To Capture the Feel of Coltrane: The Biography of the Biographer


Back in 2011, more than four years after publishing a review of Ben Ratliff’s Coltrane: The Story of a Sound, I woke to an e-mail message that made me do a double-take. When I saw the author’s name, I was wondering whether it was really the person I thought it was. During my college years, I was fascinated by the music and life of John Coltrane, so much so that within the span of a few months I had read all three of the biographies then available: J.C. Thomas’s Chasin’ the Trane: The Music and Mystique of John Coltrane, Bill Cole’s John Coltrane, and C. O. Simpkins’ Coltrane: A Biography.Coltrane: A Biography Cover On that morning back in 2011, there was a message that appeared to be from Simpkins himself. When I read it, I figured it had to be he, because the writer partly took me to task for a couple of things in my review. Luckily, I was able to answer and deflect both criticisms. One idea I didn’t endorse—that Coltrane was “obsessive” about practicing—was in a direct quote, and the published gloss made clear how my position differed. The other idea was an editing infelicity of the kind that makes writers cringe: the removal of a word, in this case a crucial “perhaps.” Anyway, I never got a reply to my reply (maybe Simpkins was unswayed or just busy), but yesterday I happened upon a piece that tells us a little about the life of the man who presented a more intimate portrait of Coltrane than any other biographer before or since. The author of the piece is Sam Stephenson, the documentarian behind The Jazz Loft Project, and he makes me want to know even more about Simpkins. Click through for more (while I search my archives for the e-mail address) …

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