A new documentary film about John Coltrane proposes that Philadelphia is the city of a Brotherly Love Supreme.
The legendary jazz saxophone player lived in Philadelphia through most of the 1950s, nurturing the artist toward a breakthrough that sent bebop on a spiritual path.
"Coltrane's Philadelphia," a 28-minute documentary produced by the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, will premiere Wednesday evening at the International House in University City. WHYY contributed editing facilities to the project.
"The mission is to simply show how someone built and acquired the tools for that kind of artistic transformation that he used later," said Tom Moon, a musician and critic who co-directed the film. "When [Coltrane] moved to New York [in 1958], he becomes a central figure in the story of jazz. What the film tries to do is to suggest that didn't just happen because he moved to New York, or people suddenly 'got it.' It was part of a process of growth and a process of experience — 10,000 hours of playing night after night."
Artistic progression in Philadelphia
The film paints mid-century Philadelphia as a vibrant jazz scene, where clubs such as the Showboat and the Zanzibar regularly drew major talents, including Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie, and fostered ambitious young musicians who could play out almost every night of the week.
During his years in Philadelphia, Coltrane struggled with heroin addiction, a habit that nearly cost him his career. He finally kicked it in his house on North 33rd Street, just before recording the album Blue Train. The seminal Giant Steps followed shortly thereafter.
The film is structured around still photography pulled from city archives and Temple University, with new interview material from saxophone player Odean Pope, a contemporary of Coltrane's; singer Dorothy "Dottie" Smith, who passed away late last year; and Amir "Questlove" Thompson, the drummer from The Roots.
"The progression of Coltrane's life — the spiritual phase, once he became clean — just devoted his entire being to the saxophone in ways that he could reinvent music, and modal tones and chords," said Thompson in the film. "He felt a responsibility, whether the world acknowledged it or not."
The lightning-fast scales and the sophisticated harmonic progression ("Coltrane changes"), which Coltrane developed with religious fervor, were not instant hits. His genius was initially overlooked.
"The notion of the slow, steady, step-wise progression of an artist is not romantic — it certainly isn't something a young person will respond to," said Moon, lamenting the way "American Idol" is now seen as a viable career path. "We have a culture that expects instant stardom. What I've learned covering music for almost 30 years: Nothing about music is instant."
An entry to local jazz history
The Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia is funding the documentary with a portion of a $72,000 grant from the Pew Heritage Center to raise awareness of Philadelphia's jazz history and Coltrane's place in it
"By telling the history of Coltrane's time in Philadelphia, you ask questions: Where did that happen?" said Melissa Jest of the Alliance. "That's where we get the opportunity to point to sites that may exist still - but points that were significant in his time and his development here in Philadelphia."
While the Showboat and Zanzibar are not longer there — Ortlieb's still stands in Northern Liberties, but not as a jazz club. John Coltrane's house still stands, albeit precariously. The owner of the dilapidated building, Lenora Early, is raising money to renovate it into a museum. She was not involved in the production of "Coltrane's Philadelphia."
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