John Coltrane. A seminal figure within jazz, the saxophonist defined–and then redefined–the genre throughout his career, playing alongside the greats until he eventually became a great himself.
We know Coltrane: the artist, the ever-evolving musician that spoke his emotions and thoughts through soprano and tenor saxophone (and sometimes flute).
But we never really knew Coltrane: the man. In his time he rarely gave interviews, and anything that we have learned about the iconic musician since his passing has been through other people.
Because of this there’s always been a certain mythos that surrounds Coltrane. However, Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary contextualizes Coltrane’s mythos, offering a glimpse into the life of one of jazz music’s most seminal figures.
Director John Scheinfeld crafts a cohesive narrative with a limited amount of material, detailing Coltrane’s adolescence up until he served in the Navy during World War II, where he met Charlie Parker.
Following that Coltrane had found success by becoming a member of Dizzy Gillespie‘s band, but the rising saxophonist failed to adhere to the trumpeter’s strict no drugs policy, dealing with alcoholism and heroin addiction. After giving him a second chance Gillespie fired Coltrane from the band, but the decision was necessary: Coltrane saved himself by holing up alone and enduring a painful withdrawal by going cold turkey.
Coltrane emerged a new man, joining Thelonious Monk‘s band and rejoining Miles Davis on the trumpeter’s notable Kind Of Blue album (Coltrane was a part of Davis’ 1957 quintet). Then, he went on to form his own quartet and create Giant Steps, a breakthrough album for Coltrane that showed he was more than an accompanying player, but a bandleader and composer.
In informing viewers about Coltrane’s career, Scheinfeld also does a great job of providing details on the artist’s personal life. Detailing Giant Steps, we get to see intimate moments shared between Coltrane and his then wife Juanita Naima Grubbs, who inspired the track name “Naima.” Later on in the film we get to witness moments between Coltrane and his second and final wife Alice Coltrane, living together in Dix Hills on Long Island and performing together during Coltrane’s remaining years.
Connecting each transition together is Coltrane’s music, the evolution of his playing exploring the early days of him imitating Parker to becoming the iconic artist that redefined jazz music more than once throughout his career. Scheinfeld got a roster of people to speak on the artist’s timeless influence: Carlos Santana; Sonny Rollins; Kamasi Washington; Bill Clinton; Wynton Marsalis; John Densmore; and Cornel West. He even manages to get a Coltrane super fan from Japan to talk about his love for the saxophonist, revealing how he has an entire room filled with Coltrane music and memorabilia.
But the best moments of Chasing Trane come from Coltrane himself: brief opinions offered in interviews or little anecdotes the artist wrote himself, voiced by Denzel Washington. Scheinfeld places these moments so well within the film that we understand implicitly that these are words to be cherished, because Coltrane rarely spoke through anything that wasn’t his saxophone. Viewers get to hear Coltrane speak of his working relationship with Davis, as well as his devotion to God following the release of his incredible A Love Supreme album.
Overall, Chasing Trane celebrates Coltrane in a way that hasn’t been done about the artist, contextualizing our admiration of a man that simply wanted to make people happier and the world better, through his music.