Chasing Trane, the latest documentary from filmmaker John Scheinfeld, is an honest portrait of the consummate artist John Coltrane, spanning three crucial stages of his career: his emergence on the jazz scene, his middle years as a harmonic pioneer and his later evolution into free-jazz. The “triptych” approach is apropos, given Coltrane’s deep roots in spirituality, from his upbringing in the church in North Carolina to his ultimate “canonization”—both as a jazz legend and as the namesake of the Church of Saint Coltrane in San Francisco.
The film enlists the help of musicians like Sonny Rollins, Jimmy Heath and Coltrane’s childhood friend Benny Golson for added insight into Coltrane’s psyche and approach as a musician. Dr. Cornel West and former President Bill Clinton illuminate the sociopolitical and historical significance of Coltrane’s music. Where Chasing Trane falters, however, is in the handling of the music itself.
During the Kind Of Blue sessions in 1959, Coltrane was simultaneously working on the release of his fifth studio album, the equally seminal Giant Steps. Though briefly acknowledged in the film, this could have transitioned into a deeper exploration of Coltrane’s catalog—his “musical awakening” which not only warrants such a film, but has inspired countless artists, leaders and innovators (as the film illustrates) since his untimely death in 1967.
DownBeat sat down with Scheinfeld via Skype just a few days before Chasing Trane’s April 14 premiere at the IFC Center in New York City. Below are edited excerpts from the conversation.
When and how did this documentary come about?
It was a little over two years ago that one of our producers, Spencer Proffer, had come to me and said, “How would you like to make a documentary about John Coltrane?” … Now, I was not an obsessed John Coltrane fan. I certainly knew who he was and had been introduced to his music through “My Favorite Things,” like so many people. [But] I didn’t really know anything about the man, so I thought, “Let me go and do a bit of research.” And the more I looked at Coltrane’s story, the more I thought it was very unique.
We’ve all come to know the clichéd story of the artist who comes from nowhere, has great success, makes a lot of money, abuses one substance or another, and then dies young. Coltrane was the antithesis of that. Here’s a guy who had his challenges, but by sheer force of faith and willpower, he overcomes those challenges. From that time, when he becomes free of his addictions and begins to ascend, he begins to become the icon that we all know. To me, that was—and is—a very inspiring and uplifting story, and I thought that’s the story I want to tell.
Assembling musicians like Jimmy Heath and Sonny Rollins was certainly an incredible feat. But how did you ultimately decide on who else should be in this film?
When I decide who I want to interview for a film, I very much approach it like I would approach casting a narrative film. You have a certain amount of characters who appear on screen. I wanted a wide range of people who had different perspectives, different ways of expressing themselves, and were coming from different backgrounds so that no one person would sound or voice the same opinions as someone else. I want people that knew the subject and could therefore speak with credibility as to who John Coltrane was as person, what his background was, all those kinds of things. So that’s what brought me to Sonny Rollins, Jimmy Heath, Benny Golson and Wayne Shorter. They all had very distinctive relationships with Coltrane and very different kinds of friendships, so they could speak to different aspects of Coltrane’s past.
Then I wanted family members. As you saw, we have his stepdaughter Michelle, and his sons Ravi and Oran from the marriage to the love of his life, Alice, but what I’m equally proud of is [that you see] his stepdaughter Antonia [Andrews]. Antonia has never, ever given a public interview. I’m sitting there doing the interview with her, and she’s telling this story [about Coltrane walking back from a gig in the snow to save money for her new shoes], and I’m thinking, “Wow, this is such a great story.”
Everybody thinks that when you’re setting out to make a film, you want stories that are big and significant. One of my central goals with Chasing Trane was to bring John Coltrane alive as a three-dimensional human being. It’s those little stories that tell you so much about who he was as a person that are of almost more value than, “Oh, he played in front of 10,000 people on this one night in Italy.”
But I also wanted to have contemporary artists from a wide range of musical genres who looked to Coltrane as an influence―Carlos Santana, John Densmore of The Doors, Kamasi Washington. And finally, I’d like to have some unexpected choices. With President Clinton and Dr. Cornel West, that’s what I got with them. I had seen Cornel as a pundit on TV, and I [knew] he could provide a perspective on the black cultural experience in America that would have contributed to the shaping of Coltrane and his art. Little did I know that he was [also] an obsessed Coltrane fan.
About two years ago, I was watching the last two weeks of David Letterman hosting his [talk] show. And President Clinton was on. Early in his interview with Dave, he starts to tell a story and says, “I picked up the saxophone when I was 10 and I became obsessed with it. I played it all the time, all the way through high school. I actually got more scholarship offers for my musicianship than for my academics. And I seriously thought about becoming a professional musician.” Then there’s this pause, and he [adds], “But I realized that I was no John Coltrane.”
In spite of a short life, Coltrane has had many lives, many different incarnations in this music. How did you decide on your narrative approach to this film?
My overall vision for the film came quite early on. As I was doing my research and I had looked at all the books that had been written about Coltrane, I thought they all had one thing in common: They were all trying to analyze the music and tried to talk about what he was doing musically. As a non-musician, my eyes started to glaze over because I don’t understand double-time, triple-time or quadruplets. What interests me as a filmmaker is the artist.
The structure is always a tricky thing when you’re starting a documentary. If you’re doing something that’s basically a true story, you have the sequence of events as laid out on a timeline, and that’s largely going to be your structure. But when you’re telling the story of someone’s life, there are many different ways you could approach that. And I didn’t quite know what that narrative approach was going to be, until I got into the interview process and people started telling me their stories. I began to have a bigger picture of Coltrane’s life.
When I make a documentary, I really approach it much as I would a dramatic script. If you look at my films, including Chasing Trane, they all have a three-act dramatic structure, a very traditional structure. But I came across what I thought was a real crisis point in Coltrane’s life and that’s when he’s fired by Miles Davis. He’s really faced with a critical decision―what’s he going to do, what direction’s he going to go. And he realized that he could go up and be greater than he ever was, or he could go down and die. That’s a great moral decision that needed to be made by John Coltrane and I thought that’s a great way to open the film. When people come to see the film, they’re gonna hopefully be engaged in a story dramatically and will really want to know everything that happened to our hero and his journey.
There are many different kinds of documentaries that could’ve been made about John Coltrane. It could’ve been analyzing the music; it [could’ve been] the kind of documentary that was made just for jazz fans or for people who are Coltrane fans. I came to appreciate him and his art so much that it was very important to me from the beginning that this be a film for everyone. DB
Chasing Trane premiered at the IFC Center in New York on April 14, with an extended run through May 2. For more information and tickets, visit the IFC website.