Coltrane On Coltrane: The John Coltrane Interviews

(Chicago
Review Press)

 

www.chicagoreviewpress.com

 

BY JOHN SCHACHT

 

In the 1960s, Ralph J. Gleason’s All That Jazz public television series typically kicked off with
the renowned jazz critic conducting a brief interview leading into the featured
guests’ half-hour televised sets. But for the John Coltrane Quartet’s 1963
appearance, Gleason told the audience that Coltrane “feels that the music
itself speaks far more fluently than any human ever could,” and the quartet
then launched into “Alabama,”
the saxophonist’s elegy to four girls murdered in a KKK church bombing that
year. Over the next five minutes, it was clear to anyone with ears: a more
eloquent epitaph could never have been written with words.

 

Unlike some of his jazz giant contemporaries — Charles
Mingus and Miles Davis, for starters – John Coltrane never penned an
autobiography before he died of liver cancer at the age of just 40 in 1967. In
fact, Coltrane was a reluctant, if polite, interview subject in general. Still,
for fans of a musician whose playing seemed to emanate straight from some
universal soul, there is an insatiable desire to know more about Coltrane. That
remains true for every successive generation of fans who discover a musician
whose creative and spiritual search was embodied in the music he played.

 

So for fans of the man and legend, Coltrane On Coltrane (Chicago Review Press) — an anthology, edited
by Chris DeVito, of Coltrane’s known interviews, personal writings, liner notes
and reminiscences from friends and family — should supply at least a few
answers. Presented chronologically, this is Trane in his own words, in
interviews and feature stories with notable American jazz writers like Leonard
Feather, Ira Gitler and Nat Hentoff, and a host of European and Japanese
interviewers; in letters to fans (!) and family; and in liner notes to LPs like
A Love Supreme and Meditations.

 

Over 350-plus pages, we read Coltrane expound on:

 

His
admiration for forebear Charlie Parker
: “The first time I heard Bird
play, it hit me right between the eyes. … (Parker) had me strung up. He was
way ahead of me and I had trouble just to keep up with him. Parker did all the
things I would like to do and more – he really had a genius, see. He could do
things and he could them melodiously so that anybody, the man in the street,
could hear – that’s what I haven’t reached.” (Interview with Bjorn Fremer,
1960)

 

How
religion and philosophy affected his playing
: “I think the majority
of musicians are interested in truth, you know – they, well, they’ve got to be
because a thing, a musical thing, is
a truth. If you play and make a statement, a musical statement, and it’s a
valid statement, that’s a truth right there in itself….so in order to play
those kinds of things, to play truth, you’ve got to live with as much truth as
you possibly can. (Interview with August Blume, 1955)

 

“I want to be a force for real good. In other words, I know there are bad forces. You know, I
know that there are forces out here that bring suffering to others and misery
to the world, but I want to be the opposite force. I want to be the force which
is truly for good.” (Interview with Frank Kofsky, 1966)

 

On race
as a factor in jazz
: “This problem … is not at the racial level but
at the individual level. I don’t know any criteria that can differentiate a
white musician from a back one; in any case, I don’t believe they exist…it has
nothing to do with questions of skin color.” (Interview with Jean Clouzet and
Michel Delorme, 1962)

 

On his
embrace of more avant-garde jazz
: “The real risk is not
changing. I have to feel that I’m after something. If I make money, fine. But
I’d rather be striving. It’s the striving, man, it’s that I want.” (Interview
with Newsweek, 1967)

 

On the
criticism he received from jazz writers for turning to avant-garde jazz
: “In
this article in Down Beat, I asked, I
asked if any of you men were interested in, you know, trying to understand,
let’s get together and let’s talk about it, you know? I felt if they were
really genuinely interested or thought there was something here, that they –
instead of just condemning it, what you don’t know about it, if you want to
discuss it, let’s talk about it. But no one ever, you know, came forth…I said,
‘Well, it could be a real drag to a cat’s career, if he figures this is
something that he won’t be able to cope with and he won’t be able to write
about,’ you see, and if he can’t write about it, he can’t make a living at
this; and then I realized that, so, I quieted down. I didn’t, I wouldn’t allow
myself to become too hostile (laughs)
back, you know, in return.” (Kofsky, 1966)

 

Equally compelling, if not more so, are quotes from Coltrane
that render the legend human. Like his confession that he wished he had “three
times the sexual prowess” he did, or how his turn to vegetarianism helped him
get command of his “passions and emotions.” What comes across page after page
is Coltrane’s genuine humility. He has only kind things to say about his
contemporaries, whether they are traditionalists like Coleman Hawkins and Ben
Webster, or more adventurous players and composers like Mingus and Albert
Ayler. 

 

Still, there is little here that hasn’t been covered in the
biographies – the best of which are probably J.C. Thomas’ Chasin’ the Trane and Cuthbert Simpkins’ Coltrane: A Biography.  There
is also a fair amount of redundancy in the interviews, and an awful lot of
insider information that won’t mean much to casual admirers, and enough technical
talk to dumbfound those who don’t play music. 
Because he was in essence a very private man, there is precious little
about Coltrane’s debilitating heroin and alcohol dependencies that got him
kicked out of Davis’
first great quintet, and eventually caused him to sober up. Additionally,
including liner notes for readers who presumably already own A Love Supreme and Meditations is really just wasting paper.

 

A slightly fuller portrait of Coltrane emerges in these
pages, but what held true then holds true now: Coltrane’s music says everything
you need to know about the man.  

 

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