America’s Top 10 Military Musicians, #3 and #4

Posted by Jason Van Steenwyk

After a big week with the 9/11 anniversary and ongoing debate about military action against Syria, it’s time to enjoy Fun Friday. Our list of the Top Military Musicians is starting to wind down. Do you agree with the people we’ve listed so far? And do you have any guesses about who could be in the #1 spot? Let’s get to two more artists today and hear more great music.

(If you missed the previous installments, read about and listen to works by #10 and #9, #8 and #7, #6 and #5 before scrolling down.)


4. John Coltrane

Talk to any saxophonist about who the greatest sax player who ever lived was and chances are overwhelming that they will mention John Coltrane. More than that, talk to any jazz musician anywhere about who was the greatest jazz player of any instrument there ever was and chances are they’ll still mention Coltrane, right up near the top of the pantheon.

Indeed, Coltrane is the only musician on this list to have played so transcendently that he actually has a religious following: The St. John Coltrane African Orthodox Church regards Coltrane as a prophet, and uses Coltrane’s music and lyrics in its liturgy.

Coltrane was born on September 23rd, 1926, and entered the Navy at the tail end of World War Two, on August 6th, 1945, at the age of eighteen. The war was over by the time Coltrane finished training at the Sampson Naval Training Center in upstate New York. Coltrane was then assigned to active duty in Hawaii. While stationed on Oahu, near Pearl Harbor, Coltrane played with a black Navy band called the Melody Masters, where he made his first recordings in 1946.

As the Navy rapidly demobilized following the war, though, they didn’t need bands much anymore, and so Coltrane was discharged just a year after he joined.

After the war, Coltrane continued to develop his skills in ensembles led by bebop great Dizzy Gillespie, and by Johnny Hodges and Earl Bostic. He lived in Philadelphia – not far from New York City, and studied jazz theory and harmony with a guitarist named Denis Sandole (1913-2000), who also mentored James Moody, Michael Brecker, Jim Hall, Joe Diorio and Pat Martino. Coltrane, however, was undoubtedly his greatest student, picking up where Sandole left off and developing his own revolutionary approach to jazz harmony and progression.

“John never coasted. Every time I heard him, it was if he was playing the last solo of his life and wanted to get all of his life into it.”  –Nat Hentoff

Coltrane soon hooked up with jazz trumpet great Miles Davis, and in separate projects, with Thelonious Monk, with whom Coltrane recorded Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall in 1957.

Coltrane was developing a trademark virtuosic approach to jazz improvisation that came to be called “sheets of sound,” a term coined by jazz critic Ira Girtler, referring to Coltrane’s shimmering, rapid scalar runs and the arpeggiation of up to three chords at the same time. “His continuous flow of ideas without stopping really hit me,” Gitler said. “It was almost superhuman. The amount of energy he was using could have powered a spaceship.”

Coltrane had become a sideman par excellence for Davis, Hodges, Gillespie, Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk, and made his recording debut as a bandleader in 1960, soon settling on the legendary lineup of McCoy Tyner, bassist Steve Davis, and drummer Elvin Jones. He also recorded the groundbreaking Giant Steps, the title track of which is still considered among the most innovative and challenging tunes for jazz musicians in the repertoire.

Eric Dolphy soon joined the band as a 2nd horn, and is heard to great effect playing bass clarinet, of all things, evoking a trumpeting elephant on the John Coltrane tune India.

Coltrane’s most well known and commercially successful recording, however, was undoubtedly his groundbreaking rendition of the jazz waltz, My Favorite Things.

Toward the end of his life, Coltrane became drawn more and more toward experimental, avant garde sounds, influenced by Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler. His playing took on greater levels of abstraction and angularity. He was playing regularly at this point with his 2nd wife, Alice Coltrane, on piano.

Coltrane passed away from liver cancer in July 1967, still at the very pinnacle of his creativity. He was 40 years old. His son, Ravi Coltrane, is an accomplished saxophone player in his own right.


3. Jascha Heifetz

Jascha Heifetz is widely considered to be the single greatest violinist of the 20th century, and possibly the greatest who ever lived. His status at or near the top of the food chain of the great classical violinists of all time is undisputed. As a young man, he was referred to, without apparent irony or hyperbole, as “God’s fiddler.” In his 1987 New York Times obituary, the editors wrote that his name “was for more than half a century was synonymous with perfection of technique and musicianship.”

Nobody played like him – the strength and the force,” said Itzhak Perlman after Heifetz’s death. “His playing had the quality that sizzled and he had such color, He revolutionized violin playing to where it wishes to go today. None of us mortals are going to be able to reach his standard.”

His status at the very top of the classical music performance world is well-known. What is less well known is that Heifetz, already a legendary musician and the most highly paid violinist the world had ever seen, spent much of World War Two sharing his prodigious musical gifts with an audience he grew to love, and which loved him right back: American soldiers.

During World War Two, Heifetz was granted the honorary rank of captain, and wore the uniform and rank throughout the war. All told, he played scores of USO shows stateside, and participated in three separate extensive USO tours of Europe during the war, some perilously close to enemy lines. He survived a German air strike, and got lost in German territory at one point. Had he been captured, he would most likely have been murdered as a Jew. Despite the hardships and dangers he endured, however, Heifetz refused pay for his services the whole time. 

John and Anthony Maltese chronicle Heifetz’s contributions to the military community here.

In a U.S. Army hos­pi­tal in Italy, a violinist dressed in military uni­form entered a ward to play for GI’s wounded in the ongo­ing battles of World War II. The ward was for young men who had recently lost arms and legs under fire.  As the violinist entered, a boy who had lost his right arm tried to applaud in the air with his left hand. The violinist was momentarily shocked. He had played in many hospitals before, but none quite like this. He gazed at the smiling boy clapping the air, and then – his face illuminated with compassion and sensitivity – raised his violin and played. The violinist’s name: Jascha Heifetz.

Seated next to Heifetz at the “GI Steinway” was pianist Milton Kaye. Kaye never forgot that concert. “Here was this man,” he recalled fifty years later, “the great vio­lin­ist of the ages, and he was killing himself to play even better for these men! And I thought to myself, ‘You see, sonny boy? That’s why he is what he is.”

Kaye had never, ever, heard Heifetz play so beau­ti­fully. The fol­low­ing year, the pianist Seymour Lipkin wit­nessed that same high stan­dard of violin play­ing when he accompanied Heifetz on another tour for the GI’s. Not even the most adverse conditions affected Heifetz’s play­ing. “I remember that after awhile I began to under­stand that he was going to play his best no matter what,” Lipkin told us. “And I kind of perked up, and I thought, ‘Boy, this is something!’ He played at his best no matter what. So, I tell my pupils now: ‘Don’t forget that. That’s a lesson!”

Heifetz had been so moved by his concert for the paraplegics that he asked to play at more hospitals. He wanted to use his days off as the opportunity for the additional concerts. Heifetz asked Kaye if he minded adding more con­certs to their already grueling schedule. “Of course not,” he shot back. Kaye, too, had been moved. He had fought back tears as they played in the hospital. Besides, he considered every opportunity to play with Heifetz a unique privilege. “And it was,” Kaye told us as he leaned forward in his chair. “It was the greatest privilege I had in my musical life.”

Heifetz was born in Vilnius, Lithuania, in 1901, and came the U.S. at the age of 16. In 1925, he became a citizen of the United States, and remained deeply patriotic for his entire life. “On national holidays he was among the few in Mal­ibu who always raised the flag in the morning,” recalled a former student of his later in his life, “and he took it down himself at sunset. He rigorously required all guests to be present at the ceremony and to display the proper respect toward the flag while it was lowered.”

“Perhaps it takes a naturalized American, like myself, to fully realize what a very great country this is.” –Jascha Heifetz 

While Heifetz was aware that American troops were not necessarily classical music fans, his shows were routinely met with overwhelming and raucous approval. Heifetz would typically begin with Bach. “Think of it as musical spinach,” he would joke to the troops. You may not like it, but it’s good for you.” He would frequently end with Horo Staccato, a musical showpiece and popular encore often requested.

After the war, Heifetz went back to his grueling routine of performance and touring, logging millions of miles. Heifetz toured Israel for the third time in 1953, and planned to include a violin sonata by Richard Strauss. Strauss’s music, however, along with Richard Wagner’s, was closely associated with Nazism. There was an unwritten ban in Israel on the music of both composers, but despite pleas from the Minister of Education and other Israeli musical benefactors, Heifetz refused to budge. “There are only two kinds of music: Good music and bad music,” Heifetz said. The music is above these factors. I will not change my program.”

Heifetz continued to play the Strauss Violin Sonata throughout his Israeli tour. Each time, there was not a hint of applause.

After playing a concert in Jerusalem, Heifetz was attacked by a man wielding a crowbar, injuring Heifetz’s right hand that he was using to protect his violin. The attack was later associated with a terrorist group called Kingdom of Israel.

Throughout the 50s and well into the 80s, Heifetz continued to teach and play extensively, commissioning pieces from composers and developing young talent. His repertoire was astonishing – a read through his impressive discography reveals a repertoire many, many times more extensive than other leading classical violinists.

Heifetz’s talents were not restricted to violin performance: Heifetz also enjoyed playing and improvising jazz piano, and even wrote a hit pop song When You Make Love to Me Don’t Pretend. 

In the 1960s, Heifetz also played in a trio with concert pianist Leonard Pennario, a World War Two veteran of the Army Air Corps who served in Burma, along with cellist Gregor Piatigorsky.

Heifetz was also an excellent arranger and transcriptionist, and his violin arrangements of other composers’ works are still frequently played today. 

Heifetz died in 1987 – still the undisputed champion of classical violin in the world at that time, and likely is, still. 


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