Writing a Life of John Coltrane

John Coltrane. Photograph: Jim Marshall.
John Coltrane. Photograph: Jim Marshall.
Sam Stephenson discusses biographies of the tenor saxophonist in The Paris Review

A few years ago I found a used, first-edition hardcover of Dr. Cuthbert Ormond Simpkins’s 1975 book, Coltrane: A Biography, online for $150. I had long admired its feverish, street-pulpy story about the saxophonist John Coltrane, whose powerful music increasingly seemed capable of altering one’s consciousness before he died in 1967, at age forty. Posthumously, the mythology and exaltation of Coltrane, as well as his musical influence, only grew. But by that point, Simpkins had already researched and written Coltrane’s story, expressing an uncompromising, unapologetic black voice rarely found in the annals of jazz before or since.

I forked up the money for the hardback. The dust jacket bears an impressionistic black-and-white painting of Coltrane playing soprano saxophone. The rounded, sans serif font resembles that of Soul Train, the popular TV show that premiered in 1971. On the back cover is a photograph of a young, Simpkins sporting a West African dashiki shirt, a high Afro, thick sideburns, and a beard.

John Coltrane, Blue Train
John Coltrane, Blue Train

Simpkins’s idea for the book was conceived during his senior year at Amherst, in 1969; he worked on it during breaks from Harvard Medical School in the early seventies. Simpkins possessed no credentials in jazz or literature. The publisher of the original hardcover is Herndon House; quick Google and Library of Congress searches yield no other books from that publisher. There are identical typographical errors in all three editions—first and second hardback, and paperback. (Sarah Vaughan’s name, for instance, is spelled once as “Vaughn,” and Nesuhi Ertegun appears as “Nehusi.”) All indications point to the book having been self-published, the original piece preserved in two later editions.

The writer Stanley Crouch remembers when Coltrane: A Biography first came out. “In the black jazz world, the arrival of the Simpkins book was a major event,” he told me. There had been a book-launch party at the New Lafayette Theater in Harlem during which saxophonists Sam Rivers and George Braith played. In the New York Times, Gary Giddins wrote a positive review, favoring the book to another Coltrane biography, by J.C. Thomas, that came out the same year. It was a promising, gutsy start for the young writer, but Simpkins’s goal was not to advance a literary career; he never wrote another jazz history. He forged one book on John Coltrane, then moved on to a career in medicine.

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Recording Kind of Blue. Left to right: John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Miles Davis, and Bill Evans.

Coltrane: A Biography has long been out of print, but its significance has become even more apparent since then. Leonard Brown, a professor of music and African American Studies at Northeastern University and the author of John Coltrane and Black America’s Quest for Freedom, told me, “The Simpkins book on Coltrane was written from the perspective of a young, twenty-something black man in the early 1970s, a critical, chaotic time in American history in general and African-American history in particular. That perspective is hard to access today. You can’t find it in a university or conservatory setting.”

New York Times music critic Ben Ratliff, who wrote Coltrane: The Story of a Sound, echoed Brown: “In the early 1970s jazz had become broken, really within a ten-year period, and Coltrane’s death had something to do with that. I have great respect for Simpkins’s book because it is passionately researched and great-souled. There’s a feeling in the book of something urgent being at stake. I think Simpkins, who, importantly, was neither a journalist nor a musician, threw himself into it. The ways in which his book might be perceived as dated today—the detours into poetry, for example—might yet be ways in which it stays fresh.” [Read More]

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