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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."

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