Words by Hank Williams
Veteran documentarian John Scheinfeld (The US vs John Lennon; Who is Harry Nilsson) took on a major task with his latest film: charting the legacy of the late saxophonist John Coltrane, who has nearly mythical status in Jazz and is a cultural icon. Scheinfeld’s Chasing Trane wrapped up the 2016 DOC NYC Festival and is in limited release nationwide.
Chasing Trane director John Scheinfeld (center) with DOC NYC Artistic Director Thom Powers (L) and DOC NYC Programming Director Basil Tsiokos (R) | Photo by Joyce Jones. Creative Commons CC-NC-BY-ND.
Aside from the obvious pitfalls of dealing with a musician of Coltrane’s stature and renown, much of his life and musical legacy has already been well documented and analyzed. That’s not to say that there’s no more to discover, but rather that the obvious parts of the tale have already been covered. However, the existing The World According to John Coltrane and segments in Ken Burns’ Jazz both leave room for improvement, which opens the door for the current film.
Scheinfeld’s expressed goal was to make a film aimed at a broader audience, including people unfamiliar or marginally familiar with the musician’s work
Indeed, Chasing Trane largely treads familiar ground, tracing Coltrane’s life story from the family’s southern roots through the migration north and the development of his career. There’s not much that’s new here — certainly not for jazz fans — but Scheinfeld’s expressed goal was to make a film aimed at a broader audience, including people unfamiliar or marginally familiar with the musician’s work, so its probably fairer to ask how well the film accomplishes the task it sets out to do. And it’s a monumental task considering the subject, even when accounting for the inevitable compromises necessary for any film, much less one tackling such a large subject.
Scheinfeld had several points in his favor from the beginning by gaining the blessing of Coltrane’s estate. This is a huge advantage, especially when the subject is a musician because of the frightfully high cost of obtaining music rights. The Coltrane family’s assistance resulted in getting favorable deals and made it possible to use a stunning amount of music. Chasing Trane largely uses songs on the soundtrack to set moods for specific scenes, rather than as primary objects of study themselves. The strategy works well, especially combined with Rudy Gutierrez’s impressive animation and visuals, though more identification of songs would be useful considering Scheinfeld’s aim at a broad audience that likely can’t name songs by ear. Simple captions would suffice.
Scheinfeld assembled a star-studded cast of interviewees to add context to the film and tell the story, including former president Bill Clinton, philosopher and writer Cornel West, and rapper/actor Common. West adds some valuable historical insight and interesting reflections on Coltrane’s wider social influence. Unfortunately, Clinton’s contributions, while thoughtful, add little to the narrative. Common appears to be in the film solely for name recognition, as his points are rather obvious and totally forgettable. Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Wynton Marsalis appears, too. While Marsalis does have the musical background to discuss Coltrane, his contributions are minimal and don’t feel particularly necessary.
Much stronger insight comes from Coltrane biographers Ashley Kahn (A Love Supreme: The Story of John Coltrane’s Signature Album; The House That ‘Trane Built) and Lewis Porter (John Coltrane: His Life and Music) who provide the film’s narrative structure and Coltrane colleagues saxophonists Jimmy Heath and Benny Golson. Several of Coltrane’s children appear in the film including his stepdaughter Antonia Austin (also known as Syeeda, the name used for ‘Trane’s tribute on Giant Steps) and sons Ravi and Oran.
Another coup for the film is securing Denzel Washington for narration. Coltrane did very few recorded interviews in his lifetime and, unfortunately, Scheinfeld found the audio quality poor enough that they couldn’t be effectively used in the film. (Pacifica Radio Archives still provides the most famous and lengthy audio interview done by Frank Kofsky.) Instead, Washington’s excellent narration of Coltrane’s printed interviews is weaved throughout the film. Scheinfeld reported that Washington “was mimicking Coltrane’s persona through the words” during the recording and he indeed perfectly captures Coltrane’s understated spirit in his delivery.
Chasing Trane proceeds in chronological order, beginning with the family’s beginnings in North Carolina and northern migration to Philadelphia, mirroring that of hundreds of thousands of African Americans. Coltrane’s service in the US Navy, where he played in a band, is the next focal point. This furthered his musical development and gave him his first commercial recordings as part of the naval band. At this point, he was working on developing a distinct sound on the instrument. Like an entire generation of saxophonists, Coltrane recalled that “the first time [he] heard Charlie Parker [he] knew that [jazz] was the thing” he wanted to pursue seriously.
Coltrane returned to Philadelphia and started gigging after a year in the Navy and traveled with Dizzy Gillespie from 1949-51.
As anyone familiar with the story knows, however, all was not well. Saxophonist Jimmy Heath recalls playing in nightclubs that were hangouts for pimps and hustlers and being exposed to the scene of drugs and hard drinking. Writer Ashley Khan also points out that there was the misguided notion that drugs would enhance playing. Heath recalls getting high with ‘Trane and being fired from Dizzy Gillespie’s band after getting caught, though Coltrane was able to gain a temporary reprieve with promises to straighten up.
Coltrane’s big break was securing a spot in 1957 with one of the hottest working bands around: that of Miles Davis. Bassist Reggie Workman recalled that “you could hear that [Coltrane] was going somewhere and Coltrane could tell that he was going somewhere.” Indeed, the opportunity wasn’t wasted on Coltrane either, who revealed that “It was Miles who made [him] want to be a better musician.”
Unfortunately, Coltrane’s heroin addiction (Davis was addicted also, as were scores of others in that generation) worsened and he became unreliable enough that Davis had to fire him.
Coltrane heeded the wakeup call of getting fired and seeing his life beginning to spiral out of control and made the decision to quit drugs and alcohol: a process done (similar to Davis) at home with the help of his first wife Naima. Antonia Austin provides recollections of the process, remembering the struggle involved for her stepdad. Indeed, her interview is one of the strengths of the film and serves to draw a fuller picture of Coltrane beyond the confines of the bandstand.
According to Kahn, Coltrane was a man on a mission after quitting drugs and sobriety increased his energy level and focus. Pianist Thelonious Monk then hired Coltrane for his band, which signaled the saxophonist’s return to the jazz scene at a high level.
Coltrane’s return also meant another shot at playing with Miles at end of 1957: a key career move that placed him on Davis’ landmark Kind of Blue album. Biographer Lewis Porter also points out that Davis gave ‘Trane a lot of space to improvise: something that would define his career.
Coltrane was able to sandwich recording his own Giant Steps in between recording sessions for Kind of Blue. His own release established ‘Trane as a writer and bandleader of his own and signaled that he had outgrown Davis’ band. His breakthrough was an adaptation of a simple Broadway pop tune from The Sound of Music. Coltrane’s cover of “My Favorite Things” was a radio hit and became a song he would return to throughout his career, although the familiar melody would become simply the starting point for improvisation: shattered, run through the shredder, and reassembled as a colossal sound collage with scant connections to its namesake.
Coltrane’s next chapter is familiar to many: the classic quartet with pianist McCoy Tyner, drummer Elvin Jones, and bassist Jimmy Garrison with an expansive ensemble marshalled to live up to the task of bringing Africa Brass to life. The core quartet developed into a well-oiled machine that also reflected (and apparently shared) Coltrane’s developing spiritual approach to the music. Tyner is the only living member of the core group and, fortunately, is interviewed for the film. While he doesn’t say much, capturing almost anything from him is valuable considering his advanced age. Tyner asserts that the quartet felt their music was sharing a “gift that came from the almighty.”
A nice touch is the coverage of Coltrane’s last tour in Japan which included a concert at Nagasaki where “Peace on Earth”, the second song of the set, was dedicated to victims of the US nuclear bombing. Coltrane insisted in stopping and praying at the site before the concert to ground himself spiritually and imagine sound of the planes and pain of the people in an effort to incorporate the feeling as part of his sonic approach. They’re small details, but speak very much to not only Coltrane’s humanity and sensitivity but also his political commitment and leanings and even artistic approach. While it’s true that Coltrane was not as overtly political as some musicians of the era (especially those on the avant garde/ free jazz end of things), his politics seemed to emanate from the deeply spiritual place that his art came from and a deeply felt sense of right and wrong.
So how well does Chasing ‘Trane cover its subject and accomplish its mission? It’s a good introduction to neophytes, very entertaining viewing, and does indeed present Coltrane’s life in an accessible fashion. While it avoids the trap of ignoring the more technically challenging and (to some) controversial music of his last recordings, the treatment here is cursory. This is a shame, as Coltrane’s last period is one area that warrants more attention.
A notable absence is that of saxophonist Pharaoh Sanders, a collaborator on several of Coltrane’s late albums who also played with Alice Coltrane’s ensemble after John’s death. Sanders is one of the few musicians living who played extensively with Coltrane and indeed the last living member of his late career groups. Sanders still tours and plays actively and his comments on Coltrane’s legacy could only be an asset.
The section of the film covering the latter part of Coltrane’s career is where writer Ben Ratliff might’ve been put to more use, as his Coltrane: The Story of a Sound explores some of this territory, with an eye toward Coltrane’s evolving musical approach. In the film, John Densmore, former drummer of The Doors, recalls seeing half of the audience walking out from later concerts: a sobering reminder that the Coltrane of 2016 exists in a form and level of adulation far removed from the contemporary views of his work. Deeper and more nuanced investigation of this era would be helpful.
The end result is a film that’s reception–like most films–will depend largely on the prospective audience. For those who Scheinfeld primarily aims to attract, Chasing ‘Trane provides a good, if understandably brief, overview of Coltrane’s life and work with the emphasis on the former. There’s value in that, as it’s easy to forget that John Coltrane has now been dead longer than he was alive and it’s the constant reintroduction of the sheer joy, beauty, and virtuosity of his work to new audiences that will keep his spirit alive and hopefully inspire some to see how they can take it further.
The impressive array of visuals, excellent production, and music make for an enjoyable experience. Fans steeped in Coltrane lore will probably wish for more depth, but the film’s not primarily for them. That said, if one loves Coltrane, it’s still difficult to resist what’s on offer. At minimum, Antonia Austin’s insightful reflections as a mature adult on her stepfather’s life and McCoy Tyner’s thoughts will be new to many.
The above strengths make some of the narrative decisions in Chasing ‘Trane disappointing because of the possibilities given the strength of the subject: Coltrane’s story has built-in drama, tension, and triumph at the center that make for an automatically compelling tale. It may be personal bias, but this reviewer wishes the film leaned more toward deeper investigation. These are judgment calls, but a strong story can be trusted to provide compelling viewing for the audience, and that’s the case here.
Does Coltrane’s story need Bill Clinton and Common to attract funding and viewers?
Does Coltrane’s story need Bill Clinton and Common to attract funding and viewers? Maybe. But maybe it could stand on its own and eliminating some of the fluff would keep the storyline tight while creating enough space for some of what’s missing. At the very least, more screen time with Benny Golson (who is still clearly deeply affected by Coltrane’s passing) and Jimmy Heath would be valuable additions. Golson’s continuing emotional connection speaks very much to why Coltrane still matters.
Chasing ‘Trane works because of its subject and Scheinfeld’s competent handling of the story. Asking it to do much more than it does may be unfair. But a subject who seemed to believe that anything was musically possible prompts one to ask all sorts of questions and demand more. Maybe that’s the point.
(Original post lightly edited for spelling and clarity and updated to add screening information. Original publication date of 12/19/2016)
Chasing ‘Trane is playing at the IFC Center in New York City through April 25 and in limited release nationwide. See the film website for upcoming screenings in other areas.
Related: For a deeper dive into the film’s backstory, see Joyce Jones’s radio interview with Chasing Trane director John Scheinfeld in the Suga’ in My Bowl audio archives.
Hank Williams is an associate producer for Suga’ in My Bowl on WBAI Radio and webmaster for the Suga’ and Behind the Mic sites. He is also a PhD candidate in English and Africana Studies at the CUNY Graduate Center and teaches at Hunter and Lehman Colleges and The City College of New York.