John Coltrane
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In 1946, John Coltrane...just 20 years old...returned to Philadelphia after serving in the Navy. He moved in with his mother Alice, his aunt Betty and Betty's daughter, Mary Alexander. This small close-knit family from North Carolina went north in search of better employment. They all lived in a two-room apartment in North Philadelphia, says Coltrane's cousin, Mary Alexander:

"John and I stayed there most of the time and our parents were working. Then we acquired 2 more rooms in the place, so that made us have a four-room apartment. And John stayed upstairs then. But he was continually practicing right down there where we stayed, there in front of this little dresser, the mirror."

Alexander says she was accustomed to walking around her cousin while he practiced. Coltrane was playing the alto saxophone then, when a new kind of jazz swept the country. Jazz critic Francis Davis is writing a biography of John Coltrane. He says the saxophonist was trying to come to grips with this new sound:

"Which we today identify as bebop, but they just thought of as modern jazz. And in a way, it is a continuum and everything, but if you are a young musician, suddenly, and you thought you had mastered pretty much everything, in your tone and a certain kind of swing, there was all this new harmonic language to learn."

Background music by Charlie Parker

The man to follow was Kansas City-native Charlie Parker, the alto saxophonist who attracted the adoration of young musicians like Coltrane. Francis Davis says he's heard a practice tape of Coltrane while he still in the Navy, trying to play like Parker. Davis says it wasn't going very well:

"You might be able to listen to Charlie Parker and if you're already studying an instrument or studying music you might be able to recognize on some level what he's doing... to execute it is a whole other thing. So, there is no way you can listen to this early tape of Coltrane and think that he would ever become that mighty."

Coltrane was often on the road in the late 40s and early 50s, but Philadelphia was his home base. He toured with local R&B and jazz bands, led by Joe Webb, Jimmy Heath, and Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson. Coltrane was doing well enough to buy his mother a house in Philadelphia's Strawberry Mansion neighborhood in 1952. Around this time, Coltrane switched from alto to tenor saxophone. At the same time, says Francis Davis, he began studying with Philly native Dennis Sandole, a jazz guitarist and harmonic guru:

"As Dennis put it because he was a very South Philly studied harmony and you got into which he meant dissonance. And there were other people like that around Philadelphia, too... who had like this amazing knowledge... Coltrane was around all this."

That work paid off for Coltrane in 1955, when trumpeter Miles Davis invited him to join his quintet. It was Coltrane's big break, says Francis Davis:

"It did several things for Coltrane. It helped to make his name. And it also put Coltrane in this like really inventive context that called for constant invention on your part. That had to have a huge effect on John Coltrane."

Musically, Coltrane was a good fit with the Miles Davis Quintet. But Davis fired him in 1956, saying Coltrane's heroin addiction made him too unreliable. He moved in with his mother and cousin Mary at the house in Strawberry Mansion. Mary Alexander says that Coltrane was struggling to get clean, and he found support in his music and his family:

"I always say that John was raised by women ...[laughs]... and it makes a big difference as far as I'm concerned. Our fathers died when we were very young and he was always around women. And we supported him, we stuck with him."

John Coltrane kicked heroin for good in 1957. At the same time, he went through what he called a spiritual awakening... an experience he would later document in the composition "A Love Supreme," says Francis Davis:

Richard Allen and his wife Sarah are interred on the site of the current Mother Bethel church, at Sixth and Lombard Streets in Philadelphia.

"A skeptic would say... that when you're coming off heroin, you're not eating, it's very easy to have hallucinations. But whether it was a hallucination or not, it had a powerful effect on him."

Coltrane moved to New York in 1958, working with Thelonius Monk and Miles Davis, and starting his own Quartet in 1960. He made dozens of records under his own name, before dying of liver disease at age 40 in 1967. Today, the Philadelphia row house Coltrane bought for his mother is a National Historic Landmark. It's owned by Mary Alexander, who lives in the house – and occasionally hosts backyard concerts and workshops for children.
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