Considering how many times we have had the pleasure of hosting Steve Coleman in both performances and workshops, it may come as a surprise that Jazz Speaks has not yet interviewed the 2014 MacArthur Fellow and monolithically influential saxophonist and composer. 20 minutes on the phone with Coleman quickly stretched to nearly an hour as we discussed his experiences with The Jazz Gallery before it was even officially The Jazz Gallery, his reflections on teaching and leading workshops, and the origins of his conception of spontaneous composition. He will perform four sets over the course of two nights this weekend with Five Elements as part of our 20th Anniversary Concert Series, and as always we are honored to have him present his inimitable music on our stage.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
TJG: When was the first time you came to The Jazz Gallery?
Steve Coleman: I came to The Jazz Gallery before it was The Jazz Gallery, back when they were just a loft on Hudson. I remember getting together with Roy Hargrove there in either ’93 or ’94 because his manager had gotten the place so Roy could practice, but this was before they were doing performances. It was just me and Roy up there, practicing and going over stuff, just trumpet and saxophone. We were both with BMG/RCA, and we were talking about doing demos and stuff like that.
TJG: How did you start leading workshops at the Gallery?
SC: That started because we used to get together at this place on 50th Street near 6th Avenue. It was an art gallery, and it was myself and Graham Haynes and a couple of other people just going over music. They had a piano there and we’d bring in drums and get together, somewhere between 2000 and 2002.
It was around the same time that I met Marcus Gilmore, who was about 13 or 14 then. Graham kept telling me that he wanted to bring his nephew around for me to hear him. I asked him how old he was, and he said, “He’s just a kid. He’s 12,” and I’m, like “Man, I don’t want to hear no 12 year old kid!” and he was like “No, this guy is good! This guy is really good. He’s gonna be great, blah blah blah…”
He kept telling me this and I kept putting it off, and then one day he just brought him by anyway and he played. I was like, “Oh, man, this kid can play!” Jonathan [Finlayson] had just started hanging around me and playing with me. He was only 17 and Marcus was about four years younger than him.
I’m mentioning all this because we stopped getting access to that place, so I talked to The Jazz Gallery about doing the same thing, a private get together, and they said, “Well, we don’t know if we can do a private get together because we have to pay for the lights,” and rigmarole about bills to pay. We talked more about it and they said, “What about a public thing where we charge people?” and after some back and forth we came to an agreement. This must have been ten years ago.
TJG: How did you feel about making these musical get-togethers public?
SC: I mean, I’ve always given workshops. The Jazz Gallery’s was probably the longest running series in one place, but I’ve always been doing a lot of workshops. The only thing with having it in one place is that it’s hard to build anything because you’re constantly getting new people. They’ve heard about the workshop from somebody else and they come in with the same questions; it’s like starting all over again. What usually happens is that the advanced people stop coming because it’s starting to get too slow for them, so that’s the only problem with it.
TJG: I remember attending a workshop in the summer of 2012 and definitely feeling like one of the slower people.
SC: I mean, we’re all slower at first. Nobody can play at the beginning—I don’t care if it’s Charlie Parker, Art Tatum: they all couldn’t play at one point, so everybody’s got to pass through that. The question is “Did you get through it?” Everybody can’t play at the beginning; you’re not going to be exempt! We all have different levels of frustration at different stages.
I talked to Sonny Rollins recently and he said, “I’m still practicing because I still haven’t got it,” and if he hasn’t got it, what about the rest of us? (laughing) That’s the way I look at it.
TJG: It takes a lot of patience to teach.
SC: Exactly, but I try to be creative no matter what. When I’m teaching, I’m not planning anything out and I try to answer the question based on how it’s asked, based on who’s asking it, based on the situation.
A lot of times I’m talking about things that I’ve been recently looking into or revisiting, so there’s a lot of ways to keep it fresh, it’s just like interviews with journalists: you get the same questions over and over. Once in a while you’ll be surprised when somebody comes from a different angle, but usually it’s the same thing.
TJG: Could you name any favorite gigs at the Gallery, anything particularly memorable?
SC: I don’t really have favorite gigs. There are many moments that I remember, but favorite gigs and favorite records, even favorite musicians … that’s not really how I think. For me, it’s about the whole process from beginning to end. There are surprises, like people coming down to the workshop who you don’t expect to show up—like Cassandra Wilsoncame down one time and Jeff Watts, these people who are your contemporaries. They’re on a whole different level than the people who would normally be in your workshop, and I remember a lot of moments like that because, generally speaking, older musicians don’t show for concerts—and definitely not for workshops—of people younger than them.
If I play The Stone and somebody like Jimmy Owens shows up to watch, I’m surprised because I don’t expect Jimmy Owens or Billy Hart or somebody like that to be there. It’s even rarer that people in your age or even relative contemporaries show up. One time I gave a workshop and Mark Turner showed up. He started taking out his pen and paper and started writing down notes like he was a student, you know? I’m like, “What are you doing here?”
TJG: Is it true that you don’t plan out your set lists beforehand?
SC: Yes, that’s true. I don’t plan out anything beforehand, let alone set lists (laughing). When I do workshops, I don’t know what I’m going to talk about.
TJG: So whatever happens at the Gallery over the weekend will be what happens?
SC: I don’t want to give you the impression that there’s no preparation. There is a process and there is a logic and there is material, and we rehearse for that. It’s just that, when we play, we’re not going to do the material in that same way and in that same order or anything like that.
It’s sort of like having ingredients for a meal, but each night you mix the ingredients in different ways. You still have ingredients, you still have cayenne pepper, you still have whatever you have, but you don’t do it the same way. You experiment, you do it a different way each time, and sometimes the meal’s good and sometimes it’s so-so, so that’s how I look at the music. It’s spontaneous composition, spontaneous meaning you didn’t necessarily do it before.
The problem I have is when we play festivals and radio broadcasts and they come to you before the set and say, “Give us a list of what you’re going to play” and I say, “I don’t have a list,” and they look at me and say, “Yeah, but we want a list of—”—they don’t even hear you—“—we want a list of what you’re going to play.” I say, “We don’t know what we’re going to play,” and they think you’re BSing, like “How can that be?” and then I say, “You come to us after the concert and maybe we’ll remember what we played.”
A lot of times we’re making up stuff on the spot and for those things I just create a name for the composition right there and give it to them, because there’s no name for it! It’s something we composed right then and there, and I’ve been working on that process since … I can tell you when it started. I can tell you exactly when it started:
It started in the ’80s. I did a big band gig with Cecil Taylor, the Cecil Taylor Big Band, and we played a series of concerts every week at this place called Lush Life, which was on Bleecker Street, right near where Le Poisson Rouge is. Cecil did these long rehearsals—I mean these marathon style, eight-hour rehearsals—and the reason why they were long is because there was no music in the rehearsal. He sat at the piano and he dictated the part to everybody—played the part, your individual part, and you had to just hear it.
And I thought, “Okay, this is crazy,” at the time. I didn’t say anything because I had pretty good ears so I learned it, but when we did the concert, I was so impressed by the way everything turned out that I was thought, “Man, that’s a killing method,” so I told myself that one day I wanted to do that kind of thing.
In the ’80s I was composing songs and getting together music just like everybody else, but in the ’90s I started doing this series of concerts and using this concept that I call “collective meditation,” which is basically dictating stuff onstage, starting compositions spontaneously, and even mixing up pre-written material in different ways—basically doing everything more spontaneously. Then, in the 2000s, I started moving even more toward this spontaneous thing.
The next record is a large ensemble record coming out in late April. I had 21 people, strings, all kinds of stuff, and all the material, just like the last record I did, was composed spontaneously, meaning that they’re all essentially solos that have been orchestrated. Even the orchestration was spontaneous, too. When I say spontaneous, I mean either I played or sang and turned on a tape recorder and transcribed it, because I deal with a lot of people who weren’t improvisers on this last record, what most people call “classical” musicians. They’re not improvisers so you have to write stuff out for them—there’s no other way—but what I’m writing out for them is spontaneous, was originally spontaneous; either I transcribed it or I had somebody else transcribe it.
I was telling somebody this who heard it and they didn’t believe me! They were like, “This ain’t spontaneous. I don’t believe it,” and I said, “I got the tapes! I can play for you the original moment that I played this.” A lot of people were involved, Jonathan and all them, they know it’s spontaneous because they saw me do it, but this person didn’t believe it, and I said, “I’ve been working on this for a long time. That’s why I’m able to do it.”
The guys I got it from were people like Von Freeman and people in Chicago who are not that well known who play like this, too. These people played in a very precise manner and they could play spontaneously. Von used to tell me all the time, “What I’m interested in is getting an idea in my head that I’ve never played before and having it come out my horn the exact way that it’s in my head the first time, without practicing it.” That is not what most improvisers are doing. Most people are playing patterns and things that they’ve practiced, maybe in different orders, but they’re not hearing an idea in their head that’s an original idea and then playing it, and that’s what I teach.
I get all kind of friction from people because they say, “I don’t have perfect pitch. How can I do that?” and I say, “You don’t have to have perfect pitch to do that.” Charlie Parker didn’t have perfect pitch, Von Freeman didn’t have perfect pitch, I don’t have perfect pitch. You don’t have to perfect pitch, but they don’t get that. I say, “No, you can develop this,” and they say, “Well, how do I do this?” “By practicing it.”
You can’t learn how to ride a bike by practicing swimming; you have to learn how to ride a bike by practicing how to ride a bike, so if you want to practice playing things the first time that are in your mind, then that’s what you have to practice.
You can’t be one of these people who goes home and practices the pattern [mimes fast patterns] in all the keys or whatever. When you go out, guess what you’re going to play? [mimes same pattern] That’s what you’re going to play because that’s what you practice! Cecil Taylor also told me that: “Whatever you practice, that’s what you’re going to play.” I got this from Cecil Taylor, from Von Freeman, from Joe Henderson, from a lot of cats.
It’s not that they didn’t have things worked out. Everybody has things worked out, but a much larger percentage of what they [Taylor et al.] play is spontaneous than the average person, especially the average person who comes out of one of these schools, because the schools are definitely not teaching this.
And in order to do this, you have to practice what you hear and play it the first time. Don’t even go back and edit it. In other words, you have an idea, you try to play it, and if you don’t get it, that’s it. You move on, but you don’t go back and try to edit it and then practice it over and over. That’s the classical European approach, practicing something over and over until they perfect it. This is a different approach, and if you do this properly, then you’re really truly composing spontaneously—you’re not just improvising.
“Improvising” is a word that I associate with a certain amount of randomness or unpreparedness, but spontaneous composition is not that. Spontaneous composition is the same thing that someone’s doing with a pencil where they’re writing music, only you’re doing this spontaneously; it’s the exact same process. Bach and Beethoven and these people we’re talking about can do that, but not everybody who’s so-called “improvising” is spontaneously composing. A lot of people are, like I’ve said, playing licks, lines, and patterns that they have in their back pocket already that they practiced.
So, what I do is I play and, since we have the advantage of tape recorders today, I tape it and I go back and transcribe it. I don’t change anything—I don’t change one part of it—I just transcribe it exactly as I played it, which means that if I want the composition to be better, then I have to get better at spontaneous composition. It’s not the editing, the later process, that has to get better, but it has to be my initial process that gets better. That’s what I work on most of the time, in fact, besides things that lead up to that, things on the horn.
I’ve always been on that more than anything else because it’s the hardest thing to do: be in touch with yourself. You have to build your inner ear and mind connection, and then there’s the instrument and the technical difficulties, too. In the band I just get musicians who can respond to that in some kind of way or who reinvent themselves and be loose, but that’s hard to find.
That’s what leads to the question you asked about preparing things and all of that, but you need to work with certain people who have those kinds of skills. There are a lot of good musicians, but there aren’t a lot of musicians who can do that; let’s put it that way. I mean, anybody can play with you. Anybody can just start playing some open form thing, what most people call “free,” but I don’t think there’s such thing as “free.”
If you play something like that, anybody can respond in sound, even a guy from North Africa or from China. Anybody can make a sound with you, but that’s not … it’s the same with language: you can say something, and anybody in any other language can say something back to you. That doesn’t mean you’re going to understand them if they’re speaking Croatian or Mongolian or something. You’re not going to understand them, but they can make a sound, and the same thing happens with music. Anybody can get up with you and make a sound, doesn’t matter whether a rock musician or anything, but will they really understand what’s going on and what you’re doing? Will it be a musical language where you’re going to be conversing? Now that’s a different thing.
It takes a different level of sophistication for you to be able to actually speak in French with a native French speaker. You can’t just do that, and it doesn’t mean you’re not intelligent, it just means you don’t speak French. You know? (laughing) People get that mixed up and they say, “Well, there’s a lot of good musicians,” like a long time ago they wanted me to come on The Tonight Show.
I told them I’d come up with my band and they said [imitating Hollywood big-wig voice], “No, no, we don’t need your band. You can just come on and play with the studio band.” And I said, “I can’t do that—or, I don’t want to do that. I could do that.” They asked, “Why not?” I said, “Well, I have this language with my band,” and they said, “These guys are really good musicians! They’re really excellent musicians; they’ll be able to play anything you want.” And they were really excellent musicians, but they would not have been able to do that. You can’t just have one rehearsal and just do that. It doesn’t work like that.