Biography

Steve began playing music just days before his 14th birthday as a freshman at South Shore High School on the south side of Chicago. His first instrument was violin but later that year he switched to the alto saxophone. For three years Steve studied the basics of music and saxophone technique, then he decided that he wanted to learn how to improvise. Looking for the best improvising musicians to listen to is what brought Steve to the music of Charlie Parker, although it helped that his father listened to Parker all the time. After spending two years at Illinois Wesleyan University Steve transferred to Roosevelt University (Chicago Music College) in downtown Chicago in order to concentrate on Chicago’s musical nightlife. Specifically Coleman had been introduced to the improvisations of Chicago premier saxophonists Von Freeman, Bunky Green, Gido Sinclair, Sonny Greer and others and he wanted to hang out and learn from these veterans. By the time he left Chicago in May 1978, he was holding down a decent gig leading a band at the New Apartment Lounge, writing music, playing Parker classics, and getting increasingly dissatisfied with what he felt was a creative dead end in the Chicago scene.

After hearing groups from New York led by masters like Max Roach, Art Blakey, Woody Shaw, The Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra, Sonny Rollins, etc. come through Chicago with bands that featured great players with advanced musical conceptions, Steve knew where he wanted to go next. He felt he needed to be around this kind of atmosphere in order to grow musically.

Hitchhiking to New York and staying at a YMCA in Manhattan for a few months, he scuffled until he picked up a gig with the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Big Band, which led to stints with the Sam Rivers Big Band, Cecil Taylor’s Big Band and others. Soon he began cutting records as a sideman with those leaders as well as pivotal figures like David Murray, Doug Hammond, Dave Holland, Mike Brecker and Abbey Lincoln. However it was really the influence of Von Freeman and Bunky Green in Chicago, Thad Jones, Sam Rivers, Doug Hammond in New York and listening to recordings of past improvising masters and music from West Africa that got Coleman turned around musically. . The most important influences on his music during this time were listening to tenor saxophonist Von Freeman (who primarily influenced Coleman as an improviser), saxophonist Sam Rivers (who influenced Steve compositionally) and drummer/composer Doug Hammond (who was especially important in Steve’s conceptual thinking).

Even playing with these masters only went part of the way toward paying the rent, and so for the next four years Coleman spent a good deal of time playing in New York City’s streets for small amounts of money with a street band that he put together with trumpeter Graham Haynes, the group that would evolve into the ensemble Steve Coleman and Five Elements. It is this group that would serve as the flagship ensemble for most of Steve’s activities.

Within a short time the group began finding a niche in tiny, out-of-the-way clubs in Harlem and Brooklyn where they continued to hone their developing concept of improvisation within nested looping structures. These were ideas based on how to create music from one’s experiences, which became the foundation which Coleman and friends call the M-Base concept. However, unlike what most critics wrote this concept was philosophical, Coleman did not call the music itself M-Base.

After reaching an agreement with the West German JMT label in 1985, Steve and his colleagues got their chance to document their emergent ideas on three early Coleman-led recordings like Motherland Pulse, On The Edge Of Tomorrow, and World Expansion. The late 1980s found Coleman working to codify his early ideas using the group Steve Coleman and Five Elements and working with a collective of musicians called the M-Base Collective. As his ideas grew Steve also learned to incorporate various forms of research to expand his awareness, these techniques included learning to program computers to be used as tools to further develop his conception. He developed computer software that he referred to as The Improviser, which was able to spontaneously develop improvisations, harmonic structures and drum rhythms using artificial intelligence based on certain musical theories that Steve had developed over the years. It was also during this time that Coleman came into contact with the study of the philosophy of ancient cultures. This began in the late 1970s with his listening to music from West Africa and studying about he African Diaspora, but in the 1980s Steve began to study and read about the ideas behind the music. He began to see that there was a sensibility that connected what he was interested in today with the ancient cultures of the past. All of these ideas are documented on his recordings in the form of a sonic symbolic language.

These emerging concepts were documented on Steve’s subsequent albums Sine Die (recorded 1987-88 on the Pangaea Label), Rhythm People (1990), Black Science (1990), Drop Kick (1992), The Tao of Mad Phat (1993), and the first album of the entire M-Base Collective called Anatomy of a Groove (1991-1992); all except Sine Die on BMG Records. These recordings were the beginning of what Steve considers to be the transition to his mature period (1987-1990).

However, not being satisfied with reading and listening to recordings, Coleman embarked on the first of many research trips, first going to Ghana in December 1993 to January 1994 to study the relationship of language to music. One of the places that he traveled to was a small village called Yendi to check out the Dagbon people who have a tradition of speaking through their music using a drum language that still survives today. Steve had certain ideas about the role of music and the transmission of information in ancient times and he wanted to verify his speculations. This trip had a profound effect on Coleman’s music and philosophy. Upon returning to the United States Steve recorded Def Trance Beat and A Tale of 3 Cities on BMG Records, however the impact of the ideas that he was introduced to in Ghana would not be fully expressed in his work until late in 1994 after meeting the Kemetic (i.e. related to ancient Egypt) philosopher Thomas Goodwin, whose influence on Steve’s work was profound and far reaching.

In June 1994 Steve formed the group Renegade Way, at that time consisting of Steve Coleman and Greg Osby on alto saxophones, Joe Lovano and Craig Handy on tenor saxophones, Kenny Davis on bass and Yoron Israel on drums. This group also did its first tour of Europe in late august 1995 (with Bunky Green on alto taking Greg’s place and Ralph Peterson on drums instead of Yoron). A later version of this group consisted of Steve Coleman and Greg Osby on alto saxophones, Gary Thomas and Ravi Coltrane on tenor saxophones, Anthony Tidd on Bass and Sean Rickman on drums, however this group has never recorded a commercially released CD.

Representing both a summation of the previous period and the beginning of another phase is the three CD box set entitled Steve Coleman’s Music – Live at the Hot Brass released by BMG France. Each CD in the box set was recorded live in March 1995 in Paris and features one of Coleman’s groups, Curves of Life by Steve Coleman and Five Elements, The Way of the Cipher by Steve Coleman and Metrics and Myths, Modes and Means by Steve Coleman and The Mystic Rhythm Society. This last CD was directly influenced by the trip to Ghana, which together with philosophical studies with Thomas Goodwin, occupied Steve’s investigations for the remainder of the 1990s. Together with an experimental ensemble put together called Steve Coleman and The Secret Doctrine, that brought the total number of group projects that Steve was involved in to five.

The year 1995 was an important year for Steve. He began by organizing a trip that would make a profound impact on his music. While pursuing his philosophical studies and learning more about the transmission of these ideas through music, Steve began to plan to investigate an idea that he had been thinking about for at least 7 years. In an effort to follow the development of certain philosophical and spiritual ideas obtained by studying ancient cultures (primarily ancient Egypt) and following up on the 1993-94 research trip to Ghana, Africa, Steve wanted to meet and collaborate in a creative way with musicians who were involved in certain ancient philosophical/musical traditions which come out of West Africa. One of his main interests was the Yoruba tradition (predominantly out of western Nigeria), which is one of the Ancient African Religions underlying Santeria (Cuba and Puerto Rico), Candomblé (Bahia, Brazil) and Vodun (Haiti). Steve decided to go to these places and investigate the method by which the ideas of these traditions were transmitted through music. First stop, Cuba!

In Cuba Steve found that the situation was more complex than he had imagined for the people had preserved more than one African culture and these were mixed together under the general title of Santeria. There are the Abakua societies (Ngbe), the various Arara cults (Dahomey), the Congo traditions such as nganga, mayombe and palo monte as well as the Yoruba traditions. But he did find one group called AfroCuba de Matanzas who specialized in preserving all of the above traditions as well as various styles of Rumba.

It was to the town of Matanzas that Steve headed in January of 1996 in order to study the music and also contact AfroCuba de Matanzas and arrange a meeting with the leader of this group, Francisco Zamora Chirino (otherwise known as Minini). Minini was also excited about the project and so it was arranged that the collaboration would take place in February during the time of the Havana Jazz Festival in order to give the expanded group a chance to perform before the Cuban public.

In February of 1996 Steve rented a large house in Havana and along with a group of 10 musicians and dancers, a three-person film crew and the group AfroCuba de Matanzas (who had been bused in from Matanzas) the collaboration was started. For 12 days the two groups hung out together, worked, practiced and conceptualized in order to realize their goal. After their performance at the Havana Jazz Festival the musicians went into a Egrem Studios in Havana and recorded the collaboration. The results of this effort are preserved on a recording made for the BMG France recording company called The Sign and The Seal by Steve Coleman and The Mystic Rhythm Society in collaboration with AfroCuba de Matanzas.

Although this project went well, Coleman viewed the results as he did every other project he has been involved in, as a step along a certain path. It did demonstrate another step in the evolution of his music, but it is being on the path that is important to Steve. It also shows that there is a more obvious connection than is generally thought between the creative music of today and the dynamic musical traditions of African peoples living in various parts of the earth. The combined group of Steve Coleman and The Mystic Rhythm Society in collaboration with AfroCuba de Matanzas did a major tour of Europe in June-July of 1997. This year also saw Steve form a large group (big band) called Steve Coleman and The Council of Balance. This group recorded a CD called Genesis which was released as part of the two CD set released by BMG France called Genesis and The Opening of The Way (the second CD in the set featuring Steve Coleman and Five Elements).

1997-1999 saw a continuation of the projects involving cultural exchange with musicians around the world. Partially funded by a grant from Arts International (1997), Steve took a group of musicians from America and Cuba to Senegal to collaborate and participate in musical and cultural exchanges with the musicians of the local Senegalese group Sing Sing Rhythm. Using his own funds he also led his group Five Elements to the south of India in January-February of 1998 to participate in a cultural exchange with different musicians in the Carnatic music tradition. Steve and his group also gave workshops in the Brahavadhi Center headed by the renowned musicologist Dr. K. Subramanian. What Steve learned on the trip to India (along with a research trip to Egypt the preceding month) helped to substantiate the knowledge of the ancient systems that Steve had been studying. These trips were helpful in supplying the additional information necessary for Steve to continue his studies, which he hopes to express through his own music. Two of Steve’s Five Elements recordings released by BMG France, The Sonic Language of Myth (1999) and The Ascension to Light (2000) are a direct result of these studies.

This work came to the attention of IRCAM (the world renown computer-music research center in Paris France) leading to Coleman receiving a major commission from IRCAM to further develop his ideas, in the form of interactive computer software, at the IRCAM facilities in Paris with the aid of programmers Sukandar Kartadinata, Takahiko Suzuki, Gilbert Nouno and IRCAM technology. A premier concert in June 1999 featuring Steve Coleman and Five Elements interacting with what Steve calls his Rameses 2000 computer software program was the public result of this commission. In 2000-2001 Steve withdrew from performing/recording and began study sabbatical. During this time he traveled extensively to India, Indonesia, Cuba and Brazil and continued much of his research as a music professor at the University of California at Berkeley and at CNMAT (the Center for New Music and Technology). He also overhauled his business organization and signed with another record company from France called Label Bleu. After returning to the world of performing Coleman recorded a live double-CD set called Resistance Is Futile (2001) on Label Bleu records.

In 2002 Steve Coleman and Five Elements recorded a CD that is available free of charge on Steve’s website (www.m-base.com) called Alternate Dimension Series I. Also recorded in this year is the On The Rising Of The 64 Paths on Label Bleu records.

Lucidarium was recorded in 2003 (also on Label Bleu records). For this CD Steve and his group explore the dimensions of an alternate tonal and rhythmic system, continuing the spirit of research and experimentation that marks all of his projects. Weaving Symbolics, recorded in 2005, similarly explores the world of form.

Much of the important segments of this activity from January 1996 on have been preserved in the form of a documentary film shot by Eve-Marie Breglia based on Steve’s music and the theme of cultural transference tentatively entitled Elements on One scheduled for release in 2004-05.

2006-2007 saw a flurry of activity, with Steve releasing his first solo saxophone recording called Invisible Paths (on the Tzadik label). Also recorded during this time were Harvesting Semblances and Affinities and The Mancy of Sound, but these recordings were not released until 2010 and 2011 respectively, after Steve had made a distribution deal with Pi Recordings. All three of these recordings are connected conceptually in that they deal with both an expanded tonal and orchestration conception. This also coincided with Steve’s 2006 meeting with the great Danish composer Per Nørgård, who has had some influence on Steve’s orchestration concepts.

In 2012 Steve altered his approach to being creating completely spontaneous compositions, and later orchestrating them. Functional Arrhythmias was the first recording to use this approach, which involved spontaneously composing in a near-trance state. This was also first recording to be based on the cyclical movements within the human body, a idea that was influenced by Steve’s meeting and conversations with percussionist, polymath and modern shaman Milford Graves in 2011.

While on a study sabbatical in 2013, Steve received a vision in a half-waking state, and began work on a 2-year project that culminated in the 2014 large ensemble recording entitled Synovial Joints (released April 28 2015). This was a continuation of the spontaneous composition approach, but further developed with much more orchestration of musical colors involved.

Grants and commissions

Doris Duke Artist Award
2015 – USA
New Music USA Grant
2015 – USA
MacArthur Fellowship
2014 – USA
Doris Duke Impact Award
2014 – USA
Guggenheim Fellowship
2014 – USA
American Composers Orchestra (ACO)
2007 – USA
Chicago World Music Festival Commission (Field Museum & Jazz Institute of Chicago)
2000 – USA
CalArts/Alpert Award in the Arts
2000 – USA
Commission from L’Institut de Recherche et de Coordination Acoustique/Musique (Ircam)
1999 – France
Art’s International Grant for research/concert in Senegal
1997 – USA
Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund
1996 – USA
National Endowment for the Arts (composition)
1995 – USA

Collaborative Concerts With

Sam Rivers
Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra
David Murray
Mike Brecker
Abbey Lincoln
John Abercrombie
Jack DeJohnette
Branford Marsalis
Mongo Santa Maria
Dizzy Gillespie
Wynton Marsalis
Sting
Doug Hammond
Bobby McFerrin
Cecil Taylor
Dave Holland
Von Freeman
Sarah Vaughan
Ray Brown
Bunky Green
McCoy Tyner

Selected discography as a producer and leader

Synovial Joints

Steve Coleman and Five Elements
2015 Pi Recordings

Functional Arrhythmias

Steve Coleman and Five Elements
2013 Pi Recordings

The Mancy of Sound

Steve Coleman and Five Elements
2011 Pi Recordings

Harvesting Semblances and Affinities

Steve Coleman and Five Elements
2010 Pi Recordings

Invisible Paths: First Scattering

Steve Coleman – Solo Saxophone
2007 Tzadik Records

Weaving Symbolics

Steve Coleman and Five Elements
2006 Label Bleu

Lucidarium

Steve Coleman and Five Elements
2004 Label Bleu

On the Rising of the 64 Paths

Steve Coleman and Five Elements
2003 Label Bleu

Alternate Dimension Series I

Steve Coleman and Five Elements
2002 Free CD to the Public

Resistance is Futile

Steve Coleman and Five Elements
2002 Label Bleu
(2 CDs box set)

The Ascension to Light

Steve Coleman and Five Elements
2000 BMG/RCA Records

The Sonic Language of Myth: Believing, Learning, Knowing

Steve Coleman and Five Elements
1999 BMG/RCA Records

Genesis

Steve Coleman and The Council of Balance
1998 BMG/RCA Records
(part of a 2 CDs box set)

The Opening of the Way

Steve Coleman and Five Elements
1998 BMG/RCA Records
(part of a 2 CDs box set)

The Sign and the Seal

Steve Coleman and The Mystic Rhythm Society in collaboration with AfroCuba de Matanzas
1996 BMG/RCA Records

Steve Coleman Live in Paris at The Hot Brass Club

Steve Coleman with Mystic, Metrics and Elements
BMG/RCA 3-CD Box Set (contains the next 3 CDs)

Myths, Modes and Means

Steve Coleman and The Mystic Rhythm Society
1995 BMG/RCA Records

The Way of the Cipher

Steve Coleman and Metrics
1995 BMG/RCA Records

Curves of Life

Steve Coleman and Five Elements
1995 BMG/RCA Records

Def Trance Beat

Steve Coleman and Five Elements
1994 RCA/Novus Records

A Tale of 3 Cities

Steve Coleman and Metrics
1994 RCA/Novus Records

The Tao of Mad Phat

Steve Coleman and Five Elements
1993 RCA/Novus Records

Drop Kick

Steve Coleman and Five Elements
1992 RCA/Novus Records

Black Science

Steve Coleman and Five Elements
1991 RCA/Novus Records

Rhythm People

Steve Coleman and Five Elements
1990 RCA/Novus Records

Sine Die

Steve Coleman and Five Elements
1988 Pangaea Records

World Expansion

Steve Coleman and Five Elements
1987 JMT Records

On the Edge of Tomorrow

Steve Coleman and Five Elements
1986 JMT Records

Motherland Pulse

Steve Coleman and his group
1985 JMT Records

Selected discography as a producer

Another Place

Bunky Green
2006 Label Blue

Inspiration

Sam Rivers’ RivBea All-Star Orchestra
1999 BMG/RCA Records

Culmination

Sam Rivers’ RivBea All-Star Orchestra
1999 BMG/RCA Records

Moving Pictures

Ravi Coltrane
1998 RCA/Novus Records

Rhythm in Mind

Steve Coleman
1992 RCA/Novus Records

Anatomy of a Groove

The M-Base Collective
1992 Rebel-X Records

Phase-Space

Steve Coleman & Dave Holland Duo
1991 Rebel-X Records

Transmigration

Strata Institute
1991 Rebel-X Records

A Waltz for Grace

Steve Williamson
1990 Polydor Records

JumpWorld

Cassandra Wilson
1989 JMT Records

Cipher Syntax

Strata Institute
1989 Polydor KK

Days Aweigh

Cassandra Wilson
1987 JMT Records

In the Middle

Geri Allen
1987 Minor Music

Point of View

Cassandra Wilson
1986 JMT Records

Selected Discography As A Sideman

Traveling Miles

Cassandra Wilson
1999 Blue Note Records

Man-Talk for Moderns, Vol.X

Greg Osby
1991 Blue Note Records

Extensions

Dave Holland
1990 ECM Records

The Road Less Traveled

Marvin Smitty Smith
1989 Concord Records

Triplicate

Dave Holland
1988 ECM Records

Keeper of the Drums

Marvin Smitty Smith
1987 Concord Records

The Razors Edge

Dave Holland
1987 ECM Records

Seeds of Time

Dave Holland
1985 ECM Records

Jumpin In

Dave Holland
1984 ECM Records

Scenes of the City

Branford Marsalis
1984 CBS Records

Talkin to the Sun

Abbey Lincoln
1984 Enja Records

Perspicuity

Doug Hammond
1982

Spaces

Doug Hammond
1982 Idibib Records

Teaching Experience

(Improvisation, Saxophone, Composition, Ensemble, Computer Programming, Computer Music Applications & Music Business)

Workshops (worldwide)

Clinician
1996-present

Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts

Artist-in-residence
2009-2010

The Jazz Gallery

Clinician
2004-2010

Thelonius Monk Institute

Artist-in-residence
2008-2009

University of CA at Berkeley

Associate Professor
2000-2002

Stanford Jazz Workshop

Faculty Member
1995-1996

Banff School of Fine Arts

Artistic Head
1990-1991

Banff School of Fine Arts

Faculty Member
1985-1989

Business Experience

M-Base Collective

Founding Member
Creative music movement

Time Lord Records

President
Record company

C&M Music Productions Inc.

President
Record company

M-Base Concepts

President
Music publishing, sheet music and software development

Goemon Publishing Company

President
Music publishing