John Coltrane Jazz Pr Spc Tvs

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Page 1: John Coltrane Jazz Pr Spc Tvs

This article was downloaded by: []On: 28 April 2015, At: 15:40Publisher: RoutledgeInforma Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954 Registeredoffice: Mortimer House, 37-41 Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JH, UK

Jazz PerspectivesPublication details, including instructions for authors andsubscription information:

John Coltrane: Development of a TenorSaxophonist, 1950–1954Carl WoideckPublished online: 21 Apr 2009.

To cite this article: Carl Woideck (2008) John Coltrane: Development of a Tenor Saxophonist,1950–1954, Jazz Perspectives, 2:2, 165-213, DOI: 10.1080/17494060802373390

To link to this article:


Taylor & Francis makes every effort to ensure the accuracy of all the information (the“Content”) contained in the publications on our platform. However, Taylor & Francis,our agents, and our licensors make no representations or warranties whatsoever as tothe accuracy, completeness, or suitability for any purpose of the Content. Any opinionsand views expressed in this publication are the opinions and views of the authors,and are not the views of or endorsed by Taylor & Francis. The accuracy of the Contentshould not be relied upon and should be independently verified with primary sourcesof information. Taylor and Francis shall not be liable for any losses, actions, claims,proceedings, demands, costs, expenses, damages, and other liabilities whatsoever orhowsoever caused arising directly or indirectly in connection with, in relation to or arisingout of the use of the Content.

This article may be used for research, teaching, and private study purposes. Anysubstantial or systematic reproduction, redistribution, reselling, loan, sub-licensing,systematic supply, or distribution in any form to anyone is expressly forbidden. Terms &Conditions of access and use can be found at

Page 2: John Coltrane Jazz Pr Spc Tvs

John Coltrane: Development of aTenor Saxophonist, 1950–1954Carl Woideck

John Coltrane (1926–1967) was 29 years old in early 1956, when Miles Davis’s 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 album’s liner notes simply describe

Coltrane’s 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 Coltrane’s 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 selection—‘‘We Love to Boogie,’’ recorded in 1951 under Dizzy Gillespie’s

leadership—includes a 21-measure Coltrane solo lasting 31 seconds. Of course, such

a brief—and nearly five-year-old—solo was insufficient for anyone in 1956 to

imagine how Coltrane’s 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.

1 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 1957.2 Ira Gitler, liner notes to The New Miles Davis Quintet, Prestige 7014. Around 1956 or 1957, on a form

for Leonard Feather’s 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 Gitler’s list

of influences upon Coltrane. Although he admired Rollins, Coltrane never spoke of being influenced by

Rollins. I have found in Coltrane’s 1949–1954 tenor sax solos no explicit and transcribable influence of

either Rollins or Getz.

Jazz PerspectivesVol. 2, No. 2, November 2008, pp. 165–213

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By contrast, Miles Davis, who was born in the same year as Coltrane, had by late

1955 (i.e., the time of Coltrane’s joining Davis’s group) been a recording artist for ten

years and had participated in over forty recording sessions for various labels. The

trumpeter’s 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 Coltrane’s artistic evolution was

documented in authorized commercial recordings (and unauthorized, non-profes-

sional 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 Coltrane’s

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 Coltrane’s 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 Coltrane’s own statements, I will first examine

Coltrane’s early saxophone influences before he adopted the tenor sax, and then I will

detail his influences while playing that instrument during the 1950–54 period. I will

further discuss—in approximate chronological order—the recording sessions of the

period in which Coltrane’s 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 1950–1954 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 Coltrane’s

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 Coltrane’s well-

known, 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 Hawkins’s style was the

standard by which most tenor saxophonists were evaluated, but by the early 1940s,

Lester Young’s style became equally influential among young jazz musicians.

Certainly Young’s less theoretically grounded, stepwise, ‘‘horizontal’’ approach to

improvisation was easier for the young Coltrane to emulate than Hawkins’s 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 Young’s and Hodges’s styles were not particularly similar,

but they shared a highly melodic and spontaneous approach to improvisation.

No recordings exist of this earliest stage of Coltrane’s 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 Coltrane’s development is best documented in private (non-

commercial) 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 Coltrane’s frequently awkward and sometimes disjunct solos have little in

common with Young’s grace and continuity. The influence of Hodges is heard in

Coltrane’s scooping of pitches, especially in the upper register. However, the Parker

influence is much more ascendant, as can be heard in Coltrane’s overall melodic,

harmonic, and rhythmic language. More discussion of these Coltrane alto sax

recordings would be outside the scope of this paper.7

3 John Coltrane and Don DeMicheal, ‘‘Coltrane on Coltrane,’’ Down Beat, September 29, 1960, 26–27.

Previous to 1943, while Coltrane played both clarinet and saxophone, he did not own a sax.4 Ibid.5 Ira Gitler, ‘‘Trane on the Track,’’ Down Beat, October 16, 1958, 16–17.6 Only one of Coltrane’s 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.7 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.

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Coltrane Moves to Tenor

John Coltrane first bought a tenor saxophone to play in alto saxophonist Eddie

‘‘Cleanhead’’ Vinson’s 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 Charlie’s 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 Gillespie’s 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 that—while not

identical to the positively identified Coltrane of the 1950s—is Dexter Gordon-

influenced, 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

8 Coltrane and DeMicheal, ‘‘Coltrane on Coltrane,’’ 26–27.9 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, 84.10 Jazz (New York: Guernsey’s Auction House, 2005), 115. This is a collage of seven photos of Coltrane

playing in public with Gillespie’s 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.11 Porter,John Coltrane, 83–84. Porter initially agreed with Evensmo that there is a tenor soloist present who is

neither Powell nor Gonsalves,but he nowthinks that the soloist is PaulGonsalves. The JohnColtraneReference,

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


Coast’’ and the soloist on ‘‘Ooh-La-La’’ is neither Jessie Powell nor Paul Gonsalves, and may well be Coltrane.12 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 1950–1955 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 1951–1952 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 Coltrane’s

solos in the early 1950s; such techniques would of course become even more

common in his later work.

(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:

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

Example 1.

Example 2.

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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. 26–29 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.

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,

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

Example 3.

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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 echoed—both in melodic contour and tone quality—by the

saxophonist in the Gay Crosse recording of ‘‘No Better for You,’’ to be discussed below.

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 other’s

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 easy-

going delivery were similar to Charles Brown’s. (Indeed, Valentine replaced Brown in

Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers in 1949.) Valentine favored the twelve-bar blues form

and often used jazz musicians in his band. Coltrane was not in Valentine’s working

band, but tenor saxophonist George ‘‘Big Nick’’ Nicholas reportedly said that

Coltrane had recorded with Valentine around this time.14

14 Phil Schaap, in a telephone conversation with the author, September, 2001. Nicholas was a friend of

Coltrane’s 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 PhilSchaap, WKCR-FM broadcast, September23, 1997.) Indeed, the

style of the player in questiondoesnot evensuperficially resemble that of Big Nick Nicholas of the early 1950s.

Example 4.

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The tenor saxophonist in question solos on three Valentine titles: ‘‘I Ain’t 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 engineer’s ‘‘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

engineer’s voice heard on the disc is that of one of the engineers who worked at Bob

Fine’s New York recording studio.18 Mercury Records bought an advertisement in

The Billboard magazine’s 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 Coltrane’s 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. Coltrane’s whereabouts on the November 11, 1949, date are

unknown; he had possibly joined Gillespie’s 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 York’s Bop City nightclub.23 Given the date written

15 The last title was also known as ‘‘Beer Drinkin’ Baby.’’16 This date is based on research published in Ruppli and Ed Novitsky’s The Mercury Labels, 180. The

recording session’s matrix numbers (3188 through 3191) support the early date.17 Phil Schaap, telephone conversation, September 2001.18 Schaap does not know the engineer’s name, but recognizes the voice from other Fine recording studio

sessions. Telephone conversation with the author, September 2001.19 ‘‘Mercury Records present America’s 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 ‘‘Ain’t Gonna Cry No More’’) was reviewed by the magazine in the May 13,

1950, issue (p. 139).20 The May 27, 1950, issue of The Billboard (p. 35) reports on the Spring 1950 New York recording

activities of members of Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers: ‘‘Featured members of the group, Oscar Moore

and Billy Valentine, recorded on their own for the Columbia and Mercury labels respectively.’’21 John Coltrane Reference, 35.22 Ibid., and Ken Vail, Dizzy Gillespie: The Bebop Years 1937–1952 (Cottonham, UK: Vail Publishing,

2000), 79.23 John Coltrane Reference, 46.

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on the acetate, the New York engineer’s voice on that disc—and, to a lesser

degree, the definite placing of the Gillespie group with Coltrane at the proper

date and city—the 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 saxophonist’s improvisational solos on the Valentine

recordings do not strongly resemble that of other, conclusively identified, Coltrane

solos of the early 1950s. For example, the saxophonist’s 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 saxophonist’s 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 saxophonist’s 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 saxophonist’s 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 saxophonist’s 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 Lester’s vein at this time.’’25 A Young-like simplicity of

melodic line is evident in the saxophonist’s 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) Young’s

1939 composition ‘‘Lester Leaps In,’’ and the slurred articulation and timbre are

reminiscent of Young:

25 Coltrane and DeMicheal, ‘‘Coltrane on Coltrane,’’ 26–27.

24 Francois Postif, trans. Porter (with consultation of Postif), in Porter, John Coltrane, 88.

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The unidentified saxophonist’s melodic language on the Valentine recordings is

largely consistent with Young’s, 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 Young’s style that the saxophonist borrowed from Young for the

Billy Valentine recording date was the use of alternate fingerings to produce voice-

like timbral and pitch variations on one note, a technique that is sometimes called

‘‘worrying’’ a note. Coltrane’s 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 Young’s 1937 solo on Count Basie’s ‘‘One O’Clock Jump,’’ which is

shown in Example 6. (The alternate fingerings are marked with a ‘‘+’’.)

This technique is also found in the beginning of the sax solo on the second take of

Billy Valentine’s ‘‘Ain’t Gonna Cry No More’’:

Example 5.

26 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.

Example 6.

Example 7.

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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 ‘‘Ain’t 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 jazz-

oriented 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:

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 8.

27 The Billboard, May 13, 1950, 139.

Example 9.

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Among these saxophone solos, only a few phrases directly derive from Charlie Parker’s

vocabulary; one is the arpeggio-based figure seen in Example 10, which is found in the

first take of ‘‘Ain’t 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

Overall, the soloist’s 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, Valentine’s 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 singer’s 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 saxophonist’s 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 that—while not

unique to Coltrane—will be noted in later Coltrane recordings.

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

Example 10.

Example 11.

28 Thomas Owens, Bebop: The Music and Its Players (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 31 and

90. Owens discusses at length vestiges of Parker’s vocabulary heard in Coltrane’s playing after he had

joined Miles Davis.

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responding by playing forcefully—closer to the microphone—and 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 saxophonist’s 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 Nicholas’s 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.

The Gillespie-Era Solos

Although Coltrane’s 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 Gillespie’s small group of 1950–51.29 These

include one piece recorded in the studio and at least fourteen pieces recorded non-

commercially 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 Coltrane’s

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 Gillespie’s 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.

Coltrane’s 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. Coltrane’s Gillespie-era solos are also more harmonically aware,

29 Coltrane wrote of his presence on the Gillespie studio sides (Coltrane, ‘‘Jazz Encyclopedia

Questionnaire,’’ 85); Coltrane’s name appears on the label of some of the 78-rpm singles drawn from

the studio session; Coltrane’s participation on the live nightclub recording has been confirmed by

saxophonist Jimmy Heath, who was also in Gillespie’s 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 Coltrane’s

participation (e.g., the January 13, 1951, broadcast). These announcements have been edited out of the

bootleg issues of these broadcasts.30 ‘‘We Love to Boogie’’ and ‘‘Good Groove.’’ Both have been reissued on John Coltrane, The Last

Giant.31 For example, Porter’s excellent study of Coltrane only includes one brief transcription from this group

of recordings.

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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 Gillespie’s 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 Chicago’s 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 Chicago’s 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 Coltrane’s later playing that first appears in the Silhouette

Club recording is his use of the tenor saxophone’s altissimo range. Coltrane’s 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.

32 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

(drums).33 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.34 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.

Example 12.

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On the Silhouette Club recording, Coltrane’s upper-register intonation seems

unusually unstable. The glissando notations in mm. 18 and 19 of Example 12

represent moments when Coltrane’s 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 Coltrane’s 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 recorded—and therefore much more conducive to transcription and

discussion—are 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 Coltrane’s 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.

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

35 Bill Coss, ‘‘Miles Davis,’’ Metronome, July 1956, 27. Coltrane’s 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, 10.36 Recordings of these broadcasts circulate among jazz scholars and have also appeared on bootleg LPs:

John Coltrane, Trane’s First Ride 1951: First Broadcasts, vol. 1, Broadcast Tributes 009, n.d., LP, and

Trane’s First Ride 1951: First Broadcasts, vol. 2, Oberon 5100, n.d., LP.37 Count Basie and His Orchestra, ‘‘Taxi War Dance,’’ Vocalion 4748, 1939, 78 rpm; reissued on Count

Basie, America’s #1 Band, Columbia/Legacy AC4K 87110, 2003, compact disc.

Example 13.

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(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.

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:

In his well-known 1955–59 recordings with Miles Davis and others, Coltrane de-

emphasized 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:

This overblowing of harmonic overtones became an essential part of Coltrane’s 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.

Example 14.

Example 15.

Example 16.

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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 Parker’s improvisational

style, Parker’s 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 tone—often but not always the root—is 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 Coltrane’s solo on ‘‘Birks’

Works,’’ which offers one of several instances of Coltrane using that device in the

Gillespie live broadcasts:

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 Coltrane’s 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 Gordon’s melodic line

38 Scott DeVeaux finds this figure in Gillespie’s playing by 1943 and in the trumpeter’s composition, ‘‘A

Night in Tunisia.’’ Scott DeVeaux, The Birth of Bebop: A Social and Musical History (Berkeley: University

of California Press, 1997), 260–261.

Example 17.

39 Thomas Owens conjectures that Parker may have learned this voice-leading figure from the opening of

Duke Ellington’s ‘‘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), 79.40 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), 1.41 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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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, it’s the same line—Lester

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 Coltrane’s upper-

register playing.

Gordon’s influence upon Coltrane is primarily found in a tendency to improvise in

strings of unbroken eighth notes (as opposed to Parker’s wider variety of note

values), using prevalent legato tonguing (as contrasted with Young’s prevalent

slurring) and employing a dark, weighty timbre (as opposed to Lester Young’s light-

colored 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 Coltrane’s use of a whole-tone scale (used by Gillespie

42 Barbara Gardner, ‘‘John Coltrane,’’ Down Beat Music 1962 (an annual supplement), 67.43 Dexter Gordon quoted in Chuck Berg, ‘‘Dexter Gordon Making His Great Leap Forward,’’ Down

Beat, February 10, 1977, 42.

Example 18.

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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 Coltrane’s post-

1954 style. Coltrane’s solo begins four measures into a ‘‘G’’ concert blues:

As seen directly above, one aspect found in Coltrane’s playing with Gillespie is his

emphasis on his instrument’s upper register, a tendency found in his playing into the

early 1960s.46 Certainly he uses a fairly wide range—low to high—on his instrument

in these recordings, but his preference is for an average tessitura that is slightly higher

than Gordon’s of the same period, and Coltrane certainly tends to choose notes that

are on average higher than, say, Coleman Hawkins’s or Ben Webster’s. Coltrane

shows interest in the saxophone’s altissimo range, hitting high concert F (a whole

step above his saxophone’s nominal highest note) on ‘‘Birk’s 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

Example 19.

44 Red Garland Quintet, Soul Junction, Prestige 7181, 1957, LP; reissued as Prestige PRCD-30169,

2007, compact disc.45 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.46 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.

Example 20.

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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:

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 Ellington’s longtime alto saxophonist, Johnny Hodges, one of Coltrane’s 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 Coltrane’s

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 Coltrane’s performance of ‘‘Good Bait.’’48

Coltrane would record ‘‘Good Bait’’ again in 1958, once more revisiting his Gillespie


48 In the passage, Coltrane refers to the melody of Josef Myrow’s 1941 pop song ‘‘Autumn Nocturne.’’

Example 21.

Example 22.

47 Gridley, Jazz Styles, 241.

49 John Coltrane with the Red Garland Quintet, Soultrane, Prestige 7142, 1958, LP; reissued as Prestige

30006, 2006, compact disc.

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Another significant influence upon Coltrane’s 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, Coltrane’s 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 Coltrane’s 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:

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

Coltrane’s composition ‘‘Moment’s Notice’’53:

As would be expected, many aspects of Coltrane’s style of this period are

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

Example 23.

Example 24.

50 Porter, John Coltrane, 81–83.51 Sandole refers to ‘‘nonatonic’’ and ‘‘decatonic’’ scales. Ibid., 51.52 See Woideck, Charlie Parker, for examples of Parker using chromatic sequences.53 Thispatternwas firstdiscussed, transcribed, andpublished inCarno, ‘‘TheStyleof JohnColtrane,’’18–19.

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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 often—but not always—while 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 Coltrane’s 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:

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 Coltrane’s performance of ‘‘Birks’ Works’’ (note also

the voice-leading device no. 1, discussed above):

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

Example 25.

Example 26.

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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.

As mentioned at the opening of this essay, Coltrane’s style was said in 1955 to

resemble that of tenor saxophonist Edward ‘‘Sonny’’ Stitt. In 1962, Coltrane spoke of

being attracted to Stitt’s approach during Coltrane’s time with Gillespie: ‘‘Sonny’s

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 Coltrane’s 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.

Example 27.

54 Gardner, ‘‘John Coltrane,’’ 67.55 Although tenorists Stitt and Coltrane were both influenced by Lester Young and Charlie Parker, Stitt

retained Parker’s rhythmic characteristics to a greater degree at this time. Comparing Coltrane’s solo on

the blues ‘‘We Love to Boogie’’ (discussed in this article) with Stitt’s October 17, 1949, recording

‘‘Bud’s Blues,’’ Stitt shows far greater rhythmic variety than Coltrane. Sonny Stitt, ‘‘Bud’s Blues,’’

Prestige 706, 1949, 78 rpm; reissue on Stitt’s Bits: Bebop Recordings, 1949–1952, Prestige PRCD3-30043-

2, 2006, compact disc.56 Mark Gridley has found similarities between Coltrane’s solo on ‘‘Oleo’’ (with Miles Davis, recorded

October 26, 1956) and Stitt’s 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.

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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 Gillespie’s 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

Crosse’s 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 Bostic’s band around April 1,58 and tenor

saxophonist Joe Alexander replaced Coltrane in Crosse’s band around that time, and

57 For example, evidence of this connection can be found in two Cleveland Call and Post articles from

early 1952. One January announcement notes that Crosse’s ‘‘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.58 Based on a press release, Lewis Porter (John Coltrane, 315) reports that Bostic’s 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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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 Coltrane’s 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. Crosse’s

‘‘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 Coltrane’s career, by that time, Coltrane

had long been out of Crosse’s 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 Coltrane’s later tenure in

Crosse’s 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

59 The Cleveland Call and Post reported that ‘‘backing Gay up are Joe Alexander, Stanley O’Laughlin,

James Robertson, Oliver (Junior) Jackson, and John Lathan.’’ The Cleveland Call and Post, Saturday,

April 26, 1952, p. 6–D. Thanks to Chris DeVito for supplying this clipping.60 ‘‘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, 48.61 Tadd Dameron, Fontainebleau, Prestige PLP 7037, 1956, LP; reissued as Original Jazz Classics OJC-

055, 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, Alexander’s tonguing is

a bit less legato and his tessitura is slightly lower. Alexander’s melodic line is more stepwise and less

arpeggiated than Coltrane’s, 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.62 Fujioka, Porter, and Hamada, John Coltrane: A Discography, 18.63 The Billboard, December 20, 1952, 43. Those two performances were reviewed as new releases in

February, 1953. See The Billboard, February 7, 1953, 28.64 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, 48.65 It is unknown when Coltrane left Earl Bostic’s 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 15.66 Coltrane wrote his mother from Cleveland and mentions being there with Crosse. The envelope is

postmarked November 12, 1952. Jazz (Guernsey’s), 95.

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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 player’s 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 player’s R&B-

oriented bending of notes and use of a growling and raspy subtone tend to mask the

musician’s 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 Crosse’s ‘‘No Better for You,’’ ‘‘Easy Rockin’,’’ ‘‘Tired of Being

Shoved Around,’’ and Kittrell’s ‘‘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 tenorist’s legato

tonguing of strings of eighth notes generally resembles Coltrane’s work with the

Gillespie small groups (and that of the unidentified Gillespie big band soloist). The

soloist’s open and dark tone quality is closer to that of Coltrane’s work with Gillespie

than that of the unknown soloist with Billy Valentine. There is a bit more grit or

sizzle in the Crosse/Kittrell player’s tone quality than in Coltrane’s 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:

67 The Cleveland Call and Post reported that ‘‘with Gaye now are Stanley O’Laughlin 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 Coltrane’s 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, 77–78.

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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:

(This phrase will also be discussed below with regard to a nearly identical passage in

the Coatesville Harris recording ‘‘Ham Hocks and Hominy.’’)

The saxophonist’s average tessitura is again higher than Dexter Gordon’s of the

period. On display is the tenorist’s altissimo register, including two very confident

and wailing high concert Gs (A on the tenor sax; a major third above his tenor sax’s

nominal highest note, and a whole step above Coltrane’s 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:

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


Example 29.

Example 30.

Example 28.

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Along with tone quality, tessitura, and use of altissimo, one very brief instance on

the Crosse recordings that relates to Coltrane’s 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 saxophonist’s 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 ‘‘+’’:

When playing strings of eighth notes, as in the ‘‘No Better for You’’ pickup and m.

1 shown in Example 32 below, the soloist’s 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):

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 Oo-

La-La’’ with the octave drop-major second melodic movement circled. (Here, ‘‘Oo-

La-La’’ has been transposed into the same key as ‘‘No Better for You’’ for easy


Example 32.

Example 31.

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(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:

In mm. 5 and 6, over the subdominant, the saxophonist pivots between a lower Eb

and higher Ab in a way that recalls Charlie Parker’s second solo of the master take

(take 5) of the 1948 ‘‘Parker’s 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 33.

Example 34.

Example 35.

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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:

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. 19–20:

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

Example 36.

Example 37.

68 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.

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Champ’’ (discussed in the Gillespie sessions above), the altoist uses the modern jazz-

associated voice-leading device no. 2:

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 altoist’s 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 saxophonist’s

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

Ammons’s leadership in 1958.71 This player’s overall tone is without a lot of edge,

rather like Gigi Gryce or early Art Pepper. Coltrane described Crosse’s 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 Crosse’s 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 tenorist’s 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

Example 38.

69 Owens, vol. 2, Charlie Parker: Techniques of Improvisation, 6.70 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.71 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 Gittler’s alto sax for this recording.72 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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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 Coltrane’s 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

73 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.74 Robert L. Campbell, email communication to the Jazz Research listserv, July 30, 2001. Willie Mabon,

‘‘I Don’t Know,’’ Parrot 1050 and Chess 1531, both 1952, 78 rpm.

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

‘‘baby’’ that is a distinct reference to singer Willie Mabon’s ‘‘I Don’t Know,’’ which

debuted on Billboard’s 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 1953–1955, 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 Coltrane’s

initial 1955–1956 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 soloist’s

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 saxophonist’s 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 ‘‘Ain’t Gonna Cry No More.’’ More substantially, the

saxophonist shows a basic grasp of modern jazz harmony, employing a tritone

75 Mabon also used the same vocal device on ‘‘I’m Mad’’ which debuted on April, 25, 1953. Willie

Mabon, ‘‘I’m Mad,’’ Chess Matrix U4328, 1953, 78 rpm.76 Of course, Rodney Smith could have heard Mabon sing in that manner in live performance, before the

release of the recording ‘‘I Don’t Know.’’77 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, 2001.78 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, 2001.79 Rodney Smith, ‘‘Strange Things Are All the Rage,’’ Nestor JG-06, n.d., 78 rpm.

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

in m. 8:

The soloist’s most prominent nod to an R&B aesthetic comes with a bluesy phrase

that peaks on an altissimo concert F (Coltrane’s 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:

The soloist’s solid harmonic knowledge is seen in his confident arpeggiation of

chords, a tendency that is of course associated with many of Coltrane’s 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

80 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, 1950–1951, Classics CD1228, 2002, compact disc. The

beginning of the phrase (the first five notes) in ‘‘Easy Rockin’’’ of course derives from Charlie Parker’s

alto sax solo on ‘‘Billie’s Bounce,’’ recorded for the Savoy label on November 26, 1945. Charlie Parker,

‘‘Billie’s Bounce,’’ Savoy 573, 1945, 78 rpm; reissued on Charlie Parker, Now’s the Time, Savoy SVY-

17587, 2006, compact disc.

Example 40.

81 Coltrane’s 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.

Example 39.

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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. 10–11. Note also the

previously discussed voice-leading device no. 1 at the end of the solo.

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

soloist’s 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

1955–1956 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 1955–1956 jazz recordings with Miles Davis and others. Finalizing a trend

observed in the Crosse/Kittrell solos, Lester Young-like timbral fingerings are absent,

Example 41.

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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 Coltrane’s penchant for overhauling his

musical vocabulary over time.

With Johnny Hodges

The remaining group of pre-Miles Davis recordings by Coltrane is from a live

amateur tape recording of alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges’s 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 Ellington’s 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 Coltrane’s name is announced, there are no

announcements on this Hodges recording. Coltrane’s self-stated itinerary84 and the

aural evidence of the soloist’s 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, Coltrane’s 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

82 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.83 John Coltrane Reference, 86–93.84 Coltrane, ‘‘Jazz Encyclopedia Questionnaire,’’ 85.

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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 Joplin’s 1914 Magnetic Rag). The arpeggiation in mm. 17–18 also

resembles Coleman Hawkins, an early influence upon Coltrane.85

In part because of the greater spontaneity and longer solos of this live recording,

Coltrane’s 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:

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

Example 42.

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

Example 43.

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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’’):

Like many jazz soloists, Coltrane often prepared patterns to play over specific

harmonic situations. These patterns tended to be of two types: those whose non-

diatonic, chromatic architecture is not based on functional harmony (as seen in ‘‘The

Champ,’’ above); and those based on a composition’s 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):

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

Hodges session is heard just before the band plays ‘‘I’ve 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.)

Coltrane’s 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 ‘‘Moment’s 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, Coltrane’s practicing between songs

resembles his later custom of practicing in private during set breaks at night clubs.87

Example 44.

86 Thanks to Lewis Porter for pointing this out. Ibid.

Example 45.

87 I experienced this first-hand when I heard John Coltrane’s quartet at Birdland in the summer of 1964.

Coltrane practiced in or near the kitchen during a set break.

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An important characteristic found in the Hodges session is Coltrane’s 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 group’s swing-era

aesthetic, but on ‘‘Thru for the Night, ‘‘In a Mellotone,’’ and ‘‘Don’t 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 double-

timing, and his usage of voice-leading device no. 1 in m. 55.

Coltrane’s only ballad playing on any of the pre-Miles Davis tenor sax recordings

comes on ‘‘Don’t Blame Me,’’ and here he double-times extensively. Although he

does not specifically quote Charlie Parker, Coltrane’s solo shows Parker’s 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 Parker’s ballad playing.)

Example 48 is taken from Coltrane’s last ‘‘A’’ section of his first chorus on ‘‘Don’t

Blame Me.’’ Note also his extensive use of altered dominant chords and his (and the

pianist’s) Ebmin7-Ab7 progression on beats 3 and 4 of m. 28 that substitutes for the

song’s original C chord.88

88 This substitution is reminiscent of Dizzy Gillespie’s coda to ‘‘Groovin’ High’’ and m. 5 of Tadd

Dameron’s ‘‘If You Could See Me Now.’’

Example 46.

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Example 47.

Example 48.

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The last full measure above modulates because the band’s 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’’:

As discussed above, the influences upon Coltrane’s style (e.g., Hawkins, Parker)

were already fairly well assimilated by 1954. A renewed influence upon Coltrane’s 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 Hodges’s 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

Ain’t What They Used to Be’’:

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 Hodges’s 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 group’s gentle,

Example 49.

89 Coltrane and DeMichael, ‘‘Coltrane on Coltrane.’’

Example 50.

90 Played in the tenor sax’s upper range, this passage is also reminiscent of Illinois Jacquet. Thanks to

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

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jazz-influenced early R&B style by emphasizing his Lester Young roots. On Al Sears’s

composition ‘‘Castle Rock,’’ Coltrane responded to the Hodges group’s 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 horn’s 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. Coltrane’s work in

particular has an ecstatic, testifying aspect that was not present in Al Sears’s 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 Jacquet’s 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

91 J. C. Thomas, Chasin’ the Trane (New York: Da Capo Press, 1976), 56–57.

Example 51.

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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:

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 saxophone’s 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 52.

92 Kofsky, Black Nationalism, 237.

Example 53.

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Coltrane probably got these overtones incidentally as he aggressively attacked his

saxophone’s 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. Coltrane’s 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 Coltrane’s 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 artist’s 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. Coltrane’s days of uncredited R&B recordings

were over, and his musical anonymity was coming to an end.

93 John Tynan, ‘‘Take 5,’’ Down Beat, November 23, 1961, 40. Tynan took issue in part with Coltrane’s

playing ‘‘chords’’ (produced by manipulating overtones) on the saxophone.94 Porter, John Coltrane, 94.

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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 Coltrane’s

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 Coltrane’s 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, Coltrane’s 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

Example 54.

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his work on ‘‘Castle Rock’’ with Hodges. Coltrane’s 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 surfaced—and were often

criticized—in Coltrane’s 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 Coltrane’s 1946 alto saxophone solos. Clearly

evident is the player’s 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 saxophonist’s few more modern traits are an instance of double-timing,

usage of tritone substitution, and a possible reference to Charlie Parker’s 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

Coltrane’s 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 Coltrane’s 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 Coltrane’s 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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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, Coltrane’s 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, Coltrane’s 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 Coltrane’s 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

Coltrane’s being influenced by him stylistically.

Over the period surveyed, Coltrane’s melodic vocabulary shows a marked rate of

turnover. Few phrases or melodic building blocks recur in the Gillespie, Hodges, and

Harris small group recordings—the 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 Coltrane’s 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

95 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 (Guernsey’s), 95.96 Coltrane, ‘‘Jazz Encyclopedia Questionnaire,’’ 85.

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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 Coltrane’s 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 Coltrane’s Davis-era work emerged before 1955, and certain

characteristic practices often noted in Coltrane’s 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 legitimate—not bootleg—release 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 Coltrane’s recorded improvisational

work on tenor saxophone from 1950 through 1954, before he joined Miles Davis’s

group. Through Coltrane’s own statements, I initially examine Coltrane’s 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 discusses—in

approximate chronological order—the recording sessions of the period in which

Coltrane’s 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 Coltrane’s well-known, and highly-

characteristic, steady turnover in musical vocabulary was already evident in this early


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Appendix 1

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

date of recording leader of group selection notes

July 17, 1946 no leader ‘‘Sweet Miss’’(mentioned in footnote)

Coltrane plays alto sax

January 9, 1950 Dizzy Gillespie ‘‘Coast to Coast’’ big bandJanuary 9, 1950 Dizzy Gillespie ‘‘Ooh-La-La’’ big bandMarch 1, 1950 Billy Valentine ‘‘I Ain’t Gonna Cry No

More’’sometimes datedNovember 7, 1949

March 1, 1950 Billy Valentine ‘‘I Want You to Love Me’’March 1, 1950 Billy Valentine ‘‘Beer Drinking Baby’’March 1, 1950 Billy Valentine ‘‘How Long, How Long

Blues’’no saxophone solo

late November to earlyDecember 1950

Dizzy Gillespie ‘‘Emanon’’ live recording

January 6, 1951 Dizzy Gillespie ‘‘Congo Blues’’ live recordingJanuary 6, 1951 Dizzy Gillespie ‘‘A Night in Tunisia’’ live recordingJanuary 13, 1951 Dizzy Gillespie ‘‘Birks’ Works’’ live recordingJanuary 13, 1951 Dizzy Gillespie ‘‘Good Bait’’ live recordingJanuary 20, 1951 Dizzy Gillespie ‘‘A Night in Tunisia’’ live recordingFebruary 3, 1951 Dizzy Gillespie ‘‘Birks’ Works’’ live recordingFebruary 3, 1951 Dizzy Gillespie ‘‘Good Bait’’ live recordingFebruary 24, 1951 Dizzy Gillespie ‘‘We Love to Boogie’’ studio recordingMarch 17, 1951 Dizzy Gillespie ‘‘The Champ’’ live recordingpossibly Fall 1952 Gay Crosse ‘‘No Better for You’’ live recordingpossibly Fall 1952 Gay Crosse ‘‘Easy Rockin’’’ live recordingpossibly Fall 1952 Gay Crosse ‘‘Tired of Being Shoved

Around’’live recording

possibly Fall 1952 Gay Crosse ‘‘G. C. Rock’’ has alto sax solopossibly late 1952 or

early 1953Christine Kittrell ‘‘Gotta Stop Loving You’’ with Gay Crosse

Christine Kittrell ‘‘Slave of Love’’ with Gay Crossepossibly 1953 or 1954 Coatesville Harris ‘‘Ham Hocks and Hominy’’ with Gay Crossepossibly 1953 or 1954 Coatesville Harris ‘‘Strange Things All the Rage’’ with Gay Crossepossibly May-August

1954Johnny Hodges ‘‘Thru for the Night’’ live recording

possibly May-August1954

Johnny Hodges ‘‘Castle Rock’’ live recording

possibly May-August1954

Johnny Hodges ‘‘In a Mellotone’’ live recording

possibly May-August1954

Johnny Hodges ‘‘Don’t Blame Me’’ live recording

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