Jazz Legend: John Scheinfeld's 'Chasing Trane' examines the life of saxophonist John Coltrane

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Few jazz musicians have left as distinguished a legacy as John Coltrane, the saxophonist and composer who died in 1967. But while fans have kept his music alive over the past 50 years, a younger generation may not be aware of how much Coltrane accomplished.

Chasing Trane, an Abramorama release opening on April 14, explores Coltrane's life and music through performance clips, home movies, and a trove of photographs, many not seen by the public before. Using Coltrane's own words, the documentary also examines the spirituality that drove the musician throughout his career.

Writer-director John Scheinfeld's earlier movies include The U.S. vs. John Lennon and Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin' About Him)?, portraits of famously complex musicians. In a phone interview, Scheinfeld notes that Coltrane offered a different set of challenges.

"When I was making The U.S. vs. John Lennon, he was one of the most photographed and filmed characters in the twentieth century, so there was plenty to choose from," he says. "But with Coltrane, he had only done one American television show on his own, and we were unable to license it. We could use several European TV concerts, but we were limited somewhat because he does the same compositions on a lot of them."

To compensate, Scheinfeld obtained access to over 500 photographs. "We bumped into a number of photographers whose work had never been seen before when it comes to Coltrane. Some of the photos in this film we found on contact sheets and negatives. They had never been printed before."

Chasing Trane is an authorized documentary, made with the cooperation of the Coltrane estate. "I want my films to be as complete as possible," Scheinfeld explains. "I want access to photos, music, home movies—everything that will enable me to tell the story in as strong a way as possible. I had agreements with Yoko Ono, for example, and with the Nilsson estate."

For this film, Scheinfeld interviewed Coltrane's sons Oran and Ravi, and his stepdaughter Michelle. Antonia, a stepdaughter from a previous marriage, had never spoken about her father on camera before. Scheinfeld pursued her for months, eliciting personal memories that help fill out the musician's early career.

Scheinfeld and his team had to negotiate with the three jazz records labels that control almost all of Coltrane's output, and also with the musician's estate, which manages his publishing rights. As a result, Chasing Trane features excerpts from 48 of the musician's recordings, including extensive passages from his most famous compositions.

Finally, Scheinfeld interviewed friends and fellow musicians like Benny Golson and Jimmy Heath, as well as admirers like Wynton Marsalis and Wayne Shorter. Dr. Cornel West gives an impassioned argument for Coltrane's importance, as does former President (and saxophonist) Bill Clinton.

The man they are talking about left an indelible mark on jazz. Born in North Carolina in 1926, Coltrane moved to Philadelphia in 1943, where he studied saxophone. Enlisting in the Navy, he was stationed in Pearl Harbor, where he made his first recordings in 1946.

Back in the States, Coltrane played with significant musicians like Dizzy Gillespie and Johnny Hodges. In 1955, he joined the Miles Davis Quintet, but was fired due to his heroin addiction.

Coltrane fought himself off the drug, released his first solo album, played with Thelonious Monk, and rejoined Davis in 1958 for such milestone recordings as Kind of Blue. Chasing Trane includes Coltrane's four-minute solo on "So What" from a half-hour television special with the Miles Davis group.

The documentary charts Coltrane's explosion of creativity in the 1960s through reminiscences, amateur movies taken at his home, intimate photographs and generous samples of his music. As read by Denzel Washington, Coltrane explains his approach to composing and performing such seminal works as My Favorite Things and A Love Supreme.

"There's a line from Coltrane near the end of the film in which he says, 'I myself don't recognize the word jazz, I just feel that I play John Coltrane,'" Scheinfeld says. "I think this is so central to Coltrane the artist. He really resisted any attempt to pigeonhole him, any attempt to say, 'Oh, this is what you do.'"

Scheinfeld admits that he wasn't a committed Coltrane fan when he started the project, although he had been exposed to his work as a college DJ. "I think in some ways that's good for a filmmaker, not to be the obsessed fan," he reasons. "You can take more of a big-picture overview of a life and not get mired in the minutiae that many fans enjoy.

"My first question when I'm deciding whether to make a film or not is always 'What's the story?' What's the trajectory of this artist's life and career? Is it something I can feel passionate about? The more I looked at Coltrane's story, the more I thought he was unique."

The director points to familiar rags-to-riches clichés, musicians who become famous and succumb to substance abuse. But Coltrane was different. One thing that set him apart was his strength of character, his ability to overcome challenges. Another was his deep and abiding spirituality.

"One could argue that his spiritual journey began once he overcame addiction," Scheinfeld observes. "The case we make in the film is that his spirituality is there right from the beginning, from when he was raised in a family that had two ministers, his grandfather and his father."

To an extent almost unthinkable in commercial music, Coltrane tied his music to a belief in a universal God. His spiritual journey brought him to many forms of religion, which in turn helped him embrace world music, from India ragas to African rhythms.

"Much as we show how he kept evolving, moving forward with each album, with each year his spirituality took him to new and exciting places," Scheinfeld says. "And that's what drove his art. It wasn't record sales, it wasn't money, it wasn't girls, it wasn't drugs, it wasn't any of that."

When Coltrane toured Japan in 1966, his first stop—even before dropping his things at the hotel—was Ground Zero at Nagasaki. He made a new composition, "Peace on Earth," a centerpiece of the tour. And then a few months later, in July 1967, he was dead, a victim of liver cancer.

Whether or not Coltrane knew he was dying is open to debate. Some friends thought it was a surprise, others point to his efforts to get as much recorded as possible in his final months.

In selecting from Coltrane's works, Scheinfeld imagined asking the musician how he would score the film. "You look at his catalogue and you can find every color, every emotion, every texture," the director says. "Unless we're making specific references to a composition, I'm using the music as a score or underscore to elevate the storytelling. So the songs in those cases are used more for style and tone."

The biggest surprise in Chasing Trane came when Scheinfeld was in Teaneck, New Jersey, looking through the contact sheets of photographer Chuck Stewart. In the middle of a stack of sheets he saw Coltrane standing in a studio with someone holding a Super-8 camera.

Researching further, Scheinfeld learned that the man with the camera was the world-class bassist Art Davis, who passed away in 2007. His son had a box of his father's Super-8 home movies in his garage. And after several hours of viewing, Scheinfeld found color footage of Coltrane in the studio during recording sessions of his Ascension album. Some of the footage appears near the end of the documentary.

Scheinfeld describes the 18 months he spent on Chasing Trane as "intense." His next work is a feature about Brazilian pop star Sérgio Mendes, who had several radio hits in the 1960s with his group Brasil '66. Scheinfeld is also working on documentaries about comedian Bob Hope and soul musician Curtis Mayfield.

"Curtis is underappreciated," he says, "but an artist of enormous talent and influence. We're working on getting the money together right now. That's the one thing they don't tell you about in film school. You can have your vision, have your filmmaking ability, but a very crucial component of this is show me the money, find the money, raise the money."

In Chasing Trane, Scheinfeld has drawn an intimate picture of a towering musician. "I think he is an artist who has really transcended time, who has transcended genre and music," he says. "What we're trying to put across here is that he was a unique artist who should not be called jazz or pop or anything. I'm so excited that we're about to unleash this extraordinary body of work to audiences."