And then it happens. And when it happens, you just can't believe it's happening. Cornel West, one of the leading black intellectuals of the 20th century, and one of the celebrity interviewees in the entertaining documentary Chasing Trane (Bill Clinton, Wynton Marsalis, and John Densmore are the other big names), looks down and with a sad face, admits that the music of the most experimental and expansive period in John Coltrane’s career, his cosmic period (which began in 1965 and ended with his death in 1967), went way over his head. He did not understand this music, or even like it.
When discussing the two other major stages of Coltrane’s career (the spiritual period—1962 to 1965; and the arrival period—1958-1961), West gets so excited, so filled with joy, that he pops on his seat like corn in a hot pan. He remains still when discussing and contemplating the cosmic moment, which is also the moment that Coltrane’s second wife, Alice Coltrane, replaced McCoy Tyner as the band’s pianist. You can even see West struggling to say one nice thing about the freaky, atonal, blistering blowing on those late records, but he can’t. He listened to them once, and that was enough.
Bill Clinton is not even asked about that period. After discussing the masterpiece of American culture, Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, the former president leaves the documentary. Johan Densmore, the onetime drummer of the Doors, admits that the last period is only for those who, after very deep reflection and self-inspection, have made the commitment to go where ever John Coltrane blows: the gutter, the clouds, the stars, the black holes. It does not matter if you like it or not. You buy all of his records and you listen to all of them all of the time. That is your duty as a true Coltrane fan. But as a lover of jazz history or great Americans, it is your duty to not miss this documentary.