by Larry Reni Thomas
John Coltrane, the master of the saxophone, was born September 23, 1926 to John R. and Alice Blair Coltrane, in Hamlet, North Carolina, in the rural, red clay farming region near the South Carolina state line. His grandfather was Reverend William Coltrane, a prominent African Methodist Episcopal Zion (AMEZ) minister in Hamlet.
When John was an infant, his family moved 85 miles north to High Point, N.C., in the Piedmont area of the state known for furniture manufacturing. His grandfather was Reverend John Blair, an elder in AMEZ church. Coltrane grew up on Underhill Street, performed in the high school band and graduated from William Penn High School in 1943.
John, whose father operated a tailor shop and played the violin, started playing the saxophone in High Point. He showed an interest in music and the saxophone at an early age, way before he became a teenager. Coltrane was a member of a community band, in addition to the school band. In 1938–39, both his grandfather and father died causing the shy John, who was around twelve years old, to become a little depressed. Four years later, days after graduating from high school, John Coltrane, like countless other blacks in the segregated South, went north. Coltrane joined his mother in Philadelphia.
It was during this period that the great saxophonist began to do what he would do religiously for the rest of his life. John Coltrane became an extremely dedicated musician who believed practice made perfect. He, according to several fellow artists, practiced on his instrument every day, all day.
“John Coltrane practiced more than anybody I knew,” said tenor saxophone legend Jimmy Heath, during an interview several years ago. Heath, whose award-winning autobiography, I Walked With Giants: The Autobiography of Jimmy Heath, mentioned his close relationship with fellow Philadelphian John Coltrane. Heath was a friend and leader of a big band that Coltrane was a member of during the late 1940s. “He would practice after the gig. When we got back to the hotel. He would practice. Play all morning. Then he would fall asleep with the horn still around his neck. John was very, very disciplined and never thought there was such a thing as practicing too much.”
Larry Ridley, the bassist and educator, who was also a friend of Coltrane and had sat in with him once in the 1960s at a New York City club, recalled a visit to Coltrane’s Long Island home, during an interview for the audio documentary “John Coltrane: A Great North Carolina Jazz Intellectual.” Ridley said that he and a group of musicians were sitting around John’s living room, talking and socializing, and when he looked around, he noticed that John had left the room. “Where is he?’ Where is John?’ Where did he go?'” Ridley asked. Then, Larry said he heard John in the back room, practicing on his horn. “He loved to practice. He was a practice fanatic,” said Ridley.
So, it was in High Point, a small city known more for furniture making, where all the practicing and spirituality, began. His grandfather’s joyful, uplifting church services and the supreme feeling he got from celebrating the spiritual side of life, all helped to make and mold Coltrane into becoming a well-respected, widely known, historic, influential, jazz giant. It was during those few years in his young life in High Point that Coltrane started his journey. It was one of the many turning points in his life, maybe the most important because High Point was where the spark was lit, and it stands to reason that High Point is where the local citizens should celebrate one of their own and have a festival. After all, High Point was Coltrane’s home.
For years, there have been people in High Point who have known that the famous, internationally known John Coltrane was raised in their hometown. Some noticed that for years, there has been a steady stream of tourists and researchers, visiting the house where Coltrane lived on Underhill Street. The first effort to honor him as a former fellow High Point citizen began in 2004, when a group, called The Downtown Improvement Committee, formed and lead a successful effort to erect a statue of John Coltrane in downtown High Point. The impressive, bronze statue, created by sculptor Thomas Jay Warren, and financed by grants from The Downtown Improvement Committee, The High Point Convention and Visitors Bureau, The High Point Museum, The City of High Point, The Guilford County Board of Commissioners, The High Point Community Foundation and private donations, was dedicated September 20, 2006, at the Coltrane Plaza, in downtown High Point, with a reading sent from musician Carlos Santana.
“The Friends of John Coltrane was formed in 2009,” said Joe Williams, one of the organizers, and a member of the group. “We thought that we would use the momentum of the statue being erected and try to organize a music festival that would involve the High Point community. We wanted the whole community to be involved. It took a lot of hard work, but we were finally able to present the first festival in 2011. It went well. A lot of people showed up from places like Boston, D.C., Atlanta, New York. We even had some folks from Japan contact us.”
Williams, a Philadelphian who moved to High Point years ago, used his background in music promotion to book an all-star line-up for every festival since 2011.
“This festival is now a nationally recognized festival,” said Williams. “We have heard from people as far away as Canada, California, Massachusetts, and New York. We think that it’s very important that High Point residents get involved. Last year was good, great crowd, and the best part about it was that most of the people there were from right here in the area. Everybody is always looking for somewhere to go for The Labor Day weekend. We think that this is the place.”
“We have been very fortunate because most of these fine musicians are eager and willing to perform at the festival basically because they love John Coltrane and his music,” said Williams. “They understand what we are trying to do. We are also doing several things in the community, like helping to renovate his old residence, student essay contest, year-around events they help to keep John Coltrane’s legacy alive.”
Learn more about The John Coltrane International Jazz and Blues Festival in High Point at: https://coltranejazzfest.com/
About the Author:
Larry Reni Thomas is a veteran jazz writer, radio announcer and historian from Wilmington, N.C. with a M.A. in history from UNC-Chapel Hill. Larry has had a busy, colorful career that has spanned close to three decades, and has included stints at seven, mostly non-commercial radio stations, including WHQR-FM, WNCU-FM and WCOM-FM, where he is presently host of Sunday Night Jazz. He has written for downbeat, Urban Journal and All ABout Jazz.com and was appointed a North Carolina Humanities Council Road Scholar. Dubbed "Dr. Jazz," by musician Bro. Yusuf Salim, Thomas, who is the host and producer of The Carolina Jazz Connection, considers himself foremost "a gentleman and a scholar and a servant of the people." He is also the author of several books including Rabbit! Rabbit! Rabbit!: A Tale of the Wilmington Incident of February 1971 (2006).
Jazz pioneer John Coltrane was born in the town of Hamlet in Richmond County and grew up an hour or so to the north in High Point where he spent the first 17 years of his life. He began playing saxophone in high school and now is considered one of the most influential tenor saxophone players in the history of jazz.
The following article appeared in the Oxford American’s Southern Music Issue on North Carolina, released in November 2018. Issue available here.
Shortly after publishing the biography John Coltrane: His Life and Music, Lewis Porter received a letter from a man who identified himself as a Coltrane. Only not, presumably, one related to the great jazz musician. His ancestors had been white farmers in North Carolina. “He said, ‘I’ve been looking into my family history,’” Porter recalled recently, “‘and I have here a bill of sale that could be interesting.’”
The bill, dated June 6, 1828, records the purchase of a slave, the faded scrollwork of the cursive still legible after all these years. “Abner Coltrain two hundred dollars in full consideration for a Negro boy named Handy,” it reads, using a variant, Coltrain, that was common at the time. The sale occurred in Fayetteville and was intended as a gift, or else conducted by proxy, since the receipt for Handy was signed by Jacob, Abner Coltrain’s father.
Porter was intrigued by the document, yet he doubted it had anything to do with John Coltrane. Coltrane was brought up in North Carolina, in the city of High Point, but “going back that far,” Porter told me, “there are going to be plenty of descendants, and plenty of people from North Carolina had slaves. It’s like, What are the chances?”
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