Perfect Sound Forever

Searching for John Coltrane

book cover

Lewis Porter interview by Fabio Rojas (October 1998)

Lewis Porter is the author of JOHN COLTRANE, HIS LIFE AND MUSIC (the University of Michigan Press, 1998). This past August he was kind enough to talk to me about his book, John Coltrane's music and writing about jazz. Porter, aside from being the author of six books on jazz, is a performer and Associate Professor of Music at Rutgers University, Newark.

PSF: How did you get into studying John Coltrane? Why did write you a book specifically about him?

LP: That's the funniest thing. I wish I could explain that. Life is funny. Sometimes you can get excited about something and you can't remember why. My first book was about Lester Young and all I can say is that I remember that I was incredibly excited by Lester Young's music. I said to my mentor T.J. Anderson "Gee, I would like to do a book on Lester Young. I am so excited about it". I didn't think I'd ever published anything. He said, "Well, while on your way to the Ph.D. you can do it as your Master's thesis." He was very practical. He did give me good advice. It was only two years after that I said I really want to do a book on John Coltrane. Life is mysterious. I can tell you this. When I applied to Ph.D. programs in the fall of '78 and spring of '79, I told each school that I applied to that I wanted to do my Ph.D. dissertation on Coltrane because I eventually wanted to do a book on him. I have to say they were a little surprised because usually people say "I'd like to get your advice on what I want do for my dissertation". I knew already that is what I wanted do. I made it a point that I wouldn't go anywhere unless they would let me do that.

It was the record "A Love Supreme" that I think particularly stimulated me to write a book. But that's not a surprise because it is Coltrane's most famous record.

PSF: Let's move on to some specific things on John Coltrane. The emphasis in your work has been on the compositional aspects of John Coltrane's improvisations. In your book, when you analyze the improvisation from "Equinox," you break it down chorus by chorus, you show that actually Coltrane's approach to improvisation was to create a very large scale composition. One question I had when reading this is: how does this approach operate in the more abstract works like "Meditations" or things like "Live in Seattle" and his more difficult works? LP: To answer your question, I also have in the book a long analysis of "Venus" and I hope that I show in analyzing "Venus," if anything, "Venus" is even more structural than "Equinox" - uh, let's not say more - let's say it's equally structural as "Equinox." The surprising thing about his music is that he's so interested in structure and in building something and developing ideas and not just jamming and spilling out a lot of notes that even when he is playing so-called "free music" later on, he still has that real structural sense of still developing and building ideas. My feeling is that comes through in all his music but it took him a while to get there. You don't find it so much before 1959-1960. But from that point on, it is very clear.

PSF: Even in something like "Meditations" or "Ascension" where he's screeching a lot more than playing notes?

LP: Very much so. Listen to his solo on "Ascension". What do you hear? He starts the solo like this, edition II - the edition most people have - [LP sings a musical phrase] and then he builds on that for a while. So even though he goes into screeching and it's a wild solo, you can build ideas with a screech too. See what I mean? So what I hear him doing is using different kinds of ideas including screeching and honking and stuff but he's still building on that.

PSF: I'll have to listen to that more closely tonight. I have a question about "Venus": you show how Coltrane's playing was an attempt to play more than one line at a time. You describe how there is a bass line. Can you discuss how Coltrane arrived at this concept and what are other examples of this playing two distinct, coherent lines at the same time in his very late records?

LP: That's a very interesting point. As you'll see in the book, he got interested not in playing two lines at once but let's just say playing two notes at once. Playing a little chord or harmony. It's as early as 1957. I've got the whole history in the book - who he learned it from and how - that was really the beginning of it. Once he realized that you could play two notes at once, he started with that. So for example, he wrote the tune "Harmonique" where he plays two notes at once right in the theme of the song itself. [LP hums the theme of "Harmonique"] He plays two notes there.

On the first record under his own name which is called "Coltrane," at the end of "While My Lady Sleeps", he goes [LP sings phrase which ends on a multiphonic]. He plays a little bit of two notes at once. So he started with that. What he did was practice that like a maniac which is how he always practiced everything until he was able to do that anywhere. He could pretty much take any note on the saxophone, except for the very high notes, because it's harder there, and play two notes at once. If he was very careful, three notes at once. And then I think what he started working on was moving it. So for example, if you had these two notes [LP plays on an electric keyboard] just a fifth and then found you were able go from there to here which is a third, then you could start moving it. So let me play those in a row and see if I get [LP plays more] and before you know it, he's getting two lines at once instead of just two notes at once. And that is so hard, it's really impossible to do it in a smooth way but what I suggested was that on his last recordings, he got closer to that than anybody that I ever heard.

PSF: What are the different relationships that Coltrane had to various groups he played in? Were there some sidemen that really stimulated him in various directions that others couldn't? For example, how is Eric Dolphy's influence on Coltrane different than a person like McCoy Tyner or Rashied Ali?

LP: In his own bands?

PSF: Either way. His earlier bands before the classic quartet or anything after that. In your book, you concentrate on the compositional aspects of his improvisation - I just want to concentrate on group playing and the group interaction in his music.

LP: That's interesting. There is one thing that I make clear in his book. Before he got his own band together, his mentors were Miles Davis and Monk especially. One of the things I made clear in my book, but I could have brought it out more was that he had very different feelings about the two of them. Miles Davis he admired, he respected him but he didn't think of him as "Hey, man, how you doing?" - not someone he could feel relaxed with, that he could hang out with. With Monk, he says quite clearly that he liked to hang out with him. He would talk with him for hours. He had a much warmer feeling toward Monk, although he may have respected them equally as musicians.

Now when he got his own band together, though, just to show you how he admired Miles Davis, he took a lot of advice from Miles Davis. It was Miles Davis who said to him, "you know should keep your rhythm section modal, just let them play modal and you can play complicated stuff on top of it." But it was very good advice. It was Miles Davis together with Gil Evans who inspired him to look at all kinds of Indian music and African music. He did get a lot of good ideas from Miles although personally he felt a little colder than Monk.

In his own band, first of all, I think that the key figure for him was Elvin Jones. Whenever he talks about the band, Elvin's the one he sounds most excited about. He sounds like "this is the guy that gives me my energy." He always talks about McCoy as the grounding, solid and secure and he's grounding the group. I guess that's what he wanted as a contrast to Elvin.

Then Dolphy, in funny kind of way, is a very different player from Coltrane. In a funny kind of way, I couldn't swear that he didn't take any licks from Dolphy but I got more of a sense that Dolphy just , you know, gave him a kick in the rear. Just playing with someone like Dolphy stimulated him to always try something new and to work harder and to do his best. And not necessarily to play like Dolphy. Know what I mean?

PSF: Yes...

LP: One more thing about that - the thing about Coltrane was that he liked to work with other saxophone players. Jimmy Heath once said to me, "I don't understand with all the saxophone he played, why he never hired a trumpet player and why he needed another saxophone player." I don't think Coltrane was a big fan of the trumpet sound generally speaking. For whatever reason, he hired Dolphy and then Pharoah Sanders and so on.

PSF: I've wondered about that myself sometimes. The thing that inspired my question about the sidemen was specifically the difference between Elvin Jones and Rashied Ali. For example, I was listening to "Stellar Regions" last night. Sometimes I feel a looser a feeling from Ali and then he's [Coltrane] able to explore more and get a warmer, thicker sound.

LP: That's a good point. The thing about Elvin is that most people don't realize - they think of Elvin as being such a free spirit - but after all, Elvin is a much older man than Rashied- what is he? Almost ten years older? Elvin likes to swing. And what a lot people don't realize is that after Coltrane said "I don't want to swing anymore, I want a wash of sound behind me" - that's half the reason Elvin left - the other half was that Elvin apparently didn't get along real well with Rashied Ali - which didn't help.

Look at Elvin's own bands. Has he ever had a band without a walking bass in it? That's the way he likes it. He wants the bass to walk, then he can swing like mad. That's what he likes to do. So what I think happened to Coltrane on the other hand was that he said, "as long as that bass is walking, that restricts my phrasing." It's like the old thing about the challenge of playing modal versus playing over chord changes. If you play over chord changes, it's harder because there are more chords that you have to negotiate. But then people will tell you it's also easier because your notes that you more or less have to play are spelled out for you. To play over something is easier because you have to play one scale or one key, but it's harder because you have to come up with something interesting. I think what happened to him was that he wanted the second choice, he wanted to have as little as spelled out as possible and he wanted to phrase anywhere he wanted. And Elvin really couldn't do that. Elvin really wanted to swing. He had a hard time with that.

And to be fair, Rashied got so much flak and everyone said, "how could he have driven Elvin away?" First of all, I don't think he drove Elvin away. Coltrane knew exactly what he wanted. He wished that Elvin would have stayed but when push came to shove, he didn't fire Rasheid. You notice that? When Elvin said he wanted to go he didn't say "Ok, I'll fire Rashied." To be fair, when you listen to Rashied on those albums, I think what he plays is beautiful. I think he has a lot of textures and soft sounds and he does really set up this nice cushion of sound for Coltrane to play over that's very different from Elvin.

PSF: Definitely. I once read an interview that Elvin Jones got a lot of training in military style marching bands.

LP: He played bass drum in the band. He's from a very different background.

PSF: One last question about Coltrane's sidemen. Do you have any interesting comments about Jimmy Garrison and the bass players that Coltrane chose over his career?

LP: What he liked about Garrison is that - people always say what he liked about Garrison is that he's solid as a rock. I say yes and no. If you actually listen to Garrison, he always breaks up his lines. He very rarely goes "boom, boom, boom, boom, be ba, be ba..." [walking bass line]. He usually breaks it up. He'll go - [LP sings a bass line that is not all "walking"]. He breaks it up in a very interesting way.

In a way, people don't give Jimmy Garrison enough credit. It's not all true that what he did was keep a solid walking line while Coltrane played. He doesn't keep a solid walking line on a lot of those famous records. If you listen just to the bass, he's always stopping and starting and playing different rhythms and things like that. I think what Coltrane liked though was that when he did that, what was "solid" about it, if you want to use that word, is that he only would play a few notes. There are different ways of breaking up the line. You could go [LP sings a sample bass line with sixteenth note runs and "walking notes"]. That Coltrane didn't like. What Garrison did was just a few little things - just a pause there, add a note there. That's what Coltrane liked. He didn't like it to be too busy. I think that's what he really liked about Garrison. Of course, Garrison had a very good background for playing with Trane because he had just finished working with Ornette Coleman. The background was perfect.

PSF: The way you describe it is that he's opening a lot of space up for the soloist to start phrases anywhere and not be stuck to the bass line too much.

LP: That's a good point. I think that would be a fair statement. I think that's what Coltrane liked about it. So it's interesting that even when Garrison was in the band Coltrane did say in an interview that he still thought Paul Chambers was the greatest. But I can't imagine Paul Chambers in his band because Paul is not a person who left space. Paul is the guy who would do just the straight walking lines all the time. In a way, it was better that it was Garrison.

PSF: Did you know if Coltrane ever had any significant plans to do large ensemble work like the "Africa Brass Sessions"?

LP: I can't think of another situation where he was going to use a big group like that. Although, I will make one funny comment which I think is in the book. When he was talking to an interviewer in 1965 and the guy said "what have you done lately" or "what are you about to do" or something like that, he said this: "I've got this one thing, 'Ascension'- big band thing". Which I think when the interviewer finally heard that, he must have wondered what Coltrane was thinking because it's anything but what you might normally call a big band! But that's about as close as he came.

PSF: In the past few years, we've seen the issuing of new material that we haven't heard before like "Stellar Regions" and "Living Space." Are there any other big pieces of John Coltrane's music that we haven't heard yet but that might be really important?

LP: Yes. The following are the unissued collections of Coltrane. First, there's Alice Coltrane's collection. Now that's the source of the two things you just mentioned. Alice has agreed to issue the rest of her collection, which by the way comes to about another 15 or 20 CD's worth, over the course - and this is the bad news - over the course of the next fifteen or twenty years. She doesn't want to do it very quickly but at least eventually that stuff will come out.

There's another collection which belongs to a fellow who used to follow Coltrane around in the clubs and tape him. Because they are "live," they are great, great tapes. That collection is about twenty hours worth of stuff. So far, nobody has been able to get him to agree to issue his stuff...

Then there's a smaller collection which is about six or seven hours but it includes Coltrane's practice tapes, including about an hour or ninety minutes of him just sitting around and playing the saxophone, which would be wonderful to hear and let's just hope that someday somebody puts that out.

PSF: What time period are these practice tapes from?

LP: '58-'59.

Also see the rest of the interview: Part II: Art of Jazz Research & Part III: Researching Coltrane

Lewis Porter is divorced, has two children, and lives in Yonkers, NY. He may be contacted at this e-mail address

Special thanks goes to E.H. Pisares for proof reading this article. Thanks also to Michael Fitzgerald who was responsible for getting all of this started in the first place as well as Matthew A. Richardson and Carol Novak for their help with the photos.

Also see our articles on Coltrane's Interstellar Space & Coltrane's late period

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER