Back in the early seventies, my dad worked for Kumeyaay inter-tribal council. His job took him to the furthest reaches of the county and on weekends and during Summer vacation, I got to ride along in his ‘62 T-Bird, listening to his 8-Track blast out all of my dad’s favorites: Vido Musso, Tex Ritter and John Coltrane. Coltrane always stood out from the rest of the mix. Coltrane mastered Be-Bop, hard-Bop, avant-garde in his work, which always sounded to my young ears as if a man and a saxophone was trying to tell some urgent truth. And he wanted to tell it very loud and right now.
There were so many scalding hot summer days driving out into East County, hearing my dad regale me with stories of old San Diego, and whichever musician was blasting from the dashboard. The stories about Coltrane were always spiritual, religious, or intense. I think my dad missed his calling in life: He would have made a great biographer of Coltrane. With that said, my dad would be thrilled beyond words by Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary.
Director John Scheinfeld has put together a masterwork of still photos, archival footage and interviews from Coltrane’s surviving family and friends. It’s as complete an examination of the musician as any fan could hope for. From his childhood in the Jim Crow-era South to the height of his career, when it seemed like everything he recorded broke new ground and rewrote the rules, to his untimely death from liver cancer at age 40, Coltrane was one of a kind.
Since there is a scarcity of actual interview footage, Denzel Washington provides the voice-over for Coltrane’s quotes. Sonny Rollins is a national treasure, and his interview alone is worth the price of admission. Cornel West, Common, Carlos Santana, Wayne Shorter and pretty much any other jazz legend still breathing is interviewed and has something insightful to say. There’s even an interview with saxophonist, and former president, Bill Clinton. His second wife was pianist Alice Coltrane and their son Ravi Coltrane is also a saxophonist.
Trane’s career was short, but the influence is still felt today. Scheinfeld worked overtime to put together a documentary that has the blessings of the Coltrane family, but does not soft-pedal the mercurial saxophonist. The legend even received posthumous awards and recognitions. Rarest of his accolades is his canonization
by the African Orthodox Church as Saint John William Coltrane. Trane was also awarded a special Pulitzer Prize in 2007.
Coltrane’s legacy as one of the most gifted, imaginative and prolific musicians is secure. He worked with Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, and Thelonious Monk and expanded jazz as he explored his spiritual beliefs and musical style. His whole life is laid out: Music, heroin addiction, a spiritual awakening, his marriages and pretty much anything else you’d want to know.