Some are born great, others achieve greatness, and in the documentary Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary, we meet a musician who falls squarely in the latter camp.
This film (by director John Scheinfeld, who has also examined the careers of Bing Crosby and John Lennon) features nearly 50 Coltrane recordings — there's a snippet of the music he played in a U.S. Navy band, and the consensus among the experts who hear it (including Wynton Marsalis) is that there is no evidence of the jazz genius to come. He was later to be inspired by Charlie Parker, tutored under the leadership of Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, and Thelonious Monk.
The documentary covers Coltrane's history in Philadelphia (he lived here in the '40s, '50s, and early '60s) — where he saw and was inspired by a touring Parker, where he worked with local musicians (Reggie Workman, Jimmy Heath, Benny Golson, all contributors here), part of a vibrant jazz scene that allowed Coltrane to search, to innovate, to find his way musically.
Philadelphia is also where Coltrane kicked heroin, on his own at his house on North 33rd Street (now a National Historic Landmark, where portions of the movie were filmed), using what the film implies are inner reserves of strength that derive from Coltrane's spiritual beliefs — beliefs that would later inform his greatest music.
Coltrane was raised Christian in the South — he learned to play in church, like his idol and mentor Gillespie. As an adult, we learn, he studied most of the world's great religions, drew inspiration from them, and used this inspiration to create his ethereal jazz. Listening to a Coltrane solo, colleagues say in the film, is like taking a trip into space, with the sax player as a kind of spiritual guide.
The film covers Coltrane's collaborations with other great artists, but it really aims to examine the source of his music's great power — what Coltrane called "A Love Supreme" was, Scheinfeld argues here, a love of life, which he endeavored to reflect in his music.
Fans interviewed include Bill Clinton, Common, Marsalis, and Carlos Santana, who provides some of the film's most insightful and moving passages.
The movie is narrated by Denzel Washington and includes rare interviews — Coltrane's stepdaughter Antonia, whom he raised in Philadelphia, has never spoken on camera, and here recalls the time she mentioned to him that she needed new shoes. That night, he walked home alone in the snow, carrying the money from a performance that he would use to buy them. More evidence of a love supreme.
Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary
Directed by John Scheinfeld. Narrated by Denzel Washington. Distributed by Abramorama.
Running time: 1 hour, 39 mins.
Parent's guide: Not rated (adult themes).