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John Coltrane's Life And Work, His Harmonic Structure In Giant Steps, And Its Expansion

John Coltrane's one of major tenor players in jazz history. His life and work have influenced today's modern jazz scene and his contemporaries have been studied his harmonic structure in his composition Giant Steps in order to master the harmonic complexity while attempting to create their own. The expansion of harmonic structure in Giant Steps has been studied that could point a new direction for jazz musicians who seek alternative ways to create new harmony ideas for their composition and improvisation.

His Life and Work

John William Coltrane was born on September 23, 1926 in Hamlet, North Carolina, USA. Died on July 17, 1967 at Huntington Hospital, New York, USA. Coltrane grew up in High Point, North Carolina and spent most of his childhood in the house of his maternal grandfather, Rev. William Blair, who gave him his middle name. His early studies of Eb alto horn and clarinet were under his father's influence who played several instruments. At age of 15, his high school band leader suggested his mother to purchase his first alto saxophone for him because of his major musical influence switched to Johnny Hodges.

He moved to Philadelphia PA in June 1943 and studied on scholarships for performance and music composition at the Ornstein School of Music and Granoff Studio; military service in a U.S. navy band in Hawaii (1945-46) during World War II interrupted these studies. He played alto saxophone in the bands led by Joe Webb and King Kolax, then changed to the tenor to work with Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson (1947-48) , and was later quoted as saying, "A wider area of listening opened up to me. There were many things that people like Hawk, and Ben and Tab Smith were doing in the 40's that I didn't understand, but that I felt emotionally." He performed on either instrument as circumstances demanded while in groups led by Jimmy Heath, Howard McGhee, Dizzy Gillespie, and Earl Bostic, playing goodtime, rhythm-and-blues, big-band music. His early interest for experimentation had taken place while he played with Jimmy Health.

He switched to tenor saxophone while playing in the big band led by Dizzy Gillespie with whom he made his first recording in 1949. He stayed with Gillespie through the band's breakup in May 1950 and worked with Gillespie's small group until April 1951, when he returned to Philadelphia to go to school. He toured with Earl Bostic with whom he took his lessons of altissmo notes and fingerings on saxophone in early 1952. By the time he joined Johnny Hodges's small band (1953-54), he was firmly committed to tenor saxophone.

In the summer of 1955, he performed infrequently in Philadelphia and was then inducted to Miles Davis's first classic quintet featuring Red Garland on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and Philly Joe Jones on drum (1955-57) and became New York's most in-demand hard bop tenor player along with Sonny Rollins. Due to addiction drugs and alcohol, he was fired by Davis during mid-April of 1957. In July 1957 he joined Thelonious Monks with whom he took his lessons of Monk's creative harmony approaches and performed at New York's Five Spot which has been considered by Jazz critics as one of the most legendary gigs in Jazz History.

He rejoined Davis in January 1958 that led to his own musical evolution. "Miles music gave me plenty of freedom," he once said. During this period, he was known for the three-on-one chord approach, a method of playing multiple notes at one time on saxophone, which has been called by jazz critic Ira Gitler the "sheets of sounds," and worked in various quintets and sextets with Cannonball Adderly, Wynton Kelly, Bill Evans, Paul Camber, Philly Joe Jones and participated in Davis's landmark album, Kind Of Blue, which has been considered by many Jazz critics as one of the most important Jazz albums.

He signed to Atlantic Records and recorded Giant Steps on August 1959 and discovered the potential of the soprano saxophone, purchasing his own instrument in February 1960 and recorded an album, My Favorite Things, featuring the soprano saxophone as solo instrument. After briefly trying Steve Kuhn, Pete La Roca, and Billy Higgins, he formed his first working quartet in 1960 with pianist McCoy Tyner, polyrhythmic drummer Elvin Jones, and bassist Jimmy Garrison who joined in 1961. With these sidemen the quartet soon acquired an international following. At times Art Davis added a second double bass to the group; Eric Dolphy also served as an intermittent fifth member on bass clarinet, alto saxophone, and flute (1961-63), and Roy Haynes was the most regular replacement for Elvin Jones during the latter's incarceration for drug addiction in 1963.

He switched to Impulse! Records and recorded his monumental work A Love Supreme which was inspired by a series of profound spiritual experiences and established him as a revisionist figure in jazz, lifting music to higher reality of spiritual statement and transcendence. In the liner notes from the album he wrote: "During the year 1957, I experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening which was to lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life. At that time, in gratitude, I humbly asked to be given the means and privilege to make others happy through music." His classic quartet was disbanded after the departures of McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones in January 1966 due to his endless search for new direction and frequent changes of personnel, adding new members such as Alice Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders, Rashied Ali in his group. Nonetheless, these controversial experiments led by him attracted large audiences and achieved the rare feat of establishing avant-garde jazz, temporarily, as a popular music. He died at the age of 40 caused by liver ailment in 1967.

Brief Historical Data of Giant Steps

On 15 August 1959, John Coltrane recorded Giant Steps with pianist Tommy Flanagan, who was best known as accompanist for Ella Fizgerald and Tony Bennett, drummer Art Taylor and bassist Paul Chamber. He received positive feedback from jazz critic for his huge driving tone, his astonishing technical facility, and his complex harmonic structure. The composition itself, among his other compositions such as Moment's Notice, Mr. PC, Naima, Blue Train, Countdown and Impressions, has become jazz standard.

Brief Harmony Structural Overview of Giant Steps

Compositionally speaking, Giant Steps (Example 1) consists of two different sections. Harmonic structure of bar one to bar eight suggests the major innovation of this particular composition. Harmonic structure of bar nine to bar eighteen links to an earlier jazz standard Have You Met Miss Jones? (Example 2) which uses similar harmonic structure during its bridge. The harmonic structure of bar one to bar three and bar five to bar seven outlines three tonic chords BMaj7, GMaj7, and Ebmaj7. Dominant chords, F#7, D7, and Bb7, emphasize the major chords by revolving functionally. Notice that all major chords are placed in the harmonically strong positions and roots of three tonic chords outline an augmented triad.

BMaj7 D7 GMaj7 Bb7 EbMaj7 Am7 G7 GMaj7 Bb7 EbMaj7 F#7 BMaj7 Fm7 Bb7 EbMaj7 Am7 D7 GMaj7 C#m7 F#7 BMaj7 Fm7 Bb7 EbMaj7 C#m7 F#7

Example 1. Harmonic structure of Giant Steps.

BbMaj7 Abm7 Db7 GbMaj7 Em7 A7 DMaj7 Abm7 Db7 GbMaj7 Gm7 C7

Example 2. Bridge of Have You Met Miss Jones?, mm 17-25.

By studying Giant Steps' bar one to bar eight, one formula, "Coltrane Change," can be extracted (Example 3). This formula, the cycled major chords emphasized by their own dominant chords has this symmetrical balance related to each other, consists of three functional harmony structures (V-I) and together they create an unstable yet colorful sound that has been studied and used by many modern jazz musicians after Coltrane.

CMaj7 Eb7 AbMaj7 B7 EMaj7 G7 CMaj7

Example 3. Basic Formula of "Coltrane Change."

"Coltrane Change" used in superimposition

Modern jazz musicians use "Coltrane Change" as a systematic way to construct tensions in their solos. They superimpose "Coltrane Change" to play against original chord progression (Example 4).


CMaj7 AbMaj7 EMaj7 CMaj7 CMaj7

CMaj7 Eb7 AbMaj7 B7 EMaj7 G7 CMaj7 CMaj7

Example 4. Superimposing "Coltrane Change."

The answer of how to superimpose "Coltrane Change" to play against standard ii-V-I chord progression can be found by studying Coltrane's another composition Countdown (Example 5) in which he reharmonized an earlier jazz standard Tune Up. Example 6 shows how jazz musicians use "Coltrane Change" to substitute standard ii-V-I chord progression.

Em7 F7 BbMaj7 Db7 GbMaj7 A7 DMaj7 Dm7 Eb7 AbMaj7 B7 EMaj7 G7 CMaj7 Cm7 Db7 GbMaj7 A7 DMaj7 F7 BbMaj7 Em7 F7 BbMaj7 (Eb7)

Example 5. Harmonic structure of Countdown.

Dm7 Eb7 AbMaj7 B7 EMaj7 G7 CMaj7 Dm7 G7 CMaj7

Example 6. Superimposition of "Coltrane Change" to play against standard ii-V-I chord progression.

Example 7 shows how jazz musicians use "Coltrane Change" to substitute standard twelve bars blues chord progression to build their solos.

C7 Eb7 Ab7 B7 E7 G7 C7 C7 F7 Fm7 C7 Bbm7b5 Eb7b9 F7 C7 Dm7 Eb7 Ab7 B7 E7 G7 C7 Dm7 G7 C7

Example 7. Superimposition of "Coltrane Change" in twelve bars blues.

Example 8 shows the possibility of running "Coltrane Change" twice when playing a slower tempo twelve bars blues.

C7 Eb7 Ab7 B7 E7 G7 C7 Eb7 Ab7 B7 E7 G7 C7 C7 F7 Fm7 C7 Bbm7b5 Eb7b9 F7 C7 Dm7 Eb7 Ab7 B7 E7 G7 C7 Eb7 Ab7 B7 E7 G7 C7 Dm7 G7 C7

Example 8. Superimposition of "Coltrane Change" in twelve bars blues by doubling the cycle.

The Expansion of "Coltrane Change"

For compositional and improvisational purposes, the author of this article has developed a system to expand the possibilities of "Coltrane Change" by altering the quality of tonic chords (Example 9), altering the dominant chords (Example 10), and altering the symmetrical root movements between tonic chords (Example 11). There are endless combinations and possibilities by using this system, thus only main alternations are listed.

CMaj7 Eb7 AbMaj7 B7 EMaj7 G7 CMaj7

Variation 1:
Cm Eb7 Abm B7 Em G7 Cm

Variation 2:
Cdim Eb7 Abdim B7 Edim G7 Cdim

Variation 3:
Caug Eb7 Abaug B7 Eaug G7 Caug

Variation 4:
C7 Eb7 Ab7 B7 E7 G7 C7

Example 9. Altering the quality of tonic chords.

CMaj7 Eb7 AbMaj7 B7 EMaj7 G7 CMaj7

Variation 1:
CMaj7 A7 AbMaj7 F7 EMaj7 Db7 CMaj7

Variation 2:
CMaj7 G7 AbMaj7 D#7 EMaj7 B7 CMaj7

Example 10. Altering the dominant chords.

CMaj7 Eb7 AbMaj7 B7 EMaj7 G7 CMaj7

Variation 1:
CMaj7 C#7 F#Maj7 G7 CMaj7

Variation 2:
CMaj7 E7 AMaj7 C#7 F#Maj7 Bb7 EbMaj7 G7 CMaj7

Variation 3:
CMaj7 F7 BbMaj7 Eb7 AbMaj7 C#7 F#Maj7 B7 EMaj7 A7 DMaj7 G7 CMaj7

Example 11. Altering symmetrical root movements between tonic chords.

By using this system to freely alter "Coltrane Change," desired sounds and chord progressions can be created (Example 12). Doubling or even tripling the cycles, expanding the duration of chords, reducing the duration of chords, and freely altering chord quality if necessary (Example 13).

Caug F7 F#aug B7 Caug

Cdim Bb7 Adim G7 F#dim E7 Ebdim Db7 Cdim

C7 F7b9 Bb7 Eb7b9 Ab7 C#7b9 F#7 B7b9 E7 A7b9 D7 G7b9 C7

Example 12. Freely altering "Coltrane Change."

Dbaug F7b9 F#Maj7 B7 Cm7 F7b9 B7 BbMaj7 Ebaug G7b9 G#Maj7 C#7 Dm7 G7b9 C#7 CMaj7 AbMaj7 EMaj7 Cm7 Bb7+ Aaug G7+ F#aug E7+ Ebaug Db7+ F#m7 A7+ Daug F7+ Bbaug C#7+ F#Maj7 CMaj7 Dbaug F7b9 F#Maj7 B7 Cm7 F7b9 B7 BbMaj7

Example 13. Using this system to create harmonic structure for new composition.


John Coltrane's influence on jazz music was considered second only to Charlie Parker. He affected his contemporaries with his unique harmony structure, melodic sense, rhythmic complexity, spiritual perfection and modal approach to improvisation. His music "-like that of Jimi Hendrix - ran parallel with a tide of mass political creation of such innovative and intense music. Nevertheless, Coltrane's music reached a wide audience, and was particularly popular with the younger generation of listeners who were also big fans of rock music." The harmonic structure used in Giant Steps has been considered as one of the major components that have made today's modern jazz so exciting. Further studying regarding his music language used in Giant Steps should be studied thoroughly in order to gain deeper understanding in modern jazz music.


Anonymous. John Coltrane Biography.

Anonymous. John Coltrane - Biography.

Early, Gerald. "Ode to John Coltrane: A Jazz Musician's Influence on African American Culture." The Antioch Review, 57, no3, (1999), 371-85.

Kernfeld, Barry. The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz. London: Macmillan Press Limited, 1988.

Wild, Dave. A Brief Biography of John Coltrane. .

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