Michelle Coltrane: "My Goal Is to Uphold the Same Artistic Integrity That My Parents Did"
It's true that a famous surname draws a lot of attention.
Now imagine being the son or daughter of not one, but two famous parents. Double the benefits? Perhaps. But double the pressure? Most assuredly.
No one knows that better than Michele Coltrane. The only daughter of jazz giants John and Alice Coltrane. She was born into an iconoclastic musical dynasty whose impact is likely to linger as long as there are artists willing to push the boundaries. Yet, to her credit she's ventured out and built an impressive career in her own right, working in radio, and as a performer, composer and impresario.
Her first album, I Think of You, was released to considerable acclaim in 1994, and now, nearly 20 years later, she's about to offer up its follow-up, a collaboration with her guitarist and musical director Shea Welsh. We here at Crossfade recently caught up with the pair in anticipation of this weekend's Miami Beach Jazz Festival at the Fillmore Miami Beach.
Crossfade: Often times, being the child of a famous parent can be a blessing or a curse as people tend to make some unfair comparisons. And in your case you have two extremely famous parents. So has it helped or hindered? Are the expectations sometimes overwhelming?
Michelle Coltrane: When I was a young girl thinking back.... all the Coltrane siblings --me, John Jr. Ravi, and Oran lived as an ordinary family does. We always traveled a lot, to music halls, clubs and events. So we began hearing the reactions of people at these places, people who would be so fascinated to meet our parents and even meet us.
As we grew older, and with the loss of our father, it became clear that our parents were unique and highly regarded for their level of talent and their musical contributions. All the children were encouraged to study an instrument of their choice and take lessons, and to participate in band, orchestra, choir, and whatever else. I chose the clarinet, then violin, and later on, I took vocal lessons and piano lessons as well. This part of our life is the blessing and the privilege we were given, to experience and learn the fundamentals of music. On the professional level, yes, it helps to have the name recognition because I believe the public is truly hoping to see an extension of the parents legacy. They want to see the continuance of an artist they loved be extended through the offspring. Once I understood this, I accepted it graciously and humbly without feeling I would disappoint anyone. I look at my parents as many people do -- as innovators. They mastered the artistic process by living it without fear of criticism. They composed and performed the truth as they heard it. My goal is to uphold the same values and artistic integrity that my parents did. I write songs, and perform them, and continue to search for the highest level of truth that can be found for an artist.
Was it a given that you would be a musician?
It is always in the mind of a child of an actor, doctor, or musician etc. to ponder whether they have the ability to do what their parents do. With music, there are many levels that one can acquire and enjoy, be it church or family gatherings. Even an outstanding musician can share their love of music without ever playing Carnegie Hall. The professional side that comes along with the business of the music industry is the game-changer. In my case, the decision to return to music professionally was due to a few things. For one, my children have grown up, and I have the time necessary to devote my all to the process. And I love to create. It's my soul food. Yes, I have pursued other interests. However the music always gave me the most pleasure.
How did your career path first take flight?
I was born in Paris France but returned to the states at a very young age. I started out singing background and doing demo work in the states in the '80s. That led me to some gigs in Japan, where I lived for two years performing in clubs that catered to the contemporary music audience. I moved back to Los Angeles in the early '90s and began collaborating with Scott Hiltzik, a composer and pianist. We produced an album entitled I Think of You. I also did some performances in Paris night clubs, and here in the U.S.
What was the critical reaction?
I received many complimentary critiques!
Did your parents ever try to steer you away from music?
Never ever. To them, it was a part of life. They always encouraged me and my brothers.
What do you think was John Coltrane's greatest legacy?
John Coltrane, the man, is the epitome of artistic innovation. There have been countless saxophone players, scientists, engineers, and athletes even, who have also risen to the top of their profession and have raised the bar. There was something inside my father's being that guided him to take his craft to the highest degree possible. If he were a surgeon, I believe he would have applied the same work ethic and determination, breaking boundaries to discover new technological advancements.