Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary is a remarkable film. One that jazz fans with a keen interest in the history of jazz should see. The documentary takes us through the life and times of John Coltrane. Rather than a literal chronological depiction, the documentary unfolds Coltrane’s journey through his musical development. Where we come to see Coltrane’s search for something greater than himself in his music defined his life.
The film continues through May 11 at the Screening Room Café’. We are fortunate to have this special showing here in WNY. Jazz appreciators are highly encouraged to get out to see the documentary. There will also be a one-night showing of the film at Hallwalls on May 23rd at 7:30 pm.
As part of the premiere, JazzBuffalo was invited to deliver opening remarks. Here, I share the opening remarks prepared for the premiere of the film here in WNY on Friday, May 5th:
When pondering what to say tonight for opening remarks, I wanted to avoid reciting fact, figures, or history about John Coltrane. The film you are about to see will superbly do so. Instead, a question kept popping into my head. That question is:
Why does John Coltrane still matter to jazz today?
It turns out this is a very paradoxical question. On one hand, it can appear very easy to answer this question. Yet, on the other hand, it can awaken you to a sense that to understand John Coltrane, you must dig deeper than the music itself. In which, we are blessed this evening to have a documentary intent on going beyond the music and into the deep recesses of the life of John Coltrane. To help us to know John Coltrane in ways we have not understood Coltrane before.
My pondering of this question brings me to three thoughts to share with you tonight:
Every Art Form Needs Its Mythical Figures
Every art form needs its mythical legacy artists. Its giant figures who carry the torch. Nearly 50 years after his death, Coltrane has become one of the giant pillars in the story of jazz. He has become mythological in a sense. These matters because as we look towards the future of jazz, we hear many of today’s young jazz musicians born well after his death claim Coltrane as their main influence. Particularly saxophonist. Like Picasso and Hemmingway in their art forms, Coltrane has become an integral part of the story of jazz for all the future generations to come. A story that must be told like the great oral traditions of the past.
Coltrane Changed The Art Form Of Jazz
Coltrane significantly changed the art form of jazz. Coltrane introduced a transgressive style of playing. A free expression where one song could last 20 to 30 minutes. He played loud. He played fast. He played furiously. Breathing life into the free jazz and avant-garde jazz movement. A movement that we are so lucky to have Hallways Contemporary Arts Center (here in WNY) keep alive today – and that has become an international mecca for this movement. While this form of free jazz is not liked by all jazz fans, it remains an important part of jazz. Its influence can be heard across various music genres still today.
I am reminded of a story about one of Coltrane’s last appearances before his death. He appeared at Temple University in November of 1966, a homecoming of a sort since he moved to Philadelphia as a teenager and performed there extensively before joining Miles Davis. The audience did not give him a warm homecoming that night. Before the first song was finished, people began to leave. The critic Francis Davis, who was in the audience that night, went on to write that the audience “looked as though they wanted to leave but sat rigid with disbelief”. The music was considered extreme and disturbing. Where at one point, he put his sax down after what may have been 20 minutes and began singing loudly while pounding his chest. As if to say I need to get all of what is inside me out. This form of free expression still matters today, for even in tempered form, many jazz musicians attempt to reach deep into themselves to find the freest of expression possible.
Coltrane’s obsessive pursuit of spirituality embodies a pursuit that matters very much today in jazz. That is the pursuit of something greater than ourselves. A pursuit of how to enrich the human story that continues to unfold. Whether it is in listening to or in performing the music of jazz, this pursuit is always present. Our search for greater meaning and a greater purpose that is larger than ourselves. Coltrane still matters today for he serves as a reminder for all the young musicians today that the music they write, compose, and perform belongs to the audience. It is to be shared to contribute towards the greater good of achieving peace, love, and unity amongst us all. While some may see his intent on spirituality as a driving force, as it was, I see the intensity of the pursuit itself as embodying who Coltrane was. A pursuit that was relentless until the end.
More than anything, what Coltrane represents, and why he still matters today profoundly, is he serves as a beacon of light in this pursuit of the greater good. For us all to find a purpose that is greater than ourselves. A purpose that uplifts the human spirit as Coltrane strived to do with his time here in this world and in the world of jazz.
Here is the trailer for the film if you have not seen yet:
Keep Jazz Alive!!!!