VIEW FROM THE INSIDE
BY RANDY FREEDMAN
RIDING WITH JOHN COLTRANE
Chasing Trane:The John Coltrane Documentary is a 2016 biographical motion picture celebrating, remembering, illustrating, and honoring, the life and carrier of one our greatest jazz musicians. Both written and directed by veteran filmmaker John Scheinfeld using all of his myriad story telling skills to assemble an artiulate and thought provoking narative. It presents both Coltrane's worldly experience and spiritual leanings against a realistic back drop to further our greater understanding of his genius.
Within this framework Scheinfeld has assembled an outstanding cast of jazz and celebrity luminaries including, actor Denzel Washington, double bassist Reggie Workman, President Bill Clinton, guitarist Carlos Santana, actor Cornell West, composer Wayne Shorter, Pulitzer Prize winner Winton Marsalis, pianist McCoy Tyner and saxophonist (John Coletrane's son) Ravi Coletrane.
Coltrane was born in his parents' apartment at 200 Hamlet Avenue, Hamlet, North Carolina, on September 23, 1926. His father was John R. Coltrane and his mother was Alice Blair. He grew up in High Point, North Carolina, attending the school that is now called Penn-Griffin School for the Arts.In September 1943. His mother bought him his first saxophone. Coltrane played the clarinet in a community band before taking up the alto saxophone during high school. He had his first professional gigs in 1945 in a "cocktail lounge trio," with piano and guitar.To avoid being drafted by the Army, Coltrane enlisted in the Navy on August 6, 1945, the day the first U.S. atomic bomb was dropped on Japan. He was trained in upstate New York before he was shipped to Pearl Harbor.
By late 1945, while stationed in Hawaii, Coltrane joined the Melody Masters, an all white base swing band. There he was treated merely as a guest performer to avoid alerting superior officers of his participation in the band.
Coltrane's first informal recordings, playing alto saxophone with Navy musicians on jazz standards and be-bop tunes, occurred In the summer of 1946. Later that year, Coltrane received his Navy discharge and then made his way to Philadelphia where he studied jazz theory with guitarist and composer Dennis Sandole.
Coltrane confided in his friend saxophonist Odean Popesa that he saw "a wider area of listening open up for me", at this time. "There were many things that people like Hawk [Coleman Hawkins], and Ben [Webster] and Tab Smith were doing in the '40s that I didn't understand, but that I felt emotionally."
An important moment in the progression of Coltrane's musical development occurred on June 5, 1945, when he saw Charlie Parker perform for the first time. In a DownBeat article in 1960 he recalled: "the first time I heard Bird play, it hit me right between the eyes." Parker quickly became an early idol.
Contemporary correspondence shows that Coltrane was already known as "Trane" by this point, and that the music from some 1946 recording sessions had been played for trumpeter Miles Davis impressing him. After he received a call from Davis, Coltrane joined this edition of the Davis band (known as the "First Great Quintet" which featured Red Garland on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and "Philly Joe" Jones on drums) from October 1955 to April 1957. During this period Davis released several influential recordings that revealed the first signs of Coltrane's growing ability. This quintet, represented by two marathon recording sessions for Prestige in 1956, resulted in the albums Cookin, Relaxin, Workin, and Steamin. The "First Great Quintet" disbanded due in part to Coltrane's heroin addiction.
Saxophonist Jimmy Heath describes the road to heroin addiction for Coltrane and himself, “You’re in the club with the pimps and hustlers, and they tell you, here, take some of this, you’ll feel good. And you go for it and then you’re stuck.” Simple as that. But when Coltrane came to the stark realization that staying stuck might take his music away, he put himself through the total agony of cold turkey withdrawal and emerged a changed man. Coltrane own brief words, read by Denzel Washington in the film, describe his post-junkie life. He says simply, “I think better. I play better.”
During the later part of 1957 Coltrane worked with Thelonious Monk at New York’s Five Spot Café, and played in Monk's quartet (July–December 1957), but, owing to contractual conflicts, took part in only one official studio recording session with this group. Coltrane recorded many albums for Prestige under his own name at this time, but Monk refused to record for his old label.
Blue Train was Coltrane's sole album as leader for Blue Note and is often considered to be his best of the period. It demonstrated examples of his chord substitution cycles known as "Coltrane changes".
Coltrane rejoined Davis in January 1958. In October of that year, jazz critic Ira Gitler coined the term "sheets of sound" to describe the style Coltrane developed with Monk and was perfecting in Davis's group, now a sextet. His playing was compressed, with rapid runs cascading in hundreds of notes per minute. He stayed with Davis until April 1960, working with alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley; pianists Red Garland, Bill Evans, and Wynton Kelly; bassist Paul Chambers; and drummers "Philly Joe" Jones and Jimmy Cobb. During this time he participated in the Davis sessions Milestones and the epochal Kind of Blue
In 1963, John Coltrane met and fell in love with Alice McLeod (also known by her adopted Sanskrit name Turlyasangitana). They married in 1965. He became stepfather to Alice's daughter Michele and the couple had three children: Ravi, John Jr, a drummer; and Oranyan, a DJ who played saxophone with Carlos Santana.
John Coltrane and Miles Davis
The partnership soon went from romantic to creative when John asked her to replace his longtime pianist McCoy Tyner. Coltrane was clearly wanting his sound to become less melodic and more avant-gard and experimental. "We were there for a reason, which was to create beautiful music,” says Tyner and knowing where the band is headed, adds diplomatically with a laugh, “I use the word ‘beautiful’ because I can’t think of a better word.”Alice is generally credited with helping John explore the spiritual side of his art and composition “This is a man who was always looking for a higher dimension in sound,”
Alice said in 1987. “He always explored higher vistas knowing that there is always something higher, something greater."John Scheinfeld's "Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary" should appeal to longtime fans as well as jazz newcomers. For the jazz veterans there are rare performance clips, alongside insightful interviews with family and famous colleagues.
For newcomers, "Chasing Trane" gives a good overview of the man's biography and influence. The movie tracks the development of his compositions, from the achingly beautiful pop riffs of the '50s, through the ground breaking,self defining collaborations with Miles Davis, to the improvisatory, avant-garde spirituality of the '60s. The history of the man mirrors the history of the jazz medium.
Chicago freelance writer Randy Freedman is a jazz connoisseur, photographer, food critic, humorist, and devoted music fan. He is a regular contributor to Chicago Jazz Magazine.