by Matthew Snyder
John Coltrane: His Life and Musicby Lewis Porter
(University of Michigan Press)
Originally published in the July/August '98 issue of 5/4 MagazineCopyright © 1998, Matthew Snyder
John Coltrane has been curiously ill-served by the community of jazz scholars. In the three decades since the death of this towering figure in music, the books published about him have been written by amateurs who produced work marred by factual errors and inferior (or absent) musical analyses. This situation has been rectified at last by Lewis Porter, a scholar and musician who directs the Master's program in jazz history and research at Rutgers University in Newark, NJ. With both a career as a jazz pianist and a Ph.D. in musicology, he is equally adept at meticulous research and music analysis. His biography of Coltrane does eminent justice to his subject and sets the standard for all biographies of jazz musicians to come.
The historical research alone is astounding; every page of the book bursts with detail. Porter took advantage of many previously unused sources, such as several European interviews of Coltrane translated into English for the first time. But his own research was just as key: Porter performed the drudge work on Coltrane that nobody had ever bothered to do, traveling to the towns in North Carolina where Coltrane was born and grew up, consulting his family and friends and performing genealogical research on Coltrane's ancestors dating back to the 19th century. Among other things, Porter found the only known photograph of Coltrane as a child and reveals that a good deal of Coltrane's immediate family, including his father, died within months of each other (of unrelated causes) at a time coinciding with the beginning of Coltrane's musical studies. Eerily, Coltrane's father, like his son, died young (age 38) and of stomach cancer (completely unrelated, however, to the ailment which killed Trane).
Porter places each stage of Coltrane's life under the same magnifying glass. He produces a fascinating, previously undocumented portrait of Coltrane's experience in the socio-musical scene of Philadelphia in the late 40's and early 50's. (Jimmy Heath's big band is shown to be an important experience for the young Coltrane at this time.) And the bad along with the good is presented as Porter describes Coltrane's painful slide toward an alcohol and heroin addiction that was to last through most of the 50's.
In the midst of Coltrane's substance abuse and recovery, of course, were his stints with Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk. (The engagement with Monk is especially entertaining to read about and is filled, again, with new details on the Coltrane - Monk relationship.) The birth, evolution and breakup of the classic quartet are also thoroughly covered with insights into how McCoy Tyner, Elvin Jones and the various bassists came together, and why the group disintegrated.
But it's not all facts and background. Porter also analyzes Coltrane's musical development at every step of his career, beginning with Coltrane's first known recording, a 1946 recording of a Navy combo in Hawaii with Trane on alto sax, trying to navigate bebop. (Young players will be relieved to hear that at 19, Coltrane sounded his age, with an undeveloped sound and incomplete grasp of the music.) Many solo transcriptions representing key points in Coltrane's development are reproduced, as well as lead sheets for many tunes in Coltrane's hand and samples of materials he practiced.
Porter's musical expertise shines brightest as Coltrane's music gets more complex, and he devotes a chapter to A Love Supreme, describing the tonal plan of the piece as well as its scalar and motivic materials. Most intriguing is Porter's demonstration that in the final movement, Psalm, Coltrane recites, with his horn, the poem found in the gatefold sleeve of the record.
It may sound like the book is too full of theory for the average reader, but this is not the case. The ability to read music would be helpful, but Porter avoids the trap of writing a textbook. The layperson will at least be able to listen to the various sources named, such as the pieces and recordings which Porter credits for inspiring Coltrane to create Impressions, Spiritual and India (Ravel and Morton Gould, a real spiritual, and an Indian field recording, respectively).
The final sections of the book lay many myths and rumors to rest. Here Porter proves, through analysis of pieces like Venus from Interstellar Space, that there was as much structure and discipline in Coltrane's late work as there had been at any other time in his career. And he provides at last a full accounting of Coltrane's final months, including his increasing insecurity about which musical direction to pursue next, and the possible causes of his fatal liver cancer (here, again, Porter was thorough and consulted several medical experts for advice). A bibliography and a detailed chronology of Coltrane's life conclude the book.
The only criticism Porter may receive is that his writing style is rather dry and academic. Considering the importance of this volume and the level of scholarship involved, that will be a meaningless complaint. John Coltrane: His Life and Music is both the first complete biography of the man, and the last word.
Matt Snyder notes: "I'm a musician (clarinet and bari sax are my main horns), and I've been a New York correspondent for 5/4 (a Seattle-based jazz magazine) since 1996, writing performance and CD reviews, as well as musician profiles. All my material can be read on my website (www.dragonfire.net/~msnyder)."