An Interview Conducted By Nate Chinen

Nate Chinen: You’ve done a lot of traveling in recent years, and have incorporated a variety of different cultural sounds in your groups. I imagine there’s been some degree of cross-pollination between your different projects.

Steve Coleman
: Well, it’s not just that. I’ve gone to a lot of places: Ghana, Senegal, Egypt, India, Cuba, Brazil. Every place I go has had some effect on me philosophically and usually musically. So I’ve expanded — put it that way. I mean, I pretty much think the same way, but I’ve expanded my point of view based on studying in terms of traveling and reading and everything that you do. As a result, the music has changed. To get specific, I would have to have a specific question, but it’s changed in almost every way that I can think of, in terms of all the different elements. But the change is not a change of direction in my mind as much as it is a change of expansion, point of view.

NC: One of the things that would strike someone about “The Opening of the Way,” for instance, is the intricacy of the rhythmic foundation, and the ways in which there’s so much happening polyrhthmically, in odd meter. But you talk about how you don’t think in terms of odd or common time.

SC: Yeah, I’m not thinking about odd meters or anything like that. That’s correct.

NC: Is that one result of exposure to those broader…

SC: Yeah, it’s two things. One is the way I feel. But the two things are linked, and the other thing is the study and the interest and the immersion into what I call non-Western philosophy and non-Western music. See, for me the music and the way of thinking about life are not separate. So if I answer your questions and tend to talk about philosophy a lot, it’s because that’s where everything’s really coming from. The music is just sort of an expression of that as music. I spend all my time really thinking about life, and then being a musician I try to use the craft of music to express that. Music is sort of my language, especially since I can’t speak English that well. [laughs] So I use music to express those things in various ways, most of them symbolic.

NC: When you talk about philosophy, does this include the organizing principles of M-BASE?

SC: No, I’m talking about my view of the universe and of the world, and the way things are. Period. It’s really very broad. M-BASE is just a term that was coined to refer to that; sort of a quick, short-cut way of referring to how we can think about making music from that. It’s not really important to talk about in my mind. Because actually, as far as I’m concerned, music is not the point — I just happen to be a musician. So we’re talking about music. Were I a painter, it would be the same thing, but I would just be painting. Or if I were a dancer, you know.

NC: I spoke with Muhal Richard Abrams, and he also drew the comparison between music and painting.

SC: He actually paints a lot. He’s a bad cat. That’s all I can say. I have a lot of respect for Muhal.

NC: You’ve said that you wanted to express an awareness of “the natural rhythms of the universe.” Has it been a challenge to adapt those large issues into the language of music?

SC: Yeah, they’re large issues, and a lot of it is esoteric. That’s a good question, actually. Nobody’s ever asked me that question. Normally you get the questions where everybody asks you the same thing. It’s hard to answer that, because there have been several points in my life where I had kind of breakthroughs. It seems that progress goes real slow, and then something happens, and you make this kind of conceptual leap forward, in terms of understanding something or being able to express something. Then it clogs down and goes real slow again, and then maybe four years later there’s another one of these things. I call them visions; they’re just moments of insightfulness, where you see things clearly. That’s happened maybe three or four times for me. That’s not a good rate, because it’s like three or four times in twenty years or something like that. But it’s those moments that have made things possible. Sometimes, some event kicks it off. Sometimes it just comes on its own; I wake up and just have it. But usually there’s a catalyst for it. The first time it happened was back in 1977 or something like that, just when I was practicing in the park and watching the flight patterns of these bees. It’s totally unexpected that I would make any kind of musical connection to this at that time. The bees were really just bothering me as I was practicing. But as I watched the bees, something — kind of a flash — hit me, and that took years to work out. Actually I’m still working it out. It took years to work out that idea, because it’s something that I wasn’t familiar with at the time. Yet I got the — maybe a year later — the breakthrough of the idea that led me to see the connection. A lot of times, that’s the problem. There has to be something that acts as a bridge to connect these things. Now, I’m so far into it that I can kind of see what direction to look in for the bridges. You have something like philosophy; I’m particularly interested in ancient Egyptian philosophy, so you take something like that, and you have something like music. There has to be something that makes the connection for you so that you can make the leap from one thing to another, or see them as the same thing. Normally, people have already made those connections for us in life. For example, in talking: when you’re a baby, you don’t know how to talk. You have ideas and thoughts, but you can’t speak any language. Wherever you happen to be, you learn the language of the place you live. The reason why you learn the language so fast is that all the particulars have been worked out by thousands and millions of people who came before you. They just simply teach you those particulars. So you don’t necessarily think of having to make a connection, even though that’s what you’re doing. It’s been worked out for you. Now in something creative, like what Albert Einstein did — he had to work out that bridge himself. So for his theory of relativity, he imagined himself riding on a beam of light. And he said “if I were riding around on a beam of light, what would I see?” Okay, now there’s a big leap from that thought to the mathematics of working it out, you know? It’s a very long leap — this is why people don’t do this kind of shit every day. If he wasn’t proficient in physics, and very creative, and if certain things hadn’t happened to him in his life, maybe he wouldn’t have made that leap. There were thousands of physicists who didn’t. You see in very creative people — I don’t care whether it’s Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Charlie Parker, Coltrane — you see that ability to build that bridge, to make that link, to see connections where other people don’t see connections. You always see that. I studied a lot of people doing creative things; nothing to do with music. People like Malcolm X, all kinds of different creative thinkers in whatever they’re doing. They all have that in common — they make connections where other people see things as separate and unrelated. They’re making these connections, and analogies. You even see it in great religious leaders, people like Jesus and Buddha. They speak in parables, but they’re making these connections, these allegories. It’s obvious once you hear them. But if you’re the one creating them, they’re not so obvious. For me, I’ve had those moments when things were clear. And those moments, that’s when I’ve been able to make these sorts of leaps. It’s hard to explain. It’s even hard to explain to people in my band. It’s even harder in an interview. You’re the first person that’s asked that particular question.

NC: Well, that’s what interested me most about this music.

SC: For example, with the rhythmic thing that you mentioned, with the odd times and everything — I see the rhythms more similar to speech. For example, I’m not talking to you in 4/4. I’m not talking to you in 3/4, or in any 4. However, my speech has a rhythm. There’s a cadence to it, there’s a certain kind of rhythm to the way I speak. That’s why when I call my friends they recognize me instantly; from the tone, the rhythm, certain phrases I always say — the same way I would recognize Charlie Parker’s playing. The same way. And so I just think about phrases and the ways they relate to each other. The relationships they have. I don’t think about: “okay, I’m going to do something in three-and-a-half,” or something like that. However, I have to know enough about music so that if I’m explaining this to somebody who doesn’t think the way I think — and there’s a good chance of that — then, I have to know enough about the technical elements of music. For example, if I want to write it out using European notation. I write out a lot of things with no time signature. But in the end, you’re still using values like quarter-notes, eighth-notes, half-notes, things like that. So even if you don’t write time signatures, or using measures, you’re still using time-values. So in a sense, you’re still dealing with meter. But that’s only on paper. That has nothing to do with what I’m hearing in my head and creating. It’s like an idea that you have. You can have an idea in less than a second. But to explain it to somebody, it may take a minute, two minutes; it may take all day. The realization could have just come in a flash. Well, who knows how ideas appear in our brain. I’m just using this as an example. The same thing happens with the time signatures and the things like that. When we play, me and the members of my band are not thinking about it. A lot of times I don’t even know what time a song is in. Somebody will come up and say: “What time is that tune in,” and we all look at each other and say “I don’t know. Let’s count it and find out.” Some of these songs you can’t put into time signatures. It’s just the nature of the — everybody might be in a different spatial relationship.

NC: When critics talk about progressive or experimental music, they often try to differentiate between the cerebral and the visceral, what’s internal.

SC: For me they’re the same thing. In our culture in general, we make a distinction between what people think and what’s intuitive. You always hear this right brain, left brain stuff. It started with Aristotle, and it’s so ingrained that people can’t imagine that there’s anything other than that. The logical thing is what’s viewed as being of value in this society. That’s what we have here. But the things that I study fly in the face of that, go completely in the opposite direction. Where both of those things are of value, and they’re both the same thing. There’s no separation, no thinking of it separately. I use every process that my brain has available to it to create music. A lot of times I’ll be talking to somebody who’s strong on intuition, and they’ll be taken aback by the technical stuff. On the other hand, I’ll be involved with somebody for whom the logic thing is stronger, and they’ll be taken aback by the esoteric, intuitive things. You were made in such a way that you have all those powers naturally. Why use one or the other? Obviously you were intended to use all of it. In ancient societies, that’s the way they thought, which is why they were able to do things we don’t even understand anything about today. They thought in a whole different way, where that whole thing was fused. Even art and science was fused. There was no “art” as we know it today. It was all art, science, you know, religion — all of that was fused into one great “sacred science.” Their thinking processes were along those lines. So that’s sort of the road or path that I follow, that’s the path that people like Muhal follow, or John Coltrane. Nobody talks about it, because they choose to talk about “what notes did you use on this chord,” you know.

NC: You’ve said that your concern is not necessarily to create new musical concepts, but expressing an identity. That reminds me of a quote from Ralph Ellison. I’d like to hear your response to this, if you’ll bear with me. “Each true jazz moment,” he writes, “springs from a contest in which each artist challenges all the rest, each solo flight, or improvisation, represents (like the successive canvases of a painter) a definition of his identity: as individual, as member of the collectivity and as link in the chain or tradition. Thus, because jazz finds its very life in an endless improvisation upon traditional materials, the jazzman must lose his identity even as he finds it.”

SC: Hmm. I was with it until the last part. I guess he’s talking about what he considers a classical form of the music. As far as losing your identity as you find it, I can kind of agree with that. To address the statement you first made: it’s not about creating something new. I believe we are all part of the same spirit. However, as we are manifested on this earth, we are individual expressions of that spirit. So me and you are unique; at the same time we are the same. So there’s an apparent contradiction that, for me, is expressed in the music. That’s somewhat similar to what he said in the end there. As I strive to express who I am, for everybody else it should sound — the more successful I am, the more different it should sound. At the same time, the more familiar it should be. I get this response a lot from people: “I really like your music — it’s so different from anything I’ve heard. At the same time, there’s something familiar.” That’s what I feel when I listen to Charlie Parker, or whatever. I don’t feel the urge to copy him or anything. I feel like whatever I’m trying to do is just like what he did, even though it’s a completely different style. There are people who can’t even believe I listen to Charlie Parker. There are others who hear a great deal of it. But I know that it’s the same thing. But to really stretch it — where Coltrane was coming from and where Bela Bartok were coming from is also the same thing. There are differences; they’re apparent. That’s going to affect everything. When I talk about things being the same, that’s on a higher level. I guess it depends on how you look at things. You’ve probably heard that thing about a butterfly flapping its wings in Japan, and an earthquake happens in California. It appears to be separate things that have no connection, and that’s what’s wrong with this world today. We look at everything separately as if they have no connection, so we’re fucking up the planet. Well, earth is not going anywhere. The planet will heal itself even if it takes millions of years. We may wipe ourselves out and take many life forms with us. That’s a direct result of not being in harmony, not knowing that everything here is coming from the same source. Everything affects everything. If you wipe out all the plankton in the ocean, something’s going to happen. If you kill all the wolves, something’s going to happen. We have, unlike people in ancient times, no direct knowledge of that. There’s no action you can take that doesn’t have a reaction, because it’s all part of the same system.

NC: Taking the concept of oneness and applying it once again to the arts, I noticed that you work with a dancer, Rosangela Silvestre.

SC: I don’t know if she’s coming to Philly or not. Normally we have Rosangela, but she may be in Brazil. We’re going to have a woodwind quintet, consisting of flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and French horn, on some pieces. There’s two saxophones, me and Gary Thomas. One or two trumpets. Piano, bass, drums, and guitar. It’s the expanded version of the Five Elements.

NC: I was asking about Rosangela because I was interested in the ways in which dance is a part of this music. When someone hears the record, are they missing something by not having visual access to that movement?

SC: Well, “missing” is not the word I would use. You don’t miss something that you never knew was there. Movement is a big part of what I do, period. Even if there is no dance at all, I’m dealing with movement when I’m creating the music. Now, nobody can be necessarily inside my head. The strange thing about music, and the great thing: if you have five people listening to the same record or concert, they hear five different things. It depends on their experiences. It’s a mistake to think that the music is just one thing. What it is to me, no other people will experience that — not even other members of the group. They even have a different perspective. So as you interview me, that’s just what I’m experiencing, from what I’m creating.

NC: You’re the only person who had the original conceptual leap that you referred to.

SC: Exactly. I see all kinds of movement things in my head, all kinds of backpedaling things. Somebody else may not see those things; however, they may relate to the sounds that represent those things as something else that I don’t know about. They may see colors where I see movement. Somebody else may smell something. Different people get things in different ways. I know how I want to project. However, I have no idea how people are going to receive. Obviously some guy who’s been listening to the Spice Girls all day will have a different perspective. He might walk out instantly. It may offend him. This music has literally offended people; they felt like they were being called names or something. It was that strong a feeling. I just like a strong reaction, even if it’s a negative strong reaction. For me, the worst thing is a lukewarm response. I like that Coltrane thing. You either hate it or you love it.

For The Philadelphia City Paper. Feb 11, 1999