Time is a slippery but beautiful thing in Chasing Trane. This new documentary by John Scheinfeld, about the ground-breaking jazz composer and musician John Coltrane, enters a timeless world – in part because of its use of music but also because of the way it charts its subject’s short existence. The film starts off just when Coltrane is at a significant turning point in his life and in his music – just ten short years before he dies in 1967. Those ten years turned into a period of extraordinary creative and personal flourishing.
Chasing Trane – The John Coltrane Documentary; Dir.: John Scheinfeld, USA 2017,99 minutes. Our Rating: ★★★★/5
John Scheinfeld has made many music documentaries, usually focused on major U.S. showbusiness figures – Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Andy Williams, Rosemary Clooney, Dean Martin, Bob Hope. Many of these figures have had a mid-century heyday, and are usually known as mainstream artists. Scheinfeld also restored in the public mind an almost forgotten songwriter and performer, Harry Nilsson, with his 2010 documentary, Who Is Harry Nilsson? While his songs are well-known, he came to be forgotten. Scheinfeld’s documentary helped bring him back to light.
Coltrane is of course not forgotten, and the music is indissociable from the man. The film features a continuous soundtrack of Coltrane pieces, forty-two in all. It also offers a generous number of interviews with family, friends and admirers. A picture emerges of a deeply likeable man, and of a driven artist who fearlessly pushed the boundaries of his music. It is such a vivid picture that it is hard to imagine that he died over fifty years ago.
There are loving memories, and praise, from Coltrane’s surviving children – Antonia Andrews, Ravi Coltrane, Oran Coltrane, and Michele Coltrane; from musicians who admired him, like Carlos Santana and John Densmore – the latter famous for being the drummer and founding member of The Doors; and those famous fellow jazz musicians he had worked with, such as Jimmy Heath, Wayne Shorter, and McCoy Tyner.
Even Bill Clinton gets into the documentary. The film doesn’t explain why – however Clinton is known for having seriously considered, when young, a career as a sax player – and for being a fan of Coltrane’s. He also offers one of the more precise appreciations, in the film, of Coltrane’s music.
The most affecting testimonies come from those who knew Coltrane very well – fellow musicians, such as Jimmy Heath and Wayne Shorter, and family – especially his adopted daughter Antonia Andrews, who is his eldest child and was old enough to get to know him well before his death. She is the one who witnessed the turning point in his life when he gave up heroin and gave himself fully to music. His other children were too young when he died to have distinct memories. However, they did inherit his musical legacy. His son Ravi Coltrane in particular is now a well-known jazz saxophonist in his own right, and occasionally performs in the UK.
Chasing Trane follows a classic model of documentary filmmaking – great archive material, including some rare home movie footage, interviews, and Coltrane’s own words, read by Denzel Washington. Those words come from liner notes, and transcribed recordings. Coltrane’s original voice recordings were hardly audible and could not be used in the film. Having Denzel Washington as a narrator, using Coltrane’s own words, is a narrative device that works very well. Coltrane’s thinking emerges clearly from that – he comes to life, and the words sustain the narrative.
The eminent academic and social commentator Cornel West sets out Coltrane’s early life in context – born in North Carolina, a childhood dominated by segregation and the influence of the church. West is strong on the historic context, but has less to say about Coltrane’s own contribution to the canon, especially the later music.
Scheinfeld says little about Coltrane’s early beginning as a saxophone player – for example of Coltrane’s time in the Navy, where he also performed in the Navy swing band at his base, or of his studies in Philadelphia with Dennis Sandole. And yet this is an important period. Sandole was a composer, musician and educator, who taught Coltrane advanced music theory, a more sophisticated approach to scales, and also introduced him to music from other countries, world music before its time. This education paved the way in great part for Coltrane’s later development.
Scheinfeld starts Coltrane’s story in the middle, before turning to the early days – the midpoint of a career when Coltrane was working with Miles Davis and was under the influence of heroin. This had a major impact on the band; Davis eventually asked him to leave. Coltrane had by then already lost his place in Dizzy Gillespie’s band, also because of drug use. This setback had a powerful influence on the rest of Coltrane’s life. He could go down, or up, as the film explains – so he went up, and further up, and soared.
The years 1957-1958 marked a major development. In the latter part of 1957, Coltrane worked with the pianist Thelonious Monk, an innovative and brilliantly intelligent composer – an immensely fruitful collaboration. Monk’s influence can be clearly heard in Coltrane’s subsequent compositions and playing. In 1958, Coltrane re-joined Miles Davis. During that time, Coltrane created music with ever more complex harmonic structures; the ‘sheets of sound’ style emerged; a new type of chord substitutions, now known as ‘Coltrane Changes’, can be heard in recordings of that time. In his work with both Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk, Coltrane was given great freedom and this enabled the development of his music. It was inevitable however, that he would need to move on further and strike out on his own.
Scheinfeld is good at putting the developments in Coltrane’s work in context. He mentions key influences such as Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk but does not give sufficient emphasis to Coltrane’s collaboration with Monk, and its significance. In general, the specifics about the music, about what precisely made Coltrane so unique – remain vague. The descriptive language remains esoteric.
Interviewees in the film make clear that Coltrane was cerebral, focused, innovative; that he practiced compulsively; in hotels, on the road; if someone complained about the noise, then he would practice his fingering silently; the film mentions there was something Spartan about his approach. It sounds glorious.
More detailed insights in the music would have enhanced the film. There is a reference to ‘intertwined’ harmonies but no explanation of why or how, nor direct musical illustrations. Most of the music used in the film serves as background more than foreground, except for the concert footage. Of Coltrane’s later work, the word ‘Eastern’ is used, but there is no direct reference to Indian Ragas – or to Ravi Shankar, who turned out to be such a significant influence that Coltrane’s second son, born in 1965, just two years before Coltrane’s death, was called Ravi, in his honour.
Coltrane’s collaboration with Alice McCleod (who became Alice Coltrane in 1966), a distinguished pianist and composer, classically trained and with a profound grasp of music theory, a jazz great in her own right – whom he later married, is shown as the starting point of his decisive musical departure into abstraction.
At this point, the interviewees in the film lose some of their descriptive and laudatory powers. It seems quite clear that late Coltrane might not have been entirely their cup of tea. Indeed, from about 1965, after the great success of A Love Supreme, Coltrane delved deeper into the avant-garde, free jazz, and became closer to Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler. Interestingly, while the film refers to Coltrane’s ‘cosmic’ period, there is no mention of Sun Ra, and no mention of Afrofuturism. And yet this too is a fundamental element in Coltrane’s evolution – and a logical development of his art, with a clear lineage of ideas dating from his time studying with Dennis Sandole in Philadelphia.
Just as he was fulfilling his promise, at just forty, Coltrane dies. He had started a new life only a few years earlier, met a life companion who was also his meaningful artistic collaborator, Alice Coltrane, and together they had three children in quick succession between 1964 and 1967. The cruelty of a brilliant life cut short is not emphasised enough.
Chasing Trane is an enjoyable and loving documentary about Coltrane, a respectable account of the man’s life. Perhaps the film is not sufficiently in love with the possibilities of music as a medium to be stretched and experimented with. The film is at its most comfortable with Coltrane’s earlier music, and some of the later tracks which mainstream audiences loved – the lyrical stuff that is very beautiful, and also quite easy to underestimate despite its underlying complexity. It is in the main the more lyrical music that is used as background soundtrack for much of the film. In a way, that music is used in the film almost as aural wallpaper. It is enjoyable, but its impact is blunted.
Part of the joy of listening to Coltrane is that his music tickles the brain. There is immense pleasure in following him, thinking ‘I see what you did there’, and often ‘how do you create that sound – what is going on there?’. Recent music documentaries, for example those featuring Nile Rodgers, have extra interest because they include illustrations and explanations of how certain effects are achieved – and why. A bit of deconstruction can be great fun, and it would have been interesting to put more emphasis on certain key pieces and how they present shifts in Coltrane’s work.
What we are left with is a wonderful legacy – the striving forward, the keen interest in spirituality, his early interest in other cultures, and his grounding in more advanced music theory – those were the springboard for the work that made him into a great figure of 20th century jazz.
Nadia Bee is a writer and filmmaker. She tweets @NadjaBee.