Joe Vella: Podcasting Trane


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It worked because it was John Coltrane and he's an amazing artist who affects people in all sorts of ways.
Joe VellaJoe Vella has been merging jazz and technology for decades, starting with early Internet bulletin boards, founding JazzOnline.com, and then moving into the world of podcasting. As a podcaster, he's produced series on everyone from The Beach Boys, for the fortieth anniversary of Pet Sounds (Capitol, 1966) to Pat Metheny. Now he's turned his attention to one of the towering musical figures of all time—saxophonist John Coltrane. Vella's Traneumentary is a multi-episode exploration of Coltrane's music and influence. It features a who's who of jazz luminaries, from musicians such as McCoy Tyner, Billy Taylor and Jimmy Cobb to writers and producers such as Joel Dorn and Ashley Kahn.

Joe Vella: I got a call from Concord Records—who I worked a lot with in terms of marketing a lot of the Van Gelder reissues and Prestige and Riverside and so forth—to do a podcast to go along with their [John Coltrane] boxed set called Fearless Leader (Prestige, 2006). They wanted an episode, and I decided that you can't just do one podcast on one particular point in John Coltrane's career. As great as the Prestige stuff is, there's no way. I said, "Hold on a minute, let me make a couple of calls. I have an idea."

So I called Jon Vanhala at Verve and Jeff Zakim at Blue Note, and I called a colleague who knew somebody at Rhino/Atlantic. About forty minutes later everybody had agreed to participate in creating a John Coltrane podcast series. It wasn't even that hard a sell. I said, "You know what I did with Pet Sounds. Why don't we do the same thing? Except we'll have a whole bunch of people talk about John Coltrane and we'll celebrate him and his music, and we'll use all of your music in it. It'll be a cool thing that people can send to their friends and talk about. We'll create a blog. Nobody has ever done this before, and you [record label] guys own most of his catalog, and we haven't collectively worked together on any project I can ever remember. Ken Burns' Jazz is probably the most recent thing that a few labels worked on together, but that doesn't really count. This is an innovative, pioneering thing. We'll get all four record labels in the same room and work it out."

So we got all the stuff together, and everybody left me alone. They let me lay it out. Verve let me use a conference room, and everybody sent me whatever albums I needed. I had a lot of the Coltrane things, but I needed some other things. I had a stack of stuff that I'd bring and give to the people who participated. And that was the beginning of it. I didn't even have a clear idea of what questions I would ask.

My whole concept after thinking about it was that if we create something that is big—that is different, but comes from the concept of John Coltrane as a very important artist—I think there's a huge group of people who would probably really love what he's about. We need to create this vehicle to bring people into the music almost casually. We needed to create something that would be so enticing that it would create that emotional connection. The way that most people had going into Tower Records when you'd hear what was playing on the PA and you'd say, "Wow, this is cool." It was like an experience. Music is an emotional buy.

I thought about how I could create that effect through the podcast, knowing that podcasts are still somewhat green. But it would be a way to celebrate the artist. People could sit back and listen to these pieces, knowing that the end result would be to remind them to listen to Coltrane records or to go buy a Coltrane record.

I made a list of people and talked to other colleagues. We all traded black books and numbers. I called people and said, "I just want to interview you about John Coltrane. Period. I don't have any specific questions for you. I just want to ask you about your experience of John Coltrane." Obviously, most of the people were big fans. I also purposefully picked out some people like biographer Lewis Porter and author Ashley Kahn and educators who I felt would be my educational and historical sources. So I'd have a backbone that was true to John Coltrane—not that it was supposed to be a historical document or anything. Mainly it's just great music and people should hear it. And they should hear other people talk about why it's so great so they can experience it for themselves.

I ended up creating a small cluster of [Coltrane] alumni who I had access to: [pianist] Steve Kuhn and [saxophonist] Sonny Rollins and [drummer] Jimmy Cobb and [pianist] McCoy [Tyner]. The whole process started with McCoy. Then I picked a selection of artists who loved Coltrane and who I had access to. That's how I got [Saturday Night Live saxophonist] Lenny Pickett, [pianists] Geri Allen, Jason Moran and Robert Glasper and [saxophonist] Joe Lovano and so forth. The hardest part of all of it was scheduling the interviews.

The process of the interviews was pretty simple. I had about five questions that I'd ask everybody. Then I'd create four questions to the person's specialty. With Jason Moran I knew I wanted to do something about [pianist Thelonious] Monk, because I knew he loved Coltrane and he was also influenced by Monk. For Joe Lovano I focused on the saxophone, knowing that he was a virtuoso player and his dad was a virtuoso player. His dad had told him about Coltrane. And so forth. And with the alumni, I would talk about John Coltrane the person because they had first-hand experience dealing with him and it would be a compelling part of the story to hear from people who knew him as a person and who'd played with him as a musician. And who had shared in the historical twelve years that he was recording on his own.

So that's how I started—figuring out the questions and groupings and direction. Yet it was still improvisational, because I didn't just want to read a list of questions. My whole approach is that I do prepare, but I also leave a whole lot of space for the happy accidents. The best stuff happens when you think you're done. That's when the person really opens up. When they think the spotlight's off of them. I learned that with earlier podcast work. So going into the Traneumentary was not a rookie thing for me. I had already interviewed hundreds of people and produced lots and lots of podcasts.

I started by going to see McCoy Tyner at the Blue Note in August of last year [2006]. I just hung out with him in the middle of two sets. I watched a set with him and Pharaoh Sanders, then I went backstage and said, "I'd like to interview you for this Coltrane project I'm doing." He didn't know what a podcast was, but he understood it was like radio pieces.

So I played him the preview episode in a very rough format. He just listened to it. It was kind of weird. He just stopped—I had never met him before, so it was kind of weird. He listened to it with headphones and he bowed his head. In that preview is three minutes of John Coltrane talking about where he was in 1960. Where he was harmonically and trying to find a beautiful tone. McCoy listened. Then he took off the headphones and he thanked me for playing it. I could tell he was touched by it. He said, "It's so nice to hear John's voice again." And he handed me back the headset. I said, "Could we talk about John Coltrane?" And he said, "I really can't talk about it in this short a period of time. Why don't we get together and just sit down and talk?"

Joe Vella (l) with McCoy Tyner (r)

So he agreed to record a greeting, which is available on iTunes. He cut that right after we had listened to that piece. I told him I'd come back later when he had time. So he laid down the greeting. I didn't do much with it. The windows were open and you can hear that it was noisy in the Village. I thought it sounded cool so I left it there. He was the last person I interviewed. I saved McCoy for the end. He just talked and talked. It was fun talking about the experience of interviewing twenty-five people about John Coltrane.

I had maybe ten or twenty questions based on the interviews I'd already conducted. It was really cool to hear his take on it. He really knew John Coltrane as a young man, so it was great to do my fact checking with McCoy Tyner. He listened to a lot of the episodes, including the commentaries, and he was really blown away by the whole thing. I showed him iTunes and the iPod. He was very beautiful about the whole thing. We must have sat there for two hours.

It's a unique program. It's really not NPR and it's really not radio and it's really not "Hey, go buy John Coltrane." It really is a sincere sampling of proficient professionals. The whole thread underneath it all is an infinite denominator of love and respect and awe. Everybody has a different story or a different take about John Coltrane's music and which period is their favorite.

And there are two groups of people—the people who saw Coltrane and the people who didn't see him, who learned through LPs like myself. For the group that actually saw Coltrane live, they were able to elaborate well about the experience of seeing him and being blown away. Not really knowing what the hell you were watching. Watching four guys on stage—particularly with the quartet with Jimmy [Garrison] and Elvin [Jones] and McCoy—doing things that they never thought could be done with instruments in a way that they had never imagined. Just being in a spell. [Producer] Michael Cuscuna really defined this in his Impulse! episode. He did a great narrative on seeing Coltrane live.

Steve Kuhn, who had experiences with Coltrane at his home and at his music room—he came and played with Coltrane prior to McCoy joining the band. He has a very sweet take on Coltrane from a personal and musical experience. Jimmy Cobb's stuff with Miles is phenomenal. He's a great man and a wonderful drummer and a funny and generous man. He was so open-minded.

I had first thought that the Traneumentary would be episodes with music underneath the interviews. I was fooling around with my computer before Jimmy came. Before I met him I got to the Verve offices early and was setting up the microphones and I had an old bootleg of Stockholm 1963 with Miles. And I thought, "Wouldn't it be great to ask Jimmy about this?" It's not really covered in the four labels' catalogs, but Trane was really on to something there and really pushing the limits. I thought it would be cool for Jimmy to tell us what it was like. I didn't want to talk a lot about Miles and Kind Of Blue (Columbia, 1959) because it's just been talked to death.

Joe Vella

So after I'd finished the interview with Jimmy, I said, "Jimmy, will you try an experiment? I've got this old thing you did with Trane in the '60s, and I want to try to do a commentary track like on a movie [on DVD], where the director talks and they tell you all the secrets about how they did it and the behind-the-scenes stuff." I had a headphone splitter, and I set it up. He was listening. He didn't talk at first. Then he said, "Run it back, I remember that." And boom, he did this commentary track and it was really fascinating. The three or four minutes that we captured were very compelling. It was a very different interview.

After that, I prepared a commentary part of each interview and a traditional interview. So I have two sets of interviews with almost everyone. My style of doing podcasts, which I really like, is like the person is in your office or living room. I've always liked that sort of intimacy. I always liked that about interviews when you're not watching them. I conducted all the interviews except the one with Sonny Rollins, which my friend Bret Primack did. He works with Sonny on Sonny's video podcast series.

It worked out really nicely. Everybody came to the table with open arms and open ears. They loved it. They loved doing the interviews, they loved hearing the music, they loved doing the commentaries. And they were very interested in the end product. It worked because it was John Coltrane and he's an amazing artist who affects people in all sorts of ways. What you learn from it is that John Coltrane is not just a jazz artist—he's just a great artist, and that's why people like to talk about him. That's why he makes such a great impression on people, because the work is sincere and comes from genuine innovation and spirituality, and that's why he is so special.

Listen to the Tranumentary for free via iTunes.

Photo Credit
Top Photo: Deann Lewis
Other Photos: Courtesy of Joe Vella

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