Jazz: Impressions of my father

It's taken time, but Ravi Coltrane is able to live up to a daunting legacy.
The example of Martin and Kingsley Amis doesn't even come close. It's more as if James Joyce's son had decided not only to publish a novel, but to set it in Dublin at the turn of the century; or if Pablo Picasso Jr were to begin his career by having another crack at Cubism, using his dad's old palette and brushes. For the celebrated jazz saxophonist John Coltrane - the father of jazz saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, who plays concerts in London and Manchester this month - was the Joyce and Picasso of modern jazz rolled into one. He didn't just write the book; he pretty much ended it, going so far out in the last stages of his heroic career (he died in 1967) that some people feel he is the final chapter in the whole story.

So pity poor Ravi Coltrane (named after his father's friend, the Indian master musician Ravi Shankar), who was, on his own admission, rather lumbered with the family name by a man of whom he says he has no memory, being only two years old when he died. Although his mother, the pianist and composer Alice Coltrane, is a famous jazz musician herself, Ravi, who is now 33, did not take up music seriously until he was in his early twenties. When he eventually enrolled on a college course in music in his home city of Los Angeles, his name was no help to him at all. More experienced players expected Ravi to live up to his legacy from the off. Accordingly, he struggled to come to terms with the ABC of jazz when, for most of his peers, his father had already made the conventional alphabet redundant.

At 33, Ravi Coltrane looks more or less as his father might have done, had he worn spectacles and been given the chance to favour understated hip-hop leisure-wear over conservative lounge suits. Like John Coltrane, he's a quiet man, and although his conversation is elegant and witty, he's very serious when it comes to jazz. If he ever suffered doubts about his career - and he did - he seems to have overcome them. The sound of his album, Moving Pictures (released by RCA-Victor), is emphatically his own, although it does reveal a debt to its producer, the alto saxophonist Steve Coleman.

"I was aware that both of my parents were musicians, and that my father was not around," Ravi says of his childhood. "But never having known my father, and never knowing the concept of a man around the house, I wasn't totally aware of who I was, or of the lineage of my parents. Sometimes one of my friends would say, `Hey, your father's on this record', and you'd put it on for five minutes and then go and ride your bike for the rest of the year. I liked music but I hadn't got the jazz bug yet." It wasn't until Ravi reached his late teens that he started to listen to jazz and the records of his father.

"I first heard Charlie Parker when I was 12 or 13, but I was not aware of the depth of the music, or even of my father's music. People can tell you about it, but it's like someone describing making love to a woman: it doesn't really translate until you experience it. Later, when I wasn't playing - I had put the horn down for three years after my brother, John Jr, died in 1982 - I needed to get a more adult perspective on my father's music. So, when I was 18 or 19, I put those records on, solely to get the history down. I wanted to be aware of who he was historically. It changed my life. I stopped listening to pop music, and I started to seek out the work of other musicians like Sonny Rollins.... It all started making sense. It was incredible."

If you press him about which era of his father's music he likes best, you don't get very far. "I love all of it," he says. "My father's music between 1957 and 1967 is like night and day to most people, but I hear the thread, from '67 all the way back to when he was playing with Dizzy Gillespie in the early Fifties. From my viewpoint, I can't cut it up into little bits: I get the same kind of charge from all of it, although it took a while for that to happen."

Even before he began to play professionally, Ravi benefited from the informal network formed by his late father's musical associates. In the school holidays he would stay in New York with Rashied Ali, once John Coltrane's drummer; Pharoah Sanders gave him mouthpieces. Then he met Elvin Jones, the drummer in John Coltrane's great quartet.

"We had some nice conversations, but I never told him that I was a musician or that I played the saxophone, although by the end of the week's engagement he had caught wind of it and was asking me about my music," he says. Six months later, Jones asked him to join the band for a few gigs.

In fact, Ravi joined Elvin Jones for two years, although he was nowhere near ready for it. "I felt inadequate every time I stepped up to the microphone, but it was also a very positive experience. I got more confident, more together, and moved to New York and started to meet people like Jack DeJohnette and Steve Coleman." He has deliberately delayed making an album under his own name until now, turning down numerous offers because he felt that companies might be more interested in his name than his music. "They think they have a formula for how to sell jazz records, but as a result they keep making the same record over and over again. I didn't want to feel like some kind of franchise. It should be a simple process: you've got some ideas, so put them on tape." It's a philosophy that his father was always happy with.

The Ravi Coltrane Band plays the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London SEl (0171- 960 4242) tomorrow, and Band On The Wall, Manchester (0161-834 1786) on Sunday. `Moving Pictures' is available on RCA-Victor