Born in North Carolina in September 1926, Coltrane’s father was a tailor and amateur musician able to play several instruments. Coltrane also showed an aptitude for music, studying the E-flat tenor (alto) horn, clarinet and alto saxophone in high school. Both of his grandparents had been Methodist ministers, and his maternal grandfather had been a famous gospel preacher throughout that part of the Deep South. Churchgoing was part of his upbringing and gospel music provided the soundtrack. When he was thirteen, both his father and grandfather died within a month of each other and after Coltrane graduated from high school in 1943, the family moved north to Philadelphia to make a new start. There he studied at the Ornstein School of Music and Granoff Studios, before making his professional debut in 1945 playing in a lounge band.
Following a short term serving in the Navy, Coltrane returned home and having played in the Navy band while stationed in Hawaii (1945–1946), he expressed an earnest interest in the alto saxophone. He worked with a series of bands over the following decade including Eddie Vinson (1947–1948), and he played alto and tenor with Dizzy Gillespie (1949–1951) and Earl Bostic (1952–1953). His first proper recording session was with drummer Teddy Stewart’s Orchestra – made up mostly of Dizzy’s band members – backing Dinah Washington on some singles for Mercury.
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