JAZZ LEGEND JOHN COLTRANE
Few dispute that John Coltrane was the greatest jazz saxophonist that the world has seen. He was known for his lush tone and masterful control of the upper register. His incredible coordination allowed him to play the tones of chords in such rapid succession that they were referred to as “Coltrane’s sheets of sound.” Coltrane was innovative in his use of improvisation and arrhythmic music. There was no doubt that his childhood in High Point allowed his creative spirit to thrive.
John Coltrane was born in Hamlet, North Carolina, on September 23, 1926. His family moved to High Point when he was only 3 months old. Coltrane spent the first 17 years of his life in High Point at 118 Underhill Street. While at William Penn High School, he began playing the saxophone.
Coltrane moved to Philadelphia in 1943, where he studied music and made his professional debut. He moved from band to band, appearing with jazz greats such as Dizzy Gillespie, Earl Bostic, and Thelonious Monk.
Although he gained recognition while playing with Miles Davis from 1955 to 1960, Coltrane quickly developed a devoted following when he formed his own quartet in 1960. Named “Jazzman of the Year” in 1965 by local and international critics, John Coltrane was just reaching his prime when he died July 17, 1967, at age 40, in Huntington, New York.
Coltrane’s High Point Childhood
John Coltrane’s family moved to High Point in 1926 when he was still an infant. He lived together with his maternal grandparents, his own parents, and sometimes his cousin’s family. His grandfather, Rev. W. W. Blair, was a presiding elder of the AME Zion church, and his father was a tailor. Coltrane’s childhood was typical of many African American children in High Point. He experienced the limitations of living with segregation as well as the closeness of High Point’s African American community.
Coltrane showed his academic potential at Leonard Street School. Among his classmates, Coltrane was known as a shy boy who was neat as well as a sharp dresser. Classmate, Rosetta Haywood recalled that John “was smart, and had a mischievous streak, but never got caught – he was so good and laughed at everything, that other people got in trouble, but not him.” Both Coltrane and his cousin, Mary Lyerly, were at the top of their class and participated in additional activities such as school plays and May Day festivals. In the seventh grade, Coltrane became a School Patrol Boy, helping other students navigate the difficult gully created with the recent lowering of the train tracks. During his free time, he enjoyed roller-skating with one of his friends Franklin Brower.
Coltrane’s situation changed drastically in the winter of 1938 – 1939 when his grandfather and father died within weeks of each other. After the death of his uncle in 1940, Coltane’s mother and aunt took work at the Emerywood Country Club to support the family. During this period without a lot of adult supervision, Coltrane found opportunities to explore the new sounds of jazz.
In 1939 Coltrane joined Warren B. Steele’s community band, starting out on alto horn and later moving to clarinet. The success of the community band inspired William Penn principal Samuel Burford to start a school band in 1940. Coltrane joined as a founding member of the school band under the direction of Grayce W. Yokely. Later, Coltrane developed an interest in the saxophone, practicing with Charlie Haygood, a restaurant owner on Washington Street. By his senior year, Coltrane’s musical talents earned him the vote of “most musical.” He also earned a lyre for his participation with the Boys’ Chorus.
At the time Coltrane graduated from William Penn in 1943, there were few economic opportunities open to young African Americans. By this time, Coltrane’s mother had left High Point for work in Philadelphia. After graduating, Coltrane followed his mother north and started additional training on the saxophone. Although Coltrane visited friends a couple of times, he never returned to High Point after 1945.
John Coltrane Statue in Downtown High Point
A statue honoring one of High Point’s most acclaimed citizens now has a permanent home in downtown High Point.
The statue honors Jazz musician John Coltrane. Known internationally for his unique genre and style, Coltrane was raised on Underhill Street in High Point and attended William Penn High School. Before and after his death in 1967, Coltrane served as a mentor and inspiration to many famous Jazz artists.
In order to properly recognize such a significant citizen of High Point, the Downtown Improvement Committee, with assistance from the High Point Museum, began working on the John Coltrane Statue project two years ago.
Thomas Jay Warren of Oregon, was hired to sculpt the eight foot tall bronze likeness of Coltrane, which is in the northeast corner of City Hall property at the intersection of Commerce Avenue and Hamilton Street.
Funding for the John Coltrane statue came through grants from the Downtown Improvement Committee, the High Point Convention and Visitors Bureau, the High Point Museum, the Guilford County Board of Commissioners and the High Point Community Foundation as well as private.