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John Coltrane: His Life & Music by Lewis Porter

The wonderful collaborative effort, John Coltrane, a Discography and Musical Biography, appeared in 1995 (reviewed in JazzTimes, June 1997). Now Lewis Porter, one of those collaborators, has written another winner, one that supersedes all previous Coltrane biographies, and updates his contributions to the 1995 book. Meticulously researched and documented, it is filled with precise details of time, place, and personnel, and yet it reads well-no mean feat!

Some readers may be uninterested in the opening pages that outline Coltrane’s genealogy; others may find daunting the numerous musical examples and occasional technical discussions. But Lewis-an associate professor of music at Rutgers University, Newark-is an educator as well as a scholar, and he explains the musical matters in ways that should be clear to musicians and non-musicians alike. Also, the wealth of biographical information, much of it new or newly corrected, and the generous helpings of Coltrane’s own words should appeal to any reader interested in the gentle giant of the saxophone. And the 38-page chronology at the end of the book is an extremely useful summary of his career.

Chapters three through eight, which deal with Coltrane’s music and activities in the 1940s, are among the most fascinating. Through transcriptions and analyses of Trane’s earliest private recordings, which date from 1946, Porter shows us a young player of unexceptional talent, struggling to play bebop. And by drawing upon extensive interviews with family members, friends and colleagues, he paints a vivid picture of that single-minded, tirelessly practicing young player who was to win that struggle.

Porter, already the author of two fine books on Lester Young, a first-rate general history of jazz, and numerous shorter efforts, has topped himself with this Coltrane study. Now the question is, what can he do for an encore?

Originally Published