Johnny Coles never became a star name, but his associations with a half-dozen of the leading jazz figures of the post-war era are significant enough testament to his musical ability.
Whether through circumstances or lack of inclination, Coles seemed content to work with others at the helm throughout his career, but he earned a significant reputation within those parameters. He was never a band-leader of any note, and recorded very few records under his own name. His debut album The Warm Sound, appeared in 1961, while his most significant record as a leader, Little Johnny C, was issued on Blue Note label in 1963.
He taught himself to play trumpet from the age of 10, later adding the customary flugelhorn as well. He studied music at the Mastbaum Vocational School in Philadelphia, and played in army bands during the war years. His initial post-war experience came in commercial bands, notably a rhythm and blues outfit led by saxophonist Eddie Cleanhead Vinson, which also included John Coltrane and Red Garland in its ranks.
He continued that rhythm and blues association with bands led by the likes of Earl Bostic and Bull Moose Jackson in the early 1950s, but was also playing in more mainstream jazz settings by that time. They included wroking with drummer Philly Joe Jones in 1951, and a more extended association with saxophonist James Moody in 1956-8. On leaving Moody's band, Coles began working with Gil Evans, whose own standing in the public eye had been greatly elevated by the success of his collaborations with Miles Davis.