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August 12, 2003
What’s it like growing up as the son of a jazz legend? That’s the first question I put to Ravi Coltrane last week as we talked about his life, music career and his concert Saturday night at the Roper Center for the Performing Arts as part of this year’s Jazz Norfolk festival.
“I was very lucky and very fortunate to have my mom so grounded and rooted in the face of having kind of an extraordinary life,” he told me. “You know, being very young and being married to this man who was already a jazz icon when they met in the early ‘60s.
“My mother always lived a modest life with all of these great things going on around her. She still has furniture from when we lived in Huntington, Long Island, back in the ‘60s. She was very focused, and that was conveyed to all of us, the seriousness of the life practices that you choose.”
Dad was saxophonist John Coltrane, one of the most creative and innovative forces in jazz history. Mom is Alice Coltrane, a gifted performer in her own right, whose two 1970 albums, Ptah the El Daoud and Journey in Satchidananda, are classics of spiritual jazz. But Ravi was only two years old when his father passed away in 1967, so his dad was not a physical presence in his childhood.
“My mother played his records in the house all the time, from my earliest memories,” he recalls. “We were aware of it. It was music that I dug. I thought it was cool sounding. But it wasn’t something that was really holding on to me, really driving me or shaping my life as a young person. That was the funk music, soul music, R&B. Later on I started listening to the Beatles and my mother played a lot of symphonic music around the house.”
Ravi Coltrane played clarinet in his junior high school band, but at that point looked on music as a “casual thing.” It was the death of his brother, John Coltrane, Jr., that ultimately led him to a deeper connection to his father’s music and vocation.
“The main change in my life happened when my older brother was killed in an automobile accident. I was about to start my second year of high school. Everything just sort of shut down, I stopped playing the clarinet. I wandered around for about four years. The focus just kind of went off.”
It was during this lost period that Ravi began to investigate his father’s recorded legacy. It happened when friends of his knew more about the details of his father’s recordings, the music trivia, than he did. So he started listening and reading album covers.
“I was primed, I guess, at a time in my life when I needed something to bring me back to center again,” he says. “It ended up being John Coltrane’s music in a way that I hadn’t anticipated or expected. The funny thing was, I went to it for something else completely----‘let me get this record out just so I could look at the back cover and see where it was recorded, so I won’t be embarrassed at parties.’ And I got this huge gift out of it. I finally connected with the music. It had a sound in it that I hadn’t heard before, like this calling that began tugging at me. Slowly but surely I stopped listening to the music that I had been listening to. I started digging up any of the stuff that we had in the house.
“Then I went back to Charlie Parker stuff, Sonny Rollins records. It all had this meaning and power that had just taken it over. I thought, ‘If I feel this close to this music as a listener, maybe I should investigate trying to play some of this stuff.’”
So, at the age of 20, he “started to noodle around on the saxophone.” The next year, 1986, he enrolled in the California Insitute of the Arts, a place where most of the students already had undergraduate music degrees. Ravi was way behind the curve.
“Charlie Haden, who’d been a musical associate of my mother’s in the ‘70s, was the artistic director. Basically due to his influence I got in. When I went there, I couldn’t string two notes together. I went there to learn how to play.”
And for the first time in his life, he discovered the burden of being the son of John Coltrane.
“My last name being Coltrane, and walking in with a saxophone, was really hard. That was something that didn’t exist in my upbringing. Growing up in the ‘70s and early ‘80s in the San Fernando Valley, your last name being Coltrane didn’t raise many eyebrows.
“A lot of people thought it was a joke,” he continues. “Somebody in the admissions office saw this name Ravi Coltrane, and he thought it was a joke…You take Ravi Shankar’s first name and John Coltrane’s last name.”
When they discovered who he was, “people were expecting the second coming of John Coltrane, and you have a guy coming out who could barely play a major scale, who has to look at his fingers to find ‘C’. The first year was a little intense, but by the end of the year the ‘Coltrane son’ thing was wearing off. I was just ‘Ravi’ by the end of the year.
“I progressed a lot from the beginning of my first year to the beginning of my second year. I think I spent the entire summer practicing.”
He has progressed quite nicely since then, and the three albums he’s released as a leader so far show the development of a distinctive musical voice. His latest, Mad 6, is one of the best discs of the year. His version of Charles Mingus’ “Self Portrait in Three Colors” is masterful, and the disc opening “26-2,” an under-recorded John Coltrane piece, is one of the cookin-est things you’re gonna hear in this or any year. His original material is fresh and inventive.
“The record was trying to capture the live, working band kind of sound,” he says of Mad 6, “and the kind of material we were playing on live gigs.”
He’s also become a record executive, launching the RKM label with his wife Kathleen Hennessy and musician Michael McGinnis. The label has thus far released three CDs, but none by Coltrane himself.
“To me it’s one life, a musician’s life,” he explains. “Playing music, working on music, hearing music, teaching music, producing music…it’s all connected. So I felt like this could be a cool thing, whether I record my own music or not.”
Saturday at the Roper, Coltrane will be accompanied by Venezuelan pianist Luis Perdomo, whom he has recorded for an upcoming release on RKM. The rhythm section includes bassist Ugonna Okegwo and drummer Damion Reid. He says we can expect songs from his first three albums plus some new originals.
And I wouldn’t be surprised if we heard him put a new spin on a tune or two from the rich catalog of that other Mr. Coltrane.
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