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Interview with Dr. Lewis Porter

By Published: February 24, 2004
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?

AAJ: Yes.

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.

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