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Lewis Porter on John Coltrane

Victor L. Schermer By

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Coltrane... must have had an impact on 90% of all jazz musicians, as well as, say 10% of rock musicians and 15% of classical musicians...in terms of impact, I don't think you could question that Coltrane was one of the greats.
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 research 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?
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