The subtitle of the new biography of John Coltrane by Ben Ratliff, Coltrane: The Story of a Sound, gets it exactly right. The point of jazz is that it is a personal way of ‘telling a story’, as Lester Young put it. As a young man Coltrane was a journeyman sax player of no particular interest, one of thousands. What eventually marked him out was his incessant experimentation with new ways of playing. By the time he joined Miles Davis’s quintet in 1955 he had developed a powerful style that did not always fit with the rest of the band. When Davis asked him why he played for so long, Coltrane said he couldn’t stop himself. ‘Try taking it out of your mouth’ was Davis’s laconic reply.
Like many musicians at the time, Coltrane was addicted to heroin and alcohol, but by the exercise of the same ferocious willpower that he devoted to practice and playing he was able to kick both habits. In 1960 he formed the first of his great quartets (all driven by the