Historical Markers
John W. Coltrane Historical Marker
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John W. Coltrane

Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


Marker Location:
1511 North 33rd Street, Philadelphia

Dedication Date:
July 17, 1990

Behind the Marker

"I know that there are evil forces in the world, but I want to be a force for good. A force for real good."
                                                                                                           -John Coltrane, 1966

Head and shoulders portrait of John Coltrane with his saxophone.
John Coltrane with his saxophone, circa 1965.
These may sound like the sentiments of a comic book hero, and in fact they are the words of a man who as a young boy spent many hours reading and drawing his own comics. John Coltrane became one of the greatest saxophone players in jazz history, and followed through on a promise to God that he would, indeed, become a "force for good."

In addition to being a saxophone virtuoso John Coltrane was a gifted composer, brilliant improvisor, and a deeply spiritual man. He operated on advanced levels in each of these areas in a way that no musician has done before or since. According to musician and historian Andrew White, Coltrane 'crystalized' the Bebop era, meaning he took the experiments and the underlying music theory of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach, and others to their completion. When there was no further place to go, Coltrane left the world of Bebop, which he had studied so intently, to move into new streams of music that were being developed by Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk. Eventually he embraced the so-called avant-garde music of the early 1960s, and in this venue found an outlet for his very personal and deeply spiritual musical expression. Coltrane truly wanted to bring peace and brotherhood to the world through his gift of music.

An only child, Coltrane grew up in North Carolina in an extended family of parents, aunts, uncles, and grandparents. Three years after his father died in 1939, John moved with his mother and an aunt to Philadelphia. As the country geared up for war, northern cities offered unprecedented job opportunities for blacks.

John and his mother moved to the Strawberry Mansion section of North Philadelphia, a stable, working-class neighborhood. There Coltrane attended music classes and found his way into a strong network of talented musicians. Jamming with Jimmy and Percy Heath in their parents' basement, he was soon playing with other future jazz greats, including Philly Joe Jones, Benny Golson and Jimmy Oliver.

Row houses on a Philadelphia street. Coltrane's home has the historical marker directly in front of the home.
The John Coltrane house–behind state historical marker–1511 N. 33rd Street,...
After a two-year stint in the Navy, Coltrane came back to Philadelphia, where he studied advanced theory at the Ornstein School of Music under the GI Bill. Coltrane also played Rhythm and Blues gigs in local clubs. In the bars of North Philadelphia, Coltrane learned to "walk the bar," taking his solo as he strolled across the bar, being careful not to kick over drinks as patrons stuffed dollar bills into his saxophone. Years later he would acknowledge the influence of the R&B sound on his playing.

Playing the black clubs of postwar Philadelphia had its good side and its bad side. On the positive side, Coltrane learned his craft in a dynamic music scene in which musicians shared a strong sense of camaraderie. On the negative side was the tremendous lure of drugs and alcohol. Like many of his contemporaries, Coltrane succumbed to these temptations, and they nearly ended his career. While he was making a name for himself as a great saxophonist, his drug habits caused him to lose many jobs with a number of his heroes; among them were jazz greats Dizzy Gillespie, Johnny Hodges, and Miles Davis.

By extraordinary self motivation and will power, Coltrane in 1957 broke his addictions. It is said that he locked himself into his room and told his mother, aunt, and cousin Mary to ignore his cries of desperation. Coltrane made it through on his own, a rare occurrence in drug treatment. Later, in the liner notes to his 1964 masterpiece "A Love Supreme," he wrote:

"During the year 1957, I experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening which was to lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life. At that time, in gratitude, I humbly asked to be given the means and privilege to make others happy through music. I feel this has been granted through His grace. ALL PRAISE TO GOD."

Coltrane then dedicated the rest of his life to playing music that would honor God. A new job with another of his idols, Thelonious Monk, was the turning point in his career. Monk believed strongly in Coltrane and encouraged him to play whatever he wanted, and for as long as he wanted. Coltrane soon became famous for unprecedented 45-minute solos. No one had ever heard anything like it.

In 1959, Coltrane rejoined Miles Davis for the now classic album "Kind of Blue." However, it was in that same year he decided to form his own band. Over the next seven years, John Coltrane changed the face of jazz. Keeping his promise to play music that honored God, he composed a succession of remarkable and moving compositions. In the 1960s, Coltrane and his band rejected the notion that jazz musicians were merely "showmen" or "entertainers." They were true artists in every sense of the word. Bringing together virtuoso technique on their instruments with an advanced knowledge of composition and music theory they created a searing and powerful music that spoke to their own generation, and to generations to follow. On July 17th 1967, John Coltrane died of liver cancer at age forty. Jazz Drummer Max Roach epitomized the overall image of Coltrane when he said, in a 1987 interview with Steve Rowland:

"I heard many things in what Trane was doing. I heard the cry and wail of the pain that the society imposes on people and especially black folks and I heard also the extraordinary contribution he made to music rhythmically and melodically and harmonically and I also heard the innovative use of that instrument. He took it to places that were individual to him and he fed the whole world like that."
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