit more lean and wailing and resembles his sound as displayed
on his 19551956 jazz recordings with Miles Davis and others. Finalizing a trend
observed in the Crosse/Kittrell solos, Lester Young-like timbral fingerings are absent,

200 John Coltrane: Development of a Tenor Saxophonist

as are literal borrowings from Charlie Parker. Only one phrase appears in both a
Harris and a Crosse solo (in both Ham Hocks and Hominy and Easy Rockin
above), but that is not surprising, given Coltranes penchant for overhauling his
musical vocabulary over time.

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With Johnny Hodges

The remaining group of pre-Miles Davis recordings by Coltrane is from a live
amateur tape recording of alto saxophonist Johnny Hodgess septet with Coltrane as
the tenor saxophonist. Hodges had left Duke Ellington in 1951 to lead his own group.
This ensemble included a number of former members of Ellingtons big band, and
the band played in a swing-era style with occasional forays into an early R&B
approach. The original-release bootleg LP of the recordings with Coltrane attributes
these performances to a dance engagement in 1954.82 Coltrane joined Hodges in
January, 1954 and probably left the group that July.83 Unlike the Dizzy Gillespie small
group live recordings on which Coltranes name is announced, there are no
announcements on this Hodges recording. Coltranes self-stated itinerary84 and the
aural evidence of the soloists approach to swing, timbre, tessitura, the altissimo
range, wailing high notes, and other factors establish his presence on the Johnny
Hodges live recording. The remainder of this article is developed on the assumption
that this performer is in fact Coltrane.
Coltrane solos on four of seven pieces captured on this Hodges tape. Although this
number is significantly smaller than the eleven solos found in the previously
discussed Gillespie live recordings, Coltrane generally takes longer solos here. As
such, Coltranes total solo space is almost identical in both groups. On the Hodges
tape, he is in the foreground for about seven and a half minutes, thus making this an
excellent sample of his improvisational work the year before he joined and began
recording with Miles Davis.
In these solos, Coltrane amply demonstrates how his music had developed in the
three-plus years since the Dizzy Gillespie recordings. His harmonic knowledge had
increased, as had his technical command of the saxophone (this improvement can be
heard in his double-timing, for example). Few very specific traces of his early
influences still remained; for example, at no time does he use repeating timbral
fingerings in the Lester Young manner. In general, he had absorbed his influences
more thoroughly than before and had integrated these inspirations into his own
developing style. Even more than on the Coatesville Harris session, Coltrane here
shows that he had found his own voice. This is probably because Hodges, in a live
setting, clearly granted Coltrane both artistic freedom and room to solo at length (as
Johnny Hodges, At a Dance, In a Studio, On Radio, Enigma 1052, n.d., bootleg LP. This recording was
manufactured by Boris Rose, who was also the source of the Dizzy Gillespie small group recordings from
Birdland discussed earlier in this article.
John Coltrane Reference, 8693.
Coltrane, Jazz Encyclopedia Questionnaire, 85.

Jazz Perspectives


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opposed to the situation of the more time-limited Harris studio recordings).

Coltrane plays superbly, and for the most part he is easily recognizable.
Coltrane shows his extensive R&B experience by superimposing bluesy ideas on
non-blues forms. As seen in Example 42, at the beginning of his third-chorus B
section of Thru for the Night (based on the chord structure of the song
Honeysuckle Rose), Coltrane presents in triplets an idea that was common in blues
in one form or another since the 1930s or earlier (a related figure can even be heard
as far back as Scott Joplins 1914 Magnetic Rag). The arpeggiation in mm. 1718 also
resembles Coleman Hawkins, an early influence upon Coltrane.85

Example 42.

In part because of the greater spontaneity and longer solos of this live recording,
Coltranes harmonic knowledge is displayed more clearly on the Hodges date than
can be heard on the Crosse/Kittrell and Coatesville Harris sessions discussed above.
Here is a simple and elegant example of Coltrane using arpeggios motivically on In a
Mellotone to creatively outline a chord progression:

Example 43.

Like both the unidentified tenorist on Ooh-La-La and No Better for You and
the unknown altoist on G. C. Rock, while playing with Hodges Coltrane uses the
modern jazz device of a chromatic descent from the 13th to the #11 over a dominant

Thanks to Lewis Porter for pointing this out. Personal communication, May 27, 2005.

202 John Coltrane: Development of a Tenor Saxophonist

seventh-type chord. This observation reinforces the idea that all of those improvised
solos could be by the same saxophonist. Here, on In a Mellotone, Coltrane presents
the device based in eighth notes (a similar passage occurs in Thru for the Night):

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Example 44.

Like many jazz soloists, Coltrane often prepared patterns to play over specific
harmonic situations. These patterns tended to be of two types: those whose nondiatonic, chromatic architecture is not based on functional harmony (as seen in The
Champ, above); and those based on a compositions prevailing functional harmony.
The latter type is found in his solo on Thru for the Night. Here on an F7 chord at
the beginning of his fourth-chorus B section, he plays a prepared pattern
(resembling the jazz composition Donna Lee)86 that involves the scale tones F, G,
and A and their chromatic lower neighbor tones (circled):

Example 45.

An example of Coltrane playing a chromatic, non-functional pattern during the

Hodges session is heard just before the band plays Ive Got a Mind to Ramble Blues.
Whoever was taping the Hodges performance that night left the tape recorder on between
pieces and captured Coltrane quietly practicing a sequential pattern that was decidedly not
in the swing-era vocabulary of Hodges and the other reed players. (See Example 46.)
Coltranes practicing pattern involves the sequencing of minor thirds, ascending by
semitones. He tries the basic pattern three times, each presented slightly differently. The
third time, he finishes by descending melodically, just as the band begins to play. Again,
this is a taste of Coltrane to come. (See Moments Notice, above, for an example of how
he would use chromatic sequential patterns in 1957, just a few years later in his career.) In
addition, this moment gives us a window into one strategy Coltrane was then using to
improve his facility on the saxophone. Finally, Coltranes practicing between songs
resembles his later custom of practicing in private during set breaks at night clubs.87

Thanks to Lewis Porter for pointing this out. Ibid.

I experienced this first-hand when I heard John Coltranes quartet at Birdland in the summer of 1964.
Coltrane practiced in or near the kitchen during a set break.


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Jazz Perspectives


Example 46.

An important characteristic found in the Hodges session is Coltranes furious

double-timing. On the 1951 Gillespie recordings, Coltrane would have been welcome
to indulge in double-time, but he instead emphasized the strings of eighth notes
typical of Dexter Gordon. (Quite possibly, Coltrane did not then have the technical
ability to double-time at medium or faster tempos.) With Hodges, double-timing in
the modern jazz manner would not have been stylistic to the groups swing-era
aesthetic, but on Thru for the Night, In a Mellotone, and Dont Blame Me,
Coltrane nevertheless shows both his modern jazz values and his greater technical
assurance through extensive double-timing. Example 47 (overleaf), from In a
Mellotone, begins with another, more rapid, usage of the descending 13th to #11
device discussed above. Note also how smoothly Coltrane gets in and out of doubletiming, and his usage of voice-leading device no. 1 in m. 55.
Coltranes only ballad playing on any of the pre-Miles Davis tenor sax recordings
comes on Dont Blame Me, and here he double-times extensively. Although he
does not specifically quote Charlie Parker, Coltranes solo shows Parkers indirect
influence in its great rhythmic variety and some imaginative melodic flights of fancy.
(In passages before and after Example 48, Coltrane embellishes and paraphrases the
original melody in a way that is also very reminiscent of Parkers ballad playing.)
Example 48 is taken from Coltranes last A section of his first chorus on Dont
Blame Me. Note also his extensive use of altered dominant chords and his (and the
pianists) Ebmin7-Ab7 progression on beats 3 and 4 of m. 28 that substitutes for the
songs original C chord.88

This substitution is reminiscent of Dizzy Gillespies coda to Groovin High and m. 5 of Tadd
Damerons If You Could See Me Now.

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204 John Coltrane: Development of a Tenor Saxophonist

Example 47.

Example 48.

Jazz Perspectives


The last full measure above modulates because the bands arrangement sends the
soloist back to the B section for a final half chorus. Coltrane also notably
outlines the modulation with a triplet arpeggio in m. 32 that is reminiscent of his
work of the second half of the 1950s, for example in this 1957 performance of I
Love You:

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Example 49.

As discussed above, the influences upon Coltranes style (e.g., Hawkins, Parker)
were already fairly well assimilated by 1954. A renewed influence upon Coltranes art
during this time was his then-bandleader, Johnny Hodges. As quoted early in this
article, Coltrane called Hodges my first main influence on alto.89 Alto saxophonist
Coltrane had admired Hodges ten years previously, and now tenor saxophonist
Coltrane had a chance to observe Hodges first hand. The primary stylistic
characteristic of Hodges that we hear in Coltrane is Hodgess tendency to repeat
mid-to-upper-range pitches, scooping into them from below to give them a bluesy
wail. Here is Hodges on a blues progression from a 1941 performance of Things
Aint What They Used to Be:

Example 50.

Similarly, in Example 51, Coltrane gives In a Mellotone a bluesy flavor by wailing

on a high altissimo concert F (a whole step above his nominally highest note)90
with Hodgess band in 1954. Coltrane continued to wail on high notes (although
usually without so much immediate repetition) for the rest of his career. Even in an
improvisation dominated by long strings of rapid eighth notes such as the 1959
master take of Giant Steps, Coltrane punctuates his solo by periodically wailing on
a high concert C.
The most unusual Coltrane item among the 1954 Hodges recordings is Castle
Rock. On the Billy Valentine session, Coltrane had responded to the groups gentle,

Coltrane and DeMichael, Coltrane on Coltrane.

Played in the tenor saxs upper range, this passage is also reminiscent of Illinois Jacquet. Thanks to
Lewis Porter for pointing this out. Personal communication, May 27, 2005.


206 John Coltrane: Development of a Tenor Saxophonist

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Example 51.

jazz-influenced early R&B style by emphasizing his Lester Young roots. On Al Searss
composition Castle Rock, Coltrane responded to the Hodges groups more hard
R&B style with particularly aggressive playing that showed the influence of a
saxophone tradition that is not usually associated with him.
In its original 1951 studio recording, Castle Rock had featured former Ellington
tenor saxophonist Al Sears. On that record, Sears employs a somewhat raspy tone
quality and he likewise plays some honks on his horns lowest note, but the overall
mood is often quite relaxed with only occasional peaks of higher intensity. By the
time Coltrane and the Hodges group were recorded playing the piece live in 1954, the
performance had taken on a more urgent, harder-driving quality. Coltranes work in
particular has an ecstatic, testifying aspect that was not present in Al Searss studio version.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, what we now think of as the classic R&B tenor
saxophone style was gradually established. This style combined a raspy tone quality
originally derived from Coleman Hawkins, the repetitive worrying of pitches and
honking low notes associated with Lester Young, and sometimes the non-tempered
extreme high note squeals between pitches found in some of Illinois Jacquets work. It
is known that Coltrane sometimes played in such an R&B style in the early 1950s
when the job required it.91
Coltrane thought of himself as primarily a modern jazz musician, not as an R&B
player, and when he was called upon to play the aggressive R&B tenor saxophone role
on this piece, he evidently selected the traits of the style that were most compatible
with his jazz interests. For example, on this recording, Coltrane does not ever adopt a
raspy or gruff tone quality, nor does he squeal in a non-tempered way.
As we have already seen, Coltrane had long been interested in exploiting the
altissimo range of his tenor saxophone, so it is not surprising to hear him play high
concert Fs on In a Mellotone or Castle Rock. What is more notable is his use of
R&B-styled, bottom-register honks on his low Bb (concert Ab). In all of the other
solos transcribed and studied for this article, Coltrane had shown very little interest in
the lower range of his horn, never venturing below his low C (concert Bb)and that

J. C. Thomas, Chasin the Trane (New York: Da Capo Press, 1976), 5657.

Jazz Perspectives


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only very briefly in one solo (Congo Blues, above; one other solo may have a pianissimo
concert low Bb). Nevertheless, in the original recording of this Castle Rock, Al Sears
had honked in an R&B style on concert Ab (the song is in that key), and so Coltrane
pretty much had to do likewise. In this passage, Coltrane moves from altissimo high
concert G to a honk on his lowest note (concert Ab) in under five measures:

Example 52.

After his stint with Hodges and until about 1960, Coltrane largely avoided his
lowest notes during improvisation. When he began to play the soprano saxophone,
he discovered that he could play its lowest notes easily, and he was further inspired to
explore the bottom of his tenor sax also.92 Here, in Castle Rock, Coltrane combines
honking on Ab with a technique he had already been interested in, namely producing
harmonic overtones (as in Congo Blues, above). He moves between his lowest note
(concert Ab) and his tenor saxophones nominally highest note (concert Eb) several
times in a short span. Note the overtones at the octave and twelfth (marked by the
X note heads) on the low A-flats:

Example 53.

Kofsky, Black Nationalism, 237.

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208 John Coltrane: Development of a Tenor Saxophonist

Coltrane probably got these overtones incidentally as he aggressively attacked his

saxophones lowest note at full volume. In the 1960s, Coltrane would intentionally
and more extensively play and develop this technique of overblowing low notes to get
overtones (see Pursuance from A Love Supreme, above).
In an R&B context, listeners and critics often considered honking (with or without
overtones) and altissimo wailing (In a Mellotone, above) to be bluesy, down to
earth, and crowd-pleasing. In a mainstream jazz context (such as a Jazz at the
Philharmonic concert), those techniques were found to be pleasing by many casual
listeners but thought to be tasteless and gratuitous by many jazz critics. When
Coltrane employed honking and altissimo cries in avant-garde jazz contexts in the
1960s, many considered such techniques to be crowd-alienating, unacceptably harsh
and abstract, and not down to earth. Coltranes honking and use of this sort of
overtone technique sound gospel- and blues-derived when heard in an R&B setting,
but were considered by some to be part of an anti-jazz trend in an exploratory
jazz setting.93 Many critics and listeners were not aware of Coltranes experience
playing in R&B groups and perhaps did not note the similarities between the R&B
tenor saxophone tradition and his 1960s playing. This R&B/avant-garde connection
is a good example of the usefulness of knowing an artists roots, and this
connection also offers an example of how musical context can powerfully affect
listeners perceptions.
This live performance of Castle Rock includes several sections not on the studio
recording which extend the performance and add to its intensity. (These may have
been part of the original arrangement but were omitted to fit the performance on a
single record, or they may have been added later for live performance.) These
passages include a 12-measure section in which the tenor saxophonist improvises in
each of the twelve keys in ascending chromatic order. Here, as shown in Example 54,
Coltrane mixes a few honking R&B low notes with more abstract arpeggios very
effectively and confidently. (Note that a few notes in parentheses may be played by
the trombone, not the tenor sax.)
By September 1954 at the latest, Coltrane was out of the Hodges band and he was
once more based in Philadelphia.94 His freelance work over the next year included
stints with vocalist Big Maybelle (Mabel Smith), Bill Carney, and Jimmy Smith. By
late September 1955, Coltrane had joined the group of Miles Davis, and on October
26 the group made its first recordings. Coltranes days of uncredited R&B recordings
were over, and his musical anonymity was coming to an end.


John Tynan, Take 5, Down Beat, November 23, 1961, 40. Tynan took issue in part with Coltranes
playing chords (produced by manipulating overtones) on the saxophone.
Porter, John Coltrane, 94.

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Jazz Perspectives


Example 54.

Of the pre-Miles Davis recordings discussed in this paper, only the Gillespie studio/
live small group sessions and Hodges live small group sessions certainly include
Coltrane; the others are to varying degrees debatable. Had even only the Hodges
recordings been available to critics and the public in early 1956, they would have gone
a long way in establishing milestones for evaluating the development of Coltranes
tenor saxophone style in his pre-Miles Davis period.
On those tapes, Coltrane displays his youthful roots in Lester Young (timbral
alternate fingerings, overblowing of low notes) and Johnny Hodges (upper-register
scoops and glissandi), aspects of style that are not prominent in Coltranes first
recordings with Davis. He also displays influences that came later than Young and
Hodges in his development, especially Charlie Parker (selected phrases) and Dexter
Gordon (eighth-note-based melodic lines and timbre) that are somewhat discernible
in his early work with Davis.
Stemming from his study of saxophone technique, Coltranes interest in chromatic
sequential patterns is evident in both the live Gillespie and Hodges recordings, and
the practice also appears in his early Davis-era solos. His interest in the altissimo
range is present on those live recordings, as it is in his early work with Davis. Of
course, Coltrane continued to develop both of these practices in his post-Davis work.
One important early influence upon Coltrane that was not easily discernible in his
initial solos with Davis was his experience playing R&B-style saxophone, as heard in

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210 John Coltrane: Development of a Tenor Saxophonist

his work on Castle Rock with Hodges. Coltranes low-register honking,

overblowing low notes to produce harmonic overtones, and his wailing altissimo
pitches were not strongly associated with the modern jazz of Dexter Gordon, Sonny
Rollins, and Sonny Stitt, but all three techniques later surfacedand were often
criticizedin Coltranes so-called avant-garde playing of the 1960s.
Of the other pre-Davis recordings that may include Coltrane as soloist, the earliest
of these are the two unidentified solos on the January 1950 Dizzy Gillespie big band
sides for the Capitol label. If they are indeed by Coltrane, they would be his earliest
solos on tenor sax. This unidentified soloist exhibits some inconsistencies of
rhythmic execution also found in Coltranes 1946 alto saxophone solos. Clearly
evident is the players working knowledge of modern jazz approaches to harmony
and a Dexter Gordon-derived tone quality. In one solo, the saxophonist displays an
interest in the sequencing of short, prepared chromatic motives, a technique that
Coltrane displays in both the Gillespie and Hodges small group recordings and of
course in many of his later recordings.
Next in chronological order among the other possible early Coltrane recordings is
the Billy Valentine session most likely from March 1950. So strong is the influence of
Lester Young in tone quality, stepwise melodic motion, and alternate timbral
fingerings, one has to examine the solos carefully for evidence that this tenor sax
soloist had been influenced by modern jazz, as indeed Coltrane had been in 1950.
Among the saxophonists few more modern traits are an instance of double-timing,
usage of tritone substitution, and a possible reference to Charlie Parkers musical
language. When this soloist occasionally plays with more force and volume, a timbre
and approach to tone production emerges that is quite reminiscent of Coltrane.
These recordings are almost certainly Coltrane trying to play what the others
expected by dipping into the style of his first real influence, Lester Young.
The last two possible Coltrane sessions come chronologically between the 1951
Gillespie and 1954 Hodges small group recordings. These are the selections by
Crosse/Kittrell (possibly with Coltrane) and Coatesville Harris (almost definitely with
Coltrane). In these, we can note fewer direct borrowings from Young and Parker than
heard previously. There is increased confidence in melodic double-timing and
playing in the altissimo range, along with more rhythmic variety when the R&B
accompaniment allows. Both sets of recordings show the saxophonist(s) creatively
developing short, improvised melodic motives, a trait that would be prevalent in
Coltranes recordings of the 1960s. Based on timbre, tone production, and melodic
line, the saxophonist on the Harris recordings is almost certainly Coltrane, and these
solos form a clear stylistic link to Coltranes 1955-1956 work with Miles Davis. The
timbre of the main tenor soloist with Crosse/Kittrell is a little less like positively
identified Coltrane, but it does resemble the soloist heard on the Gillespie big bands
discussed. Not only could Coltrane have been using a different mouthpiece on the
Crosse recordings, it is known that something happened to Coltranes usual horn
(perhaps theft or damage) around his second stint with Crosse, and that for a time he
was playing on a rented saxophone. This may be the point in the first half of the
1950s that Coltrane switched from a King to a Selmer tenor sax (while with Crosse in

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Jazz Perspectives


1952, Coltrane wrote of wanting to buy a Selmer).95 Although a professional

saxophonist can produce nearly the same tone quality using different mouthpiece/
reed/horn combinations, it is also true that a professional can intentionally use
changes in embouchure and/or equipment to temporarily change tone quality if the
situation requires. These factors could partially explain changes in timbre in the
recordings discussed in this article.
Between the 1951 Gillespie and 1954 Hodges recordings, Coltranes style had
changed in notable ways, and a listener familiar only with his live work with Gillespie
might have been hard pressed to recognize Coltrane on the Hodges recording. As
would be expected with a developing young musician, his technical facility had
increased over time, his double-timing was more secure, and his harmonic
knowledge was deeper. But more significantly, he had assimilated and largely
transcended his Lester Young, Dexter Gordon, and Charlie Parker influences. His
borrowings from these and other earlier players were by then abstracted and seldom
literal. In 1954, Coltranes melodic lines were less stepwise and more arpeggiated than
in 1951. He was also more inclined than before to develop short, improvised
arpeggiated motives. Over time, his tone quality had become leaner, his articulation
more slurred, his relationship to the beat more graceful.
The supposed influence of Sonny Rollins (as mentioned at the beginning of this
essay) is not apparent in any of Coltranes pre-Miles Davis solos. In 1956, Coltrane
listed Rollins as a favorite on the tenor saxophone (he also named Stan Getz),96
and perhaps his general admiration of Rollins was taken by some to be a statement of
Coltranes being influenced by him stylistically.
Over the period surveyed, Coltranes melodic vocabulary shows a marked rate of
turnover. Few phrases or melodic building blocks recur in the Gillespie, Hodges, and
Harris small group recordingsthe ones most certain to be Coltrane. This tendency
toward stylistic flux also holds true if one adds to the survey the Valentine and
Crosse/Kittrell sides (i.e., those with possible Coltrane participation). This turnover
of vocabulary is of course strongly associated with Coltranes later career.
At the time of the Hodges session, Coltrane was 27 years old, an age at which many
jazz artists are ready to consolidate their styles. That Coltrane did not, and instead
continued to explore and keep his musical vocabulary in flux until his death in 1967,
became a defining characteristic of his career. Certainly, his extended apprenticeship
period (until he was 33) of working for and learning from established bandleaders
(Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, and Davis again) could account for some of that
prolonged stylistic flux; Coltrane did not form his own permanent ensemble until 1960.
But even after going off on his own, he studied music actively and continued to be open
to influences as diverse as sitarist Ravi Shankar and Ornette Coleman. Coltrane was also


In a letter written while with Crosse in Cleveland, Coltrane implies that something had happened to his
previous saxophone (Nobody has to advise me to take out insurance on the next one!), and he further
writes that he was renting one until he could buy the Selmer that he wanted. Jazz (Guernseys), 95.
Coltrane, Jazz Encyclopedia Questionnaire, 85.

212 John Coltrane: Development of a Tenor Saxophonist

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open enough to listen to younger tenor saxophonists such as John Gilmore and Albert
Ayler, and he was modest enough to acknowledge that he had been affected by them.
In sum, John Coltranes restless exploration of music did not begin when he joined
Miles Davis in 1955, but in fact was a trait he had developed over many years as a
professional saxophonist. Nor did Coltrane only begin to find his artistic identity while
with Davis; his style was sufficiently personal to be recognizable when he freelanced with
Coatesville Harris and toured with Johnny Hodges. Significantly, various techniques
highly associated with Coltranes Davis-era work emerged before 1955, and certain
characteristic practices often noted in Coltranes post-Davis work were present in his
playing even before he joined Davis. Although his 1955 to 1967 music is much better
known and much more often studied, his pre-Davis recordings on tenor saxophone
deserve legitimatenot bootlegrelease to the public. Then scholars, musicians, and
casual listeners alike will be able to encounter a richer, more detailed account of how John
Coltrane absorbed and transcended his musical inspirations to find his own musical voice.
This article explores for the first time in detail Coltranes recorded improvisational
work on tenor saxophone from 1950 through 1954, before he joined Miles Daviss
group. Through Coltranes own statements, I initially examine Coltranes early
saxophone influences before he adopted the tenor sax, and then I detail his influences
while playing that instrument during the period. The essay further discussesin
approximate chronological orderthe recording sessions of the period in which
Coltranes participation as soloist is either established, accepted by scholars, or at
least possible on the basis of his known career and various musical evidence. In this
detailed examination of his early tenor saxophone recordings, I additionally identify a
number of musical traits that are associated with his later, more-often-analyzed
improvisational work. It is also shown that Coltranes well-known, and highlycharacteristic, steady turnover in musical vocabulary was already evident in this early

Jazz Perspectives


Appendix 1

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Table 1 Possible or definite pre-1955 Coltrane recordings discussed in this article.

date of recording

leader of group



July 17, 1946

no leader

Coltrane plays alto sax

January 9, 1950
January 9, 1950
March 1, 1950

Dizzy Gillespie
Dizzy Gillespie
Billy Valentine

March 1, 1950
March 1, 1950
March 1, 1950

Billy Valentine
Billy Valentine
Billy Valentine

late November to early

December 1950
January 6, 1951
January 6, 1951
January 13, 1951
January 13, 1951
January 20, 1951
February 3, 1951
February 3, 1951
February 24, 1951
March 17, 1951
possibly Fall 1952
possibly Fall 1952
possibly Fall 1952

Dizzy Gillespie

Sweet Miss
(mentioned in footnote)
Coast to Coast
I Aint Gonna Cry No
I Want You to Love Me
Beer Drinking Baby
How Long, How Long


no saxophone solo
live recording

Congo Blues
A Night in Tunisia
Birks Works
Good Bait
A Night in Tunisia
Birks Works
Good Bait
We Love to Boogie
The Champ
No Better for You
Easy Rockin
Tired of Being Shoved
Gay Crosse
G. C. Rock
Christine Kittrell Gotta Stop Loving You

live recording
live recording
live recording
live recording
live recording
live recording
live recording
studio recording
live recording
live recording
live recording
live recording

1953 or 1954
1953 or 1954

Christine Kittrell
Coatesville Harris
Coatesville Harris
Johnny Hodges

Slave of Love
Ham Hocks and Hominy
Strange Things All the Rage
Thru for the Night

with Gay Crosse

with Gay Crosse
with Gay Crosse
live recording


Johnny Hodges

Castle Rock

live recording


Johnny Hodges

In a Mellotone

live recording


Johnny Hodges

Dont Blame Me

live recording

possibly Fall 1952

possibly late 1952 or
early 1953

Dizzy Gillespie
Dizzy Gillespie
Dizzy Gillespie
Dizzy Gillespie
Dizzy Gillespie
Dizzy Gillespie
Dizzy Gillespie
Dizzy Gillespie
Dizzy Gillespie
Gay Crosse
Gay Crosse
Gay Crosse

big band
big band
sometimes dated
November 7, 1949

has alto sax solo

with Gay Crosse