An Interview Conducted By Jason DuMars

Jason DuMars: Steve, let’s start with what you’re doing these days. You have just recently formed a new group. What would you like to say about this new unit?

Steve Coleman: Well I don’t know which group you are talking about but I’m presently involved in about five different groups: Steve Coleman and Five Elements, Steve Coleman and Metrics, Steve Coleman and The Mystic Rhythm Society, Renegade Way and Steve Coleman and The Secret Doctrine. So it depends on which of the last three groups you are talking about. Briefly:

Steve Coleman and Five Elements is the oldest of these groups. The group began in 1981 with me and trumpeter (now cornetist) Graham Haynes. Steve Coleman and Five Elements was conceived with a desire to play unrestricted, creative music based on the living experiences of Afrikan-American people and the Afrikan Diaspora. Five Elements works mainly in the area of redefining the forms and concepts of earlier Afrikan-American music. Five Elements explorations were originally concentrated on developing a distinct rhythmic base on which to build the band’s musical structures. Since then the concept has moved a step further in expanding the unique melodic and voice leading aspects of this music. This results from a complete understanding of the way sound can expand organically. Having the material unfold in this manner can give the soloists more material to draw from when building their improvisations. Solos are built using each song’s rhythmic, melodic and voice leading properties paralleling developments pioneered by men such as Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker.

Steve Coleman and Metrics: developing original methods of vocal prosody and musical improvisation within unique nested looping structures is the musical foundation upon which the Metrics concept is built. The music of Metrics is an amalgam of futuristic vocal and instrumental improvisations layered over a shifting base of street-style Afrikan based polyrhythms. This concept is the result of a desire to play creative dance music based on the living experiences of Afrikan-American people and the Afrikan Diaspora. These ideas are the result of brain-storming among musicians, producers and rappers based in New York, Philadelphia, Washington DC, Chicago and Oakland. The influence of several distinct regions results in a broad-based mixture with a distinct flavor.

Steve Coleman and The Mystic Rhythm Society is dedicated to exploring the structure of the universe and expressing these forms through music. I brought the musicians together in 1994 as a result of a desire to explore the essential ethereal relationships between humanity and creation. The main idea is that the universe creates impressions, a kind of imprint, at any given time relative to a given place. The goal of The Mystic Rhythm Society is to capture the essence of these impressions using analogous musical forms and structures, then convey the various feelings, thoughts and experiences of the musicians through musical compositions constructed of specific universal impressions. Most of the compositions are conceived spontaneously within the sonic structures representing these impressions.

Renegade Way is a saxophone quartet of Steve Coleman, Joe Lovano, Bunky Green and Craig Handy and the rhythm section of Kenny Davis (Bass) and Ralph Peterson (drums). This is a group formed to just simply play. The music is a result of the compositions of all of the participants. We don’t do that many gigs due to the fact that there are several leaders in the group and it is usually very difficult to find time to gig. I just really enjoy playing with other saxophone players who are on this high level of music. It is an inspiration.

Steve Coleman and The Secret Doctrine is a sort of small version of The Mystic Rhythm Society. It is made up of completely different members and it is a group that is just starting and is in its experimental stage. The group’s goal is sort of a combination of the directions of Five Elements and The Mystic Rhythm Society but usually the music is more complex.

JD: Is there usually a “break-in” period for musicians not familiar with the M-Base vocabulary and notational conventions? I assume that a lot of the musical dialogue that occurs stems from common experiences and background, especially musicians influenced or brought up as a part of the Afrikan Diaspora…

SC: There is always a “break-in” period but different musicians get into the music at different rates. Recently I’ve had the pleasure of working with people who had been studying the music (or creating music using similar concepts and ideas) before so they have taken to the music very quickly. It helps a lot when there is a common experience but this common experience alone does not mean an individual musician will relate to the music in a way that is comfortable for me and the other musicians already in the group.

JD: You have mentioned that it is very difficult to find musicians who are capable of attaining the level of concentration and facility necessary to produce music associated with the M-Base concept. Do you find that musicians come to you with preconceived notions about what M-Base is, and what is expected of them?

SC: Facility is not a problem. Most professional musicians have plenty of facility. It is difficult to find musicians and the difficulty has to do with a difference of conception of life first and music second. Everyone has some sort of preconceived notion about almost everything and I do not expect musicians to think exactly like I do. As I’ve stated before, the M-Base concept is not a musical style, but a state of mind. I don’t really expect anything of them, I only want to work with people who are capable of creating but it helps and things go smoother if we are dealing with similar creative energies. There are many many different ways of being creative and just because two musicians are both creative does not mean they will be able to make music together.

JD: Anthony Braxton once said something to the effect that musicians in the Afrikan Diaspora seem to be one step ahead of everyone else in music, and once they develop a new musical concept, they abandon it and move on leaving others to pick up the ideas that they had left behind. What are your feelings on this, and how it relates to music that you and other members of the M-Base collective create?

SC: I understand this but I don’t know if Braxton meant it exactly the way you state it above. At any rate I don’t believe that this is always the case, as a matter of fact, nothing is always the case. There are many musicians who could be said to be ‘in’ the Afrikan Diaspora who are not that concerned with creating a new musical concept. I don’t believe that creating a new musical concept is the point. For me the point is to express who you are (whoever you are) through your music. It’s not about leaving anyone behind, it’s about expressing your existence.

JD: It seems that your music is not widely understood by critics who try and pigeon-hole your music into a stylistic category. How do you explain M-Base to people who do not understand the underlying concepts?

SC: To tell you the truth I don’t think it is important (or even possible) to understand any particular music. Most serious musicians have been studying music and its related areas for decades. To think that someone will understand something that someone has been studying for years by listening to “an explanation” is not realistic. So even though I answer people and music critics questions I don’t really expect them to understand the way I’m thinking. But fortunately this is not necessary. People should really just open their feelings up to the music. In this way you “feel” and internalize and understand in a way that is not possible using the so called “logical” mind. Feeling is what is important and generally not emphasized.

JD: Tell me about your equipment. What made you decide to play the Selmer Mark VII as opposed to other horns such as the Mark VI?

SC: Nothing in particular. I like the metal of the Selmer horns but one horn is as good as another to me. It does not make the music any better which horn you play. If the music is not coming from you, the horn will not help.

JD: How did you become involved with Vandoren? I know Greg Osby is also into Vandoren products.

SC: They asked me to endorse their stuff since I was already using it and I said, yea!

JD: What got you involved in the Internet? Also, what possibilities do you think exist for the Internet as it relates to music?

SC: I’m interested in the Net because I’m interested in communication. For me this is what the net is about. Many people mainly use the net for commercial purposes but to me the real value is the spreading of information. I got into it because I’ve been using computers and modems and stuff for years now, since at least 1985.

JD: What kinds of things are you doing with computers and music? I know you have worked with the Synthophone in the past…

SC: I used the Synthophone mainly as a controller. I wanted to do much more with it but unfortunately I did not get much help from its inventor (at least not in the way I wanted). I have created several music programs to help me conceptually. I have programmed several of my little concepts into computers. For example I have a program that improvises on sound structures (some people might call this improvising on changes) using several melodic styles that I’ve created. I then sit back and listen to these improvisations and this sometimes helps me see things in these styles that I have previously not been able to see. So for me the computer is a tool. I have not used computers in the performance of music.

JD: Any other comments for readers about you, your music, M-base, or anything?

SC: Well if people are interested in my music they should listen first. All of the information is there in the music. Music students can visit my web page at and they will find some information there, and this information is constantly being updated. I want to make clear that this concept of thinking is based on some really old information and there is quite a bit of information that is missing, that has been lost, or that we have simply not found yet. It will be the work of many people (not any one individual) that will recover some of this ancient information and also find other ways of expressing the universe through sound.