Jazz Giant George Coleman Talks About Smalls Jazz Club, Max Roach, and Miles Davis
“I’m trying to retire but I can’t!” exclaims tenor saxophone legend George Coleman, who then breaks into a soft, throaty chuckle. A jazz titan who has played with some of the idiom’s biggest icons, Coleman celebrated his 88th birthday last March but, thankfully, has yet to hang up his horn; music is still very much his mistress and he thinks of nothing else. Going gently into that good night, as Welsh poet Dylan Thomas put it, is not an option. “I’ve said to myself, if I want to retire, what will I do?” he asks. “The only thing I can do is stick with music.”
Amazingly, Coleman is still vigorously blowing his horn both in the studio and on stage. He has a new album out soon called Live At Small’s Jazz Club which is released via the Cellar Music Group and it’s nothing short of astounding. The record captured him playing in one of New York’s iconic jazz clubs last year: Smalls, a minuscule live space that can accommodate 74 people that was founded in Greenwich Village in 1994 and which since 2007 has earned notoriety for its streamed jazz concerts.
“It’s a nice venue,” states Coleman, who reveals that the club’s owner, Spike Wilner, plays piano on the recording. “Spike’s a good guy and he plays pretty damned good,” says Coleman, speaking from his home in New York. “There was also Peter Washington on bass and Joe Farnsworth on drums. (Pictured left). They were very good. I enjoyed the performance.”
Coleman’s Smalls set list blends immortal jazz standards like ‘When Sunny Gets Blue’ and “The Nearness Of You” with cool bossa nova classics (Antonio Carlos Jobim’s ‘Meditation’) and original, self-penned material (‘Blues For Smalls’). He also includes a couple of numbers associated with Miles Davis, in whose band he famously played in the early 60s: the melancholy ballad, ‘My Funny Valentine,’ and the slightly uptempo and ever-so-catchy ‘Four,’ tracks that he recorded with the trumpeter on the classic live albums My Funny Valentine (1964) and Four And More (1966). They show two sides of Coleman; the polished lyricism of his ballad playing and the sinewy athleticism of his improvisations on faster numbers.
For someone who will be 89 on his next birthday, his playing is nothing less than spectacular and not what you’d expect, perhaps, in terms of quality from a person who started their professional career 70 years ago; old age, it seems, isn’t a barrier to creativity.
“I’m amazed myself,” laughs Coleman. “I can still play pretty good. I can play tempos and I can play ballads, and the sound is still pretty good. My fingers still work and my mind is pretty active because I’ve got all these young musicians around me.”
Coleman still teaches and reckons all the young musicians he mentors have helped him to stay youthful. Among his past students has been altoist David Sanborn (“he came to me and wanted to learn about harmony”) plus tenor players Eric Alexander (“he’s a good friend”) and rising star, Chilean-born Melissa Aldana (“she’s a great player but I told her to play more standards”), who has just released her debut album on Blue Note Records. As someone who is self-taught – “I never went to any music school,” he declares – George Coleman has racked up some impressive academic gigs as a pedagogue. “I’ve been able to teach at universities,” he reveals with a palpable note of pride. “A couple of years ago, I did a master class at Juilliard. It was very successful. I also did masterclasses at Harvard and Berklee.”
George Coleman’s roots were far removed from the august halls of east coast academia. He was born in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1935 and raised alone by his mother. “I didn’t know my father,” he reveals and says the first music he heard was at home. “My mother used to sing lullabies to me,” he recalls. “She was such a sweet woman. We struggled but she was always positive and beautiful.”
There were no professional musicians in his family but as a youngster, George fell under music’s spell. He bought some records by Louis Jordan – “He was one of my favourite heroes because I liked his R&B alto playing,” he says – but it was hearing the dazzling sounds from the horn of bebop architect Charlie Parker (pictured right) that made Coleman take up the alto saxophone. “He was my inspiration,” he reveals. “I would transcribe his stuff from 78 records, which was somewhat difficult because you couldn’t slow the records down. Some of those bebop tunes were very intricate but I could transcribe some of the solos ‘cos I had pretty good ears.”
Eager to learn and improve himself, Coleman gleaned information from fellow local musicians and by the age of 16 was playing professionally in and around the “Bluff City.” Significantly, he switched from the alto to the tenor saxophone at the age of 20 in 1955 when he got his first big break, joining the band of bluesman B. B. King. “He had an altoist but needed a tenor player so I had to go out and buy one,” he remembers. “I hadn’t worked with anybody of name until him.”
With his coming from Memphis, playing the blues came naturally to Coleman but jazz was where his ambitions lay and he decided to widen his horizons by leaving his hometown. “I knew I had to go somewhere else where I could really play jazz,” he says, and moved north to Chicago, which in 1956 was a happening place for jazz.
“Back in Chicago during that time, it was 24-hour music,” remembers Coleman. “I stayed in Chicago from about ‘56 to ‘58. It was a hotbed of talent. It was all jazz and one place stayed open 24 hours a day. On the bandstand were a bass, a piano, and drums, too. People would come in all hours of the day and night and play. Chicago was really quite a place to learn how to play music.”
He played in a band led by drummer Walter Perkins: “It was called MJT + 3 and Bob Cranshaw, the bass player, was in the band. Muhal Richard Abrahams was the pianist and there was a trumpet player there, Paul Serrano – nobody knew who he was but he was a great player. So we had a nice band. One of the great experiences of my career was being in Chicago and playing with these guys.”
All the big-name bands came through Chicago and one day, bebop drummer and noted bandleader Max Roach arrived in town, heard Coleman play, and asked him to take the place in his band of the departing Sonny Rollins. Coleman obliged and ended up recording six albums with the drummer, including 1958’s Deeds Not Words. The young tenorist gleaned a lot from the bebop drum master. “I learned to play all that fast stuff with him, those incredibly fast tempos,” he says. “And that really helps you in your harmony and being able to improvise. Of course, it helps you technically, harmonically, and in so many other ways. But it’s like a dying thing today.”
When Coleman first joined Roach’s band, Kenny Dorham was the trumpeter but later a good friend from Memphis, Booker Little, took his place. (Little is pictured left with Max Roach). The saxophonist has fond memories of Little, whose career was tragically cut short when he died of kidney disease in 1961 at the tender age of 23. “He was a genius,” enthuses Coleman. “He could play the trumpet like Clifford Brown but he had his own sound. He practiced a lot. I’d be lying in bed sometimes and I’d hear him down the hall practicing. He was just 23 years old but he could play all the changes and everything, all the tempos. And it was amazing how he accumulated all these great things at such a young age. But at 23 years old, this kid died. He accomplished so much in a few years. He was impeccable.”
In 1958, Coleman left Max Roach’s band and tried his luck in New York City. His association with the bebop drum god had brought him renown on the jazz scene and it wasn’t long before he had a high-profile gig again. He hooked up with the trombone player and noted arranger Slide Hampton, joining his band and playing on six of his albums between 1959 and 1962. His tenure with the trombonist proved another worthwhile engagement that added to his musical knowledge. “He was such a phenomenal arranger and composer,” recalls Coleman. “He wouldn’t need a piano and would sit down at night with some manuscript and a pencil and the next morning, he’d have four big-band arrangements all of them correct, no missing notes, no nothing, everything was exactly there, with no piano. He could do that really well.”
After leaving Hampton, Coleman furthered his education by getting the best gig in jazz: playing in Miles Davis’ band. It came about purely by chance. “One night I down to the Cafe Bohemia here in New York on Barrow Street. A famous quartet was playing: John Coltrane, ‘Philly’ Joe Jones, Wynton Kelly, and Paul Chambers.”
Coleman had chanced upon the Miles Davis quintet minus their charismatic trumpet-playing leader. Like any keen young saxophone slinger, Coleman was keen to prove himself and show his mettle among some bona fide jazz heavyweights. “I asked if I could sit in,” says the saxophonist. “I didn’t have a horn or anything but Coltrane was very gracious and let me play his and use his mouthpiece.”
He recalls they played an uptempo version of the standard ‘Lover’ and the band seemed impressed by his contribution. “Later, Miles asked me to join the band after Coltrane (who left to lead his own band) recommended me,” he reveals.
Coleman joined a band in transition. With Coltrane and the first “Great Quintet” gone, Miles was looking for fresh talent and a new direction. When Coleman joined in 1963, Sonny Rollins – who had come in as a temporary replacement for Coltrane – had just quit as had the rhythm section of Kelly, Chambers, and Jones. Davis had gigs booked but no band, so to avoid losing money, he quickly put a new one together, pulling in Coleman’s friend from Memphis, altoist Frank Strozier, along with fellow newbies, London-born pianist Victor Feldman, bassist Ron Carter and drummer, Frank Butler. But it was a short-lived line-up.
“It was originally a sextet, with three horns – Miles, me, and Frank – but then he decided to cut it down to a quintet,” recalls Coleman. The band went into the studio to record what became Seven Steps To Heaven, one of Davis’ best early 60s LPs. But halfway through the sessions, the band morphed again; Feldman, who was based on the US west coast didn’t want to give up his lucrative session work which led Davis to bring in a young Chicagoan called Herbie Hancock, then 23, poached from trumpeter Donald Byrd’s band. He also replaced Butler with a seventeen-year-old wunderkind drummer from Philadelphia called Tony Williams. Both Hancock and Williams helped reinvigorate Davis’ music though their love of modernism would eventually alienate George Coleman.
Coleman was a dyed-in-the-wool bebopper who loved playing “the changes,” the sequence of chords that had become the cornerstone of straight-ahead jazz in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. But Hancock and Williams, who were younger, began gravitating to what some musicians called the “New Thing” – free jazz, which was pioneered by saxophonists like Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler and was sounding the death knell for bebop. According to Coleman, tensions rose in the band because they saw him as “square.”
“They were all snubbing me,” reveals Coleman. “Ron Carter, Herbie Hancock, and especially Tony Williams. Tony Williams did not like me because I wasn’t playing like a so-called avant-gardist during that day. Everybody was trying to be hip, playing like Ornette Coleman.”
One night, Coleman decided to play a prank on the band, vowing to play in the style of his avant-garde namesake who was then shaking up the jazz world. Remembers Coleman: “I said to myself, I’m going to fix these MFs. I’m going to show them that I can play this dumb-ass shit that they think I can’t play.”
He recalls Miles kicked off the set with his old staple ‘Walkin’.’ After playing his solo first, Miles then repaired to the bar for a drink while the rest of the band continued. While Miles was ordering a bottle of champagne, Herbie Hancock soloed, followed by George Coleman, who shook things up by playing free jazz. “I played some of the weirdest stuff,” he laughs. “Their eyes popped out. All of them: Herbie, Tony, and Ron. They couldn’t imagine me being able to play like that. Miles rushed up to the bandstand and said, ‘Man, what the f*** was that!?’”
Coleman laughs heartily at the recollection but discloses that the hostility towards him because he preferred bebop to free jazz, made him leave the band. “After we had a break, Miles asked me, he said: ‘George, are you coming back in the band?’ I said ‘No, Miles, I’m not coming back’ and he knew the reason why, because I was like an outcast on the bandstand, I was ostracised.”
Ironically, Davis brought in avant-gardist Sam Rivers as his replacement, but he was too far out for the trumpeter. “He lasted about two weeks in the band,” laughs Coleman. “Miles fired him and that’s when Wayne Shorter came in. Wayne was a good fit for the band and composed and arranged a lot of stuff for him.”
Looking back on his year with Davis, Coleman says: “It was a great experience being in there and doing these things with him. It opened up my eyes to a lot of things because of the harmonies and he made me an arranger although I don’t classify myself as one of the big boys like Frank Strozier or Slide Hampton.”
Despite leaving Miles’ band under a cloud, the trumpeter always held Coleman in high regard. He wrote in his memoir, Miles: The Autobiography, “George was a hell of a musician.” Says the saxophonist: “His compliments to me I really never knew. I knew he liked my playing because I would insert certain backgrounds and things in his playing that he liked. Like on ‘So Near, So Far.’ That particular tune we played in a 6/8 figure, which I guess, was right off the top of my head. I just played it right behind him and it fitted and worked quite well. I think he liked me as far as my playing was concerned because I could blend with him and harmonize some of his melodies. We didn’t have to rehearse that. He just kicked off the tempo and the melody and I would play a counter line behind it.”
After leaving Miles, Coleman – who came up with the term “spontaneous improvisational arranging” to describe his extemporized harmonization technique – also played with another lyrical trumpet player, Chet Baker, but one of his most famous cameos was on Herbie Hancock’s 1965 album, Maiden Voyage, regarded by many as the pianist’s finest work. Coleman is a superb foil to Hancock throughout but it’s his solo on the meditative, modal-style title track that really catches the ear. “There wasn’t a hell of a lot of rehearsing,” recalls the saxophonist. “Alfred Lion, the executive for Blue Note Records, had us rehearse the day before the recording. We went to this studio on Broadway, a place called Lynn Oliver’s and we rehearsed for no more than two hours. Then the next day, we all met at the Empire Hotel on 63rd Street and Broadway, and then all went over to Rudy Van Gelder’s studio in New Jersey to record it.”
The record is one of several timeless jazz masterpieces that Coleman’s name is indelibly associated with. Given his track record in the ‘50s and ‘60s – playing with giants like Charles Mingus, Jimmy Smith, Lee Morgan, Elvin Jones, and Jack McDuff – it’s surprising that he didn’t get to record as a leader until the late-’70s. That, he says, is because “no one asked me.”
After recording as part of the Cedar Walton-led supergroup Eastern Rebellion (alongside Sam Jones and Billy Higgins) for Dutch producer Wim Wigt’s Timeless label in 1975, the company released Meditation, a duo album with Spanish pianist Tete Montoliu two years later. After that, Coleman’s solo career began to blossom, and he went on to record many albums for a variety of labels over the next forty years. He also enjoyed a long and fruitful association with Ronnie Scott’s jazz club in London. “I was there for 20 consecutive years playing in that club,” he says. “Ronnie Scott was a great guy and so was Pete King (his business partner). It was so great for me there in London. I had some great musician friends there and most of the time, I used English rhythm sections. They were great, man.”
In the last seven years, Coleman has released three albums, revealing that his creativity remains undimmed in his twilight years. More recently, some archival recordings have been unearthed that illuminate previously undocumented periods in his career. In 2020, an excellent live recording from 1971 called The George Coleman Quintet In Baltimore was released, and this year, he can be heard blowing his horn on a vintage 1972 recording called Queen Talk: Live At The Left Bank by Hammond organ doyenne Shirley Scott.
“I was surprised I played that well,” laughs Coleman, reflecting on his performance. “I managed to keep up with her and all the harmonic stuff she used to do.” The saxophonist admits he enjoyed working with Scott. “She was a great organist. She played all the (chord) substitutions and of course, played the pedals too. A lot of organists just played bass with the left hand but she would play the left-hand bass and the foot pedals. She played more changes and harmony than many of the other organ guys.”
While George Coleman is excited about the Shirley Scott album as well as Live At Smalls Jazz Club he’s not planning to bring the curtain down on his long and storied career just yet. He reveals he has a studio project in the works that is close to his heart. “I’ve got something soon to be released with strings where I’m playing five ballads,” he discloses. “I did ‘Stella By Starlight,’ ‘Dedicated To You,’ ‘A Time For Love,’ a Henry Mancini tune called ‘Moment To Moment’ and a (Thelonious) Monk thing, ‘Ugly Beauty,’ his only waltz.”
Revealing more about the forthcoming album, he says: “I played with a quartet in the studio and the strings are going to be additionally inserted by Bill Dobbins, a notable string arranger who teaches up at Eastwood. I think it’s going to be pretty good.”
As well as being a bona fide jazz heavyweight – he was made an NEA Jazz Master in 2015 – Coleman also appeared in a couple of Hollywood movies (a sci-fi flick called Freejack featuring Mick Jagger and the Whitney Houston-starring The Preacher’s Wife) but his proudest achievement, he says, is being a teacher and musical mentor. “Probably my greatest accomplishment is the fact that I have been able to help so many people,” he says. “That’s the one thing that I’m really very proud of because I’ve had people from every corner of the world.”
Music remains central to George Coleman’s life and he’s determined to keep doing it until the end. It seems a far better option than retirement, which he fears would be his undoing. “I would probably be gone if I did that,” he says. “Just sitting around doing nothing. But I still have the music in me and I’m still playing. So I’m still out there, man.”