History of John Coltrane
John Coltrane was born in Hamlet, North Carolina, on
September 23, 1926 to John R. and Alice Blair
Coltrane. He was an infant when his family moved to
High Point. For most of his youth Coltrane lived with
extended family in his grandparents’ house on Underhill
Street. His father owned a dry cleaning and tailor
shop. His grandfather was Reverend William Wilson
Blair, presiding elder of St. Stephens A.M.E. Zion
Coltrane showed academic potential at Leonard Street
Elementary School. Among his classmates, Coltrane
was known as a shy boy who was neat as well as a
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
Music filled the air in the house on Underhill. Coltrane’s
father played the ukulele and violin. His mother was a
trained singer and often played the piano. When he
was about 12, young Coltrane joined a community band
started by his Scout troop leader Warren B. Steele and
played the alto horn.
Coltrane’s situation changed drastically in the winter of
1938 - 1939 when his grandfather and father died
within weeks of each other. Coltrane was 12. After the
death of his uncle in 1940, Coltrane’s mother and aunt
took work at the Emerywood Country Club to support
the family. During this period without alot of adult
supervision, Coltrane found solace in practicing his
music and exploring the sounds of jazz.
The success of the community band inspired William
Penn’s 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. He graduated at
the age of 16 in 1943. Shortly thereafter he left High
Point to study music.
Coltrane moved to Philadelphia following his mother
who had left High Point to find work in the North. He
took additional training with the saxophone in
Philadelphia. After a brief stint in the Navy he met,
performed and recorded with Dizzy Gillespie, Johnny
Hodges, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk and with other
jazz legends. Coltrane, like other musicians of the time,
became addicted to heroin and alcohol.
In 1957 when John overcame his heroin addiction, his
music took on a more spiritual aspect. Coltrane later
wrote, “I experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual
awakening which was to lead me to a richer, fuller, more
productive life.” During the last ten years of his life
Coltrane’s music reached new levels and emotional
depth. In 1965, he was named Down Beat magazine’s
“Jazzman of the Year.” He was just reaching his prime
when he died of liver cancer on July 17, 1967 at the
age of 40.
Preserving Coltrane History in High Point
In addition to the John Coltrane Plaza, the City of
High Point has purchased the Coltrane home on
Underhill Street and is developing plans to restore it.
The High Point Museum has in its collection the
player piano that was in the house on Underhill Street
along with a few other artifacts. John moved the piano
to his home in Philadelphia where he is known to have
used the piano to compose and arrange music. He
said of the piano, “You have a whole band under your
hands with a piano and it’s the best thing for working on
chord forms.” Several other items on exhibit include
unpublished musical notations as well as a 1961 award
from Down Beat magazine and a report he did on
“Negro History” as a fifth grade student in High Point.
The Museum is located at 1859 E. Lexington Ave.
William Penn High School, where John attended and
learned music, is now Penn Griffin School of the Arts.
The school is located at 825 East Washington Street.