Film Review: Chasing Trane
CHASING TRANE (2016) DIR. JOHN SCHEINFELD
The life and music of John Coltrane is nothing short of a miracle to everyone who knew and loved him and especially to those who really know and love jazz on a deeply personal level. To them he is next to god. And in that regard, they are probably right. After a turbulent and rocky early career, including the requisite heroin addiction, he turned his life around and dedicated himself and his music to god. Not that he became some fanatical proselytizer. He simply took his music to a higher plane and made it into a form of praise, adoration and gratitude.
His life did not begin auspiciously, growing up in the Jim Crow south. His musical talent was not evident when he played saxophone in a Navy bebop band. But, after his military stint was over, his determination and dedication to learning and practicing bore amazing fruit and he found his voice. His first big name gig was with Dizzy Gillespie’s band as a very young man and he worked steadily with some of the best musicians of his time - eventually joining Miles Davis’ Quintet, which really freed up his unique style. He was riding high and seemed to have the world at his feet. Unfortunately, around that time his managed heroin use escalated into unmanageable addiction and Miles fired him. It was a wake-up call. Recognizing that it was heroin or his music - he bit the bullet and kicked the habit. Thus began an entirely new phase in his life which was deeply spiritual.
His work got better and better and he seemed to be playing and recording with a who’s who of jazz greats of the era - Thelonious Monk, Lee Morgan, Cannonball Adderley, even re-uniting with Miles Davis among others. Finally he formed his own quintet. All the while his work was going in new directions and evolving into something which was totally outside of the usual realm of jazz. It was not music that everyone understood or liked but for him it was some sort of rapturous channeling of spirit. His major opus, A Love Supreme, is a paean to god. He was sublimely happy during this period which turns out to have been the end of a hugely productive, but sadly curtailed life. He died of cancer at the age of forty.
We do not get really up close and personal with Trane as he was known. What is revealed we hear from those who knew and worked with him and who are practically worshipful. His children speak affectionately of him. He apparently was a man of few words and those words of his which we hear are read by Denzel Washington based on his writings. Obviously he was very cerebral and theoretical in the expression of his music. Discussions of his music could be overwhelming to anyone not really versed in the language of jazz were it not for the fact that this whole fascinating life is presented against the background of the music he created and it speaks more eloquently than all of the words that he might have spoken. One need not be a jazz savant to experience the life and the music. I predict that for the many who are intimidated by jazz in general or Coltrane in particular, his conversion as expressed through the universal language of his music will make many new believers.