Back when I worked in book publishing, a newly hired editor moved into the office next to me. Day after day, he’d play John Coltrane’s Giant Steps on a loop, until I had no other choice but to walk into his office and inform him that he had excellent taste in music. And thus, a friendship was built on an inside joke about Coltrane on infinite repeat.
It seems Coltrane has that effect on many people, some of whom appear in Chasing Trane, a new documentary by John Scheinfeld. Among those interviewed are Carlos Santana, who says he cleanses his hotel rooms by lighting incense and playing the A Love Supreme, and Common, who says he has played the album more than any other (no offense to Schienfeld’s previous documentary subjects, John Lennon and Harry Nilsson).
Santana describes Coltrane’s music as “the sound of life and the sound of love,” and while that might sound a bit touchy-feely, it’s true that listening to Trane is a decent all-natural substitute for microdosing. The sax man said it himself—his goal was to “uplift people as much as I can, to inspire them to realize more and more of their capacities for living meaningful lives, because there certainly is meaning to life.”
In the documentary, those words and other Coltrane quotes are spoken by none other than Denzel Washington, who isn’t even the biggest A-lister involved. Turns out Bill Clinton is a huge fan of Trane (though that YouTube clip of Bubba playing “Giant Steps” on Arsenio is fake) and he’s damn elegant about it, too. He describes “Alabama,” Coltrane’s mournful response to the burning of a black church in 1963, as “a beautiful elegy screaming with rage, undergirded by love.” And here you thought Clinton’s wokeness stopped at Fleetwood Mac.
For those who are already sold on Trane, this is the kind of fan appreciation that somewhat hampers the doc. I mean, sure, Cornel West is good and grandiloquent when he describes both Coltrane and Martin Luther King, Jr., whose speech inspired the melody of “Alabama,” as “love warriors.” But when it comes to the gushing testimonials of Doors drummer John Densmore and the like, I tend to agree with Sonny Rollins when he says, “You can’t describe music with words.”
To be fair, the filmmakers were somewhat constrained by the fact that Trane wasn’t nearly as publicity-friendly as his early collaborator Miles Davis (if you can call Miles Davis “friendly”), and he didn’t do many TV interviews during his relatively short life (Trane died of liver cancer at the age of 40). Despite this, the authorized doc does contain a steady stream of archival photos and video and an impressive amount of Trane’s music— most memorably, a recording of an early Navy jazz band performance in which he takes a Charlie Parker-influenced solo. Especially revealing are home movies with his second wife Alice, a pianist-composer who joined Coltrane’s group in 1966. (Alice will be honored at this year’s Red Bull Academy Music Festival by the Coltranes’ son Ravi and Trane’s bassist Reggie Workman, both of whom also appear in the doc.) There’s footage of Trane’s house in Dix Hills, Long Island, which, like his Philadelphia house, currently sits in limbo. (Fun fact: Coltrane, along with many other jazz legends, once lived in St. Albans, Queens.) And it’s touching to hear Trane’s children and stepchildren recall, albeit briefly, the emotional impact of his detox, his divorce to his first wife, and his unexpected death.Ultimately, however, the doc steers toward Coltrane 101. The jazzman’s life is portrayed in fairly broad strokes: the grandson of two ministers, he was born in North Carolina during Jim Crow, struggled with heroin while building his craft under the wings of Thelonius Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, and Miles Davis (the latter two fired him for drug use). Then, while living in Philadelphia in 1957, he quit junk and had a self-described “spiritual awakening” that led to his world-changing solo music. Naturally, “My Favorite Things” gets a lot of play.
If you’re looking for deep jazz lore, there isn’t all that much of it here. We get some nice morsels from longtime friend Benny Golson, who recalls how Coltrane was blown away when he first saw Charlie Parker in 1945, and describes how Trane was so committed to mastering his craft that he would even practice in the men’s room. But we get barely anything from McCoy Tyner, who left the group when Coltrane added second drummer Rashied Ali and started exploring a freer, more atonal form of jazz. (Tyner, by the way, still does absolutely killer performances at the Blue Note.) Thanks to spiel from Coltrane’s biographers, there’s a glimpse of the tensions between him and Miles Davis– and some nice footage of them playing together during their 1959 appearance on The Robert Herridge Theater. But you’d never guess that Miles once called Trane a “very greedy man,” and that his solos with Miles were once equated with “terror.” Instead we hear all about how Carlos Santana considers him an “archangel.”
The film ends with what feels sort of like a tacked-on mini doc about Coltrane’s tour of Japan (he’s shown praying at the atomic bomb site in Nagasaki). We meet his #1 Japanese fan, a guy named Fuji who obsessively collects Trane releases and memorabilia. If nothing else, the filmmakers have gone to Fuji-like lengths to secure and share a mountain of Coltrane imagery from his childhood on up.
“Chasing Trane” opens at IFC Center, Greenwich Village, on April 14.