The wait is finally over, and it’s time for another Fake Can Be Just as Good! Here’s the what what: We read a new music bio, tell you the important parts. You pretend you read the thing yourself, and impress friends and enemies during small talk with the information gleamed. This week, we dimmed down the lights and snapped our fingers in recognition of sizzling smooth saxophonist and jazz innovator John Coltrane and the new book, Coltrane on Coltrane: The John Coltrane Interviews (Cappella) by Chris DeVito. If you’re looking for stories of a strung-out musician loopy on narcotics and alcohol, this isn’t the book for you, as all of the interviews took place after Coltrane kicked the habit. Instead, you’ll find deep discussions about the technicalities of jazz and lots of repetitive information in this collection of teetering-on-boring interviews.
■ John Coltrane was born Sept. 23, 1926, in Hamlet, N.C. His father was a tailor by trade, but played the ukulele, clarinet and violin in his spare time. His mother was a gifted singer and pianist. However, her own father’s belief that a woman should not leave the house until she was married kept her from ever making a career of music.
■ Coltrane’s grandfather was a pastor and patriarch of the family; the only music Coltrane was familiar with was church music. He did not hear much jazz until he was 15.
■ After Coltrane’s father died, Coltrane’s mother moved to Philadelphia. Coltrane stayed in High Point, N.C. to finish school.
■ Once he graduated high school, Coltrane joined his mother in Philadelphia where he began to take private saxophone lessons.
■ Coltrane started writing his own music in 1948.
■ Coltrane went from playing alto to tenor, and finally to soprano saxophone. He stumbled upon playing soprano accidentally.
■ In 1958, a year after he got clean, Coltrane lived by the mantra; “Keep listening. Never become so self-important that you cannot listen to other players. Live cleanly ... do right ... you can improve as a player by improving as a person. It is a duty we owe to ourselves.”
■ Journalist Leonard Feather conducted an experiment called “The Blindfold Test.” Coltrane listened to seven albums and had to guess who playeded them. Of the seven, Coltrane identified six.
■ Coltrane’s large muscular built and sax playing, which was often described by critics as angry, made him an intimidating figure. People were often very surprised to find out how soft-spoken and shy he was. On sounding “angry,” Coltrane responded with, “Maybe it sounds angry because I’m trying so many things at one time, you see, like I haven’t sorted them out.”
■ When Coltrane overheard a conversation between a club manager and performer about not being able to pay all the acts on a bill he shared, Coltrane interrupted to ask the manager to take his portion and make sure it would get distributed evenly.
■ Coltrane’s wife, Juanita, wanted him to move to New York City to expand his musical career. A humble Coltrane felt inadequate in the New York jazz scene and refused. One day, Coltrane came home to find his furniture and wife missing. All she left behind was a note that read, “If you want me, you can find me in New York.”
■ Coltrane’s biggest concern was connecting emotionally to an audience, which is why he preferred playing clubs over large venues.
■ On a slow night at a club with only four people present, Coltrane’s band talked about giving back the money to the owner and leaving. Coltrane went onstage, told the small, scattered audience to take a seat up front, and played for them for more than two and a half hours.
■ Due to loneliness, Coltrane kept a guitar in his room during his UK tour. He didn’t have aspirations to play, but felt that every instrument had a personality. He wanted to be kept company.
■ Coltrane became known for a method he called “the sheet of sound,” where he played three chords at once.
■ Coltrane died on July 17, 1967, of liver failure.
PW's Music Issue 2014