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Interview with Dr. Lewis Porter

By Published: February 24, 2004
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.

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