Alvin Gilbert Gil Coggins was born to parents of West Indian heritage. His mother was a pianist and had her son start on piano from an early age. He attended school in New York City and the Barbados. In Harlem, New York City, he attended The High School of Music & Art.
In 1946, Coggins met Miles Davis while stationed at Jefferson Barracks in Missouri. After his discharge he began playing piano professionally, working with Davis on several of his Blue Note and Prestige releases. Coggins also recorded with John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Lester Young, Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, Ray Draper, and Jackie McLean.