Photo by Jesse Cahill

Last week, I saw tenor saxophonist George Coleman perform at the Jazz Standard. He was accompanied by pianist Jeb Patton, bassist David Wong, and his son, George Coleman, Jr., on drums. Front-line duties were shared by alto saxophonist Charles McPherson, who has a friendship with Coleman Sr. that goes back decades, though I don’t believe they’ve ever been heard together on record.

McPherson, in fact, was the sole horn when the show began—he led the group through a blisteringly fast “What is This Thing Called Love,” uncoiling long ribbons of notes in the vintage bebop style that’s been his trademark since the 1960s. The whole night was about standards and bebop: when Coleman joined the group with the second number, they played “Crazeology,” “A Night in Tunisia,” a ballad I think was “Dedicated to You,” and a Latin-tinged Lee Morgan composition the name of which I didn’t catch.

It was a good set. Coleman is a powerful player who stays within the margins of the tenor’s normal range; he plays fast, clean, melodic lines, without heading out into screams or honks. McPherson mostly did the same, though he got a little farther out than the larger man. (Coleman is a big dude, well over six feet and heavy; McPherson is shorter and slighter, and has a much more animated personality—their appearance and dynamic was like Sammy Davis Jr. sharing a stage with Howlin’ Wolf.)

Coleman has been playing jazz for over 60 years. His first professional session was on August 25, 1957, recording Lee Morgan‘s City Lights and tracks with organist Jimmy Smith that were split across multiple albums, including House Party and The Sermon. The following year, he joined Max Roach‘s group, making several albums (On the Chicago Scene, At Newport, Deeds, Not Words, and more). He’s probably best known for his tenure with Miles Davis, though. In 1963, he joined the trumpeter for the album Seven Steps to Heaven; when the quintet with Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams came together, he was the first saxophonist. But after a year or so, he left, succeeded by Sam Rivers and finally Wayne Shorter.

A few days prior to seeing him play, I interviewed Coleman by phone. We talked about various phases in his career—I didn’t get to ask him everything I wanted to know, but he had a lot to say. A transcript of our conversation is below, lightly edited for clarity.

Phil Freeman

Coleman’s first album in over 20 years, A Master Speaks, came out last year on Smoke Sessions. Get it from Amazon.

Was Lee Morgan’s City Lights your first jazz session? How did you get on that album?
Well, Lee Morgan came through Chicago when I was there during that time, and he was impressed, so he had Alfred Lion bring me into New York to do the recording. Benny Golson was the musical director—he did the arrangements and some of the original material. And that’s how that started. While I was there, I did some blowing sessions with Kenny Burrell and Jimmy Smith, the organ player. All those things were done together, during that time I was in New York.

And then the year after that you joined Max Roach’s band with Booker Little. That was a really young band—you were 23, Booker Little was 19. What did Max tell you guys about what he was trying to achieve with that group?
Oh, he didn’t tell us nothin’. We just went in there and started playing. We played mostly standards, uptempo things mostly—”Cherokee,” “Lover,” “Tune-Up.” Very fast, because that was his repertoire—playing fast was a requisite in the band. That’s what his whole thing was. Max was a great technician and a great player, and uptempo was his thing. Of course, we played a couple of mediums, and a waltz. The one waltz we had was “Valse Hot,” the Sonny Rollins composition, and the ballad we had was “‘Round Midnight” by Thelonious Monk. But other than that, that was it, as far as other tempos were concerned.

You wrote a couple of tracks for that band…
Yeah. Booker and I collaborated and we came up with some arrangements on some of those things. A couple were original, but basically it was standard tunes that we played.

Max was a very melodic drummer…
Oh, he was. ‘Cause we didn’t have any keyboards there. The only thing we had was him and the bass. And us. And that was it. when I first joined the band it was Kenny Dorham, he was the trumpeter, and he was such a great player and great musician, and also helped me in my development during that time.

What makes a trumpet/sax team work well, for you?
The only thing is, it’s the same pitch. It’s a B-flat instrument, and trumpet is an octave higher. It sounds an octave higher if you play the same note. That’s the only difference between the trumpet and the tenor. Which makes for a nice unison thing, and harmony, too. Both instruments can play in unison, with the same notes—can play from the same sheet. The only difference is one is an octave higher. Other than that, everything you see on the paper is the same notes. So that was something that helped me when I went to Slide Hampton‘s octet—the transposition factor there, as well as the harmony. But all that stuff I learned from just sitting around listening. I was knowledgeable about most of that when I left Memphis, which was very early ’50s, before I really got to join with the big boys, so to speak.

The unison thing was the bop school of thought…
Yeah, trumpet and tenor. Of course, Charlie Parker was alto and trumpet. He introduced that, he and Dizzy [Gillespie]. Which is another good combination. But the keys are different on that. It’s like six away, whereas the trumpet and tenor are in the same transpositional area—B flat or D flat instruments. A major ninth from the key of C, which is the concert key, so those two—you know, the combinations were good. The alto and the trumpet, ’cause you know the range sort of corresponds. The alto’s a little higher than the tenor, it’s a fifth away from the tenor, but the alto and the trumpet was a good combination with Dizzy and Bird, and other combinations of that sort. But the trumpet and the tenor was the desired combo, it seems. Horace Silver used it to great effect—I mean, it was wonderful the way he put those things together in his music. I don’t think he ever used an alto. But of course, at the birth of so-called bebop, it was alto and trumpet, with Charlie Parker and Dizzy, which was the great combo too. But with Lee Morgan and the other trumpet players, it was always tenor. Wayne Shorter, people like that.

In 1965, you did a long three-day session with Chet Baker that Prestige turned into five albums. What do you remember about that? Was Baker in good shape?
Well, he wasn’t in such good shape, because he was on drugs during that time. But he would come into the studio and—one of the most memorable things about that was, I didn’t really realize how great he played. ‘Cause I was hearing about the West Coast stuff, and the cool school, Chet Baker Sings and all that, so I was thinking, This cat is just one of them. But then when he got to the studio, I said, This guy is a hell of a trumpet player. This guy can play! We would come to the studio and he couldn’t last too long, because he had to go and get his shot, he had to get his dope. But he would come in and do maybe an hour or two, and then his chops would give out, or he would need to have some drugs. But we did five albums in about two sessions of recording, which was remarkable. But playing-wise, he was in great shape, but he had that problem. But it didn’t distract from his playing, though. He was on the spot. He played great. I was astounded, and pleasantly surprised, cause I didn’t know he could play like that. And the contributing factors—Herman Wright and Kirk Lightsey and Roy Brooks—they were great too. They were fantastic. I listen to some of those old records, and I say, Wow. And we were all pretty young, man. Everybody was young. And we didn’t have time to rehearse it. We had charts, though. The guy would come in, the so-called arranger for Richard Carpenter, the producer. He had this arranger who would come in and put these charts on the stand, we’d run em down and that was it. We didn’t spend any long time practicing or rehearsing. Everything was done real quick. As was the Alfred Lion stuff during that time for Blue Note.

We would go to this place you probably never heard of or don’t know about, called Lynn Oliver’s studio on Broadway. This was the procedure: We would go there for two hours to rehearse. The next day we would meet at the Empire Hotel at 63rd and Broadway and go over to Rudy Van Gelder‘s in New Jersey to record. That was it—that was the procedure. Alfred would have all the little tidbits—lunch, and he’d have a bottle of cognac for people who liked to drink, and we’d have soda and beer and sandwiches and stuff like that. He would have that on the date—food, so we didn’t have to go nowhere. Everything was there and we would record, and the recording time was not too long, either. I think we had maybe six-hour sessions scheduled, but we’d be getting through that stuff real quick, man. We wouldn’t record for six hours, we could do an album in less. And the next day, the check would be in the union office. Whereas before you’d have to wait for two or three weeks before you got your check—you’d go to the union, they’d have to process it—Alfred had it set up where the money would be there the next day. You’d go down, pick up your check, take it to the drugstore on 50th Street and they would cash it. That was the good part about it, because guys didn’t want to be waiting around for no money, especially guys who really needed it. You know, guys who were drug-dependent. And there were a few of those. Somebody once said to Sonny Rollins, “Why do you hire all these junkies? Everyone in your band is a junkie!” And he said, “Well, the junkies are the ones who can play!” And he was right about that, ’cause you know history has proven all the guys we know about, at some time or another they were involved in drugs, some of the icons. During that time, that was the fad. Everybody was using stuff, either coke or heroin or both.

When you joined Elvin Jones’s band for Poly-Currents and Coalition, he had an existing relationship with Joe Farrell, who’d already been on two or three albums for him, so where did you fit in?
I joined Elvin in ’70. When I was in the band, Joe wasn’t really in the band. I came in during that time, but we never really played together. Pepper Adams, too, Pepper came in and did some recording, but when I was with Elvin, I was the only horn until Frank Foster came in. He and I played together. He was great, too. Our camaraderie was spectacular. It was like extra-sensory perception, ’cause the two of us, I mean, we could play things and it would come out just perfect without being rehearsed. Harmony and everything else. I mean, he was an astonishing musician, Frank Foster. Great tenor player, and a great arranger and composer too, but that was later, when I used to play some of his stuff. But Elvin’s band, that was the order of the day.

In the late ’60s, the language was changing from bop—was any adjustment required from you?
No, I was pretty much ready for anything that was put before me. I had a pretty good history—I had been in Chicago and hung out with people like Bob Cranshaw and all of the great players during that time. Johnny Griffin was there, Gene Ammons was there at that time, and I had a very healthy association with them ’cause they helped me a lot when I was there playing during that time period. They were on the scene. Sonny Stitt would come through from time to time. So there was a talented array of greatness during that time, in all the areas of music.

The piano players were great; there was a guy named Jodie Christian, I played with him a lot. Of course, he’s gone now. Ramsey Lewis was there, playing at a little hotel in Chicago at that time, with his trio. And several other great people. Clifford Jordan had left, but I met him later in New York. And there was a guy named Captain Dyett (Walter Dyett) who was the teacher of them. He taught at this school and all those guys came through him. Charles Davis, Johnny Griffin, Gene Ammons—this guy was a noted teacher. Whenever you talk to Chicago musicians, they all would talk about Captain Dyett. But it was a great scene during that time, ’cause Chicago was flourishing.

Chicago had jazz 24 hours a day, if you can believe that. There was a club, you could go in at six o’clock in the morning, 10 o’clock in the morning, and there’d be somebody on the stand playing. ‘Cause this club always had a bass on the stand, and a piano, and these guys would come in and pick up the instruments, and guys would bring their horns and they’d be playing. There was no special time. I mean, the regular times were there also, but during the day or night or evening, there was always somebody there playing. It was a great experience.

You always stayed in a traditional bop and blues zone, and never really went in an avant-garde or free jazz direction…
No. The only time I would go into that was when I was forced into it, like in the case of the Miles Davis band, when I was there with Herbie and Tony and Ron. They were these so-called young lions and they wanted to step out into the so-called hip zone of playing the out stuff, because they thought that was hip. So I was ridiculed, in a sense, ’cause I wasn’t playing what they wanted to hear. They wanted to hear something like Albert Ayler or Ornette Coleman—they wanted somebody playing avant-garde along with them, because they felt that what they were doing was hip. This was the hip thing, and they said, “We don’t want no old-fashioned guy like you playing.”

I was regarded as old-fashioned, but Miles always respected me. Whatever I played was cool with Miles. But when he would leave, then they felt like, why should you take over this spot? I’m standing out front. These guys were in the background. I’m standing out front, but they seemed to have resented that. and they would always turn up their nose, so to speak, at me. Not really out, but I felt the draft, as they say. I could feel the draft. But one night, I got tired of this shit, them lookin’ down their noses at me, so—I remember explicitly, it was in San Francisco at the Jazz Workshop. Miles kicked off a fast blues, I think it was “Walkin'”, and he played his solo and then he got off the stand and went off to the bar like he would oftentimes do, to have his champagne. So he played his solo, I laid back, Herbie played after him, and when it came time for me to play, I shocked all of ’em. ‘Cause I played some of the weirdest stuff. I just wanted to show them that I could play that kind of shit if I really had to. Which I did.

So as I played it, Miles heard this stuff from the bar. He rushed up to the stand and said, “What the F was that?” ‘Cause he had never heard me play that way before. And I had never really played that way in the band. I would always be playing changes and everything, melody and stuff. But this time I went out on ’em. And when I did that, these guys’ eyes popped out. All of ’em. Ron, Herbie and Tony. And Tony was the main nemesis. He didn’t like the way I played at all. Or he pretended he didn’t. But that night, I played all this weird—actually, it wasn’t that weird, because they had the pulse, you know; they could swing. They were swingin’. And so I just jumped into the swinging flow, and started playing a little outside the chord patterns. And they said, Damn. They said, “Yeah, man, yeah!” All three of ’em! But Miles had never heard this.

And then he wrote it in his book. He said, George was always a careful player, he always played correct. Perfect stuff. He said, he always played perfect stuff. But this night, he went out with them. And I did. But I only did that to get ’em off my back, to show ’em I could play that shit. So when I did that, they said Oh, OK, yeah. But I didn’t play it no more. I went right on back to playing the harmony and the changes and the melodies and all that stuff. I didn’t play no more weird shit for ’em. I just played it that one night, just to get ’em off my back, to show them that all this so-called hip stuff that they were playing was no big deal. I could do it if I really wanted to. ‘Cause playing weird is—shit, a baby can play weird. A baby that knows nothing about music or anything, if you can get a mouthpiece in a baby’s mouth, and get ’em to blow some air in it, you could get pretty much the same effect. A lot of people don’t realize that.

You kept working with Elvin through the early 1970s, in a trio. Did you feel any pressure to adopt John Coltrane’s language in that group?
No, no. nobody ever bothered me about none of that. Max, Miles, Elvin, they just said, “Hey man, just play.” We had very few rehearsals. We had a couple with Elvin, but not a hell of a lot. ‘Cause these guys, we didn’t rehearse. We didn’t have to rehearse, ’cause these guys were so great, we could pick a harmony note and it’d be correct, ’cause we knew harmony.

I was just recently on a session, and Steve Davis, the trombone player, he went and told Eric Alexander—and Eric already knew, though. He said, “Man, George was playing a counter-line behind me on ‘Foolish Heart,’ I’m playing a ballad, I’m playing the melody and he’s playing something perfect behind me, like I couldn’t have written it any better!” But see, I grew up doing that. Back in the old days, back in Memphis, we’d be out there playing the blues, and we’d be playing what they call whole note harmony behind the singers. We’d have two or three horns, and somebody would grab a note, but it was simple stuff then because it was the blues. Three chords, three harmonic resolutions, tonic, fourth and fifth. That’s the blues. I grew up doing that. When I just started playing, I could do that.

I knew a little something about harmony, but there were guys down there in Memphis who were masters as far as arranging and composing. So all my expertise was formulated around them, when I was growing up, seventeen, eighteen years old. I could write a little bit—I arranged some music for Ray Charles when I was eighteen years old. Hadn’t ever had a lesson in arranging, but I was around these guys, so they would show me stuff on the piano, all the chords and stuff, and I had a little book. So my self-taught experience got me through all of that. I never went to any formal institution, I never went to college for music or none of that. But I was around these guys, so I learned how to arrange, write, compose and all of that stuff at a very young age. A couple of years of playing the horn, I was a professional. I was playing professional gigs. And I wasn’t totally unlike any other people coming up in that era, like Lee Morgan and those guys. I mean, Lee Morgan would go to a date, and if they needed a tune, during the break, while they were changing the tape, Lee Morgan would have written out—like “The Sidewinder,” that famous thing he did that Quincy [Jones] tried to steal from him, you know. Did you know that?

No!
Well, Quincy—when they did “The Sidewinder,” Quincy came out with this car commercial where he used it, and he wanted to put his name on it, but Lee went to court and got it overturned. You know, Quincy has a history of plagiarism, and has for many years. and if he can steal something from you, he will. And he’ll put his name on it. but that’s an absolute fact, and everybody knows that. With all his great talent and shit, he’ll take your music if you let him.

So anyway, to get back to Lee and the way these guys could do this stuff, they could do it right away. In the studio, Lee Morgan would grab his pencil and his manuscript and write this stuff out. He was great with that. Lee Morgan was a great arranger, composer, and all of those guys during that time, they were great arrangers and composers. Of course, when I got to Slide Hampton‘s band, that was another step into arranging. That was an experience unto itself. With the two trombones, two trumpets, tenor and baritone. That was the instrumentation for the horns, and then nothing else but bass and drums. Six horns. And what he would do is, he would be doubling on euphonium and trombone. They’re both in the bass clef, and he was great on both of them. The euphonium is a valve instrument like a trumpet, so he’d be playing that. Four valves on a euphonium, and the same music you write for a trombone, you can write for a euphonium. They sound the same. No transposition.

You were on the first album by Cedar Walton’s group Eastern Rebellion, but didn’t return for any of the later albums—why was that?
Well, that’s the way it is. Bob Berg was on the other albums. But the original one was the most popular, and still is. I had an original on there, and Sam Jones had an original, and Cedar had some originals—I think everything on the album was original, I don’t think there were any standards at all on it. And each one of us contributed. But that was the signature of Eastern Rebellion. But you know what happens with bands I’ve been in? I have to leave, and people ask me, Why did you leave Miles, why did you leave this, why did you leave that? Sometimes it’s time to go. But normally, anything I was in, I was never in there more than a year.

I went with Lionel Hampton, I went with Lee Morgan, I went with Elvin, I went with Miles—if I made it through a year, that was it, that was my time period. And for unforeseeable circumstances, I left. With the Miles Davis situation, people ask why I left, and it’s a good question, ’cause that was one of the top bands in the country in jazz. But, you know, Miles was sick during that time. Now this is the phenomenon that people don’t realize.

I used to come in at night and lines of people would be waiting for Miles, and Miles couldn’t make it, ’cause he was in such pain. He had a bad hip, and he was in such terrible pain, he just couldn’t make the gig that night. The next night, he’d be there, the same amount of people would come. Maybe even a few more, ’cause they were all waiting to hear Miles. So the strange part about this was, people would come to me after I’d get off the stand, ’cause it was only me up there on the stand, you know. Normally there’s a trumpet and a tenor, but it was nothing but a tenor, I’m the only person standing out front. Herbie, Tony and Ron, and me. So they would come to me and say, “Oh, Mr. Davis, you’re so wonderful.” Now here I am weighing 250, Miles is a little diminutive guy, maybe 160 wet, you know, but they thought that I was Miles Davis!

So all this pressure was mounting on me. I had to be him. But most of the time I would say, “I’m sorry, sir, I’m not Miles,” or I wouldn’t say nothing. “Thank you,” and that’s it. I didn’t want those people to be coming in, spending their money to hear a tenor player—me—you know? I said, if they think that I’m Miles, well, so be it. And it happened on several occasions, too. Happened in California, happened in New York when I was playing at the Vanguard. People would come in—’cause he’d play the first set and he’d leave. Max Gordon would be there, and he’d be gone, out the door, to get high or whatever he did after that, be with a girl or whatever. So that’s the way that was, and I would be left there with all that pressure. And these so-called giants, Tony Williams and Ron Carter and Herbie Hancock, they resented that, man. They resented the fact that I’m standing out front, and unintentionally masquerading as him.

So that was too much on me, and when the time came for me to leave he called me and said, “Man, you comin’ back with the band, aren’t you?” I said, No, man, I can’t, you know. And he was disappointed. He didn’t like the fact that I left. But he knew why I left. He knew there was bad blood between me and the other factions. Let me put it like that. Not on my part, ’cause they were normal after we were off the bandstand. They would come to my room if I would have some guests there, ’cause I always had some ladies surrounding my room, and they were hard-pressed to get any girls, so they would come knock on my door. So everything was cool off the bandstand, but on the bandstand, there was some snobbery there. So that’s the story. A lot of people don’t even know that story, but I’ll tell it. When they ask me, why’d you leave, well, that’s the reason.

And of course there were late payments of salaries, that was another thing. And the money wasn’t that great. I mean, during that time, $250 a week was OK for most musicians. Young guys like us, being in the top band in the country, that was great, but that would be late sometimes. The money would be late. He was taking care of his stuff—he was flying his Maserati out to California from New York. So he had to have money.

And then in the case of the Cedar Walton/Eastern Rebellion thing, it was a thing where it was too much focus on me. Eastern Rebellion, that was Cedar’s band. But everybody thought it was my band. Because the promoter, he would advertise it as such. He would have a poster, and I’d be on top—it’d say Cedar Walton Quartet, but sometimes it’d say George Coleman Quartet, and he would be the sideman. And you know, I didn’t like it. This was Eastern Rebellion, this was Cedar’s band. He should be on top.

And when they would write about the band, they would say, “Billy Higgins—spectacular. Sam Jones was absolutely fantastic. George Coleman, brilliant as ever. Cedar Walton was a little lackluster.” Or something negative about him. And it got to the point where I could see. So I went on a tour one time, and when I got back I found out he’d hired Bob Berg. He didn’t even tell me. The promoter had to call me and tell me, “Yeah, well, on this next tour, Cedar’s gonna use Bob Berg.” I said, “Oh, really? Yeah, OK.”

I never asked him about it. Most people would have been furious, you know, but it was time for me to leave anyway. I didn’t like the idea of being out there if it’s Cedar Walton‘s Eastern Rebellion and he wasn’t getting the acclaim for it. I could see why he might have been a little pissed, or the promoter—whatever, they were in cahoots, they got together, but that was the reason I left that. If they had called me, I probably would have made it, but during the times I had to leave, it was OK.

You had an octet of your own for a little while in the ’70s…
Yeah, we were out there touring Europe. We went all over Europe with that band. And before that I had a quartet. I had both of ’em during the same year. I would have a quartet with Hilton Ruiz, Herbie Lewis the bass player, and Billy Higgins—which is a great quartet. Those were great people. So I would go out with them, and then I would take out the octet, with Harold Mabern, most of the time it’d be Billy on the drums, too. Always Billy. Billy was such an exceptional player, you know. He could play anything. Octet, quintet, trio, duo, play by himself. He was that kind of musician. But all of these things—like with Lionel Hampton, I was there for about a year, went on the road domestically with him, and that was great too, ’cause there was a lot of nice camaraderie in the band, a lot of young guys—every musician you could think of has played in Lionel Hampton‘s band. That’s a known fact. Even Clifford Brown and people like that.

Did you do the arrangements for your octet?
A lot of them. I had help from various people, though. Frank Foster did some, Frank Strosier did some, some of the people in the band—Harold Mabern did an arrangement, but most of it, I would say maybe 75 percent of the arrangements, I did. And it was a wonderful experience. Now the band today is taken over by my son, and he calls it the New Octet. And he’s got great people in there—he’s got Gary Smulyan, he’s got Eric Alexander, he’s got Adam Brenner, Alexander McCabe is playing alto—excellent musicians. Of course, Mabern is still there on piano. He’s the anchor for that band.

At this string of club dates, you’re working with Charles McPherson. Had you two worked together much in the past?
We used to play together at Minton’s Playhouse, up in Harlem. We did six sets a night, 40 on, 20 off, starting about nine till four. That was the thing up at Minton’s Playhouse when we started. They probably played the same amount of time when Lockjaw Davis and Johnny Griffin and people like that, or Thelonious Monk, were up there—they probably did that too. There was a guy named Teddy Hill, he was the proprietor up there, so to speak. He was handling the music. He was supposedly a bandleader of the ’30s and ’40s. It was a great history, and I hear that it’s open again—I haven’t been up there since they remodeled it and everything. I know people are playing up there ’cause I know some people that have already played up there. But that was one of the great venues, Minton’s Playhouse. Just like the Savoy, but the Savoy and the Cotton Club, those places were long before Minton’s. They go back to the ’30s. I was up there during the ’50s and early ’60s. So this is like a reunion for us, ’cause we haven’t played together since then.

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