An Open Letter From Lewis Porter
This is a very belated response to Dr. C. O. Simpkins' critique, posted on AAJ in March 2003, of my book John Coltrane: His Life and Music (Univ of Michigan Press, 1998). As your readers may know, Dr. Simpkins, a physician, was the author of Coltrane: A Biography in 1975. His book, and one by J.C. Thomas, were the first Coltrane biographies to be published. For those of your readers who don't know me, I am a lifelong jazz educator and pianist, the author of a number of other books and many articles on jazz, and I am a Ph.D. musicologist teaching at Rutgers University in Newark, where I direct the world's only jazz history degree program, a Master's program.
I don't know why Dr. Simpkins states that he "would have been delighted to have been given the opportunity to assist" me. I called him on the phone April 20, 1997, specifically to ask if he could locate tapes of his interviews with persons who had since passed away. We had a pleasant conversation, during which he told me, very nicely, that he could not get to any of his original notes or tapes, which were packed away, so that he couldn't really be of help. We were in touch again when I requested his permission to reproduce in my book some of Coltrane's notebooks which he had obtained from Naima (these pages had never been analyzed), to which he graciously assented. (See my pages 137, 167, and 168.)
I finished the last additions to my book in August 1997 and it was published in January 1998. You can imagine my feelings when I learned a few months later that Dr. Simpkins had begun conducting a campaign on the internet to "discredit" my book and build his up! He wrote anonymously as "An Amazon.com customer," and wrote again anonymously at Barnes and Noble, but this time giving his email address. He wrote under his own name to Perfectsound.com and then of course he wrote more recently to AAJ.
The details of Dr. Simpkins' postings do not address the main issue. Yes, it is true that we differ on a number of points. My book differs from all previous Coltrane books on a number of points. I spoke with over 200 persons (including Walter Hoover, by the way), all clearly identified in the book. Furthermore, I did not rely alone on the memories of my interviewees; my points are supported by documentary evidence such as newspapers, census records, birth and death certificates, and music manuscripts.
The true bottom line here is this. I ask any reader of this site to look at both books, and consider: Can you possibly maintain that they are the same type of book in appearance, style, or content? Because Dr. Simpkins has spent his life in the medical field, while I have spent mine in jazz, and because he wrote his early in life as a medical student, while mine is the culmination of years of jazz writing, performing, and research, one could hardly expect his book to be the same kind that I would write. So, how and why could we possibly compete with each other? I maintain that his book is essential, and I said so in my preface. Meanwhile, my book carries endorsements on the back from Dan Morgenstern, Ravi Coltrane, and Jimmy Heath, and, if I may say so, it has been enthusiastically received among jazz musicians in general.
I look forward to continuing my good relationship with Dr. Simpkins in private.
Lewis Porter, PhD
Director, M.A. Program in Jazz History and Research