When I first got the call about the chance to be part of the sanctioned John Coltrane documentary, I was elated. I actually did a happy dance. Something we filmmakers do when a project ignites us at the core. My enthusiasm petered out for a moment when thoughts quickly turned to what I assumed would be a logistical and fiscal nightmare. How can you do a John Coltrane documentary without a bounty of John Coltrane music? Wouldn’t that nearly be impossible, and impossibly budget busting?
Lead producer, music and media creative Spencer Proffer effectively breathed life into the idea of a Coltrane film that would become Chasing Trane when he secured all necessary rights from the Coltrane Estate, then negotiated an unprecedented arrangement with the three major record companies (Universal, Warner/Rhino and Concord)—who owned all the Coltrane masters—to support the documentary film with affordable music licenses and creative support.
As a practical matter, this meant that we could utilize virtually any of John Coltrane’s key music to create a film using only Coltrane’s music as our underscore. And as every independent filmmaker knows, that’s a remarkable thing. Most documentary films are saddled with a music budget that is woefully and often painfully inadequate. But when your goal is to celebrate and document the life’s work of a jazz icon and musical genius, you need to have as many tools in the toolbox as you can afford. And access to Coltrane’s catalog was a great place to start.
From the earliest research-centric readings of books and magazines and liner notes, to listening to Coltrane’s catalog in chronological order, to identifying your “first person” story-tellers and then traveling to speak to those who have “walked the walk”, documentary filmmaking is, by its nature, an immersive deep dive driven by curiosity. The process celebrates the chance to learn more and to uncover the “nuggets”; those magical gems of storytelling that emerge while you are looking for something else.
It rewards its practitioners with the adrenaline rush that comes from uncovering revelatory photos or footage not seen in 50 years, or ever! It’s discovering the bits and pieces of a life that remain squirreled away until some relentless and enterprising filmmaker comes along.
And our director has a passion for this deep research. It’s great fun to work with someone who gets excited about uncovering a forgotten Polaroid or tracking down a stepdaughter (in this case, Antonia Andrews) who has never given an interview about her famous musician dad before we knocked on her door. It’s a shared excitement for the craft of documentary that makes the long hours and the long production schedules not only tolerable, but a privilege.
This type of filmmaking is not typically associated with high tech breakthroughs or the latest gadgets, but our goal is always to deliver an authentic experience that makes use of the best technology available. Several years ago, while working with our DP Stanley Taylor, I had a chance to use and fell in love with the look of the Canon C300 camera. It’s a great camera for documentary work.
When we first started shooting the C300, it represented a continuing evolution of the breakthroughs in digital filmmaking and it delivered pleasing color, good definition, and when coupled with Stan’s fast prime lenses, provides great response in lower light while maintaining pleasing skin tones. It’s getting a bit long in the tooth now, but to this day the camera remains a champ and is a documentary workhorse.
Stylistically, one of the challenges of Chasing Trane was our desire to speak to the incredible musicians who worked and played with Trane, as well the music gurus who have studied and written of the importance of Coltrane’s work both musically and culturally. Typically, we would try and “gang” interviews into one or three central locations where we could invite our guests and set up our interview environment. But due to geographic locations, tour schedules and the age of some of our interviewees, it quickly became clear that there wasn’t going to be anything “efficient” about this process. We needed to go to them. And yet we were not excited about the standard documentary sit down “look” with nicely lit bookshelves or mixing board in the background.
Documentaries are inevitably built on the road and then again in the edit bay. And we wanted to define a “look” to our interviews that was both intimate and authentic and felt like everyone on camera was part of the same interconnected effort to get the story right.
We reached out to our friends and colleagues at FAC 5, a graphics house in New York, Fred Salkind and Doug LeBow and they encouraged us to explore a stylized practical interview set up. It was critical that the “kit” could travel easily and was airplane friendly. What we ended up with was a mottled gray fabric backdrop positioned about 15 feet beyond our subject with cucoloris patterns and a very thin, clear painter’s drop cloth hanging approximately 12 inches in front of the gray. We could light each layer separately for effect. And it was real. From shot to shot it looks similar and stylized, and yet the cuke patterns and the slight movement of the clear drop cloth make the background look like its breathing. Our set up presented a look that was thematically similar in each interview yet had unique variations that made it something more intimate than an “untreated” background, and less digital than a straight green screen.
Now, I admit that our graphics guru, Doug Martin of Capsule Graphics, did have to spend a bit of time “finishing” each “talking head” but the enhanced vignettes and better control of how our light fell off around the interviewee was worth the trouble. Fred Salkind also conceptualized what we called our “close encounters” musical meme which flashed bars of color that could be timed to Coltrane’s music. This graphic device served us a transitional graphic and helped to signal story points and change of time or locale.
But it was Douglas Martin who single handedly actualized our notion of Coltrane’s music, spirit and import flashing through time and space to visit us here on earth. Spencer and I suggested the “Trane-Stellations,” as we came to call them, that are revealed in the opening sequence of the film and I was “over the moon” with how Douglas brought Trane to life amongst the stars. And it was our editor and co-producer, Pete Lynch, who artfully took Denzel Washington’s voice narration from the words of John Coltrane, to tie his story in our film together.
Chasing Trane has a classic three-act structure. To make those acts come to life and propel the film forward, one needs to tee up revelations and story points within each act.
In order to fully utilize an unparalleled music catalog, we needed to understand the life and times of John Coltrane; we needed to identify and interview those who knew him best, both as an artist and as a man; and we wanted to find the “heart” of his story and document the key points in his journey.
Our film’s interview style is both disarming and poignant. We laugh. Sometimes we all cry. But in the transcripts of our interviews with giants like Reggie Workman, McCoy Tyner, Sonny Rollins, Jimmy Health, and Benny Golson, all men who worked and played with John Coltrane, a reliable depiction of the man and the musician began to come alive.
And as our journey of discovery continued we met many extraordinary men and women and each led us to a fuller understanding of John Coltrane. From Ravi and Michelle Coltrane speaking of their earliest memories of the impact of his father on those around him, as told to them by their mother, Alice, to a reminder of Trane’s cultural importance and context from philosopher and pundit Cornel West. An ardent fan, President Bill Clinton reminds us of Trane’s creative process and journey and compares him to Picasso, but as an artist that traveled through his many artistic phases in about 50 years less time!
We also met and spent time with acclaimed photographer Chuck Stewart. Chuck was a spirited man who left his hospital bed a day early to meet us at his home in Teaneck, New Jersey. Chuck was eager to discuss all things Coltrane and was kind enough to permit us access to his more than one million negatives, of which a significant number featured John Coltrane.
Chuck Stewart, who passed away last year, was a remarkable gentleman who loved what he did and was loved by the artists he covered, as evidenced by his unparalleled access. As an interesting aside, Mr. Stewart was the first African American to graduate from Ohio University with a degree in photography. And he put that degree to good use for the rest of his life.
One of the amazing finds uncovered while visiting with Chuck at his home was Stewart’s photographs from the A Love Supreme session, and it featured Coltrane speaking to renowned bass player, Art Davis. In Art’s hand, we noticed an 8mm camera, and that started us on the hunt to track down whatever home movies might exist from that session. Our key researcher, Kiku Lani Iwata, soon found Art Davis’ son, Kimaili Davis, living in Southern California. I met with Kimaili at his home, and while his wife and kids looked on, we went thru his father’s home movies that had been stacked and forgotten in the Davis’ garage, until we uncovered never before seen footage of the actual A Love Supreme sessions.
This is the gold that we documentarians live for.
To complement this wondrous footage find, we interviewed legendary recordist Rudy Van Gelder (who has now also passed away) and McCoy Tyner, who played on those sessions, and we got the inside scoop on Coltrane’s creative process and later, Rudy shared (some!) of the recording techniques that enabled him to capture that glorious sound in his custom built concrete box of a studio (It’s all about microphone placement for Rudy). It was a remarkable day.
The entire experience was fascinating and compelling road trip, life changing. Chasing Trane provided us with the opportunity and privilege to meet and speak with these artists from the Golden Age of Jazz, and, to crib the title of Jimmy Heath’s autobiography, I felt as if I Walked With Giants. And I think we got most of that magic in the film.
A couple of final mentions must be made. The contributions or artist Rudy Gutierrez of Bogata, New Jersey were instrumental in our finding the correct vibe for the film. In our Coltrane research, we had run across Gary Golio’s book Spirit Seeker for which Gutierrez had done the illustrations. We fell in love with the graphic style and tracked Rudy down at the Pratt Art Institute in Brooklyn where he is an instructor. Rudy’s welcoming spirit and generosity and affection for Coltrane were palpable, and his work is celebrated throughout our film.
And finally, a tip of the hat and a deep bow of respect to Peter S. Lynch, II, the film’s editor and co-producer. His aesthetic and commitment to both art and craft vibrates throughout the film. His cutting style is cinematic and thoughtful. It’s imbued with a pure energy, yet he knows when to pause and linger. Pete’s ability to craft an underscore that would delight both deep jazz aficionados and attract and entertain curious newbies at the same time was thrilling to us. As an aside for the tech minded, Pete prefers to work on his trusty FCP 7 system, although, he acknowledges it is no longer supported by Apple, but it is powerful, versatile, stable and trustworthy. Just like Pete.
Our film is not a tour de force of technical prowess or cutting-edge gear. Chasing Trane is an impassioned exercise the art and craft of documentary filmmaking. It’s a great story well told. We set out to uncover the essence of John Coltrane, an artistic genius and a spiritual giant. –Dave Harding
In reading Dave Harding’s notes about our making of our evergreen Chasing Trane film, I relived the goosebumps I felt throughout the process Dave so eloquently describes here. It has become my mission and privilege to find new ways to expand the footprint of what we produced, throughout the world.
Bridging cultures through music and film is at the core of my heart and professional efforts and has been for years. When I secured the rights to produce the authorized John Coltrane film, I was moved by his musical heart, vision and desire to unite people through his music. The way that John Scheinfeld, with Dave’s proactive help, sculpted the film to be more than an ordinary documentary on a music icon but rather an inside look at the socio-cultural impact of Coltrane’s inspired works, goes to the essence of providing a bridge.
A great example is when Coltrane wrote his classic “Alabama” to the beats of Martin Luther King’s speech, eulogizing the 4 black Sunday school girls who lost their lives in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, a white supremacist terrorist act.
“These children—unoffending, innocent, and beautiful, were the victims of one of the most vicious and tragic crimes ever perpetrated against humanity,” Dr. King said in his eulogy. To have a timeless piece of music speak to that in its very essence and now to have that be a seminal scene in our film, is something that I, as a producer, wholly embrace. For up and coming filmmakers, trying to highlight ways that culture can be impacted by creativity, is a great goal.
In connection with Chasing Trane one of John Coltrane’s most acclaimed albums is called Blue Train. It is serendipitous that there is a real Blue Train that runs from Pretoria to Cape Town in South Africa—the most luxurious train on the planet.
I’m producing a private event on board this iconic jewel in November. We will exhibit the film on the Blue Train for a select group of tastemakers from South Africa and around the world, in its first showing in that country. We will make a stop at the spectacular Delaire Graff Estate winery and hold a jazz concert under the trees. We will finish this Blue Train journey with a club concert at a leading jazz club in Cape Town, the Kaleidoscope. The musicians will be some of South Africa’s finest, led by Grammy nominated local star, Don Laka, performing original music inspired and influenced by John Coltrane. Papi Molostane, my Co-Executive Producer on the ground in Johannesburg, has done a terrific job in galvanizing all the elements to make this a once in a lifetime event, something to be proud of forever.
I am fortunate to be able to bring over my longtime friend and collaborator saxophonist Ronnie Laws to jam with Laka and his troupe. Additionally, two of the stars of the 4 time Tony nominated Broadway musical, It Ain’t Nothin’ But The Blues—Eloise Laws and Lita Gaithers Owens—will also fly over to join Ronnie and the South African musicians, both with some performances on the train, as well as at the club.
I like to think John Coltrane would be pleased that his music and life will be celebrated in such a meaningful way, in such a meaningful place. — Spencer Proffer MM
Chasing Trane continues its theatrical releases in multiple cities internationally, courtesy of Abramorama. For information on screenings, go here. Photos courtesy of Abramorama.