This documentary about John Coltrane serves up skillful, sensitive storytelling and an appropriate sense of reverence.
By Matt Hanson
Despite the depressing statistic that jazz sells far less annually than every other musical genre, those who love it know there are hundreds of magnificent musicians whose life’s work is available for anyone open-minded enough to listen. Jazz fans can delight in the fact that the mainstream might finally be starting to get hip. I Called Him Morgan, which tells the life of brilliant, doomed trumpeter Lee Morgan, was released earlier this year to great acclaim (Arts Fuse review). Chasing Trane, John Scheinfeld’s widely praised documentary on the life and work of John Coltrane is newly available on Netflix. Will more like-minded docs follow? It’s exciting to wonder who could be on deck for a career-defining retrospective: Charles Mingus? Bill Evans? Thelonious Monk? The possibilities are intriguing and endless.
Chasing Trane fills a space that Coltrane fanatics have been yearning for; aside from the unsatisfying The World According to John Coltrane, there hasn’t been a full-length appreciation of the man on screen. Dramatizing Coltrane’s music poses cinematic difficulties — not only is it ineffable, but it’s hard to analyze a man as reticent as he was. Scheinfeld, who also directed the wonderful doc Who is Harry Nilsson…?, meets the challenge with skillful, sensitive storytelling and an appropriate sense of reverence.
An impressive assembly of people, ranging from sidemen to experts and acolytes, tell the story. Benny Golson and Jimmy Heath, longtime friends and collaborators, share their memories of working with the studious, humble, slightly gawky youngster. Saxophone colossi Sonny Rollins and Kamasi Washington offer their awestruck responses, the latter explaining Coltrane’s music in solar terms: “it’s like the brightest light you can hear.” The loquacious Cornel West (who taught classes on Coltrane at Princeton) and an awestruck Bill Clinton shake their heads in wonder. Denzel Washington’s evocative voiceover, culled from interviews and liner notes, feels at times like Coltrane is narrating his life from beyond the grave.
We learn of how Coltrane came from a family dominated by Baptist preachers, their fervent tones inflecting his voice years later. We see pictures of the unassuming young man during his stint in the Navy, on the road with pickup bands, and his apprenticeship as a member of Dizzy Gillespie’s big band. It’s kind of reassuring to discover that some of his early recordings are rather unimpressive. Wynton Marsalis remarks that it’s almost inconceivable to think of how he went from that to his later mastery. It was all due to Coltrane’s devotional sense of a musical calling: many who knew him best explain that it was all practice, practice, practice.
The multiyear run with Miles Davis which birthed classics like Round About Midnight, Milestones, and the epochal Kind of Blue, was both empowering and devastating. Davis, ever the mentor, gave him plenty of room to hone his craft but had to fire him when heroin addiction (seemingly an occupational hazard) made him chronically unreliable. No one suggests that Coltrane was anything other than good-natured, even while he was using. His daughter from his first marriage explains what a devoted father and husband he was, but it was clear that Coltrane had to make a profound change if he wanted to keep playing.
This he did, and once he got sober everything changed for the better. Refining his skills while working alongside Thelonious Monk at the Five Spot Café, he launched into a series of brilliant solo records like Giant Steps, Blue Train, My Favorite Things, and of course the unparalleled A Love Supreme. We get a glimpse of his relaxed, private side through rare home movies taken by his second wife Alice, his honored musical collaborator and soul mate. We see them playing with their children in the back yard as the narrator’s voice-over explains that she willfully kept the busy household together while Coltrane sequestered himself for days in the attic above the garage, eating little scraps of food, until he finally emerged “like Moses coming down from the mountain” as she puts it, with the sheet music for his greatest accomplishment.
In terms of jazz’s cultural recognition, A Love Supreme is second only to Kind of Blue. The film takes ample time to explaining how majestic it is. Carlos Santana insists that he plays it everywhere he goes to keep bad vibes away. Jimmy Heath says that the melody makes him think of heaven, “which is where I want to be when I leave this place.” Amen to that — but the risk is that this kind of praise is undercut by slightly syrupy language, and perhaps this is to be expected. Acclaimed rapper Common more modestly but effectively says that A Love Supreme is the record he’s played more times than any other, taking solace from the evident struggles Coltrane overcame to create it. Overall, the film shows a healthy respect for the difficulty of articulating the value of Coltrane’s music while letting the eminent interviewees testify to how it changed their lives.
The moving lament “Alabama” was written in memory of the four little girls who were murdered in a KKK church bombing in Birmingham (who, by the way, were finally put in jail for the crime by none other than Doug Jones, the new Senator from Alabama). It’s fascinating to hear that the haunting, mournful melody was inspired by Martin Luther King’s cadences at the eulogy. Coltrane’s political leanings were relatively undefined but deeply egalitarian, with many who knew him testifying to his ability to prophetically channel the history of his people into his often-dissonant playing. He was also quite impressed with the speeches of Malcolm X, which is an interesting possibility the film doesn’t touch — too radical for a mainstream audience?
There are more frustrating omissions. His classic quartet — McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison, and Elvin Jones, a gifted ensemble if there ever was one — do get some appreciation in the documentary, but some of his later collaborators are utterly neglected. Visionary avant-gardists like Eric Dolphy, Pharaoh Sanders, and Archie Shepp were essential elements of Coltrane’s later move towards deeper, more complex abstraction. But they are barely mentioned, let alone interviewed, in the film.
This is irksome, especially for fans of their pioneering music. At that point in time, playing with Coltrane was the holy grail for any up-and-comer and the fact that Coltrane chose them as partners means that he heard something we should know about.Even more, at that time in his career he was adventurously taking his music way, way out, so his choice of collaborators is even more important for us to understand. To be fair, Coltrane’s late work was controversial in its own time and is still a bit of a hard sell. Some sheepishly admit they find it difficult to listen to, even if they appreciate the concept. Others, like John Densmore of The Doors, recalls that he saw half the crowd walk out during the man’s marathon solos but wasn’t fazed at all — at that point, he confidently explains that he would have followed Coltrane everywhere.
Coltrane’s last tour was across Japan, receiving a hero’s welcome. At one point he went missing and was found playing a flute in the corner of an abandoned trolley car. When asked why, Coltrane responded that he was trying to get in touch with the spirit of Hiroshima. At his request, he was taken to the memorial on the spot where the bomb dropped — a sacred, haunted space to the Japanese people — and stood meditating there a long time. According to one Japanese super fan, who is so obsessed that he owns an entire warehouse in Osaka stuffed with memorabilia called “the Coltrane House,” the concert he played that night was transcendent, like nothing anyone had ever heard before. The centerpiece of the show was a raging, flowing, unearthly Coltrane original entitled “Peace On Earth.”
Matt Hanson is a critic for The Arts Fuse living outside Boston. His writing has appeared in The Millions, 3QuarksDaily, and Flak Magazine (RIP), where he was a staff writer. He blogs about movies and culture for LoveMoneyClothes. His poetry chapbook was published by Rhinologic Press.