Researching John Coltrane
Lewis Porter interview by Fabio Rojas
PSF: What are some of the difficulties of doing research on John Coltrane? After we talk about the painful parts, if any, what are the things you liked the most?
LP: I have six books out. The truth is I was more excited doing that than any of my other books. It was very painful because it was the hardest book I ever wrote, but in being that it was so hard, there was an excitement. It's an exciting subject. He was an exciting man. Everyone I spoke with about it was excited that I was doing it. I was excited with all the stuff I was coming up with. That made all the hard work worth while. It made me work even harder at it. As far as the difficulties, the main difficulty was getting through , frankly, all the crap that's been written about Coltrane and trying to discount all that and start fresh. Because there are so many things that we've read and that we've heard about Coltrane that have turned out to be wrong when I researched them. The hard part was to clean my mind. At first, I was going to use those things. Just put them in the book. But then I said, "I'd better check some of these things out". The more I checked, the more they turned out to be false or at least a little bit wrong. Sometimes the wrong slant or whatever. Finally, I had to clear my mind and pretend I didn't know anything about Coltrane and start fresh. So that was the hardest thing and it was also hard because that meant a tremendous amount of work. I went to North Carolina. I interviewed people. Most of the interviews I did over the phone, like this. I interviewed people he went to school with. I interviewed his saxophone teachers. You name it. It was a lot of work but I'm glad I did it.
PSF: How would you evaluate John Coltrane's current status in the jazz community? Do you think there is anything that people should ignore? Are there unfair criticisms?
LP: The interesting thing is that it seems to be growing and growing. During his own life, he was controversial. Although I don't talk about this much in the book, I kind of make a passing reference to the fact that even when he got bad reviews, he always got good reviews, too. I think there are people who can exaggerate how much the critics hated him. There were always critics who loved him at the same time there were critics who hated him. Even during his own day, I would say more of the reviews were positive than negative. In the years since, I think his stature has grown so much there's almost no such thing as a negative review of John Coltrane anymore. No one can even imagine a negative review. You may have noticed in the June  issue of Downbeat they actually had a feature story on Coltrane. They interviewed me, too, by the way. As a side bar, they had a negative review of Coltrane. We're presenting this just to show you the other side. The fact that you have to go out of your way to find someone who'll give Coltrane a bad review just shows you how that's changed. It used to be easy to find people who would give him a bad review.
PSF: What is you favorite John Coltrane record or tune?
LP: I can't really say that because he sounds so great to me. One of the greatest things that I ever heard him play has never been issued. It's a tape of a concert he gave in Stuttgart, Germany in 1963. It is so unbelievable. Again, I've been asking record companies to get interested. Well, we'll see what happens. There's so much great stuff, I couldn't possibly say that because he was very, very consistent - that was another thing about Coltrane. It's not like some of the records aren't so good and some of them are really good. He really just sounds great on everything.
PSF: How has your book been received in various quarters? Do academics like it or dislike it? Does the popular press seem to like it? What is your take on the reviews?
LP: So far, I am very, very pleased. I'll tell you first of all that the musicians have been buying it in droves. I've been getting calls, faxes and e-mails from Dave Liebman, Joe Lovano, Jim McNeely, Vic Juris - can't even think of all the people. People have been just thrilled. I love that. As a player myself, I hope that I would write something that the musicians would like. Probably the most gratifying of all is that Ravi Coltrane himself has told me that he thinks it is a beautiful book and that he actually wrote some sentences about how much he loves the book and sent them to my publisher for them to use on their next press release. The fact that Ravi - as you can understand that Ravi would be very critical - and he said the other books, he hasn't been satisfied with. This is just the book he imagined and he loves it. I was very pleased with that.
As far as the general press, the reviews have been very, very strong. Mostly very gratifying. The only thing that the lay press or general press criticizes is something I always get with my books. There's always a few people who say, "this is a great book, but if you are not a musician, it's not for you." It bugs me when they say that because of the idea that musicians are supposed to be on a whole different planet. That just bugs me. First of all, the non-musicians should take a minute and learn a little bit about music. It wouldn't hurt them. Second of all, maybe it is not as hard to understand as they think it is. I just don't like that attitude, which I think is an American attitude by the way - you don't find it so much in Europe, that to understand music you have to be from a different planet, you can't just be a regular person. That bothers me. But other than that, I've been very pleased.
PSF: I've noticed that tendency too. I think a lot of people associate knowing about music with boring classes. Not feeling the music inside you, but reading printed symbols on a page and that can be intimidating. Have there been any interesting comments from academics or musicologists, or those sorts of readers?
LP: You know, the academic reviews take longer to come out because they are mostly in journals that come out once or twice a year. I haven't actually seen any that I would consider in that vein yet. I can tell you that among my colleagues, verbally a lot of academics have told me that they love the book. They are raving about it to me. What they say when it comes time to write in print, we'll see.
I think they would be. What I'm really doing or trying to do is raise the level of academic work in the jazz field. I would hope that academic people would appreciate that more.
PSF: Are there any other projects that you are working on that you would like to mention?
LP: I have a project which is murdering me, which is probably why I came down with this cold. It's an encyclopedia of jazz. It's going to be published by Schirmer at the end of '99. At the end of next year; I'm trying to finish it up this year. The reason that I'm doing this - there are several jazz encyclopedias - I don't start with "I read this here and I read this there". It's based on my original research. I've done research on everybody over the past twenty years just because I was interested and I never thought I would publish it. I have stuff on Duke Ellington that's never been published anywhere that I think is fairly important stuff, that would go even in a short biography for an encyclopedia. Stuff on Dizzy - stuff on a lot of people. Not enough that it would be a whole book or a whole article.
This is a way for me to get a whole lot of information out there and hopefully, it'll be a reference book that people can really enjoy reading as well. It's called "The Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Jazz."
PSF: Let's finish up with a few short questions. Who are some other jazz scholars or jazz researchers right now who you think are producing good work?
LP: It's such a tiny field. A part of the reason I started the master's program is that for years, I've been trying to encourage people to do jazz work and I found that I didn't get that far with it because if no one is training them, no one is going to do it just because I'm saying please. There's just a few of them but there are some guys that I really appreciate. One is Scott DeVeaux. Have you seen his new book called "[The Birth of] Bebop"?
LP: With Coleman Hawkins in it?
PSF: That's right, that's the one.
LP: I think he's very good. I like his stuff. He's very bright. He's a good musician. He's not approaching it from the classical point of view. He has a sense of what we were talking about before. You have to look at it from a different angle.
Another person I like is Mark Tucker. Mark has written mostly about Duke. He has written a little about Count Basie but mostly about Duke. But he's interested in a lot of stuff. In fact, he's interested in Monk and he may come out with something interesting about Monk. He's also a very good writer and he knows how to turn a phrase.
My favorite of all is a fellow who most people may not have heard of. He's been at the University of Illinois for many years and I think he just retired. His name is Larry Gushee. I frankly think he's just brilliant. His specialty is the early years of jazz. He has done research on the origins of jazz that no one comes close to and he's published very little of it. Because I'm friendly with him, I have seen some of his work. All I can tell you is that I'm bugging him and a lot of other people are to finish the book that would come out of there. It will blow your mind and everyone else's.
PSF: Do you have any advice for people who write on jazz or want to do research on jazz?
LP: Basically, other than coming to Rutgers to study, two things. One, to do what I did myself by accident but turned out to be a very good plan. It's to listen to all the records yourself, not to just read what someone says about the records and figure you're an expert. And not only listen to what someone has picked as the greatest hits or whatever. You decide. You get them all. Now it's much easier. When I was collecting, I had to get them on 78's - I'm sorry - I had to get tapes of 78's because I didn't even have a 78 player. I had to get tapes of 78's - reel to reel - and I had to get LP's from all over the world. Now you can get everything on CD : volume 1-25 Duke Ellington, volume 1-15 Louis Armstrong. So the first thing is to listen to as much stuff as you can and really get to those musics. The second thing is, as we discussed before, is to be very critical. Even the most basic statements, when you actually study them turn out to have all kinds of mistakes in them. I'll give you one that I discuss with my graduate students: "Jazz came up the river from New Orleans to Chicago." There are so many things wrong with that! That's a very famous statement, right? You hear it all the time.
PSF: I've read it many times.
LP: Well, there are many things wrong with that. First of all, if you look at a map, the Mississippi River goes to Minneapolis, not to Chicago and no one ever says "jazz came from New Orleans to Minneapolis". Second of all, if you know anything about black American history, yeah, if you had an afternoon and you wanted to take your family out for some fun you got on a steam boat on the Mississippi but if you were moving your family with your suitcases and your bags and your kids crying, you did not get on a steamer boat that would take you about two months to get to anywhere. You got on a train. The train is the way that everybody was moving. Even a little statement like that, I always say to people "stop right there and really think about that and see if that makes sense." And guess what? It does not make sense.
PSF: Sounds like decent advice for doing any sort of writing or work.
LP: Exactly. My experience is that I know a lot journalists who write short order things for Downbeat and stuff - it's due next week and they've got to do it fast. They are always telling me, "Lew, I admire what you do but I just don't have time to do that kind of research work." All I can say is I hope and wish that they would find the time to do at least a little more of it. Because, otherwise, we're not going to raise the level of discussion.
Also see: The Art of Jazz Research & "John Coltrane, His Life and Music"
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