Chasing Trane: Exploring a Jazz Giant at the GRAMMY Museum

A saxophone on display as part of the Chasing Trane exhibit at the Grammy Museum. (Photo by Christy Kane)

John Coltrane left this mortal plane fifty years ago, but the his spirit lives on in his music, which remains as influential and powerful as ever. The GRAMMY Museum explores the jazz giant’s life and work with it’s newest exhibit Chasing Trane: John Coltrane’s Musical Journey Transcended, running through September 2018. The show launched November 17th with a screening of the similarly titled documentary Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary and a Q&A with the film’s director, John Scheinfeld.

The exhibit uses video and artifacts to provide an interactive experience of Coltrane’s life and music. One video explains how “Chasin’ the Trane,” the song off which the exhibit and film base their names, came to be called that. Initially untitled when Coltrane started performing it, the title was suggested by the recording engineer who had to follow the saxophonist around the stage as he wandered around it during his solos. Other interesting pieces include original manuscripts, instruments, concert posters and a program from Coltrane’s funeral, which included performances by the groups of Albert Ayler and Ornette Coleman.

The greatest strength of the film Chasing Trane is the wall to wall music that plays throughout it, allowing Coltrane’s music to permeate throughout the entire hour and a half plus of film and to illuminate the narrative. Much of the power of Coltrane’s music comes from the way that he used it to explore his ideas in real time, and the movie really conveys that sense of Coltrane thinking out loud through his instrument. An eclectic group of interview subjects, including family members, contemporaries and admirers discuss their experience of Coltrane, his music and his spiritual journey. Coltrane’s own thoughts, taken from interviews and liner notes, are voiced by Denzel Washington.

In the Q&A session filmmaker Scheinfeld explained that his approach on putting together documentaries is to try to find people from three categories: those who know subject personally, know and are influenced by their work, and those who can contextualize it in a wider cultural context. The first group was the strongest: his children and musical peers were the most compelling; his step-daughter, Antonia Andrews, gave a particularly moving account, as did saxophonist Benny Golson. Artists as diverse as Carlos Santana, Common and Kamasi Washington spoke to Coltrane’s influence, though it seemed like an entire generation of saxophonists bridging Coltrane to Washington was excluded from the conversation. Wynton Marsalis, critic Ben Ratliff, Bill Clinton and Cornell West all add erudite observations about the impact of Coltrane, with perhaps a whiff of self promotion here and there. All quibbles aside, Chasing Trane is an insightful and enjoyable documentary.

Chasing Trane: John Coltrane’s Musical Journey Transcended is on view at the GRAMMY Museum at L.A. Live through September, 2018. http://www.grammymusuem.org; Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary is available on DVD and Blu-ray from UMe.

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