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On the 50th anniversary of his death, 12 fascinating facts about John Coltrane

The jazz legend was just 40 when he died, but during his short life he changed music forever

The jazz legend was just 40 when he died, but during his short life he changed music forever

John Coltrane was one of the most iconic musicians of the 20th century. (johncoltrane.com)

By Jennifer Van Evra

It was 50 years ago this week that jazz icon John Coltrane died of liver cancer on July 17, 1967. He was just 40 years old.

Widely considered one of the greatest musicians of the modern era, Coltrane played with greats including Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie, then went on to a groundbreaking solo career that led to some of jazz's most unforgettable albums: My Favorite Things, Blue Train, Giant Steps, Impressions, and his monumental work, A Love Supreme.

If you're a jazz fan, chances are you know his music. But how much do you know about the person? Here are 12 fascinating facts:

1. John Coltrane was born on September 23, 1926 in Hamlet, North Carolina. His father, John William Coltrane Sr., was a tailor. He also loved music and played several instruments. In December 1938, Coltrane's aunt, grandparents and father died within a few months of each other, and he was raised by his mother and a close cousin.

2. Coltrane played several instruments in his high school band, including alto sax, clarinet and tenor sax. His influences included Lester Young and Johnny Hodges.

3. His first professional gig was in 1945 at the age of 19, performing in a cocktail lounge trio with piano and guitar.

4. When he first got started, Coltrane mostly emulated old-time New Orleans musicians. Soprano sax legend Sidney Bechet was one of his heroes.

5. Everything changed for Coltrane when he saw Charlie Parker perform live for the first time. "The first time I heard Bird play," he told DownBeat magazine, "it hit me right between the eyes."

6. Coltrane's work with the Miles Davis Quintet led to his own musical evolution. "Miles' music gave me plenty of freedom," he later remembered. During this period, he developed the three-on-one chord approach, and a method that has been dubbed "sheets of sound," which had him playing multiple notes at a time.

7. In 1960 Coltrane formed his own quartet which included pianist McCoy Tyner, drummer Elvin Jones and bassist Jimmy Garrison. He later added players including Eric Dolphy and Pharoah Sanders. It was during this era that Coltrane created some of the most important albums in jazz history, such as My Favorite Things, Blue Train, Giant Steps, Africa Bass, Impressions and A Love Supreme.

8. Coltrane was addicted to heroin in the 1950s, quit cold turkey, and later said he had heard the voice of God during his brutal withdrawal. He became a deeply religious man and believed music was a force for good. "I want to be a force for real good," he told Jazz magazine. "In other words, I know that there are bad forces, forces that bring suffering to others and misery to the world, but I want to be the opposite force. I want to be the force which is truly for good."

9. Coltrane was enormously popular in the United States, but his records sold almost as well internationally — especially in France, Britain, Germany and Japan. In fact, A Love Supreme was certified gold in Japan in 1972, after selling over 500,000 units.

10. Near the end of his life, Coltrane endured stomach pains for several weeks, but refused to see a doctor. He entered the hospital for treatment for an inflamed liver and died just a couple of days later on July 17, 1967. His funeral was held the same week at St. Peter's Lutheran Church in New York. Performers at the service included the Albert Ayler Quartet and the Ornette Coleman Quartet.

11. In 2007, John Coltrane was given a posthumous Pulitzer citation for "his masterful improvisation, supreme musicianship and iconic centrality to the history of jazz."

12. Coltrane was also canonized by the African Orthodox Church as Saint John William Coltrane, and San Francisco's Saint John Coltrane Church continues to hold weekly services in his honour. 

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