There isn’t a shortage of work that has been dedicated to the life and music of John Coltrane. There have been numerous biographies, odes, homages and more to the genius who said he doesn’t play jazz but, instead, plays John Coltrane.
But Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary, which is available on Netflix, is described as the definitive Coltrane documentary.
It is directed by John Scheinfeld, who has also sat in that chair for films about Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Bing Crosby and others. Here, he uses a lot of astronomical imagery to paint Coltrane as a celestial being who was merely lent to the earth.
The common thread of otherworldlyness begins in Coltrane’s childhood when both his grandfathers were preachers. It runs right through to his thirties, where Coltrane was convinced that music is divine and his only aim was to affect people through the way he was divinely directed by playing the saxophone or anything else.
Very early on in the film - before we have even seen who is talking - a voice is laid over the stars and space and it talks about how Coltrane was “an artistic genius and a spiritual giant”.
Through personal stories told by friends and collaborators like Jimmy Heath, Sonny Rollins, Reggie Workman, McCoy Tyner, the viewer is given a peek into what kind of artist and man Coltrane was.
There is also some insight from those who were influenced by him - the likes of Wynton Marsalis and Kamasi Washington, as well as his children.
While I totally get how the rapper Common brought a lot of jazz and experimental music from a time when he wasn’t alive, I don’t get how he rose to be the go-to guy to speak for a generation.
It’s like the floodgates of attention seeking were opened wide the minute the Obama’s invited him to the White House. Or maybe I’m reaching. Anyway, Common is there. And the only other person I feel was given way more shine than necessary was Denzel Washington. Before you accuse me of blasphemy, hear me out.
When I saw his name, I thought the acting giant was going to be delivering some avant-garde special something. But all he was doing was speaking the words that Coltrane had written about his life as though he was Coltrane. So while he does well to convey the ease and calm with which Coltrane is said to have exuded, it was a tad bit disappointing that that was all the mighty Denzel Washington was doing.
For a documentary that is hailed as the definitive one, it is also disappointing how there is not much detail about the extensive influence his family had on his music. One of Coltrane’s most famous compositions after all is Naima, from the Giant Steps album, which was named after his first wife.
But all we get told about her - from her daughter (his stepdaughter) nogal - is that her parents never fought and one day they argued and he left the family that night.
Then, of course, he married Alice, who was a gifted musician in her own right. But even then, all we get to see or hear about Alice is that she joined his later band and they travelled to Japan a few times. Do you know how many hip-hop heads and people in general have been impacted by Alice’s work?
But I guess here is the part where Coltrane lovers will rightfully add that if I want to know more about Naima or Alice then I have to seek out documentaries made on their work. Do best, Netflix.
The Coltrane story is very interesting, particularly when his relationship with Miles Davis and his views on religion are explored.
After watching this documentary, you may even find it hard to believe that he was only 40 when liver cancer took his physical presence away from this earth. But those who love his music know that he’s still very much around.
* Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentray is on Netflix.