INTERVIEW: Documentarian John Scheinfeld chases the real John Coltrane

John Coltrane is the subject of Chasing Trane, a new documentary from director John Scheinfeld. Photo courtesy of Chuck Stewart.

John Scheinfeld is a documentary filmmaker who likes to provide vivid, vibrant portraits of musical artists, including John Lennon and Harry Nilsson, among others. His latest project is Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary, which is currently playing New York City’s IFC Center.

In the film, Scheinfeld talks with numerous people, including family and friends, who knew Coltrane best. What results is not a typical jazz film or instructional video on music theory; instead, Chasing Trane proves to be an intimate portrait of a man and his musical risk-taking as a dominant saxophonist.

“Like many people, I was introduced to John Coltrane by hearing his recording of My Favorite Things,” Scheinfeld said in a recent phone interview. “I will confess to you, I was not that obsessed fan, so when one of our producers came to me and said, ‘How would you like to do a documentary about John Coltrane?’ I was like, ‘Oh, I know who he is, but let me do a little bit of research.’ And the more I read about his life and his journey, both professional and personal, the more I thought that this was really a special story that needed to be told.”

The director wanted to elevate the narrative beyond the cliche of an artist who comes from nowhere and then makes it big because of his great talent. Scheinfeld didn’t follow that model, mostly because Coltrane’s own life is not of the cookie-cutter variety. “We all know that story,” he said. “We’ve seen that one. John Coltrane was the antithesis of that. … It’s a very inspiring story, and that’s what I was interested in making.”

The film pulls together so many important interview subjects to tell Coltrane’s story and highlight the famed musician’s influence. There’s Sonny Rollins, McCoy Tyner, Reggie Workman, Common, Carlos Santana and even former President Bill Clinton.

“Whenever I decide who I’m going to interview for one of my films, I very much approach that as if this were a scripted feature, and I want different and unique voices, perspectives so that no one person sounds like anyone else or has the same things to say as anyone else,” Scheinfeld said. “We put together a whole list that really was broken down into several categories. The first one was people that knew Coltrane.”

That list include some of the singer’s jazz contemporaries, including Rollins. Another category included interviewees who could speak to Coltrane the family man, so Scheinfeld talked to three children from Coltrane’s second marriage and a stepdaughter from his first marriage.

“Her name is Antonia Andrews, and she had never ever given an interview before,” the filmmaker said of the musician’s stepdaughter. “She’s absolutely wonderful in the film and gives us a window into John Coltrane the father but also John Coltrane in the ’50 and early ‘60s.”

The next category included artists who are noteworthy in their own right and also influenced by Coltrane. This list had Santana and saxophonist Kamasi Washington, among others.

“The fourth category, I always like to have some unexpected choices to interview,” he said. “Why the heck are they in this movie? And one of those was Dr. Cornel West, who I had seen as a pundit on television in such a unique voice in terms of how he sees the world and how he expresses himself. … It turns out when I sat down to actually do the interview, he was also an obsessed Coltrane fan. He knew recording dates. He knew sidemen. He knew events in Coltrane’s life, so he could directly connect the black experience in America to Coltrane’s personal and professional journey. And we’ve become quite friendly since then, and, in fact, Chasing Trane is having a theatrical premiere in New York this weekend. And he’s going to be joining me for a Q&A.”

Clinton and his staff were apparently interested in being interviewed from the start, but it took Scheinfeld 10 months to find an opening in the former president’s schedule. The director was surprised to find that Clinton, who loves playing saxophone, was a passionate fan of Coltrane and could speak to the musician’s brilliance.

“I set out to make a portrait of an artist,” he said. “I was much more focused on bringing Coltrane alive as a … human being and charting his journey personally, professionally, spiritually, and that’s what we’ve done in this film. It’s really a portrait of an artist, so I suspect Coltrane fans will come. And I hope they will, but it was really meant to say, here’s an extraordinary artist. You should know about him. This is not a music history lesson. This is not a music theory class where we’re talking about technically what was he doing on his instrument. I was just really looking at all the critical events in the life of an artist that helped shape him as an individual.”

Throughout the film, Scheinfeld uses 48 recordings from Coltrane’s catalog to display the saxophonist’s broad array of musical sound. “I don’t want to be too grandiose here, but, in some ways, his career was like the Beatles in that each album was a step forward,” he said. “Each album was different from the record that came before it, and Coltrane was very much that way. And so throughout the course of the film, the audience will hear compositions and recordings from various periods in his musical career, and I think even those who know the music will start to hear it in a new and exciting way.”

One challenge that the director faced was having Coltrane’s own voice featured in the film. The musician didn’t conduct television interviews, and the quality on his few radio interviews are not good enough for reproduction in the film. Scheinfeld turned to the newspaper interviews that the saxophonist gave, and then he had Academy Award-winning actor Denzel Washington provide a voiceover.

“I did want Coltrane to have a very vibrant and vital presence in the film beyond just performance clips, so fortunately he had done a number of press interviews back in newspapers during the height of his career,” Scheinfeld said. “I cut extracts from those interviews, and I peppered them throughout the film to illuminate what Coltrane might have been thinking or feeling … Because I thought that by hearing the words of Coltrane and how he was processing what was going on in his life and what he was doing, that that would help us get to know him as a person.”

To capture the voiceover from Washington, Scheinfeld flew to Pittsburgh, where the actor was directing his big-screen adaptation of August Wilson’s Fences. They recorded the Coltrane segments on off days from the Fences production.

The Washington voiceover joins the many other interviews to achieve what Scheinfeld originally planned with the documentary: a portrait of an artist.

“When you’re making a film, you sit in a small, dark editing room for months on end, hoping you’re doing good work, but you never quite know until you screen it for a room full of strangers,” he said. “We were really fortunate to have been selected for two of the most prestigious film festivals in the business, Telluride and the Toronto International Film Festival, and I’m still warmed by the response we got from the audiences and from the critics that saw it, which certainly validates our portrait-of-an-artist approach in a very strong way. What I take away from Coltrane is what I’ve often taken away from other artists … I so admire artists who stay true to their musical vision, whatever it might be, that go where the muse takes them without regard for commercial prospects or fans or critics or anything like that, and, to me, that’s to be admired in an artist. And I think that’s a great lesson for any of us who do creative work certainly, is to be true to your heart and be true to your spirit, and I think that’s a lesson that applies to almost any field or almost any job. And I think that’s something I learned about him.”

By John Soltes / Publisher/ John@HollywoodSoapbox.com

Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary is currently playing New York City’s IFC Center. Director John Scheinfeld will take part in a series of Q&As Friday, April 14 to Sunday, April 16. Click here for more information and tickets.

John Soltes

John Soltes is an award-winning journalist. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Earth Island Journal, The Hollywood Reporter, New Jersey Monthly and at Time.com, among other publications. E-mail him at john@hollywoodsoapbox.com

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