Interview with Dr. Lewis Porter
The following interview with Lewis Porter, author of John Coltrane: His life and Music, was conducted by telephone on April 15, 2000. I am indebted to Dr. Porter for taking the time from his exceptionally busy schedule as musician, writer, teacher, and father to share his views with us.
All About Jazz: It's indeed an honor to interview you, Dr. Porter. Just to get us started, could you tell us your favorite albums and books about jazz, and also your favorite jazz critics?
Lewis Porter: Well, that's hard to answer. I listen to everything. Surprisingly, on the top of my listening list right now is a Beach Boys album called Friends, which I think is one of the great pop albums of all time. On the classical side, also Beethoven's Sixth Symphony. I have very eclectic listening habits. And of course, I mostly listen to jazz. Currently I'm listening to the album, Evolution, by Grachan Moncur III. Lee Morgan plays trumpet on that album. It's one of the more "free" albums with Morgan. There's a pop band called The Sundays that I enjoy. One of my favorite albums is Glenn Gould's 1955 recording of Bach's Goldberg Variations. And practically everything by Coltrane is on the top of my list. And I also love Lester Young's early recordings with Count Basie.
As far as jazz writers, one of the foci of my masters program [Dr. Porter founded and is a professor in the Masters program in jazz history and research at Rutgers University] is "critiquing the critics." I'm a critical reader, but my favorite is someone who's retired now and doesn't publish much. His name is Larry Gushee, a professor at the University of Illinois. He has done 30 years of reasearch on the origins of jazz and the early New Orleans bands, and he has information no one else has. He occasionally publishes. When he lectures, I run out to hear it.
Then there are two colleagues. One is Mark Tucker, who used to be at Columbia University and is now at William and Mary College in Virginia. The other is Scott DeVeaux, at the University of Virginia. He has a book out about bebop which got very good reviews.
AAJ: To cover the bases, you're a saxophonist and pianist, I take it?
LP: I've been playing piano since I was about twelve, and that's my main instrument. I doubled on the saxophone for a while, did a lot of gigs on the sax. But I just found I couldn't keep up with saxophone, and the piano, and the teaching, and being a dad, and all that, so I gave up the saxophone about seven or eight years ago.
VIC: Do you play Coltrane tunes on the piano, then?
LP: Yes, part of my repertoire is "Central Park West." I've participated in Coltrane tribute concerts. I had an arrangement of "Naima." And I've played "Impressions," Giant Steps," any number of Coltrane pieces.
AAJ: Let's talk about your book, John Coltrane: His Life and Music. Since the book was published in January of 1998 my book review and this interview are quite overdue (!), and I owe you an apology. When I belatedly saw the book this winter, I thought to myself, "This book needs serious attention!" And when I read it, I knew I was right! However, the passage of time makes for a good lead-in question. This biography took a great deal of your time, your life, and your musical knowledge. It took more than ten years to produce. It's now considered without question to be the definitive biography of Coltrane. For you personally, then, how does this book sit with you two years after publication? And what's the most useful feedback and constructive criticism you've received? Do you feel there have been any unfair criticisms? Would you do anything differently now?
LP: I've done a lot of writing, I've got five books out there, I've done numerous articles, but the Coltrane bio was the hardest book I've ever written. It felt hard while writing it- there were periods when I'd be sitting there thinking, G-d, this is murder! It was hard intellectually, research-wise. I made a point of double checking everything, even stuff that had been written many times in other books, because I found that much of it wasn't accurate.
I tend to be very self-critical and to put my books down. My graduate students laugh because they say, "the main message of your teaching is that everybody stinks, including you!" [laughter.] And I say, "Maybe it does sound that way, but there are a few things that are OK."
The reviews of the Coltrane book have mostly been rave reviews, and it even won a prize from the Association of Recorded Sound Collections, which is a music archive organization. What's been especially gratifying is that a lot of musicians have told me they loved it, including Ravi Coltrane, who of course is Coltrane's son, and Joe Lovano, Vic Juris and David Liebman have the book and have been telling me how much they love it. I did get some criticism in the press for my writing style. And I have to say that I feel that is a fair criticism. I don't consider myself really to be a writer even though I've written so much. I'm really a musician. I appreciate great writing, but I'm a little inhibited as a writer. In fact, since I write non-fiction, I'm a little bit concerned about not getting too fancy as a writer because I could be misunderstood.
There's one kind of criticism that I have gotten on occasion which I do feel is irrelevant if not unfair. I do have a prejudice that people who are musically trained can write more knowledgeably about music! But most of the people who write about jazz are not musically trained, and some will say that this book has many musical examples- and that therefore it's not a good book! And that really drives me crazy! To think that writing about music from a musician's point of view is somehow insulting non-musicians to me is ridiculous. In reality, so many non-musicians have bought my book and they love it because there's so much other stuff in there, for example aspects of Coltrane's life story which hadn't been documented before. They didn't mind that there were some musical examples where they could either look at them or not look at them. And I would hope that people who aren't musicians would say, wow, this is an opportunity for me to try to grasp the value of musical analysis.
AAJ: I personally enjoyed both your writing style and the musical examples.
LP: People who do like my writing style say it's very clear.
AAJ: It's clear, and it's written with care. I really appreciate, for example, that you indicate when there is a lack of information about an event or a subject- that is rarely done in biographies. We readers need to know what we don't know, or else we get a false picture, a myth.
Now, I did see a critique of the biography that may or may not be valid, so let's check it out. Your book may have gotten a reputation that it superseded other biographical writings on Coltrane. It's implied that you cast in doubt much of what was written before you. The consensus is that your biography is the most accurate and well researched of them. But one web reviewer chastises you for implying that your book is definitive and states that you should express indebtedness to your predecessors. He implies that you claim that you started from scratch with your research, and he feels that's an impossibility! He's correct, isn't he, that every biographer builds on previous biographies, even if errors must be corrected and gaps filled in?
LP: First of all, I am very dissatisfied with the level of what's been written about jazz, and my mission for years has been to improve the quality of jazz scholarship. Twenty years ago, I wrote an article entitled "Problems with Jazz Research." I tend to get a little hot under the collar about it. When I wrote the Preface of my Coltrane book, I referred to the other books in a very hostile way, and the editor confronted me, saying that I do rely on those books, so is it really fair to be that harsh on them? That was a good point, so I toned it down. I thought I had stated it in such a way that it was not antagonistic or creating the impression that the other books weren't valuable to me. But there are two things that I'd like to clarify. First of all, the material I found most useful from the previous work on Coltrane were the interviews. Any kind of interview material is source material. As far as my holding that I did "researching from scratch," there is indeed such a process. It's archival research, for example when you go to the census data to look up a family history, primary sources such as birth certificates, marriage certificates, doing your own interviews (I spoke directly with over 200 people for the Coltrane biography.) I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that I had to do a very large chunk of the research from scratch for this book. So the fairest statement would be that I did all the documentary and archival research from scratch, but, especially for some of the interview material, I did also rely on the books that were previously written.
AAJ: OK, but by "starting from scratch," you do not mean that you ignored previous commentators, do you? Rather, you went back and checked previous sources.
LP: Let me give you an example. All of the books- and I do mean all- say that Coltrane was in the Navy from December, 1945 until June, 1946. Now, when I say "starting from scratch," what I mean is that I had to check that. Now, the Navy files or any other military files are public information. It turned out the previous writers were quite a bit off. Their information came from Coltrane's written response to a question. The question was, "Have you ever played music overseas, and if so, when?" The answer that Coltrane wrote to Leonard Feather, was, "Yes, in the Navy from December ‘45 to June ‘46." If you know about the armed forces, you don't go in the band as soon as you enlist. So, I obtained his military files, and sure enough, he was in the Navy from July of 1945 until August of 1946. In other words, he had to do basic training and other duties before and after his musical involvement! It may seem like a small point, but that's what I mean by starting from scratch.
Prior to myself, the previous writers about Coltrane were not jazz historians, did not have a track record as historians.
AAJ: Do you know if Coltrane had any intimation about his immortality, and that several biographies would be written about him? Billie Holiday, I understand, was very image conscious, so to speak, and liberally modified some important biographical details in ways that had to be cleared up later. What about Trane?
LP: Coltrane was a very humble man, and I can't think of an instance of him doing that. If anything, he was indifferent to what people thought about him. When he was in France in 1965 there was a film crew and a director who were hoping to do a documentary about Coltrane and his life. He more or less blew them off. They wrote an open letter to him in a French magazine and said he'd missed a great opportunity, and "we're so sorry that you didn't take us up on it." Of course, I'm sorry too, because it would have been nice to have such a documentary! That was in 1965, and he died in 1967, so I guess my sense is that, if anything, he was indifferent to his legendary status. Of course, he died so young, that he never had a chance to think about that again.
AAJ: Now let me ask you a question specifically about the beginning of the book. I happen to agree with you, but I am going to question you for the sake of argument. You start out the book by stating, "John William Coltrane, one of the great musical artists of the twentieth century..." My question is, do you really mean this? How can you justify that a journeyman jazz saxophonist, with a history of drug addiction, who made a few record albums- some of which are admittedly very listenable- and then went so far to the extreme that he drove his own fans away- and had only ten to fifteen years of real musical productivity- how can you say that such a person is a great musical artist? That would put him in the category of Heifetz, Stravinsky, Rubenstein, Ravel.
LP: Very much!
AAJ: Or, are you comparing him to his own peers like Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong, Dexter Gordon, Johnny Hodges, Lester Young, and so on? What's the basis of your making such a claim to greatness for John Coltrane?
LP: I should tell you, that I do have a hard time with such extreme statements, because how can you possibly justify something like that? Perhaps the only way to discuss such a thing in any quantifiable way is in terms of the impact upon musicians. For example, Stravinsky must have had an impact on almost 100% of classical composers since his day. Coltrane, similarly, must have had an impact on 90% of all jazz musicians, as well as, say 10% of rock musicians and 15% of classical musicians. Certainly, I'm betting that if you were to do an empirical survey, you would come out with Coltrane having a pervasive influence. And we do have to admit that sometimes greatness is just a matter of personal preference, but there is also the aspect of what impact the person has had on his or her field. And in terms of impact, I don't think you could question that Coltrane was one of the greats.
AAJ: What is your assessment of what Coltrane was striving for musically? Do you think he was really doing creative work? Why did those fans walk out of some of his later performances?
LP: That's where you get into the less quantifiable aspect.
AAJ: In his "avante garde" phase, was Coltrane musically onto something meaningful and intelligent, or just "out there" without any rhyme or reason?
LP: In my opinion, all of Coltrane's music is great and profound and brilliant, and comes from a real consciousness of what music can be and can accomplish. Regarding the late work of Coltrane, I try to make the case that it's too easily dismissed in terms of "well, at that time he was into LSD, so he obviously didn't know what he was doing." Or, "well, he was playing with that noisy band with Pharaoh Sanders, etc." In the book, I try to say, "forget about the LSD, forget about the band, just listen to what he's playing. It is so coherent, so brilliant, and so profound, it's impossible to maintain that he didn't know what he was doing. And then, if you read his statements of the time, which are very clear- he describes what he's trying to do musically, there's a rationale, a plan- then, my feeling is that I have a good case there, that he's very aware of what he's trying to do musically, and that it does cohere. But I will admit that it's hard to hear how much sense his playing makes in the context of that band, because that band was a bit noisy- I've got to be honest about that! So, it does take a special effort to concentrate on his own playing.
AAJ: That's a very good point. Also, I would add that your analysis of his later music is, to me, a very profound contribution to the understanding of jazz.
LP: Thanks. I appreciate that.
AAJ: For me, you demonstrate quite clearly that in his "avant-garde" phase, and throughout his career, Coltrane wasn't just blowing tunes, so to speak, but that he was a consummate artist at a very high level of creativity.
LP: Very much so.
AAJ: As you know, I am by profession a psychologist, and so of course I'm very interested in your interpretations of the emotional sources of Coltrane's virtual obession with music and the saxophone. Family members said that he actually slept with his saxophone! His constant practicing is legendary. So there was a very real obsession. Part of that is his genius, and part of that is an emotional complex. (I'm not using the term"obsession" as a clinical diagnosis here, but as a marked personality trait.) You attribute his musical obsession partly to coping with the deaths in the family that occurred during his early adolescence: Aunt Effie, Reverend Blair, the Reverend's wife, Alice, and John's father all died within about a year of each other, when Coltrane was about twelve years old. Then you state that the greatest loss to John was that of his father- and I would question that. You indicate earlier that his father was very unavailable and distant. You describe his father as passive and withdrawn. If, then, he wasn't available to John as a friend or mentor, why should John have felt such acute and lasting grief for his dad? So, was it the loss of his father that afflicted him so, or was it the totality of the losses as well as the profound sadness of the culture of the time with its apartheid, economic depression, etc.? Do you still feel that the loss of his father was the primary trauma?
LP: Do you have a private practice?
LP: I have a lifelong interest in psychology and a bachelor's in psychology and a master's in counseling. I have a bookshelf of Freud and more current things.
AAJ: Regarding Coltrane, we're talking about Erik Erikson's work on adolescence and identity formation.
LP: I did get feedback from one person who said that the idea of pinning it all on the loss of his father seemed naive and overdone. The reason I felt it might have been his father is that his father was the musical one, and maybe the one who got John interested in music. And secondly, in later years, everyone said the grandfather was the big personality in the house. But John himself doesn't talk about the maternal grandfather as someone he was very close to, but rather as a very strong presence, a dominating character- but, although he doesn't talk much about his father, he always talks about him as being a good musician in rose colored terms. Then there's Cousin Mary's comment that Coltrane used to say, "Gee, I don't even remember what daddy looked like." And I sense a kind of a yearning, a wish there. That's just a gut thing, and I could be reading it into my own life- my folks were divorced when I was three, and I always desperately missed having a dad around the house. And I could be reading into how much of an impact his dad had. But I do think that age is a critical age to lose your father- I mean, you're becoming a teen-ager.
AAJ: All loss is complex in any case. It's compounded of other losses. The truth is we need more information about his relationship to his father.
To change the subject, at one point, early in the book, you compare Coltrane's style to a Southern Baptist preacher. Do you mean that very concretely about Baptist preachers per se, or more generally that Coltrane's style was similar to exhortational or gospel music? For example, Coltrane often runs up the scale with a crescendo, giving a sense as if he's shouting or exhorting the congregation, so to speak, sometimes to a fever pitch.
LP: Coltrane was not Baptist. His own background was Methodist. His cousin Mary, says, "We didn't do all that shouting and whatnot at our church." But his music has a fervor and exhortational style. I think it's a more general influence of the black church. And he could also have gotten that style from blues.
AAJ: Have you ever heard a Baptist preacher?
LP: Only on recordings.
AAJ: What do they sound like?
LP: This is the interesting thing. There an ethnomusicologist named Jeff Titon, who has studied these recordings, and he pointed out that there is a pattern to them. They start in a monotone..."Well the Lord went out...and he said...." And they keep going higher and higher in pitch, and then they get into a very raspy sound, "O, and I say...." way up high. And that's when I started noticing that Coltrane...
AAJ: It really does sound like Coltrane's use of ascending scales!
LP: It's almost exactly that way! Coltrane starts very restrained, around one note [mono-tone], and builds up and up until he's screaming and rasping in the upper register. So, as Jeff Titon pointed out, there is a tradition of that particular style of preaching.
AAJ: Here is a question that I asked Dave Liebman, and I'd like to compare your response with his: At what point would you say that Coltrane really came into his own as a musician, discovered his own musical idiom and style? Would you say that happened prior to his work with Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk, or afterwards, when Trane formed his own group with Tyner, Garrison, and Jones?
LP: I know that Dave likes to talk about different periods of Coltrane's career, and there's a fellow named Andrew White who does that as well. In the preface to the book, I mentioned that I don't like to do that because I find that it's too cut and dried for my taste. Coltrane's style was always changing. I will say that an interesting way to look at that question is through his own comments. For example, he himself said that when he was first with Miles Davis, between 1955 and 1957, his playing was so bad that he wondered why Miles even hired him! That doesn't sound like someone who felt that he had discovered himself yet. By Coltrane's own judgement, during the time he was with Monk in the latter part of 1957, something really started to happen inside him that helped him to develop. So I guess I'd like to look at that from his own point of view, rather than just stick labels on the different time periods. From his own viewpoint, Trane didn't really have it together until he joined Monk in July, 1957. From then, until early 1960, when he was with Monk, and then back with Miles Davis, he came a long way. Once he started his own band in April, 1960, he really was able to do music just the way he wanted to. He knew what he wanted to do at that point, he picked who he wanted to play with, and he had his own repertory.
AAJ: What is your take on Ira Gitler's "sheets of sound" depiction of Coltrane's style?
LP: It was intended to refer to something very specific that Coltrane was doing in 1958, neither before or after. During that year, he was working with double, triple, and quadruple timing, while the bassist is still walking at the same pace. So you end up playing a lot of notes per beat. And at that point it got to be so fast, that Ira Gitler said that it was as if Coltrane were playing "sheets of sound." I like to restrict that term to Trane's work with double timing, etc., in 1958.
AAJ: Going forward in time, are there others besides yourself and Dave Liebman who have explored Coltrane's late pieces such as Meditations in great depth?
LP: There's a real gap there. I can think of people who did a lot of work on Trane, but they're not even interested in the later stuff. For that, I'd have to go to my own book's bibliography. There is a fellow in Germany named Gerhard Putschogl who has done some interesting studies of the late works. Most of the study of the late work has been done in Europe, and, in truth, there's not much.
There's a problem with Trane's later work in that it hasn't been addressed as music. In my book, I step back and say, wait a second, this is music. Musicians look at Giant Steps and so forth and say, OK, you can tell what he's doing. He's got notes, he's playing over the chords, let's transcribe that solo and learn it. But with the later work, people tend to address it as a "mood"- either you love it or you hate it. Those who love it say it's a spiritual mood; those who hate it say it's al ot of noise. And there are a few like Liebman who say wait a second, it's music!
AAJ: You have an extraordinary transcription in the Coltrane biography, among many wonderful ones, of a recording of "Venus," the complete solo on that recording. And I'd like to ask how you managed to write down every note of that solo, which is so rapid, and there are so many subtle notes and phrases which could easily be missed. How did you manage to capture it on paper?
LP: That particular transcription is a collaboration. Andrew White, a saxophonist and transcriber based in Washington, DC, did a transcription of "Venus" some years ago. With his permission, I took his transcription and edited it. However, transcription is one of my specialties. "Giant Steps" is my own transcription, "So What" is my own. A number of authors have thanked me in their books for going over their transcriptions. I teach transcription. I have al ot of tips and techniques for how to do it.
The biggest mistake people make in trying to transcribe something as complex as "Venus" is trying to transcribe too big a chunk at a time. What I do is to let the tape run for less than a second, a fraction of a second, so I'm only transcribing two, three, or four notes at a time.
AAJ: Do you use your saxophone to transcribe?
LP: No I don't. I use the keyboard or strictly by ear.
AAJ: One more question about Coltrane, and then we'll turn to a few questions about Lewis Porter. You have a chapter specifically devoted to various takes on Coltrane as a human being. If you had to summarize your impression of Coltrane based on your extensive research, what sort of man would you say he was?
LP: Having spoken with over two hundred people about Coltrane, what amazed me was that I was waiting for someone to come out with the dirt, and that never happened. Everyone said he was a truly gentle, warm, and humble human being. He must have been an amazing person. And I get the sense that he was on the quiet side, didn't talk much, very deliberate, which you can hear on taped interviews with him- very deliberate in his choice of words, very careful not to be misunderstood, the kind of person who stayed out of arguments.. He had a sense of humor, but on the dry side. Also, underneath that, there was a real kindness and a genuine humility, but there were things churning around, a churning tension, his marriage and divorce, his professional difficulties with people walking out on concerts and saying his playing was too extreme. I have the impression he was someone who was able to maintain a very calm surface, but there were things churning around that he rarely shared with people.
AAJ: Coltrane became increasingly oriented towards spirituality in his life and music. Do you know if he had a spiritual mentor?
LP: He didn't speak of a mentor, but towards the end of his life, he and his second wife, Alice, had an acquaintance with Swami Satchidananda [the very popularly known Swami who was on stage at the original Woodstock event, and is the founder of the Integral Yoga ashram in Yogaville, VA, with branches in New York City and elsewhere.]. Alice stayed associated with Satchidananda after John died. Interestingly, while Alice became a disciple, John never got to that point. He was a seeker and always a bit skeptical, never attached to a particular belief system.
AAJ: Let's turn to your own work. You are what might be called a Renaissance Man. You're a musician, historian, scholar, writer, biographer, and professor all wrapped up in one. Do you simply enjoy what you're doing, or do you have a sense of mission and purpose about it?
LP: By the way, I have a number of interests that don't even show up in my writing. I'm serious about film history, and teach an occasional course on the subject. I'm interested in all aspects of science and in the history of names. But I do have a mission. In 1977, I got my first job teaching jazz history, a course at Tufts University. I'd been listening voraciously to jazz since I was about 14, and I had done some reading about jazz. When I started teaching, I had to take seriously what people were writing about jazz. And what happened to me, is that I found I couldn't find an acceptable text for the courses! I couldn't find one that gave a good listening knowledge of the music or that even got the names and dates right! And I became so incensed that my mission then became to see if I could make some progress in the accuracy of what gets published in jazz. In 1978, I published an essay in a journal called The Black Perspective in Music where I compared the various texts on jazz available at the time, and found so many errors in them, I could barely list them all! Over the years, publishers have asked me to review manuscripts for them. And when people asked me to recommend folks to them, I found myself at a loss, so I decided to start training people, and in September, 1997, I started my own masters program at Rutgers, and so now I head the only program anywhere on jazz history and research. I train people who perform jazz or play an instrument and want to get serious about jazz history, teaching, and writing. So my current mission is to have such an impact.
AAJ: If readers would like to learn more about the masters program, how can they do so?
LP: That information is on the Web in a couple of places, especially at http://nwk-web.rutgers.edu/gradnwk/jazz. My email address is there, and people are welcome to contact me after they look at the material.
AAJ: One final question: Are you working on any books or articles now, and what do you have in mind for the future?
LP: Right now, I'm exhausted! The Coltrane book really knocked me out! I did recently complete another large project for the Baker's Dictionary of Musicians , which is known to be the best one volume biographical dictionary of classical musicians.The last edition was edited by the late Nicolas Slonimsky. They want to expand that to include all kinds of music. It's going to be four or five big volumes of over 1000 pages each, to come out at the end of this year. For that purpose, I put together about 1500 biographies of jazz musicians, and those biographies contain a lot of my geneological research- for example, you'll find familiy histories of Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, etc., that you won't find anywhere else, since it's my original research. You'll find itineraries of where people performed, specific dates that they were with specific bands. That was quite a project, and I'm taking a bit of a break before starting anything new. I'm concentrating on two things right now: one is teaching my graduate courses, and the other is getting out and performing more, and I have some college concerts coming up. My big project this summer will be to record my first CD of my own music.
AAJ: Congratulations! Your own compositions?
LP: Yes, although I'll probably include "Central Park West" by Coltrane. And some of my compositions are arrangements of folk songs, which is something that Coltrane liked as well in connection with his interest in world music. I have a great band: Harvie Swartz on bass, Dan Faulk on sax, Ken Wessel, guitar. Ken has been touring internationally with Ornette Coleman, but he also plays beautiful straight ahead jazz. My work is more modal than straight ahead. The drummer is a fantastic young musician named Marcus Baylor, who is touring with Kenny Garrett and Cassandra Wilson. It's a very fine band, and I'm lucky that these guys are available now and then for me to get them together. We've done a number of college concerts, and I think we're ready to make a recording. Dave Liebman will be a guest soloist on two numberswe've known each other for 20 years but this will be the first time we've played together.
AAJ: We could go on and on, but we're running out of time. I really appreciate your doing the interview, Dr. Porter.
LP: My pleasure.