Parts of the three interviews from this date are released on CD Impulse! (J) UCCI-9191/5 (John Coltrane/Live in Japan – Deluxe Edition) (5 CD) (released 2011). These excerpts are
Official Press Conference (inc 12:40)
Interview by University Students (inc 4:38)
Private Interview by Kazuaki Tsujimoto (inc 16:48)
The Discography entry (p. 779, paperback edition) is revised as follows:
Second paragraph, last line: Delete "of July 11, 1966".
The following comment applies to the interview of July 9, 1966, discussed in Appendix B (page 778), and also mentioned on pages 349 and 754:
Coltrane aficionado Max Hoff has raised an issue with us concerning a famous comment Coltrane made in an interview in Japan. During an interview at the Magnolia Room in the Tokyo Prince Hotel on July 9, 1966, Coltrane is asked what he would like to be in the next ten or twenty years, and he replies, “I would like to be a saint.” Our entry (p. 778) goes on to state: “This oft-quoted comment has been greatly misunderstood—on the recording he and Alice both laugh, and it is clear that he is joking. “
In a posting online and in subsequent email exchanges, Max (who is also a minister in the Saint John Coltrane African Orthodox Church in San Francisco) objects: “While it may be true that this saying of Coltrane's has been greatly misunderstood, it is not at all true that he was joking…Now, do I think that what Trane meant was that he wanted to die in a year, have a church dedicated to him, and be canonized several years later? Not for a minute. Clearly, John Coltrane understood the concept of 'sainthood' somewhat differently than, say, the Roman Catholic Church. In this concept a 'saint' is a holy person, a devotee, a lover of God--and this is precisely how Coltrane was beginning to view his own life and work.”
Researcher David Tegnell added the following insight: “Many African American churches, particularly holiness, commonly use the term ‘saint’ to refer to those members who have been ‘saved,’ i.e., ‘born again.’ Even if Coltrane did not intend this specific meaning, he would have been familiar with it. ‘Saint’ in African American Protestant religious communities is broadly applied, and simply does not have the same very exclusive connotation that it does in the European Catholic Church. “
In retrospect we wish we had included a more extensive discussion of the "saint" comment; unfortunately, Fuji was only able to obtain this recording (from a journalist
who was present at the interview) in the late stages of production of the book, and this (and a lot of other material) was added hastily under deadline pressure. In particular, “joking” may have been a poor choice to describe Coltrane’s response.
We basically agree with Max--Coltrane didn't literally mean that he wanted to die soon and be canonized as a saint (we felt this was an important point to make because that's exactly how some have interpreted it). Rather, he wanted to live a better and more spiritual (or saintly) life -- to be a "force for good," as he told Frank Kofsky a few weeks later. We did however feel the need to offer some qualification of Coltrane’s remark. That remark has been interpreted by some as though he really wanted to be canonized, an interpretation that goes against all our knowledge of Trane's humility.
A closer examination of this exchange might help. It comes from a public press conference, at which the group performed briefly (the source of our cover photo) and then sat to answer questions. The questions were asked in Japanese; the translator then translated into English. Coltrane replied, and the reply was translated back into Japanese. Coltrane frequently questioned the questions themselves, to clarify the meaning. It was obviously a very cumbersome process. Our transcription (by Chris DeVito) includes all the hesitations (rendered as “um, ah”) and other characteristics, to make the transcription as accurate as possible and to show how difficult the process was. The time-stamps are based on our recording of the interview.
Translator: The gentleman apologizes [one of the journalists apologizes for asking so many questions]. […] As his final question, he wants to know, ah, what, or--and how, ah, you would like to be in, uh, ten or twenty years later. How you--you would like to be, well, in, uh, what kind of, uh, you know, the situation, you would like to, um, establish. [26:43 to 27:16]
John Coltrane: As a, as a musician, or what, as a person? Or-- [27:17 to 27:22]
Translator: Let’s say about--as a person. [27:23 to 27:25]
John Coltrane: In music, or-- As a person. [3-second pause] I would like to be a saint. [John chuckles, followed immediately by Alice] [27:25 to 27:32]
Translator: You would like to be a saint, huh? [more laughter from John and Alice] [27:32 to 27:33]
Coltrane: Definitely. [27:34]
[Translator then translates into Japanese. Someone says something to Trane, who laughs.] [27:35 to around 28:25]
We are of course dealing with conversational communication, and forty years after the fact it is not easy to recapture the nuances of that conversation. Communication theories talk of different channels when an individual sends a message--verbal, qualities of speech, volume, and so forth. From the tape we can recover the verbal and "quasi-verbal" (the laughter) messages. In the sequence in question, Coltrane sends more than one message (as we all do). Verbal: "...saint..."; Quasi-verbal: laughing. We don't know about the other channels of this communication (facial expression, gestures, body language).
We can assume that Coltrane uses the word "saint", knowing that in Christian doctrine this is a strong word. We can assume that he *means* "saint", in some personal sense which he clearly understands. On the other hand he knows how the word "saint" would be understood in a "western" context. So a second channel is working at the same time: he qualifies this statement by using a second communication channel and laughs (there may have been other channels but we of course have only those preserved by the audio). The second person (Alice Coltrane) understands the "double message" and joins in. In this sense Coltrane in fact is "joking", about the daring word "saint" he chose to use in public, using it while at the same time limiting its impact. The laughing seems to be a kind of a bridge, connecting "saint" and his expectations about the meaning that a listener could attribute to the word. The laughter also seems to color the meaning of his one-word response (“definitely”), suggesting something closer to “yes, that’s what I said and I’ll stick with it” rather than “yes, that’s what I said, and it’s not a joke”.
We can even see some irony in the way Coltrane focuses and then responds to this particular question. The tedious interview process seems exacerbated by questions that are often superficial or clouded by the translation. (Later in the interview, someone asks Coltrane what he thinks about while he's playing. Coltrane sighs and says, "Oh, boy."). He first clarifies this somewhat vague question, and then seizes the opportunity to answer it at an unexpected level, prompting the translator to ask for clarification. The irony is present in Coltrane’s evident awareness of the multiple levels of meaning in the word “saint”, and the slight absurdity of the response for those who might take the words literally. And he expresses that irony in laughter.
Obviously there is much to discuss here, and even in eleven paragraphs we’ve barely scratched the surface. But to summarize our view—did Coltrane mean for his comment to be taken literally? No. Was Coltrane “joking”? In some limited sense of the word, yes. But was he also dead serious? Yes.