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Interview with Dr. Lewis Porter

By Published: February 24, 2004
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?

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