My Conversation With Steve Coleman

Fred Jung. July, 1999

The pressure to succeed in music is so heavy, the monkey on artists’ backs must feel like King Kong. With so many fearing the guillotine of inconsequentiality, it is no wonder artists feel the inherent need to dress in see-through chain mail to MTV award shows or create and re-create themselves, going through more image makeovers than they have records. It all gives me a headache. But then there are those who avoid the beckoning limelight for a more modest path, after all, we all can’t live la vida loca. Steve Coleman has done that throughout most of his career, and quite admirably at that. Surprisingly, he’s built a cult-like following, but like anyone who has courageously tried to buck the train of conformity, he has been labeled as “controversial.” But then again, so was Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, and Charlie Parker. Coleman shouldn’t sweat it. He’s in legendary company. Better jump on the Steve Coleman bandwagon fast, because before you know it, it will be standing room only. Here he is, the man, the myth, unedited and in his own words.

Fred Jung: Let’s start from the beginning.

Steve Coleman: I grew up in Chicago, Illinois. I never thought about, and I still haven’t, thought about playing jazz or not playing jazz. It was just music to me. I started playing music when I was about fourteen and I started learning how to improvise, maybe, when I was, somewhere between seventeen and eighteen. In Chicago, they have all types of music and for me it was just all the same, just learning how to play music. I started listening to people like Charlie Parker and Von Freeman and Coltrane and Bunky Green, different people because I wanted to learn how to improvise. That was the main thing. I didn’t really think of it as learning how to play jazz. I just thought of it as learning how to play my horn better and learning more music. I knew they were doing more advanced things. It was really just based on that. And that’s pretty much where I’m still at. I listen to all kinds of music, pretty much. I guess I’m most interested in improvisational forms.

FJ: But why jazz, why didn’t you go into rock, it pays more?

SC: Even when I was a little kid, I was interested in making things up, creating things, and so I used to make up a lot of stories, even when I played with toys when I was a little kid. I drew for a while. I was an artist and I would make up my own comic books and characters and stuff like that. That just carried over into music. Pretty much my interest in music or how I express myself through music have been my interest, period, as a person. I just, sort of, transferred that to music. Improvisation, really, just means creating, spontaneously creating, and I was always interested in creativity, or well, as put it when I was little, making stuff up. This gives me a chance to make up stuff all the time.

FJ: When did you make the move to New York?

SC: In May of 1978.

FJ: What was the reception like?

SC: Nobody knew I was there (laughing). I mean, I hitchhiked to New York and nobody knew I was coming. Nobody knew me. Nobody knew I existed so.

FJ: You hitchhiked to New York?

SC: Yes, I mean, I stayed in the YMCA when I first got there. It wasn’t like there was a reception waiting for me (laughing). They didn’t have anything like that.

FJ: So no welcome committee?

SC: No (laughing). I played on the street for awhile, on and off, for three or four years actually. It was mainly because, when I was in Chicago, I would go downtown and listen to some of the bands that were coming through town and I noticed that the bands out of New York all sounded better. It didn’t mean that all the guys came from New York, or all the women, but they lived in New York or had gone through New York at some point. I knew from the past, listening to records that New York was big. A lot of people went to New York for the creativity there and everything. I just thought, “OK, that’s part of the formula.” The musicians, who I liked the way they played, they all went through New York. And most of them weren’t even from New York. It sounded like it was necessary to go there and I thought, “Well, I want to learn how to play on that level.” It’s, sort of, like if you want to learn how to play basketball on the highest level, you go to the NBA. This is a similar kind of thing.

FJ: So when did you get your first break?

SC: Well, it’s not, it wasn’t something that was, it’s a gradual process. I, kind of, it’s funny, Fred, because sometimes I read these books, these history books and stuff like that and I think they oversimplify things, mainly because they have to. They have to condense things into a book or whatever or article. It was a gradual thing. I can’t say there was one, just one break. It’s a gradual thing, from the time you start to the time you finish. There’s several points, many, many things that happen along the way, both before I came to New York and after that I remember, that I remember as pivotal points or whatever. I can’t say that there was any one. The first gig that I got when I came to New York that was, that I considered on a professional level was the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra. That was one of the reasons why I came to New York, was to join that band. That was one of the things that I wanted to do when I got to New York, let’s put it that way. That was definitely a key thing, but there were a lot of other things that happened after that. That was just the first thing that happened.

FJ: Why join a big band?

SC: Again, I went through big bands because lots of people, whose playing I liked, had done that. I wanted to know why, basically, and know what they got out of that. So I played in the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis big band. I played in Slide Hampton’s big band. It was called the Collective Black Artists Orchestra or something like that. I played in Sam Rivers Studio Rivbea Orchestra, which is a big band of another type. I played, briefly, in Cecil Taylor’s big band and a lot of other big bands, but those are the ones that I know have names that people might recognize.

FJ: So it was a stepping stone?

SC: Well, yes, and there’s a lot of things that you get together, I realize now, in big bands that you don’t in smaller groups, phrasing, playing together, and discipline. There’s a lot of different things that were very important, the fact that I played in a big band, because I noticed it’s missing in players who don’t go through that experience also. It gives you a certain thing. It’s hard to describe in words, but there’s a certain discipline that you get, especially a phrasing thing and learning how to play with large groups of people in a group. That carries over to what you do with a smaller group. I always knew that I wanted to play in a smaller format. Ironically, I’m about to go out on a road now with a large band of my own, but those tours happen here and there. That’s not what I usually do. I call my large band The Council of Balance. We’re about to do a month, we’re rehearsing right now for a tour. We’re going to do a month in Europe.

FJ: How difficult are the mere logistics of getting a large ensemble together?

SC: Yes, it’s a lot of work. Besides the music, which is a lot of work in itself, just the number of parts and everything and making sure that everything fits right, it’s also a lot of work just getting the people together. My music is not the average thing anyway, so what can I say, it’s hard enough getting a large group to play. It’s even rougher, just because of the sheer numbers. If you’re using, it doesn’t matter, three or four trumpets and other horns, it’s just harder. This group that I have is two trumpets, a trombone, a French horn, a tenor saxophone, alto saxophone, a clarinet, oboe, what else, flute, bass, piano, and drums. I think that’s pretty much the instrumentation. I might have left one instrument out or another. Some of the people hadn’t played, haven’t had a lot of experience playing my music. It’s difficult, and of course, you know, it’s also the logistic of everything, scheduling and everything. Sometimes you don’t get the person you want so you have to use a substitute. That’s just part of the music business. The substitute may not know the music as well, so there’s a struggle getting that together. And me being the leader, I have to be the one that gets it together, so it’s difficult.

FJ: You coined the phrase “M-Base,” exactly what is “M-Base?”

SC: It’s just a philosophy, mainly, of, it’s a word that we refer to ourselves as how to, I don’t know, it’s just explains our way of making music from our life experiences, basically. But the term itself was just something that we used, only to differentiate what we were doing in our time, as opposed to what somebody else was doing in another time. However, the process is basically the same. When I say that the process is basically the same, I mean, what guys did in the Coltrane era, what Coltrane did or Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington. I think it’s the same process. We’re just using our experiences, our feelings for the music, our rhythm, our groove, whatever. It’s still essentially the same process. I just didn’t, I don’t like terms like jazz or whatever because they don’t mean much to me. People have preconceived notions of what that is and then, when you fit that or don’t fit it, then they feel they can say, “Oh, well, that’s not the way jazz is supposed to be played or you’re not playing jazz.”

FJ: Has that elitist mentality kept the music from developing?

SC: Well, that’s what I mean, Fred, by misunderstanding or no understanding, because anybody who really had ears could clearly hear that what I’m doing is a derivative of what Bird did. He’s one of my main influences. Actually, I probably think he’s my biggest influence. But for most people, if you’re not copying somebody note for note, verbatim, then as far as they’re concerned, you’re not influenced by them. They don’t listen for content. They’re just listening for the surface. I don’t know how to describe it, it’s just the dressing on top. If they don’t hear you playing “Donna Lee” or something like that, then as far as they’re concerned, that’s not what you’re doing. That says more about our culture to me than anything else. In America, things are very surface oriented. We’re very much into the quick fix and the quick this and the quick that. People very rarely go into anything on any level, into any depth. You could see that with television, with everything. A lot of things aren’t as extreme as television, but still, there’s that same tendency to not, there’s a tendency to just deal with fads and things on a very surface level, to move on quickly without going into any depth.

FJ: In this drive-thru world we currently find ourselves in, considering music takes time to develop, how does anything progress?

SC: No doubt about it, yes. Music is really just our lives expressed in sound. Yes, your life takes time to develop, it’s not something that just pops up into the air or something like that. And it changes over time. It’s not something that once you have it, that’s it. Hopefully, you still learn and grow as a person. If you’re a person with any kind of depth at all, than you’re still checking things out. You’re still checking yourself out. You’re still checking out the world, what it means to be alive, what you’re relationship is with the universe. All of this is something that should keep going. The music is really just a reflection of that. I have to always remind myself that a lot of people don’t look at music for those reasons. For them, music is entertainment, maybe, or something like that. They see another kind of value. Maybe they think of what you’re calling jazz as primarily a form of entertainment that should be done like this or like that or whatever. That’s very different than the way I look at music, period. I have to understand that if I see a critique of my album, I have to first look at where is this person coming from, first of all.

FJ: You spoke of the entertainment value that is placed on the music, but even actors in Hollywood refer to their work as art.

SC: Well, the problem is, the real problem is, I’m just going to be blunt here. The real problem is greed. Economics is at the base of most of the shallow stuff that’s happening. It drives most things. Anybody who knows anything at all about the music industry, any artist will tell you, even the ones that are doing shallow stuff, they’ll tell you that there is a constant push to simplify everything by record companies, by booking agents, by club owners, whatever. And so if you’re, and I’m not saying do complicated things for complexity’s sake, but life is just not black and white. It’s not like that. It’s more complex than that. If you’re trying to develop something, be it painting or music or acting or dancing or whatever, that is reflecting your experiences as a human being, this is a complex thing. This is not, you’re experience as a human being is not just some simple thing. The industry discourages that because, one, they think the public’s dumb. They assume the public’s dumb. Executives have told me this point blank. So you have to simply the music for them and everything, or simply whatever you’re doing for the people because they won’t understand it otherwise. But what they’re really telling you is that we want to bring everything down to the lowest common denominator so we can sell the highest numbers we can sell. That’s really where it’s coming from, so that’s why something like Michael Jackson can appeal to so many different people on such a broad level. It’s been stripped of everything, but the thing that you can find in common with everybody. It’s just personally, I’m not interested in that. I’m not interested in what interests everybody. People, there’s a very diverse group of people on this planet. Obviously, if you have something that interests everybody, it’s not going to be that deep. Let’s face it. That’s just the nature. And that goes for everybody in this country or everybody in the world or whatever. That’s the kind of thing that the music industry wants. They want platinum records, and double platinum and triple platinum and all that. So that’s why, just look at the television or radio, whatever, the music that’s selling on that level, listen to the music yourself. I’m not saying it’s not good music. However, I’m saying that it’s brought down to its lowest denominator. That’s all I’m saying. If that’s what you want, fine. There’s even some pop music that I’ve heard that I’ve liked and everything, for a moment. It’s nothing that I can really live on. It would be like eating one meal all the time. I don’t want to have a misconception out here. I’m surviving. I’m making a good living. It’s not, yes, I’m not a millionaire or any of this kind of thing. I’ve never had a record that went anywhere near gold or anything like that, but you’re perfectly, if you structure stuff right and if you’re not too much into excesses, drugs or liquor or whatever, you can eventually structure out a living for yourself and do OK. Actually, this country and this world, in terms of the western countries, is very rich. This country is a very rich country. This world is a, the western nations anyway, put it that way, they have a lot of things. I don’t know what other way to put it. I won’t say they have a lot of everything, but they have a lot of material possessions, so it’s really not, I’ve never considered it that hard, no matter what I wanted to do, to make out a living for myself. I don’t even think, if I wanted to become a million, which I don’t, but if that was my goal, I don’t even think that’s that difficult. To tell you the truth, Fred, I think that’s a lot easier than what I’m doing now. There’s a lot of idiots who have a lot of money (laughing). I don’t think it’s that difficult, if that’s your goal and that’s what you wan to do. I’m not at all unhappy with where I am and I’m not at all jealous of people who have the Bill Gates style of money. That’s cool because for me, what’s important is trying to reach a higher level, in terms of trying to express things through this music and that’s the thing that I find difficult. That’s why I keep striving or keep working as you say. That’s really, for me, the hard thing. It’s also the rare thing when I look at how many people have achieved that in the past. It’s very rare.

FJ: You’ve been doing this a long time Steve, do you think you’ve reached that summit?

SC: No, no, definitely not.

FJ: Do you think you’ll ever get there?

SC: Well, I guess in my mind, the kind of thing that I’m going after is not so much a thing that you reach like a pot at the end of the rainbow. It’s more of a path that you’re on. For me, the main point, when I see someone like John Coltrane, who I know was not satisfied with his own thing, when I see that, what I see is a person on a certain path. I don’t really see so much, yes, from my standpoint, he may have reached a certain level. There may have been a certain high level that he’s reached and everything, but more than that, I see that he was on a certain path, certain direction, a certain way, and he lived his life a certain way. His goal was more about the search than it was the actual finding of. It was just putting yourself in a certain mode, a certain mentality. That’s more of what I’m about. In that respect, yes, I think I’m on that road, but I can do it much better than what I’m doing it, so that’s why I keep striving for it, to do it at a higher level.

FJ: Let’s talk about your new album on RCA Victor, “The Sonic Language of Myth: Believing, Learning, Knowing.”

SC: It’s a Five Elements album. It’s expanded Five Elements. I almost always use special guests. I think on almost all my albums, I’ve always used a special guest. Meaning people who aren’t a part of my group but who I use. On that particular album, the main group is actually, the core of the group is fairly small. It’s myself, Anthony Tidd on bass, Sean Rickman on drums, Miguel, at that time, Miguel “Anga” Diaz, a Cuban percussionist on percussion, and Rosangela Silvestre, who is a dancer, she read some poetry on the recording.

FJ: It’s a double-edged sword at times, using special guests, because it has a tendency to hurt the session’s overall chemistry, and the public is skeptical of ringers being brought in to give the recording added weight. So how do you utilize special guests and avoid those trappings?

SC: I choose people for certain reasons, for what they bring, and also, they are people who I have worked with before. Of course, there’s always a first time you work with somebody, but normally, they’re people I’m associated with one way or the other. I’m not just bringing them in for the record. They’re not big name people or anything like that. They’re usually just people who I know who can bring something to the music. In this case, I used two different tenor saxophone players, I think, Ravi Coltrane, played on most of the stuff, and Craig Handy played on one thing. Ravi Coltrane has been in my group too. He’s done some Five Elements stuff. Ralph Alessi on trumpet, who’s done quite a bit with me. And Shane Endsley, that’s another trumpet player who’s done quite a bit with me. Tim Albright on trombone, he’s done two or three of my recordings. Vijay Iyer, Robert Mitchell, and Jason Moran on piano and keyboards in different places on the record. Vijay has done things with me before, Jason, that was the first time I used him. Stefon Harris on vibes, that’s the first time I’ve ever used vibes. Reggie Washington on bass, who’s been a player for me for about eight years in the Five Elements before. And then I used some string players, Todd Reynolds, Mary Rowell, David Gold, Dorothy Lawson, Sara Perkins. That’s the first time I’ve worked with their group that works together under the name Hazardous Material. And then I used some voices. That’s the first time I’ve used a small choir, actually, a quartet is what it was. Erik Charlston, baritone, Eugene Palmore, tenor vocal, Jeanne Ricks, alto vocal, and Karen McVoy, soprano vocal. So when I say “expanded,” there was a lot of people, but really, the voices, the five string players, and the four voices, you can kind of look at them as a group, a section.

FJ: A little bird told me that you’ve created a computer program that improvises.

SC: Yes, well, I don’t know what to say about it. I’ve been dabbling with programs since about 1986, I would say. I would say I started trying to program computers. The program that I created, which again, is not one of these finished product things. It’s a work in progress. I’ve called the program something different over the years, but right now I call it Rameses. That’s the name I use for it now. People tend to name their computer programs. It’s just software. It’s not the computer itself. It’s just software. It’s been run on different types of computers since 1986. Now it’s on a Macintosh. But when I originally created it, it ran on a Commodore 64. What it runs on really just reflects money I have at the time. The Commodore was a cheap computer, so it ran on there. We just did a concert in Paris with the Five Elements and this program. The computer program was one of the members of the group.

FJ: How did that work out for you?

SC: It worked out find. I plan on doing a recording of it soon. It worked out so well, I want to do a recording. A lot of musicians are pretty amazed how it sounds because it improvises. It also listens, not listen in terms of ears, but it comes out that way. It also listen to what musicians can do, and responds to that. It also creates ideas on its own. And we respond, so it’s sort of this two-way communications thing.

FJ: I’m sure it’s going to raise a lot of eyebrows.

SC: Well, it did in Paris. It’s raised eyebrows, but it’s something I do underground. It’s not something that I put out there. If you hadn’t asked me about it, Fred, I would never have said anything about it. It’s not something I really put out there. It’s just something I do on the side, and that I’ve been doing for a long time. That’s over ten years. I’ve been doing it all along. There’s a lot of things that I do, that’s only one of them. There’s also a very mystic side to a lot of what I’m doing. And that’s there too, but again, it’s not brought up unless somebody were to bring it up. Again, it kind of goes back to this idea of what music is to a lot of people. So many of the things that I’m doing, some of them have been done a long time by a lot of people. I didn’t create these ideas, necessarily. A lot of the mystical stuff, Duke Ellington was into. He was doing this stuff. So was Coltrane. A lot of people have been doing these things for a long time. It’s just that the people that have written about this music have chosen not to concentrate on those things, but have chosen to concentrate on other things. And so, the public perception of what the music is supposed to be about is created not by the artists themselves, but by biographers and critics and whatever. People who have the power over the words. And so, I think that there’s a lot of lesser elements to what people like Charlie Parker and those people were doing that are not picked up on. There are some musicians who would know about it, because there are people who have told me about it. A lot of these things, I got from older musicians who hipped me to those ideas. They said, “Well, so and so is doing this. This is what they were doing.” And I was like, “Oh. So that’s what was happening.” So I try to do things my own way.

FJ: I don’t mean to put you into a corner, but I don’t think I’m going out on a limb here when I say your music is underground. By the fact that you don’t do many interviews, you don’t go out of your way to publicize yourself, there is no hype behind your music. Having said that, what do you expect your music to lend to the overall continuum?

SC: That’s a good question. I’m just trying how to put it into words. I’m trying to find the best way to put in a nutshell. For me, this music is a, speaking of it in terms of a human perspective, this music is a positive thing. I think the creators of this music, they wanted the music to be a force for creativity. And you know, a force for positive things. And many musicians have come right out and stated that. I think it has mind-expanding possibilities. I know that this is the effect it had on me. I wasn’t always listening to this kind of music. I used to listen to music with the lowest common denominator myself. That’s just what was on the radio, and that’s what I was exposed to. But once I got exposed to music without sounding too spacey, coming from higher vibrations, the music that dealt with the more real elements in life, it made me think different about different things. I know, a lot of people have come up and told me that my music has changed their lives, or so and so’s music has changed their lives. I’ve seen this happened countless a times with Coltrane’s music, and Parker’s music, Ellington’s music. I’ve seen it change people, and it’s changed me. It has a positive effect. It’s not a negative thing, it has a positive effect, and it has mind expanding possibilities. It has a tendency of raising people up to a, and this is the hard part to describe, to kind of realize their innate greatness. I don’t want to sound too corny here, but I think the purpose of human beings is a higher purpose than going around beating each other upside the head. I think that this music makes you think about those things, and it also plants the seed, because everything starts with vibrations. It plants the seed to start moving on to a higher realization of who we are. That’s what I’m really ultimately striving for with this music. I felt that all of the people who have been successful, doesn’t matter whether it’s Beethoven, Bartok, Charlie Parker, or whoever, in any style, or whatever, artist, whatever, they all strive for that particular thing. Besides that, they were just bad cats. Bad on their instrument. They were great technically and all that. That’s good too, but for me, that’s a more common thing. You simply have to practice and keep practicing and have discipline for that. There’s a lot of people in New York who are great musicians. I respect all of them. There’s a lot of great musicians around here. What I’m talking about now is something that’s different from that. It usually includes that, not always, but it’s a little different than that. I’m talking about something that takes you to a higher place. It’s not just something to marvel at your technique. A perfect example to me would be a musician like Art Tatum. Art Tatum was somebody that had fantastic technique, more than most people who I’ve ever heard. I can’t even think of anybody right now. But at the same time, his music had that something that took what he was doing to another level. I know a lot of people that didn’t have that particular thing. It’s not just about the technique that Charlie Parker had, or whatever. It was also, and people relate to this in a lot of different ways. They call it soul, or this or that. It’s something that’s kind of elusive. It’s not usually apparent immediately. It’s not something that, at the time it’s being done, the contemporaries of that person normally don’t see it in the same light as people grow to see it later. It’s something that’s so powerful, it’s like Coltrane’s music. You either hate it or you love it. It almost leaves no middle ground because it’s so powerful and hits you with such a punch, you’re really really into it or you can’t use it for whatever reason. It may be too strong for you, it’s just too much. I’m looking for that kind of thing that explodes on consciousness.

FJ: Finish this, I am.

SC: I am? That doesn’t need finishing. I am, period. I am that I am.