When I heard about Chasing Trane, a documentary about my favorite jazz man, John Coltrane, it didn’t take much to get me to the movie theater. Sadly, I missed an opportunity to see the film debut at a film festival months before its official release; so the week of its official release, I took myself down to the IFC Film Center in the Village.
Like so many of my favorite musicians, I knew about Coltrane’s music but very little about his life. I began studying his music when I was in college. I told a family friend, Harry, that I wanted to learn more about jazz music and really get an education on its artists and their sounds. He suggested that I start with one or two artists and begin studying their music and then move on to other artists.
I decided to start with John Coltrane and Miles Davis. I found a few compilations of their music together in the library and then solo albums of Coltrane’s music. Immediately I felt an alignment to John Coltrane and his music. I felt this unexplained spiritual connection to his music. It soothed me when I felt anxious and gave me a certain energy that I still cannot explain. From watching this film, I learned that Coltrane was a very religious and spiritual person and that he studied most world religions which influenced him as a person and as a musician.
Narrated by legendary thespian, Denzel Washington, Chasing Trane focuses primarily on John Coltrane’s journey and growth as a musician and spiritual person with glimpses into his personal life and intimate thoughts. Film footage grafted from family home video and Denzel’s readings of John Coltrane’s personal writings as well as family photos provide this intimate view.
The film begins with John Coltrane’s young childhood in North Carolina where he spent a lot of time in church. His family was religious and his grandfather was a minister. Later the family migrated to Philadelphia after the deaths of Coltrane’s father, grandmother and aunt.
In Philadelphia, John Coltrane attends school and begins studying the alto saxophone after his mother purchased one for him. After completing high school, he enrolled in the Navy and began playing with a band in the Navy. It was during this time that he made his first music recordings, but he wasn’t particularly good then. He got better and became a leading force in the Navy’s band, the Melody Masters. It was during this time that he began to be recognized for his musical talent.
After being honorably discharged, Coltrane returned to Philadelphia where he joined the booming jazz scene. He began touring with King Kolax, a trumpeter and bandleader, and then joined a band led by Jimmy Heath. He began studying musical theory with Dennis Sandole and by 1947 had switched from alto saxophone to tenor. He was influenced early on by Odeon Pope, a tenor saxophonist, and then by Charlie Parker who became a musical hero.
Known for his rigorous rehearsal throughout his life, we learn the drive for greatness began when Coltrane started his---almost fanatical---rehearsal schedule. Eventually as he began pursuing music professionally, he began experimenting with drugs. Many of the successful jazz musicians (singers included) were using heroin at the time and like so many others, he thought it would make him a better musician. In fact, it did the opposite. Coltrane only became the gifted musician that we know now when he stopped using heroin.
In the mid-1950’s he met and married his wife Naima and adopted her daughter, Saeeda. The family moved from Philadelphia to New York City, settling first in the Manhattan Valley neighborhood and later in a house in St. Alban’s Queens, New York. The first Mrs. Coltrane passed away in 1996 but their daughter, Saeeda, was interviewed for the film and provides an intimate look at his early days as a husband and father. She says that John Coltrane worked multiple jobs and gigs to provide for the family and especially for her as a child; and shares a touching story of one example of that.
Later he meets and marries, Alice Coltrane, a composer, musician and artist in her own right, and the two of them are artistic soulmates. She accompanies him musically and shares in his religious and spiritual education. Throughout the film we see them in pictures and video as they work and travel together.
Chasing Trane follows John Coltrane’s musical evolution. How the budding jazz man transformed his catalog from beautiful ballads of jazz and pop standards and bebop classics to the movement of avant-garde jazz. His study of Eastern religions and the music of the East influenced and broadened his own understanding of music and he incorporated the sounds and tonal changes that he heard. Coltrane had become known for his incomparable chord changes and melodies that defined his sound and could not be duplicated.
This musical evolution started when he was a young man and expanded as he played in bands led by great jazz men, Dizzy Gillespie, Earl Bostic, Johnny Hodges and then with Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis. It is with Miles Davis and the “Great Quintet” that includes Red Garland (another personal favorite), Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones, that Coltrane begins coming into his own. The artistic rivalry and mutual respect between Davis and Coltrane birthed some of the most iconic jazz music in history---and what led me to discover John Coltrane for myself, personally.
Coltrane struggled with addiction and it began to hinder his musicianship. After leaving the Great Quintet, he worked to end his addiction and to come back better than ever. In fact, later in the film we learn that he became markedly more spiritual and religious after finally overcoming his addiction to heroin in the late 1950’s. It is after this period that he writes and records A Love Supreme. Carlos Santana, one of the many musical and celebrity tributes says that he plays Coltrane’s eponymous album, as a spiritual cleansing tool whenever he travels or goes someplace new.
Chasing Trane explores Coltrane’s exploration of faith and religion; from the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) churches he was raised in to the exploration of Islam, Eastern and African religions. His faith and spirituality are reflected in his music throughout his career as much as it is reflected in his life.
Also reflected was his take on the Civil Rights Movement and the realities of a Jim Crow South. He composed and recorded the song Alabama after the church bombing that killed four little girls in Montgomery, Alabama. The long sad, disturbing moan of the saxophone captures the frustration and devastation of that tragedy. He was known to study African history and religions and to listen to the lectures of the civil rights leaders including the late Malcolm X.
Some of the best parts of this film for me were seeing film footage of his performances, the personal home videos and never-before-seen footage of his journey to Europe and the East with his wife and band. The photos and video of his home life were especially touching because you can see that he was a whole person who had a whole life outside of his artistry. And as a fellow artist, that is important to see.
Also, the contributions of his fellow musicians and the people who have been influenced by him and his work. I thought that they were the best in explaining and exploring his music because they could really describe musically what we as fans hear sonically. It was also very cool to see the broad range of musicians who love him as an artist.
It has been fifty years since John Coltrane passed and his music and legacy continue to inspire the generations that have come after him. He is world renowned and has received Grammy awards and a Pulitzer Prize posthumously. He has also been nominated for sainthood more than once and is viewed as Saint John Coltrane by the African Orthodox church in San Francisco which named itself St. John Coltrane African Orthodox Church in his honor. Two of his homes have been nationally land-marked (both in Philadelphia and Huntington, Long Island, NY) and a foundation named for him was started by his family to continue his legacy.
For fans of John Coltrane and jazz or curious viewers, I highly recommend Chasing Trane.
Running Time: 99 Minutes
Director: John Scheinfeld
Writer: John Scheinfeld