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Tranography: A Juxtaposition of Apparent Conflicts Between Two Biographies

Victor L. Schermer By

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Criticism is the essence of good scholarship and as an academic I have lived with and thrived within a process that inherently embodies rigorous critique. —Cuthbert Simkins, M.D.
The following material was provided to All About Jazz by Dr. Cuthbert Simpkins, a noted John Coltrane biographer. We would like to thank Dr. Simpkins for his efforts. —Vic Schermer

[Despite several biographies of John Coltrane , confusion understandably exists regarding some aspects of his life and work. Because of the mythological and legendary status of "Trane," reality and fantasy sometimes comingle, and it is difficult to separate historical fact from gaps filled in by authors and their sources. In an effort to "set the record straight," at least from his point of view, the following article was submitted by Cuthbert Simpkins, M.D. He is the author of Coltrane: A Biography (1975). Dr. Simkins contacted All About Jazz requesting an opportunity to respond to Lewis Porter, author of a subsequent biography: John Coltrane: His Life and Music (University of Michigan Press, 1997) regarding differences in significant details of their respective books:]

Since his passing in 1967, there have been at least six biographies of John Coltrane. In 1975 my book, Coltrane: A Biography, was published. Coltrane: A Biography was written near the completion of my undergraduate studies at Amherst College and while a medical student at Harvard Medical School. I completed it soon after I graduated from Harvard in 1974. At the time the book was well - received. The sample reviews below are representative of what was written about this book.

"Dr. Simpkins very often accomplishes something that few other jazz biographers have done: He narratively simulates the emotional effect of the subject’s music." —New York Times

"...a lyrical and superbly evocative biography. His book successfully transmits or parallels the emotional qualities of Coltrane’s music to the point of giving you the urge to play it...Simpkins’ narration reminds me of the style of the African storytellers, the griots, perpetuators of the oral tradition...truly rewarding, enriching reading." —Cleveland Press

"We are always made to see the political and cultural context in which Trane lived. Blues, Religion, black power, Africa....In reading it, one not only learns about Trane, but senses what it was like to hear him, to be alive with him.... At last a fine Coltrane Biography." —Berkeley Barb

"Coltrane? What do I say? One helluva book." —Essence Magazine

The most recently published work John Coltrane: His Life and Music (see Gene Lees review ) was written by Lewis Porter. I am pleased that Mr. Porter was able to obtain a significant amount of information for his book from Coltrane: A Biography as evidenced by his many references and acknowledgements for material in his text. I am also gratified that he was able to use the pages from Coltrane’s workbook that were originally in my book. It is the proper role for antecedent works to serve as foundations for later work. Also Mr. Porter can be gratified in his accomplishment in that he provides much new and valuable information as well as music analysis. However, in his preface Mr. Porter wrote “ To date only two people - JC Thomas and C.O. Simpkins - have done extensive research on Coltrane’s life. Their resulting books were published in 1975. Both are sincere efforts that contain a great deal of information derived from firsthand interviews, and they are essential for the Coltrane devotee. However, neither is totally reliable. They contain uncredited (sic) statements and stories that do not jibe with common sense. In the description of the book from the publisher, The University of Michigan Press, there is the following excerpt, “Compiled from scratch with the assistance of dozens of Coltrane's colleagues, friends, and family, John Coltrane: His Life and Music corrects numerous errors from previous biographies.”

Criticism is the essence of good scholarship and as an academic I have lived with and thrived within a process that inherently embodies rigorous critique. The idea that “numerous errors” have been corrected is either true or false. The overwhelming preponderance of readers of Mr. Porter’s book is not able to determine whether in fact “numerous errors were corrected”. Only those who have done previous research on Coltrane or who personally knew of a particular event would be able to make such a determination. One thing that is absolute is that the public interest is only served by the truth. It is in the interest of the public knowing the truth that I write this commentary.

The format will be that I will first write Mr. Porter’s assertion and then provide my response. When a page number is given it refers to the location of a statement in either Mr. Porter’s book or in my book. I will first address statements found in the text of Mr. Porter’s book and then I will address those found in the footnotes.

Text

Porter - Page 2: On Coltrane’s maternal Grandfather Reverend Blair, Porter writes, “Simpkins states that he had been a state senator, but there is no record of such service”

Simpkins - Page 2: The source of this information was a friend of the family, Mr. Hoover, with whom I spoke in the early seventies. He was elderly at the time and probably is no longer alive. Therefore he more than likely was not available to Mr. Porter. Another individual who is presently working on a biography of Coltrane has told me that he has found written documentation of Reverend Blair’s service in the North Carolina State legislature.

Porter - Page 5: Again on Coltrane’s maternal grandfather Porter wrote in reference to Reverend Blair’s efforts to obtain a high school that would be available to black students ( There was no school for black students and under the rule of segregation white and black students could not attend the same school.) “Simpkins also reports that this movement (meaning Blair’s efforts) resulted in converting the Quaker school that had been used for black instruction into the William Penn High School. Actually, the Quakers who ran the High Point Normal and Industrial Institute for black students initiated the proposal to sell the property to the city in 1923, under the condition that it would continue to serve as a high school for black youth. As the High Point Board of School Commissioners debated the plan, they listened to notable members of the black community who spoke in favor of the idea, and it was finally accepted.

Simpkins - Pages 1 & 2: I don’t really see a direct conflict between Mr. Porter’s information and mine. I think Mr. Porter is suggesting that the move to create a High School for blacks was already under way and Reverend Blair simply supported it. The perfunctory tone of Mr. Porter’s statement suggests that perhaps the Commissioners were predisposed to create a school for blacks. Any one who lived during segregation and the tragic history of white supremacy in our country in the 1920s until recently would intuitively understand that it is more plausible that the Commissioners were not disposed to create educational facilities for blacks. Also it would be consistent with the historical period that initiating such a movement would require some degree of agitation by the black population. We will never know for sure but a sense of the events surrounding this issue, very different from Mr. Porter’s, was related to me by Mr. Hoover who personally knew Reverend Blair and his family.

My version, like much of my book is an almost a direct quotation of a Mr. Hoover of Highpoint, N.C. which was weaved into the text. “Before his (Reverend Blair’s) arrival there were no public schools for black children. Instead there was a Quaker boarding school, to which the city paid a yearly sum, for the children’s instruction. However by the 1920’s, the community had outgrown the school’s facilities and the Quaker administration was giving more attention to the tuition paying out - of - town students. Reverend Blair organized several Black men to go before the mayor, city council, and school board and demanded that the city construct and maintain schools for Blacks. This demand was so forceful ( and Rev. Blair may still have had some influence from his senatorial days) that the city built a new brick structure, the Leonard St. Elementary school, and took control of the Quaker School, converting it to the William Penn High School.” Mr. Hoover described Reverend Blair as “a Malcolm X of the 1920’s”. I think that those who lived during the time of significant events bear essential witness to the sense of that time and those occurrences.

Porter - Page 39: “Thomas and Simpkins write that he played only clarinet, but a photo of the band clearly shows Coltrane playing an alto saxophone, with a clarinet standing beside him ( Simpkins, following p.150).

Simpkins - Page 21: This was an astute pick up by Mr. Porter but he seems to be making an issue when there is none. It is not uncommon for horn players to play a variety of wind instruments. His primary instrument in the Navy was the clarinet. I never stated that Coltrane played only clarinet. I wrote, “There he spent a year playing clarinet in a band called the Melody Makers.”

Porter - Page 32 & 306: On the formation of the boy’s chorus and Coltrane’s participation in it. “Simpkins tells a rather strange story about how the boy’s chorus was formed, but he does not indicate that Coltrane performed in that chorus.

Simpkins: I really don’t know why Mr. Porter thinks this story is “strange”. At any rate it was given to me by Mr. Burford himself, the principal of Coltrane’s high school. The story goes that, En route to a game the coach was annoyed by the bad language the boys were using. In desperation he shouted, Can’t you boys do something else? So they began to sing. Next thing, many of them wanted to join the school chorus, but the music teacher only wanted students whom she felt could sing. This somehow left the football players out. They felt discriminated against and protested to Mr. Burford, the principal, stating that they too enjoyed music and should be given a chance to express it. Mr. Burford solved the problem by forming and teaching a boy’s chorus himself. I included the story because Mr. Burford told me that Coltrane participated in the protest. He did not tell me whether or not Coltrane sang in the chorus therefore I did not comment on whether he sang in the chorus.

Porter - Pages 275 & 335: Porter states that his sources do not confirm my story that Coltrane lost his temper with the manager of the Front Room in Newark when he asked him to play less unconventional music.

Simpkins - Pages 211 & 212: There is no way that anyone other than my witness Rashied Ali, could have seen this outburst since it occurred in the manager’s office. The story in my book clearly states that the incident occurred in the office and not where anyone else that Mr. Porter apparently interviewed could have seen it.

Porter - Page 291: stated that I was incorrect in writing that Coltrane could have been suffering the pain of liver cancer in pictures showing him holding his side near the time of his death “.... the photographs are not convincing - he just seems to be resting his hand on his potbelly. In any case, it is unlikely you’d feel pain in your liver.” The source of Mr. Porter’s information was a pharmacologist at The City University of New York.

Simpkins - Page 241: I don’t think a pharmacologist sees patients. In my own practice as a surgeon I have seen patients who have had pain from primary liver cancer. It is well documented that primary liver cancer causes pain. This information can be found in any medical or surgical textbook. It is also available online. In the time frame between Rashied Ali’s photos showing Coltrane repeatedly holding his abdomen and his death it is highly probable that he was suffering the pain of primary liver cancer caused by stretching the capsule around the liver called Glisson’s capsule and not “just holding his potbelly” as Porter surmises.

Footnotes

Porter - Page 301: On the preferred spelling of the name of Coltrane’s aunt. Mr. Porter states that the spelling preferred by the family was Bettie not Betty. This is likely to be true.

Porter - Page 302: on where Coltrane’s parents met. “Contrary to Simpkins, 2, they did not meet at Livingstone, and there is no record that Coltrane ever attended that institution.”

Simpkins - Page 2: “ Reverend Blair sent his daughter , Alice, to Livingston (sic) College where she studied music and teaching....At Livingston, she met John R. Coltrane,....” I never wrote that the senior Coltrane attended Livingstone. Actually my source told me that the Coltrane took tailoring courses at Livingstone. Although it is possible that he studied a trade there I could not verify his attendance just as Mr. Porter could not. Therefore my statement was a compromise between what I was told and my inability to reconcile the study of tailoring with an academic institution. Nonetheless, it is plausible that Mr. Coltrane studied a trade at Livingstone because of the prominence of the ideas of Booker T. Washington and the example of the Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University) which he founded. The idea was that since blacks could not get employment in academic areas then the schools which they were allowed to attend should teach trades. Not having found documentation which might or might not exist does not mean that Mr. Coltrane did not attend Livingstone. This area as many others needs further research.

Porter - Page 302: “Simpkins incorrectly writes Hamlet and Bridges Avenue”,(as Coltrane’s birthplace). Porter states that the address of Coltrane’s birthplace was 200 Hamlet Avenue.

Simpkins - Page 3: There is no conflict here except that asserted by Mr. Porter. Porter’s problem with the address probably occurred because the original structure was torn down and reconstructed by the time that he did the work on his book. However I saw the original building and took the photo of it which is in my book. The building was a corner building.

Porter - Page 304: Simpkins incorrectly states that they (Coltrane’s family) did not take boarders.

Simpkins: The source of this information was one of Coltrane’s boyhood friends James or Franklin. They could have been incorrect since they did not live in the home. It is possible that Mr. Porter’s source lived in the home and therefore was more reliable but I don’t know who his source was.

Porter - Page 16: on the death of Coltrane’s father - From page 16 - The family was very private about the death of the senior Coltrane. He went into the hospital “for and undisclosed illness” and died a few days later, wrote Thomas. Mary remembers that he was very sick, “but that’s the one time I wasn’t really that noisy” and the adults “ never told us anything about any of them.”

Simpkins: I don’t know exactly what is being referred to here since I never wrote anything that contradicted the information in Porter’s book. My account had different and complimentary rather than conflicting information. My source was a witness to the funeral, whom Mr. Porter apparently did not interview. It was 1939. The Minister stood in the grass .... trying to soothe the broken faces in the somber crowd....all that showed (on Coltrane’s mother’s face) was a few, slowly dropping tears. Still twelve, little John patted her on the shoulder, don’t worry mom I’ll take care of you.” Death had taken his father at the age of thirty - eight.” I never stated that the family was not very private about the passing of Coltrane’s father.

Porter - Page 304: Porter writes - ‘Simpkins states that Coltrane worked during his last semester, and that it was in the drugstore of Drs. ( more likely they were pharmacists) Lemon and Greenwood.

Simpkins: Apparently Mr. Porter is not knowledgeable about the African American practice of referring to pharmacists and other professionals as doctor. I don’t know why they were referred to as doctor but it is not incongruous to anyone who knows the formality of the culture as opposed to the portrayal of the African American in popular media.

Porter - Page 304: on the graduation date of Coltrane and his friends James and Franklin - “Simpkins states that Coltrane says May 31, a Monday, but the 1942 school paper indicates that graduations occurred on Fridays.

Simpkins: My source was one of his boyhood friends whom I interviewed. Their memories may not have been accurate or perhaps a change was made the following year since Coltrane graduated in 1943, one year after Porter’s reference.

Porter - Page 305: Porter states that the high school band in which Coltrane played was started in 1940 - 41 not as I stated in his junior year 1941 - 1942.

Simpkins: Since these dates overlap both might be correct.

Porter - 307: Simpkins maintains that he (Coltrane) took a job in the signal corps at the Naval Yard to avoid the draft, but I have found no evidence of this.

Simpkins - Page 21: “To avoid the draft John took a job at the Naval Yard with the signal corps.” Mr. Brower, A childhood friend of Coltrane’s was my source for this information. It is very possible that Coltrane’s employment there was brief and Porter’s witness who never saw Coltrane there did not encounter him. The Naval Yard I assume was a sizable place where one could easily not run into someone else.

Porter - Page 309: On Coltrane’s musical education - “The accounts given in Thomas and Simpkins are mistaken. For instance, Simpkins says he received two scholarships, one for clarinet and saxophone , one for composition and claims that he “graduated” and that he took “post - graduate” courses over a period of eight years. Granoff confirmed to me that his school. like most schools of this type was not a degree - granting institution, and as such it did not offer scholarships or postgraduate courses.

Simpkins: Mr. Granoff clearly told me that after “graduation” Coltrane took “post - graduate” courses over a period of “eight years” after which the instructors at Granoff “felt that there was no more that they could teach him”. I don’t know what kind of distinction Porter is getting at here. I think he means that Coltrane did not get a Bachelor of Arts degree which would have required the study of courses in addition to music. This would have been followed by a masters and then a PhD degree requiring the completion of a masters and PhD thesis, respectively. I think Mr. Granoff was telling me that Coltrane completed the full standard set of courses at Granoff studios and then after completion of these courses took additional courses for eight years until he had exhausted all of the schools resources. This distinction does not negate my original statement since one can certainly graduate from a course of study other than a bachelor’s program and then go on to do studies post this graduation. I never said that Coltrane had a bachelor’s, masters or PhD degree. So here I think that a false appearance of a difference between the two books was projected. As for scholarships Mr. Granoff told me that scholarships were given to Coltrane so I think we need to see what he meant when he said this since Mr. Porter clams that no scholarships were given to Coltrane or any other student. Perhaps the scholarship came in the form of reduced charges.

Porter - Page 310: On when Calvin Massey met John Coltrane - Porter states that Massey was inconsistent in telling me that he first saw Coltrane when he played a rehearsal of Joe Webb’s band before an audience and then told an interviewer in 1970 that the band was playing in the wee hours of the morning. He also states that Massey put “street language into Coltrane’s mouth”.

Simpkins: Again I really don’t see the inconsistency. I have been to recording sessions and rehearsals that were early in the day or late at night. I wrote that it was a bright summer day. According to the US Naval Observatory data (http://mach.usno.navy.mil/cgi - bin/aa_pap.pl) sunrise on August 20 1946 was at 5:17 AM so it was quite possible for the rehearsal to have taken place early in the morning and for it to have been sunny. In the conversations that I related from Mr. Massey’s recollection all of the so - called street language was spoken by Massey not Coltrane. Mr. Massey had a sincere heartfelt, love, loyalty and admiration for Coltrane. I take great issue with Mr. Porter saying that Mr. Massey was unreliable since he never met him and could not have possibly determined this. I found Mr. Massey to be a man of conviction who took great pains with me to explain and provide insight into Coltrane’s character and priorities.

Porter - Page 310: Porter wrote that I misstated Big Maybelle’s age and he is correct. Born in 1924 she was probably 22 - 23 years old and not 17 as I stated.

Porter - Page 316: Porter stated that I mistakenly wrote that Coltrane’s first wife, Naima, was younger than Coltrane. This is what she told me. Mr. Porter states that he has their marriage license which states that she was in fact nine months older.

Simpkins: I think this discrepancy needs to be resolved. Even certificates can be mistaken since my own birth certificate states that I was born in 1847.

Porter - Page 318: On who convinced Coltrane to stop using drugs. Porter states that Reggie workman did not confirm the story that he told me of his speaking to Coltrane about his drug use which was followed by his quitting.

Simpkins: I wrote what Mr. Workman told me in unequivocal terms. I don’t know why Mr. Workman did not confirm the story. There could be many reasons for this which are consistent with the story’s validity. It is obvious that it was ultimately Coltrane’s decision to stop using drugs and what I wrote I think makes that clear contrary to Porter’s implying that I did not.

Porter - Page 326: About the man in the loin cloth at Coltrane’s performance at the Jazz Gallery. Mr. Porter says there was no man in a loin cloth since two of the members of the band and the club owner did not see this.

Simpkins: My witness was a member of the audience. It is quite easy for different people who were in attendance to have seen different things depending on where they sat and what they were doing. Possibly the band members were focused on making the music and the owner was focused on the many issues that the owner of an establishment has to focus on. Having hung out in Greenwich Village a lot myself it was not surprising to see people dressed in loin cloths, as Vikings, people with painted bodies or any other thing that entered their imagination. Around this time I wore a djellaba, carried a staff and walked the streets playing “Moments Notice” on the recorder.

Porter - Page 329: Porter writes that I erred in stating that Ravi Shankar and Coltrane met at the Jazz Gallery in 1960. Mr. Porter bases this on when Shankar toured the United States and information about a meeting they had planed in 1961.

Simpkins: My source on the meeting between Coltrane and Shankar was MyCoy Tyner who also met with Shankar at the Jazz Gallery. I don’t think that Porter considered the possibility that Shankar might have come to the United States without his band prior to his tour.

Porter - Page 329: On the title of a book that could have inspired some of Coltrane’s work. Porter doubts that I have the right title. He found a 1969 edition entitled “The Books of American Negro Spirituals”.

Simpkins: The book I used was the original book that Coltrane’s owned. Naima Coltrane graciously and trustingly lent it to me and I got the title from this book. I long ago returned the book to her and therefore can’t check to see whether I properly recorded the title or mistakenly used a subtitle. Porter’s source was published in1969 after Coltrane had passed and was probably a combination of the two books of spirituals that James Weldon Johnson and James Rosamond Johnson had written.

Porter - Page 335: Porter states that Coltrane, Olatunji, and Yusef Lateef had reserved Lincoln Center for January 14, 1968. I wrote that the date was in March 1968. His evidence is a typescript of Mr. Olatunji’s.

Simpkins - Page 240: Mr. Olatunji gave me the date that I used. He told me that they wanted to do the concert in January but it was booked up to March. His memory could have been faulty either when he spoke with me or when he did the typescript. This can only be resolved by showing Mr. Olatunji the typescript and asking him directly or finding the concert reservation book for the Lincoln Center for 1968.

Porter - Page 376: Porter states that the Front Room gig lasted only one night.

Simpkins - Page 376: Rashied Ali who was on the gig told me that it lasted 3 nights.

Summary

I have tried to resolve the differences between the details of my account of Coltrane’s life and that of Mr. Porter’s. There are some issues which need further work to resolve. It appears that Mr. Porter’s claims that he corrected "numerous errors" are not supportable by the evidence. Particularly egregious is his misinformation about liver cancer. I would have been delighted to have been given the opportunity to assist him and help him in any way possible. But he chose to make his claims of errors without checking with those who came before him. Therefore, within the pages of John Coltrane: His Life and Music new errors have been created and resolvable issues have been left unresolved. At this point I hope that those who write about Coltrane can be gracious and open like him, and work together to compare notes and sources and bring us closer to the truth about some important details of Coltrane’s life.


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