Spring 2017

Coltrane and Me

Why jazz is my religion and Wally’s is my temple

Rural Health Issue

  • By Cuthbert Simpkins
  • 13 minute read

Saxophonist John Coltrane during a performance

It was 1971, and nine years had passed since my family had become refugees in our own country, forced from Shreveport, Louisiana, following the bombing of our home by white supremacists. The terrorists had hoped to crush my parents’ efforts to secure the vote for Blacks in the United States. But they failed: the Voting Rights Act had become the law of the land, my family was intact and thriving in Queens, New York, and I, a young man who had been denied use of the Shreveport public library because of my skin color, had earned my baccalaureate degree in chemistry at Amherst College and completed my first two years at HMS. I also was about to begin a one-year leave of absence to write a biography of the musician-composer John Coltrane.

I had begun work on the biography during my senior year at Amherst. One night after working hard deriving equations for my honors chemistry thesis, I listened to Coltrane’s “Manifestation.” I had listened to Coltrane’s music since high school—his work in particular and jazz in general were the vehicles through which I explored and discovered my inner self. In part, this discovery was enhanced because I have a synesthetic response to music: my brain interprets each note as both sound and color. But I am also drawn to jazz because it abstracts music to its basic elements—chord sequence, modes, or rhythms—and then uses those elements as a platform from which a talented improviser can derive limitless ideas and emotions.

That night in Amherst, “Manifestation” caused me to shake uncontrollably and to see multicolored particles moving randomly in my mind’s eye. The next morning I declared to myself that I would write a book about John Coltrane. I wanted others to know of the wonderful discoveries Coltrane had made in the emotional universe and realized through his music.

When it became clear that the only way I could complete the book was to spend extended time away from my classes, I talked with my advisor at HMS, S. James Adelstein ’53. We settled on my asking for a leave of absence, for this would allow me to officially remain a medical student and retain my medical draft deferment: It was that deferment and a high lottery number that had kept me from the front lines in Vietnam.

I didn’t learn about the controversy that my request stirred up until many years later. One or more of the members of the Board of Advisors worried that I would never return to medical school. But Dr. Adelstein assured them that I would return and, further, that I would do well when I did. That’s exactly what happened.

Blue Train

At that time, I was living in Boston’s South End. That was well before the area had become gentrified. My apartment was in a building owned by a Black man who also worked as an electrician. Although rents then were cheap in that area, ours were cheaper—Mr. Keel had worked things out so that our electricity was free.

Almost every day I would walk the neighborhood, wearing a djellaba or dashiki and playing Coltrane’s “Moment’s Notice” on my recorder. Over time, I got to know some of my neighbors—Freddie, the trumpet player; Nineta, the female saxophone player; Coldcut, the building supervisor and numbers runner; Tiger, the former boxer who lost his eye in a fight with Sugar Ray Robinson and had a boxing school in the neighborhood; and Killer. I never asked Killer what he did. In the building next door lived my dear friend George Turner, a carpenter who worked for Harvard.

Everyone had heard I was a medical student, but most didn’t believe it. After all, a lot of the people who lived in the neighborhood pretended to be a lot of things. But George knew I was in medical school, and so did Bobby Neloms. I had met Bobby, who had attended Berklee College of Music, at Wally’s Cafe Jazz Club on Massachusetts Avenue. He played organ there. Now those who know jazz, and have been around Boston, know Wally’s is the place to hear music. It was and still is, a landmark for anyone who admires jazz. For me, it became a home away from home.

Bobby and I often would get together in my apartment and listen to jazz. I remember one visit in particular. I had been working on the book quite a bit and asked Bobby to read the manuscript. We were listening to Coltrane, when Bobby suddenly jumped up, threw the manuscript across the room, and angrily shouted, “This reads like Reader’s Digest!”

I was stunned. I wanted my book to be Coltrane, to breathe and pulsate with movement and life. I wanted it to show how he came to express his creative genius and to show the struggles he had faced to create his music. I wanted to show how he became what he sought to be: a force for good. So when Bobby delivered his verdict I realized that I needed to forget about what critics might think, forget about offending people, and stay true to Coltrane’s story.

Portrait of a young Cuthbert Simpkins
Cuthbert Simpkins during his medical school years


I was born in Chicago, my mother’s hometown. My mother held a degree in sociology from Tennessee State University in Nashville and had the chance to work with W.E.B. DuBois, but she got married and had me instead. My brother and sisters followed; my mother remained a homemaker, but also helped my father with his work. My father was a dentist—he graduated from the Meharry Medical College School of Dentistry in Nashville—and had a practice in Shreveport. He also was a leader in the United Christian Movement in Shreveport and a fourth vice-president and founding member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Although the United Christian Movement was composed mostly of ministers, my father was the president and the only layperson in leadership. My mother led the student arm of the organization, held voter registration classes, and taught people how to vote. We had leaders of the civil rights movement come by our home: Reverend King, Reverend Abernathy, Ella Baker. I got to see all of these great people doing something they believed in without any financial incentive or promise of success.

This activity had a cost, however. I grew up knowing that the phone in our home was tapped, and that my parents regularly received threatening calls. It wasn’t unusual for the Shreveport police to come by our house looking for affidavits that had been gathered from local residents for submission to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in Washington, DC.

I also remember each of my parents being arrested. During one of the times my father was taken to the police station, the police bargained with him—stop the civil rights work and you and your family can do “anything the whites can do” in Shreveport. He refused and continued the work.

A time my mother was arrested occurred when I was about eight years old. She was taking me and other Boy Scouts on a field trip. We went on a city trolley, and my mother and I sat up front. A white woman objected, my mother refused to move, and the driver called the police. Before the police came for her, however, she arranged for us boys to be driven home; she didn’t want us to be humiliated. She didn’t want our spirits to be broken.

That’s what was important to my parents—they wanted to protect our spirit. My father encouraged my interest in science and had designed a laboratory, complete with telescope and a short-wave radio, for me in our house that was later bombed. And my mother always reminded me that my integrity was worth more than anything else. “You’re a citizen of the world,” she would tell me, “you are not limited by America.”

Their words made me realize that if I wanted to do something, I could do it. So when I decided to write a book about Coltrane, even though I’d never written much of anything, it didn’t occur to me at all that I couldn’t do it.

Wise One

I conducted my first interview for the book in the summer after graduating from Amherst. I had been listening carefully to Coltrane’s music and reading all the liner notes I could find, but I knew I needed to start talking to people who had been part of Coltrane’s life.

It turned out that Naima Coltrane, Coltrane’s first wife, had a dashiki shop up the street from my father’s dental office in Queens. I wanted to talk with her but was shy. I kept talking about it but also putting it off. Finally, my father said, “What’s wrong with you?” and challenged me to meet with her. I had no choice; I went to her shop.

She was so kind and welcoming. Her manner was that of a person who was in control of her thoughts—and interested in yours. I explained my intention to write a biography of her former husband; she welcomed the idea.

From Naima I received suggestions of people I should interview and advice on how to approach the family. It was a close-knit family, she said, and protective, so I would need to navigate carefully. I ended up spending a lot of time with her and her daughter at their home. Years later, when she had read the finished book, I talked with her and asked, “Naima, is this John?” She smiled and nodded yes.

I was equally welcomed by the jazz artists who had performed with or knew Coltrane: Pharoah Sanders, Yusef Lateef, Max Roach, Gary Bartz, Jimmy Garrison, Elvin Jones, and Rahsaan Roland Kirk, to name a few. I remember I became dumbstruck when I approached McCoy Tyner. Tyner had been peeling an orange, so when I just stood there, he asked me, “Would you like a piece?” I relaxed and we talked.

I was also nervous about talking with Thelonious Sphere Monk. When I caught up with him he was in the back of the kitchen in the Village Vanguard, a Manhattan jazz club, holding his drink. He turned, looked at me, and said “Uhhh?” I immediately forgot every question I was going to ask.

Finally I came up with, “Why did you have Coltrane in the band?” At the top of his voice he shouted, “He could play the horn, he could play the horn, he could play the horn!”

My interview with Monk then ended.


As I delved further into Coltrane’s life, I learned that one often would find him at 3 a.m. in his hotel room with twenty or so books open on the floor. The books would be about music, mathematics, physics, history, religion, and any other subject that he felt related to music. He would draw abstract patterns and relate them to the music.

I also learned he was uncompromising in his pursuit of truth through music. Despite the demands of record companies, the outcries of critics, and sometimes the disapproval of audiences, he remained focused and undaunted. My mother’s admonition, “Always maintain your integrity!” echoed in my head.

Coltrane became the role model for anything I did. When I studied linear algebra, I saw the matrix basis to be the same as a chord progression that determined the broad outlines of improvisation. I could see pseudo randomness in the patterns of light that I saw when listening to “Manifestation.” When I would see a patient incapacitated by stroke, I would think of Coltrane’s “After the Rain.” I realized there are no barriers between human expression and human knowledge. Concepts are interchangeable and not limited by the discipline in which they appear.

Portrait of Cuthbert Simpkins today
Cuthbert Simpkins

Dial Africa

I was still writing my book when I returned to HMS and started seeing patients. I finished the first draft and submitted it to Emerson Hall, a Black-owned publishing house in New York City. A year later, when we were about to publish, I found they had rewritten my book, removing anything that might be politically provocative. I was angry and began working to get my manuscript back. Fortunately, I was able to reconnect with Harold Wade Jr., a friend from Amherst who had just graduated from Harvard Law School. His advice: “Threaten to sue the cat.”

So I did.

I got my book back but now needed a new publisher. I tried other large publishing houses but, although there was interest, I worried about having my work changed. I decided to self-publish under the name Herndon House. Herndon was my mother’s name before she married.

In 1975, I succeeded in publishing my book. It garnered favorable reviews in the press and was enthusiastically received by the music and literary communities; there was even a book party and benefit for the Schomburg Collection of Black History and Literature at the New Lafayette Theater in Harlem.

Ultimately, however, working out distribution and reprint details became too much—I had to focus on my surgical residency. The book did not get broadly distributed, and eventually went out of print. I do, however, retain the rights and still hope to again publish the biography, especially given recent interest in it.

Giant Steps

Like Coltrane, I have come to feel that to live is to risk. After a long career as a trauma surgeon, managing complex injuries such as gunshot wounds of the heart or lacerations of the liver or vena cava, I retired and now just do critical care. I also retired so that I could care for my ailing mother and focus on building the biotechnology company I formed to commercialize patents that I received for a new circulatory support fluid.

The fluid is based on the salutary biophysical properties of phospholipid nanoparticles. In these nanoparticles, I see a connection between the randomly moving colored particles conjured by my brain after hearing “Manifestation” and the Brownian motion that keeps the nanoparticles from settling out, making the fluid more effective.

Although my wife, Diane, and I are working hard to make this company successful, we have already achieved our first victory: My goal was to develop a potential solution to an important medical problem, and I’ve done that. Patients who once died from complications associated with volume replacement fluids they received after an otherwise successful surgery may now be able to live.

I’m prepared to go on and live whatever is left of my life, guided by the chord changes and rhythms of my soul.

Images: Getty Images, Michael Ochs Archives, Leni Sinclair/Contributor; Courtesy of Cuthbert Simpkins (bottom portrait