Forty years after his death, John Coltrane’s signature sound remains one of the most instantly recognizable in all of jazz. Musically and spiritually, Coltrane was a bona fide astronaut, travelling via tenor saxophone in lieu of spaceship. Along the way, he bent millions of ears, blew as many minds, and shined an exceptionally luminescent light.
Director John Scheinfeld traces Coltrane’s musical quest from its origins in small town North Carolina, where he grew up a preacher’s son and grandson, to the projects of Philadelphia. Like many of his generation, Coltrane cut his teeth trying to sound like Charlie Parker — and failing badly — though not before successfully emulating Parker’s addiction to heroin and alcohol. Drugs got Coltrane kicked out of Miles Davis’s band, but he quit cold turkey, paving the way for a musical ascension that was all his very own. After stints with Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, and Miles Davis (with whom he created Kind of Blue and some of the most enduring albums ever) Coltrane struck out on his own, creating new sounds — soaring, searing, and blissful and prayerful — that defy imitation.
How did you first get turned onto John Coltrane?
My first exposure to the music of John Coltrane came at Oberlin College when I heard “My Favorite Things” on the campus radio station. I liked and appreciated what I heard, but confess to never becoming an obsessed fan.
A few years ago when asked if I’d be interested in making a film about Coltrane, I was intrigued and began to research his life. The more I learned about his remarkable professional and personal journeys, the more passionate I became that his story needed to be told. It’s not the well-worn tale of a talented artist who battles demons and, tragically, dies far too young. What makes John Coltrane so unique is that he did not surrender to the darkness. Rather, he found himself, found God, and, in the process, created an extraordinary body of work that transcends all barriers of time, geography, race, religion, and age.
In any era, this is to be admired and celebrated. Even more so since the world was transformed by the 2016 election. Two weeks later, after our film was the closing night screening of the DOC NYC festival, a woman came up to me and said, “This is the perfect antidote for all the hate bubbling up in the country.” To which a gentleman added, “I will use Coltrane’s music to cleanse my spirit.” I believe that what the world needs now is the uplifting, emotional, inspiring message of Coltrane’s journey and his music. It really is the right film at the right time.
How hard was this to make for you?
We were blessed with the full participation of the Coltrane family and the record labels that own his catalogue, so no problem with music (we were able to include nearly 50 Coltrane recordings in the film). But there exists, for example, precious little Coltrane performance (only several European TV concerts), so how to craft a compelling documentary without a full box of visual tools? It forced me and my creative team to be exceedingly creative and the result is a film packed with super-rare and never-before seen photographs, home movies, and graphic sequences to help bring alive the events of times past.
You have interviews with everybody under the sun. Anyone you missed?
I “cast” my documentaries like I would a feature film: assembling a wide array of distinctive personalities, voices, and perspectives. Certainly people that knew and worked with Coltrane (Sonny Rollins, Benny Golson, Jimmy Heath, Wayne Shorter, McCoy Tyner) and family members who provide an entirely different and more intimate point-of-view, but also contemporary artists who continue to draw inspiration from Coltrane’s fearless artistry and creative vision (Common, John Densmore, Wynton Marsalis, Carlos Santana, Kamasi Washington). Also, a few unexpected choices such as philosopher Cornel West and President Bill Clinton. Like you, I would have loved to have had a chance to speak with Elvin Jones (who passed in 2004) and Jimmy Garrison who, like Coltrane, died quite young (in 1976).
How hard was it to get Bill Clinton for an interview?
It was both easy and difficult. We reached out to his people and they immediately responded with “The President would find much joy in this.” The problem was to find time in his hectic schedule. It took us 10 months, but we finally nailed down a date and I flew to New York to interview him in his office. He was gracious, charismatic and most generous with his time. And he’s brilliant in the film — knowledgeable, passionate, eloquent – everything you want a President to be.
Did you find anything out about Coltrane that wasn’t so exalted?
I wanted to create a rich, textured, and compelling narrative that brings Coltrane alive as a three-dimensional human being as well as taking the audience to unexpected places. There are aspects of his life involving demons and darkness as well as persistence and redemption, but, by all accounts, Coltrane was not edgy nor petty nor competitive with anyone but himself. In this he seems to be unique. As Sonny Rollins says in the film, “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 a not in the real world. He was someplace else.”
Why no interview of Coltrane himself?
During his lifetime Coltrane did no television interviews and only a handful of radio interviews – and the sound quality of those was not good enough to use in the film. But I did want him to have an active and vibrant presence in the film beyond the performance clips and photos. Happily, he had done many interviews for newspapers and magazines and I peppered those words throughout the film to illuminate what Coltrane might have been thinking or feeling at key moments in his life and career.
These words are spoken by Academy Award (and Santa Barbara Film Festival’s 2017 Maltin Modern Master Award) winner Denzel Washington. Not only is Denzel a superb actor, but in most of his movie roles he radiates an exceptional quiet strength. Coltrane, many of his friends told me, embodied that same strength. That’s why Denzel was my first choice and I’m thrilled he made the time to participate in our film.
What surprised you the most about making this?
Nothing really comes to mind as surprising. What delighted me was the passion for Coltrane and his music that came from so many generations of people and walks of life – even now, 50 years after his passing in 1967. That’s some serious staying power in this day and age.
Any John Coltranes out there that you think are now emerging?
Kamasi Washington. He’s smart, passionate, inventive, and is pushing the artistic envelope.
Editor’s Note: This story was corrected on April 21, 2017, to reflect that it was Miles Davis, not Dizzy Gillespie, who fired Coltrane. Also it’s been 50 years, not 40, since he died.