By Ellen McGirt
Updated: November 9, 2017 2:29 PM ET

I was introduced to Trane later in life. Eight years ago in fact.

He was the new, part-time doorman in our low-key uptown apartment building. He was barely nineteen. Outfitted in a spare uniform, some two sizes too big and cinched at his waist, he looked a good deal younger, like a boy cosplaying a man who signed for packages and, if he remembered, held the door.

“I’m Trane,” he said by way of introduction. “But most people think it’s Train.”

“Trane, Like Coltrane? I asked. He burst into a smile and then we were friends.

Trane’s story was like so many young, black men with extremely limited means but high hopes. He was the next generation after the Great Migration, and he liked to tell stories about the times when things got sideways, he’d get sent down to stay with his Southern cousins, where they’d fish for crappies using Skittles as bait. The village that was raising him also included a blur of pastors, some teachers, social workers, street corner philosophers, government uplift programs and now, a bunch of random renters on Manhattan’s Upper West.

But tough as things may have been at times, he had a mother who so believed in the transcendent power of John Coltrane, that she named not one but two of her sons after him. Cole, Trane’s minutes-older brother, was his identical twin. I was transfixed by the notion. What was this black boy magic?

Meeting Trane triggered in me an eight-year quest to understand all things Coltrane, a satisfying if incomplete journey into the life of a man who was rarely interviewed or filmed, but who had come to represent a type of black intellectual and artistic excellence that inspires people to this day.

I listened to his music obsessively. I collected first-hand accounts. I watched every documentary I could find. I made a spiritual pilgrimage to his home in Dix Hills, Long Island. I even developed a nerd-level interest in the mouthpieces he used and tinkered with to change his sound.

So, naturally, I was drawn to Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary, which premiered this week on PBS. It’s definitely worth your time.

While true jazz insiders will undoubtedly find flaws somewhere in the thesis, it gave me what I was looking for. The filmmakers rely largely on Coltrane’s own words, read by Denzel Washington, to help explain his development as an artist, and tap people who knew him and loved him — like jazz great Sonny Rollins, Cornell West, and Coltrane’s own children — to help put the artist’s work into a broader context. Their love for him is a gift.

Coltrane himself was a miracle. He was a sensitive child of the Jim Crow South, who lost most of his immediate family before he was twelve. He was a late bloomer, musically, and he white-knuckled his way out of a crippling addiction into a spiritual awakening that transformed the way he played. He was nurtured by and then outgrew Miles Davis, and through ascetic dedication and intellectual honesty, developed into an artist who made music the world had never heard before. He died of liver cancer at the peak of his career, and yet his records can still makes you feel … something real.

But the true thrill of the film is the previously unreleased photos and video, showing Trane as a shy and gentle man, living his life and loving his family and friends. While he may be best known for his seminal work, A Love Supreme – a musical declaration that his sound was now a fully spiritual expression, completely intertwined with God – the revelation of Chasing Trane is of a man capable of deep love of a personal variety, fully present, untempted by fame or other childish things. Something anyone could be or want.

It was then that I finally saw the complete picture of the Coltrane magic that compelled a troubled new mother to lay his name upon her twin sons.

My first Trane has since moved on, and his Facebook has gone quiet, which makes me worry from time to time. He is on a short list of souls I think specifically about when I hear of a police shooting or other incident involving a young black man. And I often wonder what the original Trane would think of the world as it feels lately, supremely unloving in ways both familiar and strange.

I think John Coltrane would say to pray, do your serious work, and stay positive. “You know, I know that there are forces out here that bring suffering to others and misery to the world,” he once said. “But I want to be the opposite force. I want to be the force which is truly for good.”

I want to believe that his name will be enough to protect sweet Trane and his brother, I really do. But being a small part of a greater opposite force seems like the only hope. It may not always feel like magic, but it keeps me doing the work.


You May Like