Sunday, December 21, 2014

Meet the Masters: An interview with saxophonist Steve Coleman

Saxophonist Steve Coleman.
Saxophonist Steve Coleman. Tracy Collins

Throughout the majority of the time that we have existed on this planet, we have utilized the process of mentoring as our primary means for the intergenerational transfer of information, otherwise known as education. The most efficient and complete means of transferring information, experiences, knowledge, customs and even culture is via direct contact.

Naturally, parents are the first teachers of any student. The relationships of parent-child, mentor-mentee, and master-apprentice are all based on this most ancient form of education, through which the essence of any culture is passed down from one generation to the next.  Without this process the development and rise of advanced civilizations would not be possible.

Unfortunately, in many of today's societies all of the above processes are in decline.  Formal education is now preferred over apprenticeship, mentorship, and sometimes even parenting. 

The focus is instead on standardized testing and education, where millions are taught and evaluated in exactly the same manner, with an ever increasing narrow focus on "specialization" as they advance within their area of expertise.  Firsthand experience is no longer required in order to teach.

In my opinion, writing, books, audio-video recordings, etc. are great tools, and these tools all have their individual and appropriate uses, but within any discipline where humans have achieved an extremely high level of sophistication, there can be no substitute for meeting and spending time with those who have mastered said discipline. All other forms are incomplete and fall short.

Take music for example. Each new generation of master musicians build on the contributions of the previous. These contributions are most effectively taught via some sort of exposure to the masters themselves.  The efficiency of this method is directly related to the degrees of separation between master and student.

I have been lucky enough to meet a few great masters throughout my musical education. Knowing firsthand the value of these experiences, I thought it would be a great idea to interview one such great master, recent Guggenheim recipient, and modern day compositional/saxophone genius, Steve Coleman.  

I asked this "Jazz Master" six questions, which I’ll publishing here as six separate articles over the coming weeks.  As you will see, I spent most of my time listening, as all students should.

Anthony Tidd: Steve, it's no secret that you have been a major musical influence on me since a very young age. A good friend of mine, Steve Williamson, first introduced me to your music at 14 year-old in London.

Williamson, who was the most prominent saxophonist in London at the time complete with major record deal, cell phone (it was the first I had ever seen), brand new white convertible VW Golf, impeccable attire and all manner of gadgets, was like a God to 14 year old me.

As I boarded the red double-decker number 276 bus to Hackney to meet him at a local jazz club, to say that I was nervous would be a major understatement.  My manager at the time, Mike Joseph, had set up the meeting.  

That meeting with Steve Williamson was the first time that I would ever get to speak to a professional "jazz" musician.  I had never heard of Bird, Rollins, Von Freedman, Sam Rivers, Henry Threadgill or Steve Coleman.  My personal knowledge of so-called jazz was pretty sparse, to say the least, but surprisingly I still considered myself a “jazz” musician.

The meeting was simple.  We met at a smoky, crowded Jamaican jazz club and restaurant in Hackney town that I was too young to be in, but they let me in anyway.

Williamson's first words to me were, "Yo, so I hear you are the man on bass?  Have you ever checked out Symmetry? You know, M-Base!  Steve Coleman and the Five Elements!”  I looked at him as though he were speaking Swahili.  

He reached into his designer leather backpack and pulled out one of his gadgets and placed it on the table next to his tiny (at the time) NEC cell phone.  The gadget was a Walkman CD player.  I had never seen a CD, let alone something portable capable of playing one!  He handed me the headphones and pressed play.

The next three minutes were enlightening. There are those rare moments in life where one can be completely captivated and incapacitated by music, where the music is all that matters in the world at that moment, and where all the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.  This was one of them!

Williamson played song after song from the Black Science album, as I sat there with my mouth open, occasionally muttering swear words under my breath.

I was on such a high that I walked the five miles back to my house (I missed the last bus home) trying to decrypt the music and conversation that I had just heard.  In truth I had understood nothing, but that meeting would define and shape my pursuits over the next year.

Steve, what was your first experience of meeting a professional musician like?

Steve Coleman: There were many musicians that I met coming up. I thought they were professional at the time, but I realized later that some of them maybe weren’t quite professional. Depends on what you mean by professional.  When you’re younger and people are better than you, then everybody impresses you!  

The first cat who I met, where I realized that I was listening to a musician somewhere near the top, was Sonny Stitt. There were cats that shocked me before that simply because I was sad, so there’re a lot of shocks in store for a sad cat (laughs), but when I met Sonny Stitt, it almost seemed unreachable. It seemed like that was really the top.

By this time I was listening to records, so I knew what guys like Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins and guys like that sounded like.  When I met Sonny he sounded like them, but in person!  

I had never met anybody who sounded like a record, just you know, getting up outta bed (laughs)! The cats I knew sounded good, but they didn’t sound like the records, and he was the first cat that sounded like the recordings that sounded like guys who were dead!

I viewed Charlie Parker n’ them as the top of the mountain, so to meet somebody who sounded like that, and to talk to him, and hang around him, and see what he was like. He didn’t just sound like them, he knew all of them!  He loaned his horn to Bird [Charlie Parker], he made records with [Sonny] Rollins, he knew ‘Trane [John Coltrane], so that was like a shock!

Hearing him with a band was one thing. I had this idea that when guys played with bands, they were only that good because they were playing with a band. I don’t know what made me think this. But, one day I went to his hotel room. It was called Robert’s Motel, which is where he used to always stay on the South Side when he came to Chicago.  

I went to his room early, and you know, musicians sleep late, as I do now (laughs) and so I woke him up. He was a cat that drank a lot, and so he had all this vodka on his breath. He woke up, looked at me and said, “Gimme your horn boy!”  This cat’s waking up, vodka breath, didn’t even brush his teeth, and he just wants to get up outta bed and play my horn, with my mouthpiece, and my reed!

I was who I was, and he was who he was, so it wasn't like I was gonna say, ‘No Mr. Stitt’. So, I gave him my horn. I was cringing all the way!

He took the horn, and he started playing. It was a bad horn! Bad setup, student mouthpiece, student reed, student horn, just bad all around!  He played it, and to my ears he sounded just like Sonny Stitt.  Not only that, I heard the whole band when he was playing. I heard the melody, even though he wasn’t playing it.  I heard what tune he was playing.  It was like I could hear the bass, the drums, everything, ‘cause he was playing so strong, it was like the whole band was there with him!  It was really, really solid!  [His] time was solid. You could hear the different harmonic and melodic paths he was going down. Everything!  I didn’t even know what all that stuff was back then, but I could hear it all, you know?  

Then he gave the horn back to me. I looked at the horn and the first thing I thought was, ‘Well clearly that’s not the problem!’, because he just played the same horn and it sounded great!  Then when he gave it back to me it went back to sounding like it normally sounded…So, I was like, okay I can’t use the instrument as an excuse, I can’t use the band as an excuse, I can’t even use waking up as an excuse.

I realized then, that’s the goal!  To be that solid. To be able to play by yourself, and have all the rhythm, and the harmony, and the melody inside of you.

Check back here to see more of this ongoing interview.  The original audio recording of this segment can be found on the M-Base Ways website at, www.m-base.net.

Anthony Tidd Creative Music Program Director at Kimmel Center
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