Midway through Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary, DOC NYC’s closing night film, jazz great Jimmy Heath is talking about his old friend’s 1965 opus A Love Supreme. Heath cites “Resolution,” the piece’s second movement, as “the one that touches me.” When he’s asked, “Where does it take you?” Heath replies: “It takes me to heaven. Where I want to be when I leave here.” Then he pauses, throws out his hands, shrugs, and says, “That’s it, isn’t it?”
It’s an affecting moment, one of many in John Scheinfeld’s fine, tender look into the life of John Coltrane. Heath, now 90 as Coltrane would’ve been in September, is one of almost two dozen interview subjects, which include Coltrane’s children — Ravi, the accomplished musician, among them — and McCoy Tyner, the pianist in his groundbreaking quartet; Wynton Marsalis; and Kamasi Washington.
Some — like the rapper Common, John Densmore of the Doors, and some tenor saxophonist named Bill Clinton — add little, here for mass appeal. “Nobody sounds like him,” Clinton says. “You hear four notes and you know it’s John Coltrane playing.” Yep, Slick Willie, but the same is true for Prez, Bean, and Bird.
You can almost hear the jazzheads screeching: Where’s Pharoah Sanders and Archie Shepp and Creed Taylor (the great producer who signed him at Impulse! Records), and Roscoe Mitchell, so eloquent in The World According to John Coltrane, the 1990 documentary by Robert Palmer? But Scheinfeld’s emphasizing of such pop figures makes some justifiable sense. Coltrane, after all, has been dead nearly fifty years, and, as urgent as his music remains, many in this Spotify era might not be aware of his vital canon, and his cultural significance, especially from the mid-1950s until his death in 1967 at age forty.
Scheinfeld, who also directed The U.S. vs. John Lennon and Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin’ About Him)?, does well to add depth and perspective from Heath, Wayne Shorter (who hears “the wailing of Coltrane’s grandfather,” a preacher, in his horn), and especially Sonny Rollins. Carlos Santana does as well, despite his hippy-dippy hyperbole. (“His sound is the sound of light and the sound of love.”)
Chasing Trane follows the saxophonist’s life and career through black-and-white and color photographs, well-placed visual effects by Douglas Martin, paintings by Rudy Gutierrez and, in a clever turn, Denzel Washington narrating the words of Coltrane. Scheinfeld examines his upbringing in the Jim Crow South — “black music was the black response to being terrorized and traumatized,” Cornel West says; the influence of the church; his move north from High Point, N.C., to Philadelphia; and onto his time in the Navy and its band, where, Marsalis and others confirm, “he doesn’t even play that well.” After the War, he meets Dizzy Gillespie in New York, where he practiced compulsively. He also drank and got hooked on heroin, like so many jazz musicians of that era. Projects like this film veer toward hagiography, but Coltrane was (and still is) something like universally beloved, even when he abused alcohol and drugs. “Everyone loved him,” the writer Lewis Porter says. “People said, ‘I didn’t know when he was drunk because he was always so sweet.'”
Although there’s some concert footage of Coltrane’s classic quartet (with Tyner, Elvin Jones, and Jimmy Garrison) there’s as much Super-8 home video of Coltrane as suburban dad, tossing balls with his kids, playing with the dog, smoking a pipe. A Love Supreme, remember, was composed during his ongoing spiritual quest not at a religious retreat nor in the East (not even in the East Village), but on Lawng Island, at his house in Dix Hills.
His unexpected death of liver cancer was a shock, but Coltrane, who made an impassioned study of world religions, seemed prepared for whatever would come next. Chasing Trane points out that his second wife Alice, a fine musician herself, said at the time that his death was “beautiful.”
Sonny Rollins called Coltrane his “best friend” and says: “He wasn’t like 99% of other people. He existed in the real world. I mean, he had a family, he had kids, but that’s not where he was at. He was not in the real world. He was someplace else, so he’s cool. He was cool when he was here, and he’s cool in the big picture.”
Coltrane, the film emphasizes, was a gentle, sensitive soul — even if some interpreted his later squalling solos as angry — one who preferred to let his music speak for him, whether about his spirituality or the political and social turmoil around him. “Some people play jazz, some people play reggae, some people play blues,” Santana says. “He played life.” The afterlife, too.
Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary screens Thursday, November 17, at DOC NYC.
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