An In-depth Look at the Creation of "Chasing Trane"
I spoke with Director/Writer, John Scheinfeld and Producer Spencer Proffer about this exciting project and how "Chasing Trane" weaves together an intimate look at the life and continuing influence of John Coltrane.
This is one of those interviews that turned out to be so much more than what I was expecting. Instead of the typical back and forth, I found myself immersed in an in-depth conversation with two individuals that had used their shared passion to create something special. This interview provides insight into some of the unknown stories about John Coltrane while also telling its own tale of individuals piecing together a story that, until now, had never been fully revealed.
Happenin's in the 'Ham: Tell me about the process of putting this project together and how it evolved from the beginning.
Spencer Proffer: Part of my personal mantra, Russell, is to produce music media anchored content that makes a difference and will touch people and John Coltrane is one of the great artists of our lifetime whose ethos and whose sensibilities, as well as music, has touched people all over the world.
The process of securing the exclusive rights to make the film was a multi-year fire drill, but it fortunately did happen. The next step was to find the right the director. I had a tremendous working relationship with John Sheinfeld on a film that I was producer on “I Hope You Dance: The Power of Spirit and Song,”. It features Dr. Maya Angelou, , Brian Wilson, Graham Nash, Vince Gill, and Joel Osteen, amongst others.
John and I developed a wonderful communication within that project as well as with John’s producer, Dave Harding. Dave is an efficient rockstar and a smart-reliable producer. John had directed two of my favorite music docs of all time “The U.S. vs John Lennon” and “Who is Harry Nilsson,” so when I asked John if he knew of or felt anything for John Coltrane, he lit up like a bulb! So before we made a deal to get financed, distributed, or did anything further, I knew we were going to ride this one together. We had a director who had great passion, talent, and taste.
Since this was going to be a film on a music icon, we discussed how the music would be utilized within the film. John did not want to use any re-imaginations of the music performed by anyone. Neither did I. Thus, only the real original recordings in a pure film would make sense.
Since we would need to license the original masters, 92% of them are controlled by three music label groups. If we had gone down the standard route, the music licenses alone would have cost nearly 50% of the budget for a normal documentary film. We couldn’t do that with the film we had envisioned... There would not have been enough money to make this properly, so I had to find a way to make a deal with the respective companies to participate in the project.
John and I set up a meeting with the CEO of Universal Music Enterprises, Rhino/Warner Music and the Concord Music Group at Concord, led by their talented CEO, Scott Pascucci. Fortunately they all got our take on the film and came onboard to work closely with us and in particular John, with their support.
They also wanted to help us make the film achieve its maximum potential. It was an exciting step and has worked out great. The label’s respective CEOs, Bruce Resnikoff from Universal Music Enterprises, and Mark Pinkus of Rhino/Warner, plus Concord’s marketing ace, Sig Sigworth, all served as Executive Producers of the film. Scott worked with us as a producer. I want to give a shout out to John Beug, who also joined the team as a producer, for his contributions. From here I’m going to lateral it over to Mr. Scheinfeld since he’s the one who made the film.
HITH: That’s amazing! I’m so glad all three companies shared in the vision you and John had for this film. John, how was this different than some of the other music docs you have done in the past?
John Scheinfeld: Well, Russell, I didn’t want to do a straight ahead biography. You know, born, lived, died, etc. Coltrane was such an unique artist that I really wanted to give it a very special approach. When Spencer brought the idea to me I went off and did some research and the more I looked into this story the more special I realized it was! We’ve all seen the documentary of the great artist who comes from nowhere, makes a lot of money, achieves success, abuses substances, and dies young like Amy Winehouse and so many others.
Coltrane is the anti-Amy Winehouse in so many ways in that he did have his challenges. But, when faced with "you can go to the left and die," like his idol Charlie Parker, "or go right the other way and ascend," he got off his addiction.
This is when he ascended and became the great icon that we know and to me that is a very uplifting and inspiring story to be shared and told.
HITH: Was there a specific instance or turning point you found that caused him to chose the right path and not continue to descend down the path of addiction?
SP: Good question! What actually happened to him is something that happens to many of us, he got fired! He got fired by Miles Davis in 1957. At this time he had been in Miles’s group for two years and it was arguably the top group in the Jazz field at the time. So, to get fired from that for drug use was a real wake-up call for him. What he decided to do was to go back to his mother’s house in Philadelphia and go cold turkey. He went up into his old bedroom for a week, came out clean, and never went back.
He then embarked on a very spiritual journey that put together his interests of music and more spiritual matters.
One of many things that separates him from other artists is...someone once called him a “spiritual warrior” and I would have to agree with that. In the process of making this journey he found himself, he found God, and he created an extraordinary body of work that transcends all barriers of race, religion, age, geography, all of that. I think that is what makes him so unique.
It’s interesting, we’ve tried to find the best description for this film, to define what it is, and we came across a quote from Coltrane that Denzel Washington speaks within the film that I think is so on point.
Coltrane said, “I myself don’t recognize the word Jazz. I just feel that I played John Coltrane.”
I think that speaks to so many things. His inspiration was to create music that was unique unto himself and to the journey that he was on. That’s what makes him so special and that’s what gives our film a foundation that is so strong and compelling. We have seen how audiences have responded to it over the past few months. It has been so warming to all of us!
HITH: You have so many big names in the film and an eclectic group of people that you interviewed, President Clinton, Common, and more. Can you talk a bit about some of the interviews you did while putting this together?
JS: Sure! When I decide to do a film I want unique voices and different perspectives so no one says the same things the same way. We wanted to start off with people who had known Coltrane and worked with him. That brought us to a lot of Jazz legends like Sonny Rollins, Benny Golson, Jimmy Heath, and Wayne Shorter. We also wanted family members who could speak to how Coltrane was a good father. We have four of his children in the film, including his step-daughter from his first marriage, Antonia Andrews, who has never ever given an interview to anyone whether it was print or television! She is able to speak to the young Coltrane and to the Coltrane in the period that we discussed earlier with the cold-turkey talk.
I also wanted people whose own creativity and own work were inspired by Coltrane. So we spoke with Common, Carlos Santana, John Densmore of The Doors, and others. All of these people said they were heavily influenced by John Coltrane and his quartet. That gives us yet another perspective.
Then I wanted speak with someone about black cultural matters in America and the black experience in America and, Russell, sometimes you are smart and sometimes you get lucky and I got lucky! I had wanted Dr. Cornel West. I had seen him as a pundit on television and he has such a unique voice such an unusual perspective. Little did I know, until I sat down with him, that he was an obsessed Coltrane fan! He knew recording dates, producers, side men, everything!
So what you see in the film is not only someone who can speak to the broad picture of the black experience in America, but can absolutely related back to Coltrane. That made for a fascinating interview.
Then, I always like to have someone unexpected, someone that a person like you would think “What the heck are they doing in this film?!” I had seen President Clinton on TV about two years ago. He was on Letterman and told a story about how he picked up a saxophone at age 10 and was obsessed with it all the way through high school. In fact he had more scholarship offers for his musicianship than his academics and he seriously thought about becoming a professional musician. Then there was this pause and he said, “But then I realized that I was no John Coltrane.” I turned to my wife and said, “Ah, there’s a story there.”
We turned to President Clinton's chief of staff and what we got back almost immediately was, “We think the President would find much joy in this.”
Then it took us 10 months to nail down a time to speak with him. I think his wife was keeping him a little busy.
We finally met in New York. He was gracious, he was eloquent, thoughtful, and he was knowledgeable about Coltrane. You will see some incredibly articulate sound bites from the President when you watch the film. This gave us all a wonderful broad range of thoughts and voices.
What we really wanted to do was create a tapestry of his life where we looked at the critical events, the passions, the experiences, and the challenges that helped shape him and his revolutionary style.
Certainly there are biographical elements, but there are many sequences that deal with the portrait of a remarkable artist.
HITH: When watching a documentary that interviews multiple people, or even when attending conferences with various speakers, I always look for a common thread that connects each speaker to the subject. This common thread is usually the most impactful thing about the influence the subject has on the people speaking. Was there a common thread among those you spoke to about Coltrane?
JS: That’s a really good question, Russell! I would say that the common thread is being inspired by Coltrane, but that can take on many different forms. Cornel West, for example, would speak about being influenced by the music, but was also very influenced by Coltrane’s take on the Civil Rights Movement.
John Densmore of the Doors had a different view of it. He had gone to see Coltrane perform in Los Angeles, and what he noticed was the onstage communication between Elvin Jones as the drummer and Coltrane as the soloist. That influenced his on stage conversations between himself, as a drummer of the Doors, and Jim Morrison as the lead singer!
So I think the common thread is inspiration, but that inspiration takes different forms for everyone.
HITH: Birmingham is the cradle of the Civil Rights Movement. Can you tell me a bit about the connection that the song “Alabama” has with the Civil Rights Movement?
JS: This to me was one of the more interesting story points that we covered in the film. Often times when an artist creates a new composition they are influenced by something like a love affair, a person, or what have you. In this particular case “Alabama” was very much influenced by the bombing of the 16th St. Baptist Church and the death of the four little girls.
Coltrane was searching around for the best way to articulate this and he heard the eulogy Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered for the four little girls. We have a clip from that eulogy in the film. He took the rhythm of it and structured the piece off of that. It was his way of expressing his feelings about the tragic event and yet the hope he had that the Civil Rights Movement would gain traction in this country and would ultimately have an effect.
We have what I think is a very powerful and compelling segment in the film where Cornel West and Common talk about the impact that this piece had not only on just them, but on the country in general.
His step-daughter mentions that he was certainly aware of politics, but never really talked about it. He allowed that to come through his music. So here’s an example of where politics emerged through his music, and it all has to do with your hometown of Birmingham, AL and the tragic event that occurred there.
(16th St. Baptist Church)
HITH: Spencer, what made you want to show this film in Birmingham?
SP: Having a special showing in the cradle of the Civil Rights District in America totally aligns with the spirit of our film. Buddy Palmer of Create Birmingham, a cultural arts entity whose mission is to bring meaningful media and events to Birmingham, has become a new friend and very instrumental in helping to set this up. He worked tirelessly with us to lock down the magical location where we will screen the film Saturday night. It will be shown in a church, on the University of Alabama Birmingham campus, which has now been converted to be an honors media center for the school. Dr. King once preached a sermon here.
Showing the film to the city of Birmingham is sharing John's vision of Coltrane to an audience who will really embrace and talk about it. This is a love note to Birmingham -- to share the nexus and ethos of Coltrane with a city that can totally relate to what the film and Coltrane is all about.
JS: We have turned down quite a few prestigious film festivals, but as Spencer said, when the request came in, and he started talking to his colleagues in Birmingham, it was just too right on for us to ignore. We are just thrilled that this will be shown in Birmingham!
I will leave you with one last story. Each time you film a documentary you face various challenges when it comes to content that is available to put into the film. Sometimes there’s more footage, sometimes less footage. In his lifetime, Coltrane did no television interviews and very few radio interviews. The radio interviews didn’t have great audio quality, but I wanted him to have a very vibrant and vital presence in the film. Happily, he had done a lot of print interviews over the years.
I was able to take those words and pepper them throughout the film to illuminate what he might have been thinking or feeling at a particular time which really gave us a window into him as a person, his creative processes, and his spiritual journey.
I said that I wanted them to be read by a movie star, so I put together a list of five stars that I thought would be right for this. My top pick was Denzel Washington. I went to a casting director friend of mine, Vickie Thomas, who does casting for all of Quentin Tarantino’s films. She reached out to some of the people I had on my list.
This was on a Wednesday, by Saturday I had a text from her that said “Denzel is in! Needs to talk to you. Call him and he will call you back.” On Monday I called and he picked up right away and said, “Oh, yes, John, right! Love this Idea! I gotta see the film.”
I sent him the rough cut and five days go by and I don’t hear a word, so I’m convinced he hates it.
On the fifth day the phone rings. He doesn’t say "Hello," or, "This is Denzel." The first words out of his mouth are “It’s beautiful, brother!”
We flew to Pittsburgh where he was filming "Fences." He was wonderful to work with! He came very prepared with how he wanted to bring Coltrane alive. Denzel really elevates the overall impact of the film. He really captured the essence of Coltrane. Everyone I spoke with that knew Coltrane said he had a “quiet strength,” and, as an actor, Denzel has a quiet strength about his characters. We were all the better for it!
SP: Not only was Denzel great to work with, but his people were gracious, heartfelt, and supportive in helping us get the deal done. It is a tribute to how well Denzel and John clicked. It was a wonderful process.
"Chasing Trane" is something very precious and special to share with Birmingham. I’m very grateful to Buddy Palmer and another local creative, Marcus Turner, for helping us set this up and coordinate all the moving parts.
You know, Russell, it all happens for the right reason and in the right ways. That’s how life goes.
JS: It is definitely a labor of love we are looking forward to sharing!
HITH: Spencer, I hear you have a connection to Alabama outside of this project.
SP: I do. I produced the film “Space Warriors” on the campus of the U.S. Space and Rocket Center /Space Camp in Huntsville, AL. My son Morgan went to Space Camp and Aviation Challenge for 8 years in a row wanting to be an astronaut and a pilot. He learned such fantastic leadership and fraternal skills there. So in 2013, I gave 25 scholarships for kids across the North America to come to Huntsville and attend Space Camp. For that, and producing a heartfelt and inspirational movie with Walden Media as my partner, I was made an honorary citizen of the State of Alabama by your then and present Gov. Robert Bentley. So, there is definitely some love here from me for Alabama!
I got a LOT of enjoyment out of this interview! I can't wait to see the film for myself especially knowing what all went into making it happen! -Russell Hooks
"Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary" will be showing March 25th at 7pm in Spencer Hall on UAB's campus.