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Dennis Sandole: 1913-2000
Dennis Sandole
Guitar, teacher

Born: September 29, 1913 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Died: October 29, 2000 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Coltrane's Mentor Was Legendary Jazz Teacher

Copyright © 2000 

The Scotsman, 2000


Dennis Sandole earned his place in jazz lore as the man who acted as teacher and mentor to John Coltrane at a formative stage in the great saxophonist’s career. Sandole took the aspiring saxophonist under his wing in 1946, and continued to tutor and encourage him into the early 1950s, preparing the ground for the flowering which would make Coltrane one of the very select band of musicians who changed the face of jazz.

Although Sandole was a guitarist rather than a saxophonist, his teachings involved what he described as “a maturing of concepts” which focused on the use of advanced harmonic techniques which could be applied to any instrument. He taught scales which were not then in common use in jazz, including some of his own devising, and introduced his students to the music of other cultures, several decades before world-jazz fusion became a reality.

In his seminal book on Coltrane, jazz scholar Lewis Porter quotes Sandole as saying that the saxophonist was “superbly gifted”, and that he “went through eight years of my literature in four years”. The two men remained “excellent friends” until Coltrane’s death in 1967.

Sandole was his own first pupil. He taught himself to play guitar in his late teens, and began performing in a local band in Philadelphia with his brother, Adolph Sandole, a saxophonist. By the early 1940s, he was working regularly in name bands of the swing era, including those led by Ray McKinley (1942), Tommy Dorsey (1943-44), Boyd Raeburn (1944) and Charlie Barnet (1946). He did a great deal of studio work during that period, including spells in Hollywood, where he worked on film soundtracks, and in record sessions, where he backed Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra, among others.

At the same time, he began to develop his system of original teaching concepts, and chose to concentrate more on that activity than on playing. He began teaching seriously in Philadelphia in 1946, and joined a new music school opened by Isadore Granoff, a Russian immigrant who believed that jazz musicians of the era were insufficiently tutored in music theory. Later, he taught privately, and continued to do so until the end of his life.

Sandole became something of a legend as a teacher in jazz circles. If Coltrane was his most famous pupil, he was far from the only major jazz figure to draw benefit from the guitarist’s wisdom. Other notable names who passed through his hands included several more saxophonists, notably James Moody and Michael Brecker, as well as guitarists Jim Hall and Pat Martino, and newer names like pianist Matthew Shipp.

He published a book, Guitar Lore, in 1981, which contained many of the ideas he had taught over the years, and also spoke of a second book, Scale Lore, which has not been published. He stressed the importance of an aural approach to his harmonic innovations, determined not so much by abstract theory but by the way the results sounded on the ear. He was regarded as a highly supportive teacher, and one who helped to boost the confidence of his pupils by working to develop their strengths.

Although he largely sacrificed his own performing career in favour of teaching, Sandole did continue to play occasionally. He recorded an album of his own music, Modern Music From Philadelphia, for Fantasy in 1956. Cadence Jazz issued a new recording in 1999, The Dennis Sandole Project, which contained excerpts from Evenin’ Is Cryin’, an ambitious fusion of jazz, opera and ballet which he had worked on in the 1960s and 1970s.

He is survived by a son, two daughters, three sisters, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

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With 25 reader comments, latest December 3, 2000