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Coltrane on Coltrane by Edited by Chris DeVito

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We may think we can learn everything we need to know about John Coltrane through his music, but Coltrane on Coltrane teaches us more. Edited by Chris DeVito, one of the authors of 2007’s The John Coltrane Reference, the book collects every known interview Coltrane gave, along with selected interview-based liner notes and articles and some of Coltrane’s own writings. The portrait that emerges is one of an acutely self-aware, intelligent, gracious man, given to in-depth, candid, often critical analyses of both his art and personal life.

Today music journalism is ubiquitous, and most artists understand and accept that speaking with curious journalists-as well as those on assignment who might know or care nothing about them-comes with the job. In Coltrane’s day, music in general was rarely given generous coverage outside of very specialized publications, and jazz even less so. Artists, even of Coltrane’s stature, were not called upon to sit with writers and answer questions all that frequently. That DeVito was able to excavate this trove of material-many of the interviews took place and were published outside of the United States-is mighty impressive. That Coltrane treated his inquisitors (most of whom were devoted, knowledgeable fans) with dignity, and used the interview process as an opportunity to evaluate himself, was a gift to those he spoke with. His openness makes Coltrane on Coltrane an essential tool in understanding what drove the music.

In nearly every given interview reproduced here, from the early 1950s until his death in 1967, Coltrane proved more than willing to consider himself in the context of jazz’s present state, to lavish praise on his influences and peers, and to ponder why he did what he did and how he might improve upon it. In a 1962 interview conducted in Paris, Coltrane was asked to compare himself to Ornette Coleman and Eric Dolphy, both of whom were, at that time, exploring jazz’s outer limits more aggressively than Coltrane, who was working with his “classic quartet.” More concerned with honest analysis than ego, Coltrane admitted that it was Coleman “who has been the furthest; he has essentially broken off from the structures most of us use.” Not so much self-deprecating as humble and analytical, Coltrane was always questioning and seeking, just as he did when he blew.

On a more personal level, he was frank about his past addictions, the role of religion in his life, his feelings regarding civil rights and the way the music business treated him. For Coltrane, music and life’s experiences were inseparable. Asked in an extensive 1966 interview whether he felt an obligation to “educate your audience in ways that aren’t musical,” he replied, “Sure,” then clarified: “You can’t ram philosophies down anybody’s throat … the music is enough! … That’s my philosophy. … The best thing I can do is to try to get myself in shape and know myself.” Through Coltrane on Coltrane, there is never any doubt that John Coltrane did, as well as anyone can, know himself.