Tranography: A Juxtaposition of Apparent Conflicts Between Two Biographies
“ Criticism is the essence of good scholarship and as an academic I have lived with and thrived within a process that inherently embodies rigorous critique. ”
The following material was provided to All About Jazz by Dr. Cuthbert Simpkins, a noted John Coltrane biographer. We would like to thank Dr. Simpkins for his efforts. Vic Schermer
[Despite several biographies of John Coltrane , confusion understandably exists regarding some aspects of his life and work. Because of the mythological and legendary status of "Trane," reality and fantasy sometimes comingle, and it is difficult to separate historical fact from gaps filled in by authors and their sources. In an effort to "set the record straight," at least from his point of view, the following article was submitted by Cuthbert Simpkins, M.D. He is the author of Coltrane: A Biography (1975). Dr. Simkins contacted All About Jazz requesting an opportunity to respond to Lewis Porter, author of a subsequent biography: John Coltrane: His Life and Music (University of Michigan Press, 1997) regarding differences in significant details of their respective books:]
Since his passing in 1967, there have been at least six biographies of John Coltrane. In 1975 my book, Coltrane: A Biography, was published. Coltrane: A Biography was written near the completion of my undergraduate studies at Amherst College and while a medical student at Harvard Medical School. I completed it soon after I graduated from Harvard in 1974. At the time the book was well - received. The sample reviews below are representative of what was written about this book.
"Dr. Simpkins very often accomplishes something that few other jazz biographers have done: He narratively simulates the emotional effect of the subject’s music." New York Times
"...a lyrical and superbly evocative biography. His book successfully transmits or parallels the emotional qualities of Coltrane’s music to the point of giving you the urge to play it...Simpkins’ narration reminds me of the style of the African storytellers, the griots, perpetuators of the oral tradition...truly rewarding, enriching reading." Cleveland Press
"We are always made to see the political and cultural context in which Trane lived. Blues, Religion, black power, Africa....In reading it, one not only learns about Trane, but senses what it was like to hear him, to be alive with him.... At last a fine Coltrane Biography." Berkeley Barb
"Coltrane? What do I say? One helluva book." Essence Magazine
The most recently published work John Coltrane: His Life and Music (see Gene Lees review ) was written by Lewis Porter. I am pleased that Mr. Porter was able to obtain a significant amount of information for his book from Coltrane: A Biography as evidenced by his many references and acknowledgements for material in his text. I am also gratified that he was able to use the pages from Coltrane’s workbook that were originally in my book. It is the proper role for antecedent works to serve as foundations for later work. Also Mr. Porter can be gratified in his accomplishment in that he provides much new and valuable information as well as music analysis. However, in his preface Mr. Porter wrote “ To date only two people - JC Thomas and C.O. Simpkins - have done extensive research on Coltrane’s life. Their resulting books were published in 1975. Both are sincere efforts that contain a great deal of information derived from firsthand interviews, and they are essential for the Coltrane devotee. However, neither is totally reliable. They contain uncredited (sic) statements and stories that do not jibe with common sense. In the description of the book from the publisher, The University of Michigan Press, there is the following excerpt, “Compiled from scratch with the assistance of dozens of Coltrane's colleagues, friends, and family, John Coltrane: His Life and Music corrects numerous errors from previous biographies.”
Criticism is the essence of good scholarship and as an academic I have lived with and thrived within a process that inherently embodies rigorous critique. The idea that “numerous errors” have been corrected is either true or false. The overwhelming preponderance of readers of Mr. Porter’s book is not able to determine whether in fact “numerous errors were corrected”. Only those who have done previous research on Coltrane or who personally knew of a particular event would be able to make such a determination. One thing that is absolute is that the public interest is only served by the truth. It is in the interest of the public knowing the truth that I write this commentary.
The format will be that I will first write Mr. Porter’s assertion and then provide my response. When a page number is given it refers to the location of a statement in either Mr. Porter’s book or in my book. I will first address statements found in the text of Mr. Porter’s book and then I will address those found in the footnotes.