"I was very young when he passed away," recalls Michelle Coltrane, "and really have few memories of him. People are always asking, 'How did you feel when he died?' But kids as young as I was don't know that death is so traumatic."
The few memories she does have of her father--revered saxophonist John Coltrane, who died in 1967 when she was 3--all are tied to music.
"I remember dad being at the piano and carrying around his horn all the time," Michelle, now 29, said during a phone conversation from her home in Woodland Hills.
"He had a studio in our house on Long Island, and he was always quite busy. The house was filled with instruments--horns, guitars, bagpipes. I remember hearing the sound of his tapes being rewound." She imitated the jumble of noise heard when a tape is run back. "Then I knew he was in the studio working."
It hasn't been hard for her to fill in the pieces of her father's life. "We've heard a lot of stories about him from other musicians and family acquaintances. There's a lot of literature out on my father, though we always verify what we read with my mother, who says you can't believe everything you read. Everyone agrees that he was a very kind, gentle person, and all the musicians who worked with him benefited greatly."
With this kind of family heritage (her mother, Alice, is a pianist and harpist who, like John, recorded for the Impulse! label, and her brothers Ravi and Oran are both saxophonists), one might assume that Michelle was destined to be a musician, that her life has been dedicated solely to that pursuit. But this Coltrane sibling has come to her calling as singer in a roundabout way; chance has played a role. She'll appear with pianist (and onetime Sarah Vaughn accompanist) George Gaffney at Spaghettini in Seal Beach on Sunday night.
She began playing the violin at age 9 after the family moved to California. In high school, she switched to piano. Her mother gave her music reading lessons, but there was no pressure. "She was very encouraging but didn't force us to do anything."
After her schooling, Coltrane kicked around Seattle for a while. "I worked as a waitress, as a secretary, in an insurance office. I used every talent I had to do any job I could." But California called, and she settled back in Playa del Rey, where she decided to get into the music business, though not as a performer. She began managing a dance company, and when the troupe went to Japan, she followed.
"I started meeting all these people in the music business there, and they all assumed that I did something musical. Pretty soon, I was getting calls to sit in and sing."
Singing wasn't entirely new to her. "I'd had some vocal lessons in high school and even had done some demo recordings. The situation to sing came up so many times while I was in Japan that I just started doing it. I had my mom send me a book of standards, and I started studying that and working on getting my voice up to par. Soon I was getting calls to sing background on commercials."
She spent 1988 and '89 traveling back and forth to Japan, singing Top 40 gigs in Tokyo until her visa would run out. The pay was good, but the work wasn't very satisfying. "They have a real hunger over there for music, and they really appreciate the musicians, but it wasn't something I loved doing, singing Janet Jackson covers day after day. Sure, I love those songs and don't want to put anybody down. But I was looking for something more demanding."
She found it back in Los Angeles. These days she is pursuing two careers: singing jazz, as she will Sunday with Gaffney, and writing and singing for a band called "Random Axis," which brings together jazz, rap and pop styles.
"Everybody (in Random Axis) has a well-rounded view," Coltrane said. "Just as rap was the wave of the '80s, hip-hop jazz will be the thing of the '90s. What we do reminds me of what Gil Scott-Heron was doing before rap was rap. People will hear the jazz in our music and think it's something new. But it's been around forever. Maybe the exposure will make people go back and buy (jazz) and broaden their musical horizons."
She may have taken a circuitous route to becoming a singer, but now Coltrane is moving full speed ahead, rehearsing on an almost-daily basis with Random Axis, attending workshops at drummer Billy Higgins' World Stage performance space and occasionally sitting in with the jazz quintet Black Note during its Tuesday night sessions at the Atlas Bar & Grill in Los Angeles. She also is studying composition at Pierce College in Woodland Hills.
At Spaghettini, she'll be concentrating on standards. "George (Gaffney) has played with Natalie Cole and all the divas, so I wanted to get in on it and be the junior diva," Coltrane said with a laugh.
Coltrane is also helping her mother prepare for this year's annual John Coltrane Festival, to be held Oct. 30 at the Wiltern Theatre in Los Angeles. Random Axis will appear, as will Alice Coltrane, who makes concert appearances infrequently. "I'm trying to get mom out more," said Michelle, "but she's into smoke-free environments where no alcohol is served and won't play just anywhere. But I remember as a child seeing her play at Carnegie Hall. . . . I want to see my mom perform like that again."
Now there's an idea: the Coltrane family at Carnegie Hall. "We've talked about doing a family album," Michelle said, "with all of us bringing our different types of music together."
It's an idea her father certainly would have liked.
* Michelle Coltrane sings Sunday at 6:30 p.m. at Spaghettini, 3005 Old Ranch Parkway, Seal Beach. No cover. (310) 596-2199.