Saxophonist and composer John Coltrane (1926-1967) is revered as a musical god by jazz musicians as well as jazz and world music fans. I would guess that just about everybody who loves music knows of or has heard the music of this brilliant and innovative artist. Fifty years after Coltrane’s premature death from cancer, there’s finally a feature documentary film about him. Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary paints a moving portrait of Coltrane’s life, following his career and the arc of his spiritual journey through music. Director John Scheinfeld joins me in the studio to talk about Coltrane and the film in today’s Rhythm Planet show.
Coltrane is for me one of the foundational musicians who has informed my life in music. There was nobody like him. Like Bach and Picasso, Jackson Pollock, Charlie Parker, and Miles Davis, Coltrane was an originator, a wellspring that launched new artistic ideas. He was never an imitator, except perhaps as a teenager in the U.S. Navy. Losing the important men in his life–his father and his preacher grandfathers–while young, Coltrane joined the Navy in 1946 and made his first recordings there playing as a clumsy Charlie Parker alto sax wannabe in Hawaii. That phase quickly passed.
Coltrane joined Miles Davis as a young lion in the mid-50’s, but heroin addiction got him kicked out of the band. The same thing happened in 1957 when he got fired from Thelonious Monk’s band. Shortly after that, after locking himself in his home and going cold turkey, Coltrane underwent a spiritual awakening that changed his life. In 1958, he recorded the iconic album Giant Steps, with a tenor saxophone solo that was so virtuosic and architecturally and technically perfect that it frightened every other tenor player in jazz. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, a lifelong jazz enthusiast, named his autobiography after this album.
Coltrane released the hugely successful album My Favorite Things in 1960. His improvisatorial mastery of the famous Sound of Music song helped put the soprano sax on the jazz map. In 1961, he recorded his famous Village Vanguard sessions with Eric Dolphy in the band, featuring songs influenced by his studies with Ravi Shankar (“India”) and long, 15-minute musical excursions that some loved and others didn’t. Always restless and constantly exploring new sounds, Coltrane was a seeker, a musical sufi. Though not overtly political, he was moved by the murder of school girls in a Birmingham church fire in 1963 set by white arsonists, and went into the studio to perform the beautiful dirge he titled “Alabama.”
A Love Supreme, Coltrane’s spiritual masterpiece, would come a year later in 1964. His wife Alice Coltrane once told me about how Coltrane spent weeks in the upstairs bedroom playing and meditating, never leaving his room. She would bring food to him during this period. When he finally emerged and walked down the stairs, Alice said it was “like Moses coming down the mountain.”
I was excited to finally see a feature documentary devoted to Coltrane’s musical odyssey and his spiritual quest as well. The first authorized film documentary about Coltrane, Chasing Trane was written and directed by veteran filmmaker John Scheinfeld, and features interviews with Coltrane’s family, friends, and fans. Denzel Washington speaks the written words of Coltrane, since Coltrane never participated in any television interviews during his lifetime.
Guest appearances include former President Bill Clinton (who wanted to become a tenor sax musician and who entered the political arena because “I could never be as good as Coltrane, John Densmore of The Doors, Carlos Santana, and Kamasi Washington, whose 3-disc album The Epic reinvigorated interest in the spiritual jazz that Coltrane pioneered.
We hear from biographers Lewis Porter, Ben Ratliff (who wrote about Coltrane’s musical evolution in his book The Story of a Sound), and critic Ashley Kahn (The House that Trane Built: The Story of Impulse Records). Wynton Marsalis offers incisive commentary. Scheinfeld interviews many of Coltrane’s peers and friends, like Sonny Rollins, Benny Golson, Jimmy Heath, Wayne Shorter, and McCoy Tyner. There’s also rare European footage of Coltrane in concert.
A special treat is private family footage of Coltrane playing with his kids and his dog at the Huntington, Long Island home he shared with Alice Coltrane, who died several years before the film’s production began. We also hear from Coltrane’s step-daughter Antonia Andrews (from his first marriage to Naima), who movingly talks about Coltrane walking home late at night after a gig instead of taking a cab so as to save money to buy her shoes. Other Coltrane children—Michelle, Ravi, and Oran—appear in the film as well.
Chasing Trane is a treat for Coltrane fans, but it’s also a great introduction for Coltrane neophytes to a musical genius who changed the face of jazz music. It opens tonight in Los Angeles at the Landmark Theaters in West L.A. Director John Scheinfeld and drummer John Densmore of The Doors will speak at the 7:20 p.m. screening.
RHYTHM PLANET PLAYLIST FOR 4/21/17:
- John Coltrane / “Hot House” / The Last Giant / The John Coltrane Anthology / Atlantic
- John Coltrane / “Giant Steps” / Giant Steps / Rhino Atlantic
- John Coltrane / “India” / Impressions / Impulse
- John Coltrane / “Alabama” / Live at Birdland / Impulse
- John Coltrane / “A Love Supreme, Pt. 1 – Acknowledgement” / A Love Supreme / Verve
- John Coltrane / “Peace on Earth” / Concert in Japan / Impulse