To honor the 85th birthday of tenor saxophone maestro George Coleman, here are three interviews — most recently, a long one conducted in 2016 for a shortish Downbeat “Beat” section article on the occasion of his SmokeSessions album A Master Speaks (his son, drummer George Coleman, Jr., was also present) ; then WKCR interviews in 1994 and 1995, pegged to club appearances. Several years ago, I posted a 1995 WKCR interview that I did with Mr. Coleman and the great drummer Idris Muhammad, a frequent bandmate,
George Coleman (Feb. 8, 2016):
TP: This is your first recording as a leader in 18 years. Tell me how it developed.
GC: Basically, Eric Alexander conceived the idea. He said he wanted to produce a CD with me. He discussed it with Paul Stache, and Paul thought it was a good idea, too. He selected the personnel, too, which is excellent—Bob Cranshaw and Mike LeDonne, and Junior playing drums, of course. I didn’t need control. They said they wanted to produce the record, and I said, “Go ahead.” There was no conflict.
TP: From what you just told me, doing records has not been your forte.
TP: By which I think you really meant that you haven’t been offered terms satisfactory to you on too many occasions over the years.
GC: That is true. And the record scene out there with a lot of young people doing records just to be doing them… That was one reason… I didn’t want to just do a record to be doing a record. A lot of times when you do records, they just sit on the shelf and collect dust. Some of the record producers…once they get the money that they invested, they’re not too particularly interested any more. At least that’s the way I’ve always felt.
TP: You were saying that you inaugurated Smoke in 1989.
GC: Yes, that’s right. Sometimes when these things happen, I’m really not aware of them. But I’m constantly reminded that I was the founder.
TP: you told me that Joe Farnsworth called you, who used to play at Augie’s a lot…
GC: That’s right. And the late, great Junior Cook. They used to play there quite a bit. Several other good players. James Farnsworth, who I didn’t know and never met, who passed away at a very early age. He was a baritone sax player who I heard was very talented. The Farnsworth family is a talented family. John playing trombone and saxophone now. Great.
TP: I’d think that your agreeing to do this recording after an 18-year gap for the reasons stated denotes a certain respect for and trust of Paul and Frank Christopher and the club.
GC: Yes. Sometimes things are not about money. They’re about integrity. It’s about people really interested in your product, and feel able to put it out in a commercial atmosphere, where you might get some record play. Something that people may have wanted to hear from you. There have been so many times over the course of these 18 years when people said, “Man, when are you going to make a record?”
TP: There was recording in 2002 of a collective group, The Four Generations of Miles recording.
GC: Then I did a thing with the Saxophone Masters, with Joe Henderson and Billy Pierce.
TP: that was the early 1990s, though.
GC: Also Live at Yoshi’s. Danger: High Voltage with the octet in the ‘90s, maybe 1996.
TP: The last one was I Could Write A Book on Telarc, with several things in odd-meters…
GC: There was one thing in 7/4, on “Lover,” just a little tempo change.
TP: So since then, there’s the Four Generations of Miles recording and I guess you played on one of Joey DeFrancesco’s records.
GC: I did some recording with Joey and did some gigs with him. Fantastic player.
TP: I didn’t get everything you told me about playing with Mike, and how it differed for you from playing with Harold, who you’ve played with for so long.
GC: Mike adopted some of the harmonic things that he heard us do. He’d be in the audience, listening to Harold when I’m playing with Harold. So he had a sense…he knew what to do harmonically for me, and he knew what I liked. Of course, I would always tell him about certain harmonic things that I wanted him to do, but he already knew that, because he knew we were inventive when we were up there. We were always trying to invent a different harmonic pattern, or something a little bit…not really unusual, but not done too much in this age, especially by young players.
TP: What’s not done too much? Not working out new harmonic patterns on the bandstand?
GC: Well, not even playing some of the old ones! There’s a lot in the old ones. Back in the dawning of the bebop era, there were so many harmonic things that were happening during that time that people have forgotten about. They don’t even do them now. You can play a standard and inject these kind of things. They’re oftentimes illustrated in original music, too.
I’ve always liked playing different tempos, key changes. That was really my motto. I guess probably a lot of record producers weren’t interested in that concept, because it went into the so-called fusion, rock, funk, jazz, whatever they’d like to call it. So I really wasn’t interested in that. I had some aspirations maybe to do a string album or something. Then I had one of my students from years ago who became a very good string writer, and started writing for Hollywood and California. He told me, “Man, I sure would like to do a string album for you.” But we couldn’t get the money together.” So it’s a lot of different things. A lot of things interject and interfere with certain projects you might feel you want to do. It mostly boils down to money.
TP: Did you do a big with this band before going into the studio?
TP: you didn’t do like two nights at Smoke or something like that?
GC: Well, I guess we did. Didn’t we?
GEORGE JR.: We played with Bob, myself, Big George and Mabern at the Disability Pride thing, but that was a year ago. That was the closest the band was to playing together. But I’ve actually worked a lot with Mike up at Smoke. He’s hired me a lot of times. So I was always very comfortable playing with him. But really, this particular band, we never really played before. The first time we got together was when we were in the studio.
TP: You didn’t even rehearse before you went in the studio.
GEORGE JR.: I came over here a couple of times…
GC: We had a little rundown over here.
GEORGE JR.: Just me, George and Mike, but not with Bob.
GC: Bob was a little under the weather, and it was cool, because he knows…
TP: His ears are amazing. With Sonny Rollins for 55 years.
GC: You don’t need to rehearse with him. That guy! Of course, he was at Sesame Street for over thirty years, right?
TP: On one of these radio shows we did… Remember I was telling you that you brought Idris to the station once in 1995. Here’s what he said: “George is special to me because he’s always working at new things.” He said that the night before you came to the station, you “were playing some stuff, and my left hand was going crazy, and I was trying to play what George was playing in my left hand and keep the rest of the things going, and it was pulling me, and I said, ‘No, I’d better stop myself,’ because I happened to stop my cymbal ride and my bass drum beat, because it’s a challenge to play with him.” He said, “George is a fellow who’s always working on something new and he’s always progressing, and for me to play with him, one of the greatest things is just watching George play, and hear him always reaching for things, new things. When I play with George in the band, it’s always something new. Every time I play with him, he’s always progressed.” Is that still the way you think about things? Are you still trying to find challenges?
GC: Well, not consciously maybe. The things just happen. I just let things happen. But I am trying to think academically when it comes to music. I am always looking at other alternatives. So in that sense…
TP: Would analytically be the word?
GC: Well, somewhat… Things just happen. Sometimes especially with my type of playing, a lot of things are not planned, but we have certain things that we know that we can do. We’re playing “I Got Rhythm,” we’re playing the blues, we have some alternatives that we can do, and we invent those sometimes into the program when we’re playing. We do that. So it keeps things interesting for us. Modulations, so to speak. Because some people shy away from modulations. They said, “Well, you play it in this key. “No, I’m used to playing it in A-flat” or “I’m used to playing it in B-flat” or whatever key. So they don’t want to go to another tonality, but I do. I do. I might take a tune and maybe go to three or four keys. That’s the things I like. That stimulates my mind, my thinking about the harmony and stuff. So what Idris was talking about was probably along that line.
TP: He’s far from the only one.
GEORGE, JR.: What I would say, the interesting thing about… It kind of pisses me off, too. The things that George and Mabern have developed over the years in terms of their ability to take a standard tune with standard changes, and really just reinvent it and look at it in a completely different way harmonically, but not doing it where they’re beating you over the head, like, “Yeah, this is what we’re doing”… It’s just kind of a natural progression and a flow of the great musicality that they have. Part of it, of course, they’ve played these standards a million times, so they want it to be interesting for themselves. But they also want them to be interesting for the musicians they play with and for the people who listen to them. Many times people are like, “Well, these guys are still doing what they did 50 years ago.” But not really. Sure, they might be playing a lot of the same standards, but their harmonic approach to it is different every time. To me, as a person either in the band or experiencing it, it amazes me. I never feel like… I’m not saying this because he’s my father, or Mabern… It just seems always fresh and it’s always interesting, and it’s something you don’t hear from a lot of musicians, even great ones. It’s not something that’s easy to do. They make it look so easy and sound so easy, I think a lot of people think it’s easy to do. But it is not.
TP: Otherwise more people would be doing it, as they say. They also noted that you and Mike played duets at a party celebrating your selection as an NEA Jazz Master at Smoke, and that put the finishing touch on the notion that you’d do a record.
GC: Yes, they had a little press party for me, sort of a little celebration at Smoke. Maxine Gordon organized it. She went to Paul to tell him, “Yeah, we’ll just have a little thing.” A few of my friends came by, musicians and people who had helped me through the years, like Jim Harrison and Matt White and people like that, who had been producers of jazz for many years. So it was a nice little celebration. I enjoyed it, and a number of musicians came by. My son made a nice speech for me, and recognition for the NEA Award and everything. It was nice.
TP: How did you feel about that award? Did it mean something?
GC: It meant something, sort of. But I looked at all the years before, and I saw a lot of other people who I thought deserved as much or more than me, who hadn’t received it. Like Harold Mabern. He’s been over there at William Patterson teaching for over thirty years, and he’s been playing for over fifty years with various artists throughout his history. Wes Montgomery. He was Joe Williams’ musical director. So he has an extensive repertoire.
TP: He played with J.J. for a while.
GC: J.J. A lot of people. I said, “Well, I’m getting it, but Mabern deserves it just as much or more than I do.”
TP: That being said… As we discussed, your discography as a leader is shockingly low for someone of your stature and the respect you’re held…
GC: Well, my personal discography.
TP: Not as a sideman, of course.
GC: There was a French guy who wrote a book about my discography. I’ve got it around here somewhere. But as far as recording with other people, I’ve recorded almost with everybody. There are so many people I’ve recorded with. There’s a lot of material out here, and a lot of material that I don’t even know about that people call me to tell me. “Man, I heard this fantastic recording of you where you were in Italy, you were in Germany, you were in Switzerland…”
TP: There’s a great youtube clip of you in Vittoria with Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Billy Higgins. If I could use the word “killing”…
GC: That’s what George says. On that, I played “Dolphin Dance” from that Maiden Voyage thing; I hadn’t played it since the recording.
TP: Let’s talk about the repertoire on A Master Speaks. As far as I can tell, you’ve only recorded one of these before—“Blondie’s Waltz” on Amsterdam After Dark. Maybe you’ve performed some of these pieces, but they aren’t cited on the online discography I consulted. Was that a deliberate choice?
GC: It was just some tunes we selected that I wanted to do. I figured that it would be good as far as repertoire. That’s how that came about. There was no special thing. I got rushed, because they wanted some original music, and I haven’t written original music in some time. So I had to come up with this original music in a week or so.
GEORGE, JR.: Great stuff, too.
GC: So the stuff I came up with was pretty spontaneous. Nothing really complex. I said, “I’ll just put something together that we can do real quick.”
TP: I think the complexity comes in the interpretation.
GC: That’s just it.
TP: A couple of the tunes made me think of some signposts. Perhaps in discussing them we can touch back on your personal history. “Blues For B.B.”—I guess B.B. King passed around the time you recorded it.
GC: That’s it. Pretty much.
TP: I know you played with him from 1953-55, and I think George, Jr., posted the youtube clip “Woke Up This Morning” on Facebook.
GC: That was his first hit, and probably the first R&B Latin beat, too.
TP: It sounded like a tango in the “St. Louis Blues” tradition.
GC: It was sort of like that, a rumba, whatever you want to call it.
TP: What was B.B. King like before he was B.B. King, so to speak.
GC: Oh, he was a great guy. B.B. was easygoing and very entertaining. He liked the idea of our little jazz concept that we had before he would come on the program. Of course, the people would be asking for him. We’d be playing these jazz tunes. We had a great arranger-composer during that time in Memphis, a guy by the name of Onzie Horne, who later became Isaac Hayes’ musical director.
TP: You’ve also mentioned a guy named Robert Talley, who helped you learn harmony and…
GC: Great piano player and arranger, too.
TP: You said he’d show you things on the piano.
GC: Yes. He’d show you some things that you might learn at Berklee, the chords they call half-diminished chords that he’d call minor 7s or flatted 5s, which is the same thing. That’s the way I learned it back in that day. I didn’t know anything about half-diminished with the slash over the zero. Just minor 7, flat 5, which is a half-diminished.
TP: Did you play piano?
GC: I learned arranging piano, and that’s basically what I do now. But I do know harmony somewhat on the piano.
TP: So when you were learning the saxophone, more or less self-taught…
GC: Same thing with the piano. I was a self-taught pianist. But I was around people during that time when I just started playing, about two years into playing. I was around people who were very learned, and they showed me things. They didn’t sit me down and say, ‘here’s a lesson; we’re going to have a lesson.” I would just sit and… I’d be around them, and if I sat down at a piano with Bob Talley, he would say, “Well, this is such-and-such-such.” So those guys were my teachers during that time. I was teaching, too, during that time. With everything I would learn, I’d show them. Like with Mabern. He wanted to know the changes of “All The Things You Are.” He’d be playing boogie-woogie during that time. This is during the early stages of his development. So I would show them whatever I knew. That’s where my teaching experience expanded to pretty much through my entire career. I was teaching what I was learning.
TP: You mentioned that you transcribed all the Charlie Parker solos you could get your hands on from the 78 records.
GC: Yeah, we did that. Not only me. There were a lot of other people doing that back in that time.
TP: In Memphis?
GC: Yeah. There were some guys in Memphis who did that. But this was all over the U.S.?
TP: Sonny Criss had already split by the time you were playing, right?
GC: Yes. But I met him years later in Paris, when he had moved to Paris. We had a nice relationship. Great player.
TP: But all the saxophone aspirants of your generation and younger were listening to Charlie Parker and forming a style.
GC: Everybody was listening to Charlie Parker. Piano players as well.
TP: And you were initially an alto player.
TP: B.B. King bought you your first tenor?
GC: That’s right. It was one of those things where it was a switch. That’s when the switch was made. Prior to that, I was just playing alto.
TP: In an interview I read, you said you had gone on the road with B.B. King and had your first airplane flight when Charlie Parker died.
GC: That’s right. From Memphis to Houston. I arrived in Houston and heard the sad news that Bird had passed away.
TP: Do you feel your approach to tenor is influenced by having played alto so much early on?
GC: Maybe. Probably. The transposition is a fifth. But it’s the same keys. 12 keys is 12 keys. If you’re playing tenor in the key of C, that’s G for the alto. It’s a different sound; it’s a different key from what you’re playing—the two together. It’s like a fifth. Ok. It’s a fifth. Of course, there’s a different embouchure you have to consider when you’re playing alto, and even with the soprano. You’ve got to have chops for all these instruments that you play, if you’re doubling. But since I was pretty well versed in keys, the switch was not that difficult to me.
TP: Keys came pretty naturally to you it sounds like. Obviously you worked hard, but it doesn’t seem to have been that big of a struggle.
GC: Well, one of the things was, we played in these country places where these pianos were out of tune. Terribly out of tune. So sometimes we had to play in the other key. If you were playing in C, you might have to play C-sharp, one of those abnormal keys…I won’t say abnormal, but it was abnormal because…
TP: Unusual maybe.
GC: Unusual. That’s the term. So through that, transposition and tonalities and things like were introduced to me at a very early age through that.
TP: Do you have perfect pitch?
GC: No, I don’t. But sometimes I can hear keys. Right now, I keep a tuning fork right near my bed, and when I hear something on Music Choice on the television I’ll test my pitch to see if I… I’m between 75%-85%.
TP: In those R&B bands when you were a young guy, the musicianship was very high.
GC: All those guys…a lot of those guys could write, and they were writing for some of the R&B people. Like…
TP: Floyd Newman.
GC: Floyd was in the band with me. He was the baritone player. Me and him are the last ones out of those 35-40 people, including the bus drivers, the people doing the booking during that time—all those people from B.B. King’s band, 1955, are gone.
TP: You might have been the youngest player in the band when you joined in 1953?
GC: Maybe the youngest. I’m not sure. I was probably 18 when I did “Woke Up This Morning.” That was the first actual recording I ever did, period, R&B or jazz.
TP: Did you solo on any other B.B. King recording?
GC: No, that’s the only one.
TP: You moved to Chicago in 1956, though. What precipitated your move to Chicago?
GC: It was a rich environment in Chicago. All the great players were there. Gene Ammons. Johnny Griffin. Sonny Stitt would come in from time to time. Of course, Bob Cranshaw. Muhal Richard Abrams.
TP: You played with the MJT+2 for a while.
GC: Walter Perkins’ group.
TP: Muhal was the pianist before Mabern joined.
GC: He was the first one. He was the original.
TP: Wasn’t Nicky Hill the first tenor saxophonist?
GC: Yes, he was. Nicky Hill. He was a great player, too.
TP: But what made you want to go to Chicago? Did you know it would be like that? Did someone suggest it? I think you told me that Chicago was the second stop.
GC: Yeah. From Memphis to Chicago, and from Chicago to New York. That was the geographic transition. The great thing about Chicago, and the great thing about Memphis, too… When I left Memphis, I was fairly equipped to be ready for Chicago. When we came into Chicago, the three of us, me and Mabern and Frank Strozier, they said, “Damn, them guys from Memphis, man…” So we were the rave during that time. All the Chicago musicians said, “Where did these guys come from?” So we were respected. Because we could play a little bit. But we learned a lot from people like Griff and Gene Ammons, all of them. Those were the great talents on the saxophone during those years. Clifford Jordan was there, too, though he’d left before I arrived. I met him later in New York. I think he left probably around the early 1950s, maybe ’53 or something. I got there in 1956 and he’d left.
TP: You had a gig at Budland next to the Pershing. It started at 6 in the morning, with Prentice McCrary on organ.
GC: that’s right. Chicago was 24 hours. There was a place called the Cotton Club that was open… It was Cotton Club first, and then they called it Swingland. They would have a bass on the stand and a set of drums, and guys would come in at all hours of the morning and night to sit in and play. That was the atmosphere in Chicago. The gig on Saturday started at 11 o’clock p.m. and went to 5:30-6 a.m. After that you had a gig that started at 6, or 9. In the Club DeLisa, on 55th and State, all the show people came to the breakfast dance. I’m trying to think of the drummer’s name.
TP: Red Saunders.
GC: Red Saunders had the band there. It was a great scene, man. It was 24 hours of music, polish sausages and barbecue.
TP: All those things that are bad for you.
GC: But it was good for you, too, because the music was so enlightening and rewarding. It was great. I feel very good about that transition I made from Memphis to Chicago. I might have made it from Memphis to New York, too. But that’s not what happened. The Chicago atmosphere prepared me for anything else I might have had to encounter in the New York scene. That in itself was a great experience for me.
TP: Did you have offers to record while you lived in Chicago? I’m asking because John Jenkins recorded for Blue Note, Clifford recorded for Blue Note, Ira Sullivan…
GC: Well, Lee Morgan heard me. He came through and heard me, and he wanted me to come to New York and record with him, which I did.
TP: On City Lights.
GC: Yeah, that was my first recording, along with House Party and all that stuff. All those things were recorded together. I did House Party with Jimmy Smith, and I did City Lights with Lee Morgan. I played alto and tenor.
TP: Are those representative of the way you sounded then?
GC: Heh-heh. I didn’t think I did too well on them. But I got through enough. I just got through. I wasn’t happy with any of the solos that I did. But I was experienced. I could look at a sheet of chord progressions and know how to improvise on that. That’s what happened. Then in the latter years, what I did with Herbie, it was the same thing that happened. On Maiden Voyage we went to the studio, Lynn Oliver’s on Broadway and 70-something, in that area. That’s where all the guys used to go rehearse for Blue Note—two hours. Next day, over to Rudy Van Gelder’s. Pickup at the Empire Hotel and to Rudy Van Gelder’s.
GEORGE, JR.: You told me an interesting story about that record. The first day of the recording, the drummer was different. It was Stu Martin?
GC: Yes. Stu Martin was pretty much under the impression that he was going to do the date. I think there was a little bit of politics involved in this. Herbie had promised him. He said, ‘Ok, Stu, you got…” Stu wasn’t bad, but, you know, he wasn’t Tony. So Alfred Lion, he was very opinionated about the music. “It doesn’t schwing. We can’t do that; it doesn’t schwing.” And if it didn’t swing, shit, he’d cancel the debt, pay everybody off—and that’s what he did on a couple of occasions.
TP: Quality control.
GC: Yeah. If he didn’t like it…ok, you’re finished.
GEORGE, JR.: So you guys just went back to Rudy’s the next day?
GC: We went back to Rudy’s the next day. Stu didn’t even know that he wasn’t on it. There is a cut with Stu playing “Maiden Voyage.” But I can’t remember any other takes on that stuff we did. Once we did the first take, that was it. “Dolphin Dance,” first time. Had to read the changes, because I wasn’t familiar with that harmonic thing. So that’s what happened. Now, “Maiden Voyage” was very simple, but “Dolphin Dance” was not so simple. He had different harmonic structures there that were… To this day… It’s an intricate little tune.
TP: Hard to tell you hadn’t played the stuff before. Sounds like you’d been playing it forever.
GC: I think we got lucky a little bit. What it is, is experience. Freddie hadn’t played this stuff either. We did a two-hour rehearsal, and we rehearsed all the stuff we did on the record. But it’s just two hours. You haven’t had time for that stuff to soak in so that you can really feel you’re in a positive improvisational situation. You’re thinking, “Well, I’ve got to read these chords; I’ve got to play this line.” But it came off ok. If you’ve got a little bit of experience… I didn’t have a helluva lot of experience in recording, but I knew what I could do, and…
TP: You did it.
TP: Max Roach brought you out of Chicago?
GC: Yes, he came through when I was workign with the MJT+2. We were at the Blue Note. Frank Holzfiend was the owner.
TP: Max hired you and Booker Little together. You were very close to Booker Little, like a kind of older brother.
GC: Yes. Well, see, when I joined Max’s band, it was Kenny Dorham in there. When Kenny left, that’s when he got Booker. He called Booker in.
TP: How long were you with Max?
GC: Only about a year.
TP: you’re on 7 recordings with him between April 1958 and January 1959.
TP: You’ve called that a “finishing touch” kind of gig. Playing at tempos, odd meters…
GC: Oh yes, that was a really great experience for me. Then with the Slide Hampton Octet was another great experience. These are pianoless groups. But you still had to know your harmony. You still had to know what the chords were. We were playing chords. There was no piano, but we were playing chords. There was a bass there, and the drummer and no one else. So how could you go wrong. Nelson Boyd and Art Davis—great bass players.
TP: Mabern has told me about discovering Ahmad Jamal through Bill Lee.
GC: When I arrived, Ahmad was there. The king of Chicago. It was in a place called Pershing Lounge, right next to Budland, the place I used to start at 6 in the morning.
TP: I’m asking about Ahmad Jamal because you made that wonderful record with him.
GC: Oh, yeah. It was always mutual respect there. I didn’t know him that well, but I knew him somewhat. And he knew about us—meaning the guys from Memphis. Frank Strozier recorded one of his things, a big band thing. He played flute and…
TP: How did that recording with Ahmad Jamal in the ’90s come about? And what was it like playing with someone who comps behind you like an orchestra?
GC: I didn’t get in his way, so to speak. I just laid back and let him dictate. That was the thing when we made the tour. It was just like that. He’d come in and do his thing, then he’d bring me on. I always wanted to stay out of his way. I didn’t want to play while he was doing his trio stuff. But he would call me up, and then we had some special things that we would do with the quartet after he’d call me up. But his thing was… It would have been too complex to try to play with the stuff that he played. Because it was so unusual. Even when I would do those recordings, it wasn’t just straight time patterns… If it was a 32-bar pattern, he might put a tag in there for about 16 bars or so. So it was never anything that was strict. So I had to be listening for all of this stuff. I think that’s one of the things he likes about me, because he knew I could hear all this stuff he was doing.
TP: I guess the last piece here, “Time To Get Down,” a Rhythm piece, has an Ammons-Stitt feel to it.
TP: “These Foolish Things,” which you did in duo with LeDonne, makes me think of Ammons, of course, and it also made me think that two of my favorite recordings of yours are tenor-piano duos with Tete Montoliu, on Timeless, and with Richie Beirach on Triloka. Can you talk to me about playing when the drummer isn’t there.
GC: Tete Montoliu was just a fantastic guy. He was blind, but all he had to do was hear something, and then he had it. I don’t care what it was. It was fantastic. He could be all up with the minor third stuff, “Giant Steps” progressions; he could hear that. He could play that. It was remarkable how he would do that. All the double diminished stuff that people play today, he could hear that and play all of that. He was phenomenal. Tete Montoliu was one of the great musicians that I had the great pleasure of playing with.
Richie was great, too. Richie wrote these arrangements for me, for soprano and tenor, and we rehearsed them at his house on Spring Street, and we went to the studio and did them. There was no problem, because we had gone through them somewhat. He had 2 or 3 originals. Then we had a couple of standards that we did, I think. Then we had “Infant Eyes” that I had never played. Wayne Shorter tune. Great tune. I had never heard that.
TP: When you’re playing duo, do you approach things differently when there isn’t a drummer? I guess I could also ask if you play differently when there isn’t a chordal instrument? Those are challenging situations for you?
GC: It’s always challenges. The thing that helped me so much is the fact that, when I used to practice, I’d just pick up my horn, pat my foot, and play like I had a drum there, or everything was in time, in tempo. That’s the way I used to practice. So when it came to playing duos, before I had played solos, nobody but me. I would practice tunes like “All The Things you Are,” with the right tempo, playing all the changes in them. “Cherokee” I would practice with up-tempo, the same tempo, with the changes. So when I got with Max, you know, Max was right there with the time. You didn’t have to worry about the time. He’d bring you back, bring you in and take it out. His sound was impeccable. So you didn’t have to worry about that. In the case of Slide Hampton, of course, he had the octet there. It was six horns that would play backgrounds. So in a sense, you had a bit of harmonic lift there; you had a pianistic accompaniment. He’d play some written backgrounds behind you. But a lot of times, you played the with just bass and drums.
TP: I guess with Elvin Jones, there was no chordal instrument either.
GC: Same thing. Me and Frank Foster had a wonderful time. I had the gig with him in 1968, 1969. I went with Lee Morgan in the early 1970s. Elvin was another great musician. I’ve had an opportunity to be with the greatest!
TP: Well, with Max Roach, Elvin Jones and Billy Higgins, you’re not doing too badly.
GC: That’s the top! For me to come up in that, people like Tony Williams…I mean, that wasn’t no problem. Tony Williams was great, too. But I had been with all of those guys, man. Elvin Jones, Max Roach and Billy Higgins! So time… I was always conscious of time, and they had such a great beat, each one of them, that you could float on their beats. By that I mean they swung so much, to use a better word, the swinging is like a pulse you get from playing the music.
TP: You were never with the Messengers, though.
GC: I was never with the Messengers. But I liked Art Blakey. I think I might have played just one gig with him. Not his gig. We were just on a gig. This was a day when he didn’t have no sticks, so he had to play with a coat hanger.
TP: there’s a tune called “Sonny’s Playground.” Is that Sonny Rollins?
GC: That’s Sonny Stitt. That was one of his signature things, which is a very difficult key to play the blues in—D-flat, concert. Of course, back in the old days, guys…that’s an old thing. “Woodchopper’s Ball,” that was in D-flat, and guys were playing tenor solos. But Sonny Stitt had another plateau with the D-flat blues. He was so technically efficient. That’s what you have to be to play that way in the key D-flat, which is transposed E-flat for the tenor saxophone. But Coleman Hawkins and those guys, like, in that classic “Body and Soul,” that’s D-flat. So D-flat is a key that’s a challenge for any saxophone player, and probably a pianist, too, or any other instrument. That’s why “Sonny’s Playground.” That was his thing. D-flat, fast tempo, very technically involved when it comes to fingering.
TP: There’s a youtube clip of an interview by Brian Pace, I think, where you talk about sitting in with Ammons and Stitt in Chicago, and making sure they knew you could hang with them.
GC: I was on the stand with him and Gene, and I was playing with them, and he tried to trip me up. He went over to Andrew Hill to change the key, and Andrew said, “that ain’t gonna bother him!” So after that, Sonny said, “Ok, look, man, you sit this one out. Me and Gene got it.” That’s the way it was.
TP: After that, you were best friends forever or something like that.
GC: Well, George’s mother used to play with Stitt. She played bass with him and organ. But he couldn’t quite place me. He didn’t know that this is Gloria’s husband. He just thought, “Who is this guy who always comes around and wants to sit in?” But I did one thing with him one night, but he was ok with it.
TP: “Darn That Dream” is another one of those classic ballads that it’s hard to believe you never recorded before. Is “You’ll Never Know What You Mean To Me” your…
GC: That’s LeDonne’s tune. I came and sat in with him one night, and they were playing it, so I heard it from the audience. I said, “Let me try a chorus of this.” So I grabbed Eric’s horn, and the first time I start playing it. He said, “Haven’t you heard this?” I said, “Yeah.” But it wasn’t that hard. [SHOWS ME THE TENOR PART]
TP: To me, it looks hard.
GC: But it’s not! It’s not really that difficult. But it’s got changes in it, and it’s a nice little tune, with a tag on it. But that’s LeDonne’s tune. That was a great little tune.
TP: Has “Shadow Of Your Smile” been part of your repertoire for a while?
GC: Well, back in the old days I used to play it.
TP: But you never recorded it.
GC: No. But Paul Stache mentioned it. He said, “Why don’t you do ‘The Shadow Of Your Smile.’‘ I said, “Ok, sure.”
TP: You’re easy! People think you’re difficult, but you’re easy.
GC: No, I don’t have no problems, man.
GC: “Invitation” was something I wanted to play. My wife loved that, God rest her soul—Carol Hollister. So in memory of her I brought a thing out to play it. It’s a good tune.
GEORGE, JR.: It was the last tune we did on the date.
TP: It’s the first tune on the mix on the sequence that I received. I can’t do this piece and not ask you about your time with Miles.
GC: Make that as a conclusion.
TP: You mentioned that apart from Charlie Parker, Coltrane was a big influence on your concept and that Sonny Rollins was someone you were also checking out, but though you listened to many people, there weren’t really other influences.
GC: Strangely enough, I had influences back to the time when I started. People like the R&B players, like Louis Jordan. I think Sonny Rollins mentioned him, too. Louis Jordan influenced me, because I was playing alto during that time, and Louis Jordan was an alto player. There was Earl Bostic, of course, from that era. Tab Smith.
TP: All the lead alto players.
GC: Lead alto players, but great soloists.
TP: Did you hear Hank O’Day, the guy Hank Crawford took his name from, and Sonny Criss dug?
GC: Oh, yeah. I knew him. He was a nice guy. Helluva pool shark, too. He could play all bank, man. Those guys down there, they weren’t playing black ball or rotation. They were playing the whole thing. And five rails in the corner. They could take a ball here, and it would be sitting here, they’d say, “Ok, four rails in the corner.” The ball goes, BING, BOMP, BING, BING, and back, and hit that ball and knock it in, and wouldn’t scratch. Those guys…so they could do more… Slim Waters, my adopted father, who was a trumpet player, he was a pool shark, too. Then there was a guy who was in the barber shop. It was right across the street from the pool hall. I’d be sitting around, looking at them, and then I’d go back to Mitchell’s Hotel and practice. Your horn would be on the bed. It probably never was in the case. I’d take it out of the case and it would be there.
TP: So you were living at the Mitchell Hotel.
GC: I was staying in the Mitchell’s Hotel.
TP: Did you grow up in Memphis proper?
GC: I grew up on the north side of Memphis. Manassas High School.
TP: You had a teacher named Miss Thomas who would play you the Moonlight Sonata and you’d have to analyze it.
GC: See, I had basic elementary music education. I knew what the great staff was. I knew bass clef, treble clef, I knew what the lines and spaces were, and the names. I knew all of this stuff. Because that’s what they taught you in your first elementary education. Then we had music appreciation, where she would play Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata and you’d have to identify it. What is this? All the basic stuff—whole note, quartet note.
TP: You had a thorough bedrock for a self-taught musician to build on. Then it was up to you.
GC: That’s right. I wasn’t even playing a saxophone during that time when she was teaching basic music, like the lines and spaces and clefs. I was playing a little bit. I could read a little bit. I was playing in the concert ball and also playing football.
TP: Were you a good football player?
GC: Not that great. I could tackle, and I had pretty good hands. Of course, I missed a pass one time that was right in my hands and broke my finger. It’s still bent. [SHOWS ME] I never bothered to have it straightened. I’ve worked with it all these years.
TP: Back to Miles. You sat in with the quintet, I guess, with Wynton Kelly, Coltrane, PC and Philly Joe, and they called something real fast…
GC: I called it. They asked me what I wanted to play, and I called “Lover.” So when they heard me play “Lover,” I think it probably convinced Miles. It was up.
TP: Did Miles or Coltrane know you from Chicago?
GC: No, I don’t think they knew me from Adam, as a matter of fact.
TP: Well, could just anybody sit in with Miles and Coltrane at the Bohemia?
GC: Well, I was there, and I heard them, and I asked to sit in. I didn’t have no horn, so Coltrane gave me his horn and I went up and played. I think they knew a little something about me.
TP: From Max maybe?
GC: Well, maybe. First of all, I think Trane was getting ready to leave, so he needed a replacement. So he recommended me. I never knew that.
TP: But Hank Mobley and Stitt came before you.
GC: I replaced Hank Mobley.
TP: This is what you told me a few years ago, and you fleshed it out more in an interview with a guy called Dan Miller for All About Jazz. The gist is that you were cramping their style because they wanted to mess with the form…
GC: You’re talking about Herbie, Ron and Tony.
TP: Yes. You said to Miller that you’d be out front because Miles would go to the bar for 10-15 minutes, it was cramping their style and it would drive them crazy, and then one night you decided to take your solo outside, and that calmed them down for a while.
GC: Yes. After they heard that, they knew that I could play that shit if I wanted to. But I didn’t want to.
TP: Why didn’t you want to at the time?
GC: Because I was playing the repertoire of the leader, Miles Davis. He was playing his solos and stuff, but we were still playing the standards. We were playing “Autumn Leaves.” We were playing “Walkin’”. All that stuff. But they wanted to take that concept somewhere else when they were on the stand without him. I wanted to continue playing… First of all, as I said (and this is true), people thought I was Miles. When he wasn’t there, they thought I was Miles. Did you know that?
TP: I didn’t know it until I read your remark about that.
GC: Yeah, man, they thought I was Miles. People would come to me at the end of the set and say, “Oh, Mr. Davis, such wonderful music. Really. Thank you so much. Can I have your autograph?” It was something I didn’t like. I didn’t want to be out there trying to be him. First of all, the stature was different. I am 250 pounds, and Miles Davis was maybe, wet, 150 or 160. So they just didn’t know! He wasn’t there. During that time, he was in considerable pain with his hip. And some nights, I guess he didn’t really want to play. He would come in the Vanguard and play one set. After the first set, he’d be gone. So the second set, we’d have to play. Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, Tony Williams.
GEORGE, JR.: He had hip and back problems back in those days?
GC: Well, he had a bad hip, and it would pain him. He was in extreme pain. So a lot of nights he wouldn’t make it. Strange thing about it, though, is the next night when he would come in… The first night, when he wouldn’t show up, there would be lines of people waiting for him. But we’d be in the club, and we wouldn’t show. So the club owner would say, “you guys go up and play tonight, and I’ll tell them that he’ll be here tomorrow night.” So when tomorrow came and he was there, there were still lines of people, probably a longer line than there was originally.
TP: Part of it is, “will he show up or night?” People thought like that then.
GC: Yes, they’d think like that. They said, “I’m going to get there, because I wonder if he’s going to show.” Because he’s like, you know, the high priest. That’s why I decided I couldn’t deal with it no more. Too much friction between them and me. That wasn’t the case off the bandstand. Oh, they were great pals with me off the bandstand, because I would have the girls. See, after the gig was over I’d always have me a girl, you know, a girl who would come to the room, and then they’d be coming, knocking on my door. “Hey, let us in, man.” So it was all pals. But when it came to the bandstand, it was another story. But it was a great experience. Wallace Roney told me (and they all know this), “Man, Miles didn’t want you to leave.” I do remember that day when he called me. “Are you coming back, man? Come on.” I said, “No, Miles.” “Why don’t you come back, man?” I said, ‘you know…” And he knew I was having problems with them. They were trying to get me fired anyway. They wanted to hire Sam Rivers, and after that they got Wayne Shorter.
TP: I guess Sam was Tony’s mentor in Boston, so they were very close.
TP: And then Wayne, I’ve heard, had talked to Miles while he was still with Art Blakey, so politics were afoot in that situation as well.
TP: Do you think you’ll record again for Smoke Sessions?
GC: That’s a possibility.
TP: this one is coming out around your 81st birthday. I hope we can have one for your 82nd.
GC: Well, maybe. We’ll see. If this one goes good, and it just might… It might be ok. I’m not crazy about it, and that’s why I’ve been reluctant to listen to it.
TP: Do you have a favorite record?
GC: Some of the live stuff that I did with Wynton Kelly, I think with Ron McClure and Jimmy Cobb in Baltimore, at the Left Bank. Jimmy Heath came over to the house one night, and this guy sent me the transcribed solo of “Surrey With The Fringe On Top”—my solo. I looked at it and I said, “what?” This stuff looked like a classical selection from Stravinsky. It had all kinds of different weird… Jimmy came here, I said, “Jimmy, check this out.” he put the whole sheet on the floor. It was almost ten pages. So we put the record on and he started looking at it, and he said, “man, it looks pretty good to me.” But it was crazy. It was like groupings of 7th with one beast, 5s, 7s… Weird. Did I give you that transcribed…
GEORGE, JR.: No. You showed it to me and I took a look at it.
GC: I’ve got to find it for you so you can have it for the archives.
TP: george, why don’t you tell me what you said about your father at the NEA Party at Smoke, or synopsize it?
GC: Did you record it?
GEORGE, JR.: I didn’t. I don’t know if anybody did. But basically what I said was… This is echoed by anybody who knows George. Besides being…we don’t like to say “unsung,” because there’s plenty of people who love George Coleman. One of the funny things is, I have Facebook… George is not a big social media guy, so I handle all that for him. I remember as soon as I got on, I started getting all these requests, and I’m like, “Who are these people? I don’t know who all these people are.” Then I started getting notes from them, like, “Mr. Coleman, I love your solo on ‘My Funny Valentine’ and I saw you in Italy…”
GC: They thought it was him.
GEORGE, JR.: They thought me was him. I never went to “Junior” or anything. It was “little George” or something like that within the family. So it was interesting to me to see all of these people from all around the world who were touched by what George had done musically, and in most cases didn’t know him, and in some cases they may have saw him live somewhere in Europe or Asia or whatever. So that was really interesting for me.
But the thing I spoke to at the NEA thing was the concept of my dad being a wonderful human being. He’s helped so many people. I don’t know how many times George has had students come over and not taken money from them, basically wanting to share all this great knowledge, or people who were down-and-out and needed help, and George lent a helping hand. I also think that’s a testament to his great playing, that he’s also a great human being. People who don’t know George don’t know that about him. But I think that’s one positive aspect in terms of why he’s always been great with crowds. He’s a very giving person, and he wants the people who listen to music to enjoy themselves and feel like they were really special and part of something, because they are. I feel a lot of the approaches to music these days are less focused on the interests of the people who are actually attending the concert and more about the interesting things that the musicians are doing for themselves on stage, and that’s not what George is about, and that’s the lesson I’ve always gotten.
GC: Whatever you play, you’ve got to entertain.
GEORGE, JR.: You’ve got to entertain. Somebody told me one day “it’s not called ‘show art.’ It’s called ‘show business’ for a reason.” That’s the other thing about George. That doesn’t mean you diminish the sophistication or complexity of what it is that you do musically. It’s just something that you keep in mind. It could be something as simple as feeling the crowd out and maybe wanting to call one particular tune, which I’ve seen George do many times, where we’ll be in the back…I’ll have an opportunity to play with him, I’ll be in the back, and he’ll say, “here’s the set list,” and then we get onstage and we don’t do any of those tunes, because at the moment George feels this crowd just seems different, so this will work better. So it wasn’t like we played any lesser music. We just felt the vibe of the crowd, or he felt the vibe of the crowd…
TP: But he’s describing a very art-for-art’s-sake aesthetic, but then there’s another side that probably comes from playing for people…
GC: Miles Davis liked to play for people, too. All those guys. All the successful guys. Now, you’ve got people like Herbie and Chick Corea…they basically play for themselves. In a lot of instances, the stuff they play is for themselves. That’s their signature. But it might not be palatable to the ears of some people. Now, the staunch JAZZ people…you could take a nickel or a quarter and scratch it on some glass, and people say, “Oh, that’s great jazz.” But for people who really want to hear the people swing and want to hear some nice melody and nice rhythm and things like that…this is what some of the professionals I’ve come into contact with… I’ve been with some of the great professionals, like Lionel Hampton. Now, he was a showman, too. That’s what made them successful.
TP: Talent and showmanship.
GC: Yeah. Not necessarily showmanship… They would play stuff that the people would want to hear, play music the people would want to hear.
GEORGE, JR.: I can’t tell you how many times we’ve been at concerts, especially some of the clubs where a lot of tourists come, not necessarily regular jazz fans or people who live in New York, and they come up to me or come up to George and they say, “I’m not really a jazz fan, I don’t really like jazz, but I love what you guys are doing.”
GC: Yeah, that’s right.
GEORGE, JR.: that says to us that we did our job.
GC: I’ve been with a lot of people in showbiz. Even Max… All the guys I worked with, they played stuff. Max knew the people like “Valse Hot,” and they liked to hear him play 3/4. They knew things… I’m sure when Brownie was in the band and Harold Land, they played stuff that people were anxious to hear. “Daahoud” and all that stuff they recorded, they played that stuff, man, and they swung and it sounded so good, and it was up-tempo stuff. When Sonny was in the band… People liked to hear that. This is back in the day, though, Ted. The ears today, the youthful ears… I think they are somewhat deprived, because they don’t realize what it used to be like.
George Coleman (WKCR, 4-27-94):
TP: You’ve played so long with Harold Mabern and Jamil Nasser. You must go back at least forty years.
GC: Yeah, that’s true. We’ve been together for quite some time now, and it’s always a great experience playing with these guys.
TP: When did you first meet Mabern? Was it back in Memphis?
GC: Well, we were in high school together. I graduated a little ahead of them — well, him. Jamil was over at Booker T. Washington. We were going to Manassas High, which was on the North Side, and Booker T. Washington was on the south side of the city. Of course, the two schools were rivals. They were the top black high schools in Memphis during that time.
TP: Did they have good band programs?
GC: Yes, they had very good band programs, both of them. Both schools had nice marching bands. Of course, their forte was basically, though, I would say probably athletics. But there were some good musical programs.
TP: There also was probably a lot of work in Memphis for a talented young musician in the late Forties and early Fifties.
GC: Well…sort of. You had the R&B thing during that time. That was the popular music of that day. But of course, there was some Jazz there, too, also.
TP: A few words about some of these early working experiences. A lot of bands either would come through Memphis and would be based in Memphis, and it was a center of a certain aspect of the recording industry.
GC: Oh, yes. Well, during that time we’re talking about the early Fifties, late Forties. We had people like Count Basie’s band coming through. The guys would always come to this little place, which then was known as Mitchell’s Hotel. It’s long gone now. It was right on the corner of Beale and Hernando, and the proprietor was a guy by the name of Andrew Mitchell, affectionately known as Sunbeam. He just recently died, a couple of years ago. But he was very generous to musicians coming through during that time. A lot of times guys would be stranded, and they could always get a meal and a bed.
A lot of guys were coming through during that time. A lot of the R&B bands would come up and sit in. There was just a session. There was always a session there.
TP: It seems to me that having so many musicians come through, you’d learn very quickly how to edit your playing and how to approach soloing and so forth.
GC: Yes. I feel that we did have an advantage coming up in that time period, all the musicians who came up during that time, because there was a lot of exposure to the music — and everybody was trying to get involved with this great music. There was a lot happening. There was a lot happening for young musicians. Not so much today, because you’ve got to search high and wide to try to find a session, a jam session, whereas during that time, man, there was always somebody playing somewhere, or rehearsing some music, some original music or whatnot.
TP: Even so, it must be quite gratifying for an older musician from Memphis to see the talent that’s continued to emerge from there, or the hundred mile area, particularly the great group of pianists.
GC: Yes, there has been quite a talented array of pianists coming from Memphis — Mulgrew Miller, of course Mabern, the late, great Phineas Newborn, James Williams, Donald Brown. So it’s a pianist’s city. There’s another pianist named Charles Thomas who is also from Memphis. And there’s always some younger guys coming up.
TP: Often at the Vanguard you’ve worked with Billy Higgins or Carl Allen, sometimes Idris Muhammad, but I can’t remember you working with Jimmy Lovelace at the Vanguard.
GC: Well, Jimmy, affectionately known as Lace, has been a great drummer for many years. He goes back to that period of the Fifties. He’s always been an excellent player. And although he doesn’t get a chance to play as much, whenever he sits down on the drums, he really gives account of himself. He’s always there swinging and playing with taste and good chops, too. I don’t know how he does it, because he doesn’t play that much. Well, I think he’s playing a little bit more now. Anyway, we’re very happy to have him.
TP: A few words about the two others in the band with whom you’ve been playing for so long, Jamil Nasser and Harold Mabern.
GC: Well, they’re always excellent. They just know what to do at the right time, and their repertoire is always extensive. They know just hundreds of songs, and we have quite a few harmonic devices that we use. We always listen to each other, and that’s how we formulate and really get a groove going, because we listen to each other rather than just close your eyes and just be playing. We’re always listening for something that will help us to communicate.
TP: Will all three of your horns be in evidence this week?
GC: Well, yes, I’ve been trying some new stuff, you know, and hopefully it will work out pretty good. But those are tricky instruments, the alto and the soprano.
TP: Well, you started off as an alto saxophonist, didn’t you?
GC: Oh, yeah. That was my original instrument.
TP: How did the switch to the tenor come about? Because of the function of rhythm-and-blues gigs, you had to play tenor?
GC: Yes, that story was when I went to join B.B. King. That was when I switched to tenor. Because he had an alto player. He didn’t need a tenor player. So I started playing tenor then. That was circa 1955, somewhere around there.
TP: We have a few tracks cued up from recent recordings that you appear on. One is with Hilton Ruiz. There is a partnership there over the years as well.
GC: Oh, yes. Well, Hilton and I have been on tours together. As a matter of fact, he was the pianist on my first European tour as a leader, with a quartet, going back to around ’76 or ’77,.
TP: That was documented on Timeless, an LP called Amsterdam After Dark.
GC: That’s right. Billy Higgins was the drummer on the tour, but Sam Jones wasn’t with us. He was playing with Cedar during that time.
TP: According to the liner notes, you brought this piece in for Hilton’s last date for Novus, A Moment’s Notice, a piece called “Strange” featuring you and Hilton Ruiz as the primary soloists, also Andy Gonzalez on bass and Steve Berrios on drums, dueno and timbales as well.
GC: It’s an old song that a lot of people don’t know about. It was recorded many years ago by Nat King Cole. He was the first artist that I had heard perform the tune. I always liked it. I liked it harmonically, and it had a nice kind of little Latin thing to it. So I thought that would be quite appropriate for Hilton’s date. So I did introduce it, and he decided that he wanted to record it.
[MUSIC: Ruiz-Coleman, “Strange” (1993); Beirach-Coleman, “Flamenco Sketches” (1992); Coleman-Henderson-Pierce-Williams, “Lo-Joe” (1993)]
TP: Are we to assume that “Lo-Joe” is a dedication to your partner on that date, Joe Henderson?
GC: That’s correct, yes, yes.
TP: I was just asking you 30 seconds how long it took everyone to nail that down.
GC: Well, they got it pretty quick, I must say. Of course, when we play it now, we play it very fast. We play it up-tempo.
TP: That wasn’t up-tempo?
GC: No, that wasn’t really as fast as we play it. We use it like for a chaser when we’re coming off. Heh-heh.
TP: People who want to sit in, beware, because George will probably put that one on you and change the key three or four times as well! Preceding that was a duo with pianist Richie Beirach on “Flamenco Sketches” from Kind of Blue. That’s from a date I enjoyed very much that didn’t get distributed as widely as it might have, on the Triloka label, Richie Beirach and George Coleman, Convergence. That brings to mind another duo date you did in the 1970’s with Catalonian pianist Tete Montoliu. And another thing it brings to mind is that George Coleman spent a couple of years with Miles Davis. So I’ll have to ask a question that brings all of that into play. You said that the song itself was new to you when Richie presented it to you.
GC: Yeah, I had no idea of what it really was. I just looked at the chord progressions and just improvised from that. Of course, I’m assuming that that’s basically… The way it sounds, the way I remember it, I might have heard it maybe once, the rendition of Miles Davis. When I heard it, that’s basically what it was. I didn’t hear any kind of profound melody. It was just something that seemed to be a slow ballad-type thing with just changes and free improvisation. That’s what it sounded like to me.
TP: So this one didn’t get played when you were part of the Miles Davis group.
GC: No, that wasn’t a part of the repertoire at the time.
TP: Since we’re on the subject, what were the circumstances that led you to joining Miles.
GC: Well, strangely enough, I think I found out much later that it was John Coltrane who recommended me for the job.
TP: How long had you known John Coltrane?
GC: Well, I didn’t really know him that well. I had met him a couple of times. He was a very, very beautiful guy, always there, very humble, and was just a sweetheart of a person, always there to help you. I remember one time I came down and sat in with the band. This is at the old Bohemia down on Barrow Street. This is many years ago. This is when I first arrived in New York. I was with Max during that time, I think. Anyway, he let me play his horn, mouthpiece and everything. So I sat in and played with Miles, and I guess evidently I had made some kind of an impression on him. Because when Trane got ready to leave, or when he asked him about people, he recommended me.
TP: That must have been an interesting band to play with. Was it different every night? Were the tunes treated in a different way?
GC: Yes. Well, a lot of people oft-times comment about that, wondering if we really rehearsed those things we were doing, or if the rhythm section really rehearsed. No, this was pretty much spontaneous, everything… We had a format, though, of course. I would play counter-lines behind him or some little harmonies, and these were set things. But as far as into the guts of the tune, all kind of things might be happening. There would be tempo changes, or 3/4 in a section which if it was a 4/4 tune it would do. They were very inventive, I must say. The rhythm section was very… They were young guys, and they were interested in doing new, different things. As a matter of fact, I was probably considered the old man, heh, the old post-Bebop player! I was trying to adhere to basic rules of Jazz playing, and they were on another plateau. They were moving out. They were getting ready to do some different things, which they did.
TP: Can you elaborate on that a little more?
GC: Well, yeah. There were times when they felt I was kind of cramping them. Because I was always pretty much a straight player. But one night I stretched out and played a little free something for them, and they were all amazed. All of them including Miles, because he had left the bandstand, and when he heard what was going on and said, “What was that?!” Of course, Herbie and Tony and Ron, they were all very I guess pleasantly surprised — because that was that one night. But I didn’t do it any more after that.
TP: You figured you’d made your point.
GC: I just wanted to show them it wasn’t impossible for me to do that.
[END OF SIDE]
I would love to do something with maybe Ahmad Jamal one of these days.
TP: Were you checking him out when you were living in Chicago in the mid-1950’s?
GC: Oh yeah. He was the house band at the Pershing Lounge for many years. So we would always go there and hear the trio with Vernell Fournier and Ahmad and Israel Crosby, a great bass player. Every night, man, they were there hitting. They were there hitting right in the lounge of the Pershing Hotel, and he was there playing so magnificently every night.
Chicago was such a great place during that time, man. I mean, you had music twenty-four hours a day. I tell people that.
TP: And they say, “What do you mean, twenty-four hours a day?”
GC: Yeah! Well, actually I had a gig that started at six o’clock in the morning at a place called Budland that was adjacent to the Pershing Hotel. They had a little place there, and we used to start at six in the morning. Then there was another place up on State Street…
TP: Who was your band?
GC: There was a guy named Prentice McCrary. Johnny Griffin would know who that is. Most people would not know this guy. But he was the organist, a very good keyboard player. I can’t remember who the drummer was.
TP: What type of people would be going to these six in the morning gigs?
GC: Well, people who have late gigs or early morning. Bartenders and waitresses and people like that, they would be up that early time, at that time of the morning! Just like the after-hour joints that used to be here in New York!
TP: It’s hard these days to conceive of an actual gig that hits at six in the morning.
GC: Well, they had something called the Breakfast Show at the Club De Lisa during that time, the famous Club De Lisa on State Street in Chicago. That started at like 8 o’clock in the morning. Nice show, beautiful show, dancers and singers and whatnot. This guy Red Saunders was the bandleader there for many years. He was a drummer, and he had that gig sewed up for many years.
There was a lot of excitement there in Chicago during that time, a lot of excitement and a lot of opportunities for young musicians to learn the music. There was another place where Johnny Griffin used to play all the time, a place called Swingland on Cottage Grove. He had bands in there. The music was continuous in there. After the regular gig was through, there were instruments on the stand, drums and bass, and people would come in at all times of morning or night. It just never ended.
TP: You had had a lot of experience playing the Blues in Memphis, so I guess Chicago must have been a place where you were able to get gigs and further develop yourself.
GC: Yes, that was a second stage. I had had some experience in Memphis playing with bands and doing a little bit of reading and a little bit of arranging and whatnot. But when I got to Chicago, that really opened up a different thing for me. That really gave me some very good opportunities to learn the music and to continue to develop. And meeting up with Johnny Griffin was one of those inspirational things.
TP: It’s a jam session town, and a tenor player’s town, and it was filled with great tenor players in the 1950’s.
GC: Oh, there was guys there… Also Gene Ammons was there during that time when I was there, and he’s such a wonderful player, and a nice guy, too. Of course, Sonny Stitt would come through from time to time. It was just great. There were a couple of other guys around there that nobody really knows too much about. There was a guy named Nicky Hill, who was an excellent saxophonist, a guy named John Jenkins, who just recently passed, an altoist — he was from Chicago. There was quite a few guys there, lesser-known people, but still great players.
TP: George Coleman is a musician who every time you think he’s topped himself, well, he tops himself the next time, and you can hear him with people he’s been playing with for years at the Village Vanguard this week, Harold Mabern on piano, Jamil Nasser on bass, and Jimmy Lovelace on drums. The next track we’ll hear is from My Horns Of Plenty which you did for Verve a couple of years ago with Mabern, Ray Drummond and Billy Higgins, where you showcase your alto and soprano saxophone.
GC: I like playing these instruments if I can get a comfortable situation with the right kind of acoustical setting. If the mikes are right or if the sound is good, then I feel good about these instruments. But without these things it can be somewhat of a problem, as most people who play these instruments can tell you, especially a soprano. But I’m giving it a try this weekend at the Vanguard. I haven’t been playing them for a while, but I’m going to try to see what I can do this weekend.
TP: We’ll hear “You Mean So Much To Me.”
GC: This is something that I had conceived some years ago, when I was touring with the band that I told you about, with Hilton Ruiz and Billy Higgins and Ray. So I would always be messing around on the piano, trying to figure out what I was going to do with it. So I finally put it together, and thusly that’s what it is. I came up with a title. And Bill Lee, Spike Lee’s father, wrote some lyrics to it. It could be a singer’s tune.
[MUSIC: G. Coleman, “You Mean So Much To Me” (1989)]
George Coleman (WKCR, 7-26-95):
[MUSIC: G. Coleman-A. Queen, “Soul Eyes” (1987); Coleman-Pierce-Henderson-Williams, “Lo-Joe” (1993)]
TP: You’ve been bringing in different drummers to these Vanguard weeks. Billy Higgins has been in there, last time Idris Muhammad, and this week Alvin Queen. A few words about Alvin Queen, and how you relate to different drummers, how they affect the way you play.
GC: I always try to get the best that’s available, and sometimes that can be difficult because the real good drummers are working. We’ve had Lewis Nash, we’ve had, of course, Billy Higgins, we’ve had Idris Muhammad, Carl Allen — and this week we’re having Alvin Queen, which is a blessing.
TP: How far back do you go with Alvin Queen?
GC: Alvin and I go back a bit. I first became really acquainted with him, so to speak, when I was in Europe touring in the 1970’s, like in 1975, and he came up to sit in with us in Rome. Prior to that, I was not really hip to how well he played. I knew he was a good drummer, but you never know until you play with people and really find out the finer points of what they can do.
TP: What are you looking for in your drummer when you’re playing? Is there a hierarchy of qualities?
GC: Well, there are several things. One of the basic things is keeping time, and then after that, imagination, taste and things of that sort. That goes into being a good drummer. You know, taste is the thing where a drummer can hear you do something, and he’ll dress it up for you. That’s in the vernacular of Billy Higgins and drummers of those dimensions. Of course, Idris Muhammad is excellent for that. But I’ll tell you, the real great drummers tend to be rare. There are a few nice young ones. You have Billy Drummond and people like that (who I haven’t had the pleasure of playing with that much). But the drum chair is a very critical chair. It motivates the structure of everything that’s happening, especially in a quartet situation.
TP: The drummer has to hold it all together.
GC: Oh yeah.
TP: Now, Harold Mabern is known for his very percussive and rhythmic style.
GC: Well, he definitely adds to the rhythmic portion of the band. He sort of anchors everything along with the drummer. He enhances the drummer.
TP: And a great harmonic knowledge as well.
GC: Of course. That’s another one of his fortes.
TP: Has that been there ever since you’ve known him? — I guess going back forty years plus.
GC: Yes, he’s always been interested in doing different things harmonically. And we have sort of a connection there, all of us, including Jamil, whereas we like to do different things harmonically. And sometimes these things turn out to be spontaneous, too; they’re not pre-planned. But that’s the way we think.
TP: Who were some of the good drummers you played with going back to your early days in music, in Memphis, some of the exceptional, strong ones?
GC: Well, there weren’t too many great drummers back there in Memphis during that time. There was a guy named Charles Crosby, who is deceased, who was one of the young drummers during that time who were… There just weren’t that many in Memphis during that time.
TP: I guess they had to keep time pretty well, because they had to play on the Blues circuit and so forth.
GC: Yes. Well, that’s what they were basically involved in. There weren’t many jazz-orientated drummers down there during that time. Only a few, and nobody would know who they are.
TP: Did you start getting involved with big-time, major league drummers when you moved to Chicago?
GC: Yes. Now, that’s when things started happening, because there were quite a few great drummers there during that time. Unfortunately, I missed Ike Day. He was that legendary drummer that Max and Art Blakey and all of the great drummers used to talk about. He was really something. I never got a chance to meet him or play with him. All of the great drummers, Max and Art Blakey and probably even Klook, they knew about him. He was just an exceptional percussionist.
TP: Who were some of the drummers that you did work with? Because when you came out of Chicago, you came out with Max Roach!
GC: Well, I was fortunate enough to have the cream of the crop, see. That was ultimate. And through him, my technique developed, because we were playing fast all night; most of the times, everything we played was fast.
TP: So it’s different dynamics on fast.
GC: Oh, yeah. The emphasis was on fast, really, with him. And of course, he was a pioneer in developing 3/4 in its association with Jazz. Max was the first guy to play 3/4.
TP: How did he link up with you? You must have joined the band in late ’57 or early ’58.
GC: Yes. Well, what happened was, I was playing with a group called the MJT+3 in Chicago during that time, featuring Walter Perkins and Bob Cranshaw, Muhal Richard Abrams, and a trumpet player by the name of Paul Serrano. We were playing a club on the North Side of Chicago called the Blue Note. Max came in one night, and he heard us, and he was very impressed. Then after that he heard Booker Little. As a matter of fact, I think that particular night he heard Paul Serrano, but he was very much impressed with Booker Little, because Booker Little was like what he was looking for in a trumpet player.
TP: What was that? What were those qualities?
GC: Well, he was looking for great technique and an innovative ability, and youth, too. And when Kenny Dorham left the band, that’s when Booker joined. He snatched Booker right away.
TP: You knew Booker Little about as well as anyone.
GC: Oh yeah. We grew up back in Memphis. I was amazed at his talent even when he was just a kid. He had transcribed a Miles Davis solo on “Star Eyes” note for note, and I was very impressed with that. Of course, he was just a phenomenal player.
TP: Can you tell the audience a little bit about Booker Little’s background and what you remember about his first forays into Jazz?
GC: Well, he was sort of like a protege of mine, in a sense, because he was a little bit younger than me, and I was, in a sense, like a teacher to most of the younger players there, like Frank Strozier… Not really a teacher, but I was a sort of a…
TP: …role model.
GC: Yeah, a role model, and I would put them in a catalystic direction as far as Jazz was concerned. I would tell them what to do, and what it was all about, and how to improvise, and what this chord was. And I was still learning, too, during this time. But I have been a teacher… Even during the time when I was learning, I have been a teacher. I am happy to say that and I’m very proud of that…
TP: It probably helped you learn.
GC: Oh, it did. Most certainly. And it has transcended through all the years that I have been involved with music.
TP: But did Booker Little have that incredible sound that we can always identify him with from his early years?
GC: Oh, yes. He always had a great sound, reminiscent of Clifford Brown — very mellow, you know. It’s almost a flugelhorn like sound on a trumpet. He never did have the blare. Even when he would go up to maybe a high D, the note was so mellow. It was not screechy. Of course, that’s a very high note on a trumpet. But he could play up there. He could play high F’s and it would sound so mellow.
GC: Who were the trumpet players that he was really paying close attention to? You mentioned him transcribing Miles’ solo on “Star Eyes.”
GC: Oh, yeah. Well, of course, Miles and Dizzy and Fat Girl and all the great trumpet players, Clifford Brown, that’s the people he was listening to. But he was not copying not one note from any of them! It was amazing, because he was a stylist at a very early age. He was playing like nobody but himself. Which was amazing, you know. If you listen to him, you don’t really hear… I mean, you hear little nuances maybe from different people. But his ideas were his own.
[MUSIC: Max Roach-K. Dorham-G. Coleman, “Parker’s Mood” (1958)]
TP: Right before you came on we heard a track called “Lo-Joe.” You’ve been a student of the tenor saxophone and of other tenor saxophonists for many years. When you came up in the 1950’s, when you started emerging on the scene, who were some of your contemporaries who you were really enthusiastic about at that time?
GC: There were quite a few. Of course, when I arrived in Chicago there was Johnny Griffin and Gene Ammons. Those were really the two that I was most impressed with during that time. Of course, Sonny Stitt would pop in from time to time. There was just quite an array of saxophonists on the scene at that time.
TP: How did listening to them shape your style, if at all? For instance, Gene Ammons.
GC: Well, my style was basically shaped through listening to Charlie Parker. He was the man for me, Charlie Parker. Then later came John Coltrane. But then there were so many others. There was Hank Mobley, of course Eddie Lockjaw Davis, Lucky Thompson, and Don Byas and some of the older players that I was very impressed with — technique and originality.
TP: Did you study their records, check them out live, transcribe solos, things like that?
GC: No, I’ll tell you. Those guys, the solos they played were very difficult to transcribe, man!
TP: Why is that?
GC: Because they were so unique. The stuff that they were playing was really… You’d say, “Man, that stuff’s not even on the horn, what these guys are playing.” Because they were so individual. They knew how to bend a note. I mean, you couldn’t even notate the stuff that they played. Even if you could write the notes, you wouldn’t be able to notate it because of the way they played notes — the way they slurred, the way they would bend the note, the way they would finger. There’s no prescribed way of doing that. Eddie Lockjaw Davis is a prime example of that. He’d hit a note, and it just would sound like it wasn’t even on the tenor, the way he played it. Of course, he was one of my idols, too. I loved the way he played, because he was so unique.
It’s been said in this modern day and age that there are so many young players out there, and they all sound the same. But during that era, everybody sounded different. You had Paul Gonsalves, you know. They were coming from different schools, like maybe Don Byas, Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins, but they sounded different! All of them sounded different. They played different ideas. Some of them had a tendency to have somewhat of the same kind of sound, so to speak, but even that was different. There was just so much difference in players. It was a challenge for you to come up in that era and not sound like those people. But I never would rely on anybody else’s licks. I would listen to it and analyze it. Like some of the diminished things that Coltrane used to play, all the saxophone players was playing those. And I loved the licks! But I would always turn it around and play it a different way. It would be the same kind of diminished sequence, but I would just maybe invert or do something else with it.
I think all of us have come from somebody. Like, the emphasis of a lot of players, especially the so-called avant-garde ones, they’re saying, “Oh, I don’t want to sound like nobody.” But you know, they don’t sound like nothin’! Most of them don’t sound like anything. They’re not musical. Now, that’s a harsh statement to make, but it’s true in a sense. Because saxophone playing is something that has dated back many years, and the expertise has been handed down through all of these great players. For somebody to just get up and just play meaningless notes without connecting is… But you know, you have the critics, they say, “Oh yes, he’s creative, he’s this and he’s that and he’s that.” That kind of irks me, in a sense. It disturbs me, because they don’t really know. They don’t really know. When I first started playing, I could make a sound, I could make a strange sound on the saxophone. But to put notes in order and to have them mean something, harmonically and rhythmically and melodically, that’s something that requires study, expertise and God-given talent.
TP: In the Fifties, it seems to me you were doing a lot of doubling, alto-tenor. There are a number of recordings with you on alto saxophone at that time. What was the primary reason why you went pretty much exclusively with the tenor saxophone?
GC: Well, I changed to tenor back in 1955, after playing alto maybe four years, because it was an economic necessity. I went with B.B. King, and he already had an alto player; he needed a tenor. So that’s how that came about. The rest is history. But alto was my forte, and was my first instrument. That was the instrument that I first began to play.
TP: What’s the difference between the two instruments for you?
GC: They have different characteristics, you know. Alto is a control instrument. Of course it’s a different pitch. Alto a sixth from Concert and the tenor is like a major Ninth or just a step away from Concert. But transposition-wise, that never bothered me, because I would play in all the keys anyway, even as as kid when I was coming up. So the keys was never a thing that… The transition from one key to another was never any problem with me, because I practiced all the keys on both instruments.
TP: Do you find yourself shaping solos differently on the tenor saxophone because of the different sound?
GC: Yes, that is a possibility that enters into the picture. When you’re playing alto there’s a couple of little things that you might think differently on alto than you do on tenor — and even soprano. They all have their own different characteristics, and it sort of influences as far as what you might play on each one.
TP: Are you playing only tenor this week?
GC: No, I’m struggling with the three! And if I can get some good reeds, that’s going to facilitate my performance a little bit better. But last night I had a terrible time with reeds.
TP: I’ll bet nobody knew but you.
GC: Well, sometimes that’s the case. But if there are musicians in the audience who know, and know about this problem, they can acknowledge the fact when things like that are happening.
[MUSIC: George Coleman, “Father” (1987)]
TP: Are you working on any recording projects right now? Any ideas in mind at the moment?
GC: Well, I am pursuing in my mind… This is something that I have been thinking about for a while. I would really like to do some strings stuff, maybe an album with strings and voices. This is something I would like to do.
TP: What’s the appeal of strings and voices? It seems like every strong jazz musicians wants to do at least one record with strings and voices.
GC: Yeah. Well, with a full orchestra behind you, there’s so much excitement and inspiration, in my mind, that I think I could probably do some things that maybe I haven’t attempted to do before, if I could have that kind of an ensemble, so to speak, behind me, with voices and strings. Because I’ve always liked that. I have some equipment at home now that I just recently set up. I have the music-writing stuff, the Finale and the Encore, and it’s all hooked up to the MacIntosh, and now I have this Roland Synthesizer, and just through that I’ve been hearing some different sounds. It’s inspired me to realize the potential of maybe being involved in a project like that. So that’s what I’m really thinking about doing. I don’t know who is going to help me do it, but…
TP: I’m sure there’s a big pool of arrangers and composers out there to actualize it if the money is there.
GC: Yeah. I’d like to maybe give a stab at doing one myself. That would give me a little more of something different from my octet writing.
TP: How about the Octet? A lot of people miss that group.
GC: Well, we’re going to revive it. Of course, the personnel is different. There’s a lot of younger musicians in it now.
TP: Who would be some of the young musicians you’d use if it were coming down to that.
GC: Of course, there’s Ned Otter, who is one of my students. Adam Brenner, who is another. Of course, Gary Smulyan, an excellent baritone saxophone player; he’s in the band, too. Of course, George, Junior, my son; he’s playing drums. Clint Houston has been playing bass. Of course, Harold Mabern is the pianist. And Bill Mobley from Memphis is the trumpet, another young man who is a great arranger and a great trumpet player. So with all of these ingredients, I think we can really do something. We’re going to start some rehearsals in the near future.
TP: We’ll conclude with George’s interpretation of “Good Morning Heartache,” composed by Irene Higgenbotham and sung by Billie Holiday. I’m sure you heard this one often as a kid.
GC: Well, I had only heard it through the rendition of Diana Ross. That’s the first time I had really heard that tune, and I was impressed with it. The first few bars are kind of strange, you know, but if you adhere to the melody you can get through it and interpret it. But it’s kind of strange. It’s kind of funny in the beginning of that tune!
[MUSIC: G. Coleman, “Good Morning Heartache” (1987)]