An Absolute Truth: On Writing a Life of Coltrane
June 3, 2014 | by Sam Stephenson
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.
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.
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.”
* * *
The day after Christmas, in 2012, I packed my rented Chevrolet Impala in New Orleans and drove five hours northwest to Shreveport. My plan was to spend a couple of days with Dr. Cuthbert Simpkins, Coltrane biographer and trauma surgeon.
Simpkins was born in Shreveport in 1947 and returned there in 2004 to be head of trauma surgery at LSU Health Shreveport, the former Confederate Memorial Hospital. His parents—Dr. C.O. Simpkins, a former dentist, and Dorothy Herndon Simpkins—are still alive and residing (separately—they divorced in the 1970s) in Shreveport. They were civil rights pioneers in the fifties and sixties, organizing local efforts with national leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Ella Baker.
After dropping my bags at a bed-and-breakfast, I drove across town to the ranch-style house Simpkins shares with his wife, Diane, in a forested suburban neighborhood. Tuffy, as he’s known to family and friends, was wearing green hospital scrubs. He had just returned home from a shift in the intensive care unit at Rapides Regional Medical Center in nearby Alexandria.
In the kitchen, I met Tuffy’s mother, Dorothy, now eighty-six and recovering from a stroke. She can walk slowly with help and can acknowledge conversation by moving her head and smiling. She seemed delighted by our company, tapping her feet to the music on the stereo (it was Cannonball Adderley). When Coltrane: A Biography was published, Simpkins named his press, Herndon House, after her.
Before my trip I had read about Simpkins’s parents in several civil rights histories. Dorothy and C.O. were unrelenting, at times militant advocates for equal rights. Dr. Simpkins was known to carry a gun, including one in the shape of an ink pen and loaded with a single bullet. (“Nonviolent tactics sometimes worked better when you were carrying a gun,” he told me later.) In the 1950s Dorothy was one of the first black people in Shreveport to refuse to move from the front of a city bus. The police once pulled her from a bus and arrested her in front of the troupes of Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts she was escorting. In the early sixties, when Tuffy was a teenager, two of the family’s houses were bombed by white supremacists.
After only a half hour of conversation, it was clear that Tuffy and Diane operate as a unit. I asked how they met. They laughed together, looked at each other as if to ask, Are you going to tell this story or am I? “We met at the main post office in New Brunswick, New Jersey, in 1982,” Tuffy began. “I wanted to write a book about Russia. I didn’t know anything about Russia, so I knew I had to go there and learn the language, all the nuances and dialects, and I needed a passport. I walked in the post office and noticed Diane immediately. I got in line for her window. She was beautiful and I saw that she treated people really well, and she had a beautiful voice and a wonderful smile. I asked for her phone number. She said, I don’t give customers my phone number. I gave her my number. She never called.
“So, one day I put on my best suit, cleaned myself up, bought a dozen roses, and went back to the post office. I had just reread Cyrano de Bergerac, so I wrote a poem in that romantic style and gave that to her, too. And I gave her ten phone numbers. I gave her my father’s phone number, my mother’s phone number, my brother’s phone number, and a few friends’. I wrote her a note saying, If you don’t trust me enough to call me, call these other people as references. She waited about two days to call. The rest is history. I never got around to my book on Russia.”
They laughed and Tuffy looked at me: “On our first date I learned she already knew about Monk and Sun Ra.” He shrugged his shoulders. “What could I do? I was done.”
I asked Tuffy when his impulse to write about Coltrane came about. He responded:
I was working on my senior honors thesis in chemistry at Amherst in 1969. My girlfriend at the time, Shela Anderson, was a freshman at Smith College. She noticed that whenever I listened to Coltrane I took notes on pieces of paper. I listened to a lot of music but it was only Coltrane that moved me to write down my thoughts and feelings. Shela was a talented writer and she suggested that I keep my notes. I had been throwing the scraps of paper away, so she gave me spiral notebook to write in. After one night of thinking about the formulas I was deriving for my chemistry thesis, I woke up and declared to myself that I was going to write a book on Coltrane. I wanted to know who John Coltrane was. I wanted to know where his music came from.
* * *
“Trane” might as well have come from Krypton. The man “John Coltrane” is hard to locate in other people’s memories today, or in the existing studio or club recordings of his music, which document the known pinnacles, not the fits and starts and hours and years of rigor and anxieties. A list of facts doesn’t help much, either: his formative years in North Carolina are difficult to excavate and easy to summarize or skip over. Plus, the iconographic mid-century jazz photography makes Coltrane look seven feet tall (a 1947 Naval photograph shows him to be under five-foot-ten, a normal-size man). The legend is overwhelming.
Distance, distraction, and apathy make the devastating chaos of the 1960s and early seventies difficult to feel today, too. Malcolm X was assassinated in 1965. Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968. The Vietnam War was going nowhere. The country was on fire, literally in some places, and reactionary forces clamped down, creating a weird climate of both chaos and torpor. In the 1972 presidential election, the sitting president, Nixon, carried forty-nine states.
Tuffy Simpkins began researching Coltrane: A Biography in 1969 and published it in 1975. During that span, he interviewed more than a hundred subjects, almost all of them black: musicians in New York, Coltrane’s childhood friends and schoolteachers in North Carolina. The tone he found for his book is imbedded in Coltrane’s cultural moment, which was described by the late poet, playwright, and performance artist Sekou Sundiata in Steve Rowland’s outstanding five-hour radio documentary, Tell Me How Long Trane’s Been Gone:
People can mistake being fierce for being angry, you know, and they are not the same, and I think there was something fierce about what [Coltrane] was doing, something driven about what he was doing, you know, and I think that was in tune with the times, you know. When I speak about this consciousness, and this developing consciousness, developing at a very rapid rate, a very rapid pace, affecting every segment of society, certainly every segment of the black community. There’s sort of a breathlessness to the sixties and the seventies, as if in fact there’s not enough time to get it all said, to get it all done, a sense of urgency that it has to happen now.
* * *
The next morning in Shreveport, Tuffy and Diane picked me up at the bed-and-breakfast and drove me to the suburban house where the elder Dr. Simpkins lives with his wife. Along the way, we meandered through the old neighborhood where the family lived through those years of civic strife. As with many black neighborhoods across America in the sixties and seventies, this one was fissured by a new downtown highway bypass, part of urban renewal, or “Negro removal,” as James Baldwin called it.
We stopped at Dr. Simpkins’s old dental office, and went inside the back room where he held strategy meetings with dissenters and activists a half century ago. We also saw the vacant lot where the almost-finished Simpkins family home was bombed in 1962. (A Jet magazine story on the bombing valued the home at fifty thousand dollars—about four hundred thousand in 2013 money.) We then drove into an affluent neighborhood on Cross Lake and pulled into the driveway of the home of Tuffy’s father and stepmother. The large house features a patio with a swimming pool and cabana. Below is a boat dock on the lake.
The elder Dr. Simpkins could pass for a man ten or fifteen years younger. Over a lunch of sandwiches and high-end rum, I listened to the memories. Dr. Simpkins told this story about his grandfather, Oscar Seymour “Seeb” Simpkins, who owned valuable real estate in nearby Mansfield: “When some whites wanted to take the choice land he lived on, he got his guns and told a white friend who came to warn him, as he took a swig of whiskey, You tell ’em to hurry up cause I’m damn tired of waiting.” They never came and Seeb kept his land.
In 1962, the second Simpkins house was bombed, this one a vacation home on a lake. Dr. Simpkins was in the crosshairs of white supremacists in northwest Louisiana who saw him as the principle agitator in that region. As a result, or as part of a concerted effort, the company insuring his dental practice canceled his policy. Dr. Simpkins was pulled in two directions: his instinct was to stay home and fight for equality, but he also wanted to send his kids to college. The kids’ safety and well-being came first, so Dr. Simpkins gathered the family in the living room and told them they’d be moving.
The family eventually settled at 197th Street and 110th Avenue in Queens, and Dr. Simpkins set up his practice there. (In 1990, he moved back to Shreveport and was elected into the Louisiana House of Representatives.) Naima Coltrane, John’s first wife, owned a dashiki shop a few blocks away, on Hollis Avenue. She and her daughter, Saida, became Dr. Simpkins’s patients. When Tuffy expressed interest in writing about Coltrane, his father encouraged him to reach out to Naima; she was the first person he interviewed for the book, and she later gave Tuffy contact information for many of his sources.
* * *
In the car, I asked Tuffy about his process for writing Coltrane: A Biography.
I know I made many mistakes, but I had to write regardless of what people might say about it or critics might think about it. I wanted to capture the feel of Coltrane, who he was, what his music sounded like, what the times felt like—I wanted to use whatever mode of writing was necessary to capture that feeling. I wanted the book to palpitate, to move and feel, to have blood running through it. To be Coltrane, as much as a book can be somebody.
I was concerned about how white people would feel about it. I thought it might offend them. Some of the things—the anger, the bitterness of the black experience—were expressed in a tough manner. But I decided I wasn’t going to change anything. I just let it be out there like it was.
The audience I developed in my mind’s eye was an audience of black children, as though I was talking to my own children. Something about writing for children imposed an absolute truth in my effort. I thought that was the best way for me to put the truth out there without any compromise.
* * *
The practice of remaking a Broadway show tune—a staple of white American popular culture at mid-century—into something more exotic, by exploring and taking apart the tune’s melodic, harmonic, and chordal structures and improvising around those structures before putting them back together, was the underpinning of postwar jazz, both white and black. It had hints of scandal and risk: exploiting or one-upping a standard pop song by Gershwin or Cole Porter or Howard Arlen was hip, underground entertainment. The exercise reached its zenith in 1961, when Coltrane covered “My Favorite Things,” written by Rodgers and Hammerstein for the 1959 Broadway production of The Sound of Music. He turned a two-minute forty-four second song into a thirteen-minute warhorse of dominion.
But that was never Coltrane’s motivation, and he proved it in the six years after “My Favorite Things” by developing music that was not based on preexisting chords but on modes and scale structures that gave him more freedom. The elements that mattered to him the most were rhythm and pure sound, influenced by music from Africa and India. One tune might span an entire set in a club, seventy-five minutes or more. For many listeners, Coltrane provided a model for breaking free from constraints, for evolving into a spiritual being free of Western conventions. In 1965, his quartet held residency at New York’s downtown club, the Half Note, and owner Mike Caterino reported that at least ninety percent of the audience was black, a much higher number than other black musicians drew in his club at the time. That moment is long gone, but thankfully preserved, in part, by the many recordings Coltrane left behind.
* * *
The opening paragraph of Coltrane: A Biography reads like a poetic note jotted by Simpkins on scratch paper in his final semester at Amherst.
Moments. Moments of great emotion never die. They are like purple diamonds swirling through the ages, or lavender pulsation burning, magnificently, about the mortal universe.
Four paragraphs later, he writes,
Through courage comes freedom. It takes courage to express what you feel, to meditate as you need. Emotional depth and mastery of technique rarely throb within a single pulsation. John Coltrane possessed, and was possessed, by this gift. His story begins with his ancestors.
The book goes on to describe Coltrane’s family background with emphasis on his maternal grandfather, Reverend William Wilson Blair, an A.M.E. Zion minister and relentless, trailblazing leader for equal rights:
(Re. Blair) denounced the white man from the pulpit, teaching that we should work together for our common advancement. Some Blacks thought being so straightforward with “important” white folks was improper, and that conditions for Blacks need not be improved. Others shuddered as he unleashed attacks with all the fury of the holy ghost.
The analog between Rev. Blair and Dr. C.O. Simpkins, the gun-carrying dentist, is clear but unstated in the book, as is the prominence of Coltrane’s family in High Point in the 1930s with the Simpkins family’s in Shreveport in the 1950s.
The strength of the book comes from firsthand stories Simpkins obtained through his interviews. He tells the story of a teenage Coltrane and his best friend, James Kinzer, one day secretly following home John’s schoolyard sweetheart, who lived on the poorer side of High Point. After she entered her house, the two boys knocked on her door. When she answered, she burst into tears, ashamed and embarrassed by her poverty.
Another story comes from Calvin Massey, a trumpeter and friend of Coltrane’s from Philadelphia, where Coltrane moved with his family after graduating from high school, in 1944. In the late forties, a black drummer named Nasseridine, a converted Muslim and close friend of Coltrane’s, was beaten to death by white Philadelphia police after being confronted while kneeling on his prayer rug on a street corner. In another story from Massey, he and Coltrane were put in jail by Philadelphia police simply for “corner lounging.”
* * *
Simpkins received early interest in his book from established editors and publishers, but after several false starts, he took control of the process and self-published it. He knew that would mean limited distribution—he printed two thousand hardcover copies—but he had a singular vision for the book, a particular document he wanted to leave behind.
The last edition was published in 1989, when Black Classic Press reissued ten thousand paperback copies. Though Simpkins isn’t anxious to author a new edition, he says that if he did, he’d want it published exactly as it was the first time, with the same handful of misspellings and typographical errors and no index. The book is a piece for the time capsule.
* * *
At Tuffy’s house, I marveled at the box of his original interview tapes that he brought out of a closet. He interviewed iconic saxophonists Ornette Coleman and Sonny Rollins separately on the same day, June 1, 1972, two weeks before five men were captured during the second Watergate Hotel burglary and a month before the movie Superfly was released.
Listening to the tapes today, a prevailing image emerges for me: a young black medical student finds his way into all of these different living rooms around New York and in North Carolina in the early 1970s. He sits for hours, listening. I can hear James Kinzer in High Point telling the story about Coltrane’s teenage girlfriend; I can hear Calvin Massey telling about the police murder of the drummer Nasserdirine; I can hear saxophonist Jimmy Heath talking about looking into Coltrane’s coffin in the summer of 1967 and thinking to himself, “He looked like a simple boy from the country.”
Sam Stephenson is a writer working on a biography of W. Eugene Smith for Farrar, Straus and Giroux. He is author of The Jazz Loft Project. He is also a partner in the documentary company Rock Fish Stew Institute of Literature and Materials, based in Durham, North Carolina.