Monday, August 25, 2014

Coltrane: a Biography by Cuthbert Simpkins (Black Classics Press, 1975)

There have been a great many biographies of John Coltrane since his death in 1967, but this is one of the most interesting. This is Simpkins' only book (he would go on to become a noted medical doctor) but he did very thorough research using third-party sources and in-person interviews. He also interjects his own poetry, ideas and commentary into the narrative which keeps things quite interesting. He begins by covering standard biographical material like Coltrane's childhood and beginnings as a musician, but things really begin to kick into gear after he turns professional, which provides many more sources for the author to draw upon. He takes Coltrane's spiritual aspirations very seriously, beginning with the religious epiphany that he experienced after renouncing drugs and drink in 1957 all the way through to the deeply spiritual free jazz he recorded in the mid 1960's. Many interviews are recounted where Coltrane gives praise to his "creator" as the provider of his prowess as a musician. Coltrane's spiritual quest was deeply meaningful to him and Simpkins writes about the research that Coltrane undertook not only about the religions of world, but into science and technology as well. As the narrative progresses into the 1960's we read about the formation of Coltrane's "classic quartet" and his close friendship and support of up and coming musicians of the period like Eric Dlophy and Archie Shepp. By the early 1960's, Coltrane's expansive musical output expanded exponentially, with records and concerts coming at a phenomenal rate. Push-back from critics and even longtime fans was tough, but Coltrane remained steadfast in his refusal to slow down, employing new musicians, new techniques, always searching for new directions in music. This was a very enjoyable book and any fan of John Coltrane will find it quite enlightening. The interviews and research are well presented and Simpkins own thoughts and narrative are lucidly stated. Coltrane: A Biography -

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