The dimensions of John Coltrane, Jazz Genius, are widely known.
Not as well known: Coltrane the dad, who once walked miles from a performance through a snowstorm to his home in Strawberry Mansion, his pocket full of money needed to buy his daughter a new pair of shoes.
That’s the man you meet in the Denzel Washington-narrated Chasing Trane, a new documentary from filmmaker John Scheinfeld (who has also directed documentaries about artists as diverse as John Lennon and Bing Crosby). His film explores Coltrane’s upbringing in the church, his religious and spiritual upbringing that sustained him and informed his music, and his important years in Philadelphia, where he developed his unique tone, raised a family, and famously kicked drug addiction with little more than determination and prayer.
“I would say that Philadelphia was crucial to Coltrane’s development as an artist. It was in Philadelphia that he came into contact with a very unique community of musicians from whom he learned and shared, and was inspired,” said Scheinfeld, who visited Philadelphia to film. “And a number of those musicians are in our film — Benny Golson, Jimmy Heath, Reggie Workman — all of whom are either from Philly or spent considerable time there.”
This was in the late 1940s and throughout the ’50s, he said, when Philadelphia had a “vibrant and vital” jazz community, where Coltrane was welcomed, and where he could work on his craft among other talented and innovative musicians.
“We make the point in the film that he was not a musician who came out of the womb with greatness already evident. It was a journey for him and process of evolution,” said the director, “and it was because of the people he met in Philadelphia that Coltrane was able to find the path to becoming the iconic artist that we know.”
Scheinfeld said that while living in the city, Coltrane spent a life-changing night in 1945 at the Academy of Music, where he and Golson saw Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker.
“They were both blown away,” he said, “and what they saw inspired them and gave them confidence to pursue music as a profession.”
Later, folks in the Philadelphia jazz scene recommended Coltrane to Gillespie, who hired him to play sax, and who gave Coltrane a second chance after he lost his job due to struggles with addiction.
Coltrane, his career on the line, returned to Philadelphia, to his home on North 33rd Street (his principal address from 1952 to 1964), where he managed to kick drug addiction on his own. He remained sober for the rest of his life (he died in 1967), though his marriage to first wife Naima ended some years later, and Coltrane started a new family in Long Island.
Scheinfeld interviewed Coltrane’s stepdaughter from his first marriage, Antonia Andrews, who gave him valuable insight about their lives here.
“She thinks of him as her father; she had never given an interview about him before. It took me four months to persuade her to talk,” he said. It’s Antonia who tells of the young Coltrane, on a cold winter night, bringing home money for her new shoes.
“She didn’t want to tell me that story, not because it was so private, but because she didn’t think anyone would be interested in such a small thing. But those are the wonderful insights that really help paint a picture of a man.”
And that was the goal in Chasing Trane, he said. Not a “music-theory class,” but a narrative that would “bring the man alive as a human being.”
That includes Coltrane’s decision — when it became clear that he needed to choose between heroin and jazz — to quit, in a room at 1511 N. 33rd St., now the site of the Coltrane House, a National Historic Landmark.
Scheinfeld wanted that location on film, and got it.
“We wanted to shoot in the actual space. We shot the exterior,” he said, “but we also shot in the real space in the real room where he went cold turkey.”
Scheinfeld, who has written and directed a dozen music-themed films, said there was something special, almost mythic, about Coltrane’s finding a way to surmount the challenge that has claimed the lives of so many musicians.
“Coltrane is really the antithesis of that. Here’s a guy who faced that challenge early on, but who didn’t go down the rabbit hole and die,” Scheinfeld said. “In Coltrane, not only do we have a guy who handled life, but who drew so much inspiration from it, and offered so much of that inspiration to us through his music.”
- Starts Friday at Ritz at the Bourse, 400 Ranstead St., $10 (adults); $7 (senior), www.coltranefilm.com