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John Coltrane Learns Music Through Practice and Apprenticeship

According to theologian Steven R. Guthrie, John Coltrane is one of a handful of musicians (including other greats like Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, and Miles Davis) who defined jazz music. But Coltrane's musical creativity and excellence didn't just happen; he became an outstanding musician only by submitting himself to a long process of practice and apprenticeship. In Guthrie's words:

From the time he was a young teenager Coltrane maintained an intense practice regime, playing for hours each day and, when neighbors complained, silently fingering the keys of his saxophone late into the night. His first wife, Naima, referred to Coltrane as "ninety-percent saxophone" …. Coltrane took classes at various music institutes and conservatories and pored over practice books such as Slominsky's Thesaurus of Scales and Patterns.

Guthrie also notes that, although Coltrane was one of the most original voices in jazz,

For decades [he] dedicated himself to learning and internalizing the styles of older and established jazz musicians. For nine years, from 1946 to 1955, Coltrane was "an anonymous journeyman," working as a supporting musician in the bands of more established musicians. An older generation of sax players [such as Thelonious Monk] served as instructors. In an interview Coltrane described how his time in Monk's band became an opportunity for one-on-one tutorials:
"I'd get my horn and start trying to find what he was playing … he'd tend to play it over and over and over … he would stop and show me some parts that were pretty difficult, and if I had a lot of trouble, well, he'd get out his portfolio and show me the music … when I almost had the tune down, then he would leave me to practice it."

Steven Guthrie comments:

Coltrane developed his voice by surrendering to another. Before he could speak on his own, he first gave himself to repeating again and again the things Monk had said …. The paradox of artistry is that the loss of self is the prerequisite for self-expression. And, conversely, the object of mastering another's voice is finding one's own.

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