For some, jazz simply doesn’t make much sense. Yes, it’s easy to respect the skill of anyone who can play an instrument, but the art form goes far beyond that. Jazz doesn’t and will not abide by any rules. It’s a gorgeous sonic amalgamation of so many things—some beautiful, some not—which in turn became a language for those who believed words were too puny to communicate all their feelings, and so jazz was the native tongue. For artists like Miles Davis, Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk, they “wrote” and expressed their emotions with their respective instruments: Davis, the trumpet; Parker, the alto sax and Monk, the keys. Yet as seasoned and as sophisticated as all those jazz greats were, none were as spiritual or as unconcerned with commercial appeal as John Coltrane.
Cancer, the retched and cruel disease that doesn’t spare nor care about the tears left in its wake, took up residence in Coltrane’s liver and took him from us when he was just 41. And while Coltrane left fans with giant compositions of excellent work, Blue Trane, A Love Supreme, Giant Steps, we can’t help but wonder what new realm, or journey would Coltrane have taken jazz had he been given more time?
Filmmaker John Scheinfeld spent 18 months researching Coltrane to create his latest work Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary. Doing more than simply interviewing former bandmates, children and current luminaries in the field, Scheinfeld—who is a self-described optimistic—also nabbed Denzel Washington as he was filming Fences to act as a voice for Coltrane, Dr. Cornel West to bridge together the African-American experience and how it seeped into the music, and former President Bill Clinton who at one point gave serious thought to being a musician but decided not to because he later learned he was no Coltrane.
Scheinfeld spoke to VIBE about the musical genius that was John Coltrane, and what the Migos generation can learn from the jazz legend.
VIBE: Why Coltrane? Why create a documentary about him? And don’t say because he’s one of jazz’s greatest artists.
John Schenifield: One of our producers, Spencer Proffer had come to me and said, “How would you like to make a film about John Coltrane?” and I said, “Oh let me do a little bit of research.” I mean, I knew Coltrane. Like many people, I was introduced to him through “My Favorite Things” and I heard that recording and thought, well this is really nice. I knew a little bit about him, but I will confess to you that I’m not an obsessed fan.
Even now? Even after having created the documentary, you’re still not an obsessed fan?
Oh, I am now. Having spent 18 months with the man, I am now a huge fan. But I wasn’t when I began and I think in many ways, that was a good thing because it allowed me to see the big picture of his personal and professional journey without getting stuck in the weeds like many obsessed fans do. But I will tell you, what was interesting for me was we’re all familiar with the now cliché story of artist comes from nowhere, has great talent, has great success, makes a lot of money, abuses substances, and dies young. What fascinated me was that Coltrane is the antithesis of this. He had his challenges early on in his life, but it was when he confronted those challenges and got clean from his addictions that he ascended, that he became the icon that we know now. And to me, that is a very uplifting and inspiring story of a guy that did things the right way and I think with the darkness that is sweeping over our land at the moment, that kind of uplifting and inspiring story is very much needed.
In the film you were able to get Denzel Washington and former President Bill Clinton to narrate. How much time did you have with President Clinton?
I got lucky with Bill Clinton. Obviously we all know he plays the saxophone but I had seen in the last two weeks of David Letterman being on the air the president was on, and he told a story of how at age 10 he picked up the saxophone and he was obsessed with it through high school. He seriously thought about becoming a professional musician, but he said, ‘I realized I was no John Coltrane.’ So I looked to my wife and said, there’s a story here. So we found a way to get to his chief of staff and she said, ‘I think the president will find much joy in doing this.’ Unfortunately, it took us 10 months to get him because he’s quite busy with his own activities and as you all recall, his wife kept him occupied during the campaign quite a bit. I live in Los Angeles and I hopped on a plane and went to New York. We went to his office and we were told that we would have no more than 15 minutes with the president. So we set up and he was 45 minutes late. And he arrives and introduces himself to all the crew members, shakes everybody’s hand, and he is as charismatic in person as we’ve all heard. He was gracious. He was eloquent, and as people will see when they come to watch Chasing Trane, he is knowledgeable and passionate about Coltrane, and I think really elevates the entire picture.
Was it hard to get Denzel on board?
Not as difficult as I would have expected. I’ll tell you the story. In his lifetime, Coltrane did no television interviews and only did a handful of radio interviews, and the sound on those recordings was not good enough for me to use. But I wanted Coltrane to have a vital presence in the film beyond just the performance clips. So fortunately, he had done many print interviews. I wanted a movie star to read those words to really bring Coltrane to life. I didn’t know it at the time, but I learned that casting director Vicky Thomas was also casting Fences for Denzel. I said will you help me? And she said, oh yeah, love your documentaries. One Saturday I get a text from her, says: Denzel’s in. Needs to talk to you and then she says here’s his phone number. He never answers right away, but he’ll get your message, and he’ll call you back. I said great. So I call him and Denzel picks up on the first ring. “I like the idea, love Coltrane, but I got to see the film.” I said okay. So we sent a secure link to him for a rough cut of where it was at that time. And five days go by. I don’t hear a word, so I’m convinced he hates it and I’m never going to hear from him. On the fifth day, the phone rings, and the first words out of his moth are not hello, not it’s Denzel, not how are you doing? The first words out of his mouth are: “It’s beautiful brother.”
Have you ever heard of a group called Migos?
No, I don’t know them.
Okay, Well they’re are dominating the charts in what is called rap, trap music. What can the Migos generations or this generation learn from Coltrane?
That’s an excellent question. The key to understanding Coltrane from my point of view is that he is timeless. He is not only timeless but he does not usually fit into any one genre or anyone pigeon hole. Just when you think you figure him out, he came out with an album that where he was trying some entirely new and different. So here’s an artist who was constantly pushing the envelope, constantly exploring his art and his talent. And he did so without concern for the effect it might have on his career, his commercial prospects. He was following his art. And I think that is an inspiration for artists of any generation.
You said it took you 18 months to put this film together. In your research, what was Coltrane’s biggest flaw?
You know, there’s several ways to answer that. I think the biggest flaw that he displayed in his life was early on when he moved away from his spiritual center and became a heroine addict. And it got in the way of his creativity, his sense of responsibility and inhibited his progress as a musician. But I’ll tell you another one. To me, it’s just amusing; it’s not a significant flaw, but in trying to get to know him as a person, I asked everyone that knew him. I said, describe to me his sense of humor and tell me a story that’s a really great example of that sense of humor. And I will say, to me it was really fascinating. No one could come up with a story.
As I’m sure you’re aware, there have been very prominent deaths of young African American men and women, Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, the list goes on. In the film, I was introduced to a song Coltrane created called “Alabama” in response to the church bombing four little girls. If Coltrane were alive today, do you think the Black Lives Matter Movement or the deaths of these unarmed black men and women would inspire him to create another “Alabama?”
From my perspective, Coltrane was a very sensitive, thoughtful artist. With the composition “Alabama,” he was responding to something that affected him very deeply. As his step daughter Antonia says in the film, he was very aware how black Americans were treated, particularly in the South where he grew up in North Carolina. It was something that obviously helped shape his personality, but as Antonia said, he more often than not, chose not to say anything publicly, but rather would incorporate it into his music. So there’s no way to say exactly of course what he might have thought or how he might have responded, but I think when you look at that tragedy in Birmingham, that it inspired this sensitive and thoughtful genius to write a magnificent composition like “Alabama.” And one would think that certain events that have happened over the last couple of years with regard to Black Americans, might easily have inspired him to come up with something in a very similar vein. Having said that, I think that one must look at Coltrane’s career and realize that he was constantly going in different directions, whether that might have brought him to a more overtly political stance, there’s really no way to know. But yes, I believe we can look at “Alabama” and its genesis and say that clearly he did respond to what was happening in the outside world and may very well have continued to do so had he lived.
Alright, last question. It’s kind of a cliché question, but it is what it is. Who do you like better: Coltrane or Miles Davis? You can’t say both.
Coltrane by far. Coltrane, not only having spent so much time with him and knowing his music now much more than I did before, his music just speaks to me in ways that Miles doesn’t always. There are certain albums of Miles’ that I love. I love Kind of Blue. I love Quiet Nights. There’s so many albums of Mile’s, particularly the early period, but he never spoke to my heart the way that Coltrane does. So an unreserved response to your question is John Coltrane by far.
Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary hits New York theaters today.