A French-Canadian director, John Coltrane and an album nearly lost to time: the full story

In 1964, an NFB director recorded original John Coltrane songs for a film — and after five decades in the archives in Montreal, the "lost" tracks are finally being released. We hear from someone who was there.

In 1964 director Gilles Groulx recorded John Coltrane songs for a film—and now they're finally being released

Listen to historian Ashley Kahn and actress Barbara Ulrich tell the incredible story of how a French-Canadian film director got John Coltrane to record a soundtrack — the only one of his entire career. (Johncoltrane.com, National Film Board)

It was a John Coltrane recording that's been hiding in plain sight for the past 55 years — and now it's finally seeing the light of day.

But fans of the jazz icon aren't the only ones celebrating the release of the history-making album Blue World: so are followers of classic French-Canadian film.

  • Listen to Barbara Ulrich and historian Ashley Kahn tell the story by clicking "Listen" above

In 1964, the NFB hired French-Canadian director Gilles Groulx to make a short documentary about winter. But the project gradually morphed into Le chat dans le sac, or The Cat in the Bag, a feature film about a conflicted romantic relationship.

Actress Barbara Ulrich in Le chat dans le sac. (National Film Board)

It also served as an allegory for the growing tensions between French and English Canada, which spurred the separatist movement in Quebec.

According to Barbara Ulrich, who acted in the film and became the director's longtime partner, Groulx was a diehard John Coltrane fan — and he also drew parallels between the oppression of African-Americans and what he saw as the Anglophone colonization of French-speaking Quebec. 

So when it came time to create a soundtrack for the film, he decided he would approach John Coltrane.

Through a connection from a previous film, Groulx met Jimmy Garrison, the bassist from Coltrane's legendary Classic Quartet.

"He gave Gilles Coltrane's phone number, and Gilles phoned up John Coltrane," says Ulrich. "He explained who he was and what he was doing and why he wanted him to do the music, and Coltrane said yes."

The recording contract from the 1964 session with Coltrane's Classic Quartet. (Universal Music)

Not long after, Groulx was in an NFB car with a bag of cash driving to the legendary Van Gelder Studio for a recording session that not only included Coltrane, but also the other members of the Classic Quartet — Jimmy Garrison on bass, McCoy Tyner on piano, and Elvin Jones on drums.

Coltrane and Groulx discussed which songs would be performed, but there were limitations, either because Coltrane didn't own the rights to the songs, or because of other contractual obligations

As a result, Coltrane steered Groulx to some of his classic songs, which he still owned — ones like Naima, Village Blues, Sonny and Blue World. The session went on for three hours.

"Gilles went down in the afternoon, they recorded, and then he left right afterwards. So he came home around 7:00 in the morning, and he was exhausted but exhilarated," remembers Ulrich. "And then he started describing to me what went on in the studio. And it was just extraordinary."

Watch Le chat dans le sac:

Le chat dans le sac was a critical success in Quebec and France, as well as other French-speaking countries, but the fact that it contained original John Coltrane recordings — and that the only copy was housed in the NFB archives in Montreal — almost got lost in time.

"And when they did a box set of all of Gilles' films in 2001, the person in charge phoned me up and says, 'Do you know where the tape of Coltrane is?' He said, 'I've looked round everywhere and I just can't find it,'" remembers Ulrich. "I said, 'You have to look through all the Film Board archives and all the vaults. It's there.' And when they came out with the box set they had found the tape."

Quebecois filmmaker Gilles Groulx managed to convince Coltrane to write and record the soundtrack for his film. (NFB)

Still it would be many years before the recordings were released — in part because the NFB only had the rights to use the music in the film, not to release it as an album, and in part because of the fact the tracks happened outside of Coltrane's exclusive record contract with Impulse Records.

But getting the songs into the world became a passion project for the NFB's Fred Savard, who is a jazz collector and interested in the business of reissues.

"I knew that by reaching out to the Coltrane estate and by reaching out to Impulse Records and by letting them know that we own this 37 minutes of unreleased John Coltrane music, they would probably be interested in making some kind of partnership so these recordings could finally be released and made available to the general public," says Savard in a phone interview with q.

The original master tape in its case at the National Film Board. (Universal Music)

"It was a bit of a catch-22 because the NFB owned the master tapes, but we didn't own any of the commercial copyrights on what was on the master tape, and the Coltrane estate and Impulse Records were not really aware that these recordings were being preserved at the National Film Board," says Savard, who says the recordings mark an important moment in both film and music history.

"So my role was essentially to connect the dots and convince people at the NFB that we should make these recordings available, that it would be a great thing for jazz lovers, and it would be a great thing for the NFB and for Gilles Groulx as well."

Now that great thing has arrived, and Savard says the NFB is already seeing a spike in the number of views of Le chat dans le sac on the Film Board's website. (It's also embedded above.) 

Music historian, author, journalist, producer and New York University instructor Ashley Kahn says the recordings are especially noteworthy because they see Coltrane recording some of his earlier songs — many of which he rarely performed at the time.

The cover of Blue World. The album of previously unreleased John Coltrane tracks is out after the master recording was found at the National Film Board. (Universal Music)

Because Coltrane's music had evolved so rapidly over the preceding years, the recordings show that progression.

"John Coltrane had progressed so rapidly from 1960 or '61 to this point with this amazing band that they really had this incredible group sound. It had the energy of gospel, the ecstatic energy of Sunday morning in a black church exploding on the bandstand on Saturday night in a jazz club," says Kahn.

"And to be able to compare it to where he was and how fast he had arrived at this point in '64 is one of the delights of this recording."

Ulrich is just as thrilled to see the recordings released — in part because she's a huge John Coltrane fan, but also because Blue World is helping shine a light on the legacy of Gilles Groulx and his pioneering filmmaking.

"The Film Board found him disruptive. Creative but disruptive. And so his films were never distributed or disseminated very widely. They did a lot of film festivals, but that was about it. So very few people outside of Quebec, aside from cinephiles, know about his work," says Ulrich.

"This is another reason that I'm extremely happy that Blue World is coming out, because people will go back and let's say if they watch The Cat in the Bag they'll say, 'Why don't we watch another one of his films?' And finally his legacy will be known."

— Written and produced by ​Jennifer Van Evra

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