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Interview with Dr. Lewis Porter

By Published: February 24, 2004
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?

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