John Coltrane, saxophonist and visionary, set standards in nearly every facet of his short but ultimately fruitful life. While generally associated with Philadelphia, Coltrane is actually from Hamlet, North Carolina, and never tried to hide his Southern roots. In an interview by author Frank Kofsky — one of the few times his voice was recorded — the usually soft-spoken Coltrane gives casual yet measured responses to provocative questions in a thick Southern drawl. This casual treatment of the provocative was a reoccurring theme with Afro-American musicians sartorially inclined toward the Ivy League Look, especially those whose matriculation in post-Jim Crow America was almost never casual but always provocative.
In “Men of Color,” Lloyd Boston writes, “Avant-garde sax-man John Coltrane’s music may have been ‘giant steps’ ahead, but he favored an understated style of dress: single-breasted sack suits, buttondown oxford shirts, and plain ties.”
John Coltrane’s musical trajectory gave birth to what is now known as postmodern saxophone playing, while his sartorial sense facilitated the goals of a legend in the making with more to concern himself with than the roll of the buttondown collars he was often seen in, or whether the sleeve on his terrycloth-knit polo hit his bicep at just the right spot.
Trane, as he’s affectionately referred to, had style in spades because he never seemed to have time to look anything but correct and presentable. Yet in hindsight his photographs seem to have been styled by Frank Muytjens: natural-shouldered, three-button jacket paired with a buttondown-collar shirt (with or without tie), odd trousers and typically penny loafers. Add to that look an austere haircut, occasional neat mustache, and nothing less than the most fertile musical imagination in jazz and there you have John Coltrane, musician. — JASON MARSHALL
The following are some samples of Coltrane’s music. First, one of his best-known compositions:
Next, a visual primer on how jazz is made:
Finally, Coltrane’s take on a tune from Franz Lehar’s operetta “The Merry Widow”: