Vijay Iyer: What goals did you have in mind when starting the M-Base Collective and how close have you come to actualizing them?
Steve Coleman: My goal was, and is to express the relationship of mankind, myself in particular to everything else, through music (or some sort of organized sound). Since I do not live in this universe alone I feel that this is best done by more than one person at a time, or groups of people. I’ve always wanted to be around other creative individuals so that is why I hook up with others. If it is called a collective or not really is not the point for me, it’s the work that gets done and trying to stay on this path of creative expression. I feel that being on the path is the important thing and in that sense the goals have been actualized. In other words, to be on the path is in itself success.
VI: How did this collective form? Was M-Base essentially your brainchild, or did others have similar goals? Did you often have to push things along yourself?
SC: Getting together with the other people who have been considered in the past as being a part of the M-Base collective just happened as a result of me expressing myself and others doing the same. I hooked up with each person one by one but I really feel that it was creative energy that initially brought us together. This energy acts to attract other like energy so I really only responded to that.
I did create the name M-Base but the energy was and will always be here, I had nothing to do with that except to allow it to work through me. The name’s not important.
It is my nature to push things along (or I should say that’s the nature of the energy working through me) so I would have done that collective or no collective. In fact I have done that at times when there were no other people to work with.
VI: Do you feel that M-Base is still a true “collective” today? What problems do you see facing the notion of a music collective today?
SC: I will always be working with people and since I call the frame of mind that I and the people that I work with are generally in “M-Base” (and not the music itself), then maybe you could say that M-Base is a collective. But when I use the term “collective” I’m really not using it in the same sense as I think you are. For me the M-Base collective is the group of people who have contributed to a way of thinking about creating this music. It is not a group of people who make a certain style of music. So for me Muhal Richard Abrams is part of the M-Base collective, even if he would not say so. I don’t think that the collectives that most people talk about last very long in this country today because of western mentality and commercial pressures but that does not effect the kind of collective I mentioned above because creative energy always will find a way to manifest itself through individuals and groups of individuals. So the so called ‘problems’ are really an illusion.
VI: How have the earlier African-American music collectives influenced you? How do you view their importance? You’ve said before that the collective approach to learning is fundamentally a non-Western concept — can you elaborate?
SC: Again are we using my definition of a collective? If so the answer is obvious. What we are doing today would not be possible without the work of others who got together and created in the past. So from that standpoint the influence and importance is too great to be measured.
By learning with others you can get instant feedback from other creative minds (each bringing to the table different experiences and insights) DURING the learning process. This enables a kind of collective experience that can be drawn upon when internalizing information the first time. Individual learning does not have this advantage (although it does have its own advantages, but you can always learn on an individual level. You have to reach out and interact with others to learn collectively). I don’t believe collective learning is stressed in the west. Performing music in a creative group is collective learning as is playing in a big band of some sort but I’m speaking now of collective learning in the more general and traditional concept of studying and conceptualizing together with others.
VI: With your newer projects like Mystic Rhythm Society, Metrics, and the Secret Doctrine, which bring younger musicians, lyricists, and other non-Western musicians into the fold. Do you hope to enhance and further the collective atmosphere? Do you feel that the musicians are learning from each other?
SC: Of course the musicians are learning from each other. I started these different groups to provide some way to allow me to work with others in a creative environment.
You see when I was working with Cassandra Wilson, Greg Osby, Geri Allen etc.. we made it a point to try and have a group that did not have a musical leader (or a business leader). I was one of the pushier people in the group in terms of trying to advance our musical way of thinking. When the press began to write about us as a group they (the press) decided to make someone in the group the leader. In every interview that I’ve ever done and when I talked to anyone I made it a point to tell them that I was not the leader of M-Base and that there was no leader. This made no difference to western thinking journalist who insisted that there was a leader, and normally it was written that I started (or was the leader of) M-Base.
This led to problems as others wanted to be looked at by people outside of this process (critics, writers, record company people) as doing more things of a leadership nature, they wanted to be looked at as leaders. Eventually egos came into play and this is one of the reasons why this particular group of people are not really working together that much today. Everybody wanted to be looked at as a leader and as a result all of these people (and some others too) have got their own groups today. The nature of the music industry today is such that individual musicians are immediately looking to form their own groups and get their own recording contracts, even before they get any real experience out in the field. This is due in large part to the commercial pressures of the music industry (and the west in general). Many times musicians deviate from their original purpose of creating music because of commercial pressures.
Combined with the nature of the western educational institutions, which stress pedagogy over creativity ,spirit and culture, this is one of the reasons why so many musicians (who see themselves as playing “jazz” music) do not really have a personal (or individual) sound to their music.
So I decided to just start the groups myself and lead in a more obvious way (business wise and musically) so there would be no argument and therefore no ego battles. I think this works out better in this culture, although I wish it were different because I have to do a lot of things that really have nothing to do with creating music, just to make the music happen at all. Because I’ve called myself the leader, Five Elements has been around since 1980. It cannot break up unless I break up, unless I end it. And I see no reason to do that. On the other hand if I start The Mystic Rhythm Society (instead of Steve Coleman and The Mystic Rhythm Society) then you have the kind of situation that existed with Weather Report or The Jackson Five, where any aggressive dissenting member of the group can break up the whole thing, because of the way this society is. When this happens then of course the press jumps on it and announces the thing “dead”. I have seen many articles that have announced that M-Base is dead but these writers do not understand the nature of what there are talking about. M-Base is only a name, and names do die in a way. But what M-Base represents will never die, it will only be called something else in the future, just like it was called by other names in the past.
Mystic, Metrics, Elements and Secret Doctrine are just groups formed to express various elements or perspectives of this same M-Base conception (or mentality). As an accomplished musician it is easy for you to see the connection between all of these groups. I am only the catalyst and portal through which the energy (that is holding this particular incarnation of creative relationships together) is working. But other individuals respond to these vibrations by opening themselves to these creative energies and this is what makes it a collective on this plane of existence.