Thomas Stanley: Steve, do you have recollections of when you first heard jazz music coming up as a youngster?
Steve Coleman: No, because it was around the house all the time. So it must have been from gitgo.It was around the house. My father, mother listened to music all the time so I mean, you know, as I was growing up I heard all kinds of music. All kinds of black music anyway. My sisters listened a little bit to some rock, but mainly like Hendrix and Funkadelic.
TS: Older sisters?
SC: Yeah older sisters. You see I have two older sisters and an older brother. So between them – I have a younger brother too – but between them and my mother nad father and my uncles and everybody, I heard everything that everybody was into, you know whatever age group. So I didn’t, the only way that I distinguished it was that one music was what older people tended to listen to and one was what younger people listened to. So I didn’t call it jazz or anything, I just called it the music that older people listened to. [laughs] I mean and that was it. Other than that, I knew it was all Black music. I saw the album covers. I saw all the faces on the albums and everything. So I kind of distinguished it. And I knew that there was music predominantly made by white people that didn’t sound the same. So I associated blues, and what people call today blues, jazz, funk, r&b, whatever, that whole thing is just black music.
TS: What did music make you feel that attracted you to it as a player, you know, as you first got into your instrument.
SC: That’s difficult to say. Like most black people, on the South Side of Chicago music was just part of the community. So we didn’t really view it as a separate thing. It was just something that was just there; it was the sound of everything else. Put it that way. So I didn’t really think of music as being separate although I was aware that there were people who made music and people who didn’t make music. As I started playing music, it just felt good. Initially. It wasn’t anything, I didn’t know I was going to be into it for the rest of my life. It just felt good to play. It felt natural. That’s the best way I can phrase it. It wasn’t until I was about 17 or 18 that I really, really got really serious. I started playing around 14. But even before that I was in these little singing groups, imitating the Jackson 5, or you know, singing in church or something like that. So it was always there. But I don’t think I got serious until, first of all, when I was 14, I started learning music. Learning what the notes on the page were. Learning, you know, technically about music. And then when I was about 17 or 18 I got really serious, and really got deeper into the structure. And that’s when I started to check out the music of people like Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, and Coltrane and all these people, because I realized that what they were doing was on another level than what most people were doing. I mean just in terms of what you had to know to be able to do that. And also what they were trying to say through their music. Most popular music, of course, is either sex or dance or a lot of rappers are doing things like I’m the greatest, you ain’t shit.
TS: The sordid complexities of romantic love.
SC: You know. [laughs] Most of it’s love music, but if it’s not love music, it’s dance til you drop or something like that, but there’s not a whole lot of complexity of subject matter. Put it that way. But there were some artists, like Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, and different people back in the day, who were writing about a variety of subjects. About life. I mean things that would happen, political things, war, certain situations that you might run into or whatever. I noticed earlier on that there were some artists that were doing a whole range of things and there were other artists that put out love song after love song. I mean that were more limited, you know. At first I was into the music that was being played on the radio, I guess you would call it r&b or whatever. But when that kind of music kind of got taken over during the disco era when disco came out and everything turned into this kind of Donna Summers thing. That kind of dro ve me away to look for something else. And that’s when I got int o th e improvisational forms. Because I was looking for something more interesting and to me shit was getting less interesting. I remember all the artists who I liked, like James and George Clinton and all those people, their stuff sounded more and more disco-ey with each passing record like the late seventies early eighties. So that’s when I started looking for something else. Because I didn’t like the way things were going. Specifically, at that time I remember I didn’t like the rhythms. I didn’t like that boom-boom-boom thing. And so to this day I don’t like it. That made me search for something else. And at that time I was already playing. So I understood what it was musically that was happening as opposed to just feeling it.
TS: Rhythm’s about time, structured time, whether that structure is intentionally put into a formula or whether we just perceive it. Rhythm is in a lot of things other than music, and I was wondering if you could talk about some of the places where you hear rhythm outside of music.
SC: Everywhere. In the range that people speak. The cadence of the language. Of course in poetry and all that. In basketball and the way people walk. It’s everywhere. I don’t really relate rhythm just to music. First of all this universe has a rhythm. Now, I say a rhythm, when I say a rhythm, it’s really a complex pattern of rhythms. If you just look at the complex orbits of let’s say Mars or Jupiter or whatever, that’s a rhythm. I mean, I don’t know what your belief is. Whatever your belief is, it’s clear that we didn’t make the universe. Whatever’s happening whether you just think it’s purely chance or whether there’s a god out there or whatever your people’s beliefs are. Personally I believe that the universe has a kind of intelligence. It’s like this living entity almost. There’s an order in it. Now, maybe we can’t always understand that order, but it’s clear that there’s an order otherwise shit would just be, you know…
SC: Yeah, complete chaos. I mean even this solar system; these planets have been circling this sun for aeons. And there’s a whole order to that. They keep doing it, they’re not running by batteries. There’s a whole order to the way things work, an ordered system and all that. I believe that basically that’s happening on every level even if we can’t discern it. So I mean, most of what we do, especially in the past in ancient times, is we try to discover what that order is and end up emulating parts of it. I think of my music as that. It’s just what I can understand of the universe and all this I try to put in my music. That’s where the music is coming from. The things that I’ve kind of rejected are things that to me don’t fit with, just from my opinion.
TS: A couple of albums back you had an opportunity to do some work with a group of Cuban musicians. I think that the rhythms they work with are some of the most sophisticated and compelling on the planet. How has that experience changed your relationship with this order.
SC: There’s two places, well three places actually, well four, (laughs) actually there’s a lot now that I think about it. There’s a couple of places that I’ve been to that have made big differences for me, not necessarily in an obvious way. Ghana, which is a place I went to before I went to Cuba. I spent five weeks in Ghana just traveling and studying and checking out stuff. Basically, when I go to these places, I check out the belief systems of the people, the lifestyles, how they translate that into being, and, of course, how they translate it into music. Naturally, I’m interested in music. My going to Cuba was really just an extension of what I did in Ghana. And then I went to Egypt after that, and then I went to the south of India. Now all those places with the exception of Egypt. What I was studying in Egypt specifically was ancient Egypt, not really modern Egypt. Modern Egypt was like this Arabic Islamic thing that’s happening now, but culturally, although some of that was interesting, what I was really studying was what was there a long, long time ago. And I see the whole West African thing, like Nigeria, Ghana, the Yoruba, the Akan, and the different tribes, even going down into the Congo, and Cameroon and places like that, and also in Mali, where like the Dogon are and those places — I see those cultures as in some ways being an extension of what happened in ancient Egypt. In certain aspects. When ancient Egypt was destroyed, it wasn’t destroyed all at once, it just sort of dissipated over a period of time. That knowledge went to different places. That culture formed a kinfd of foundation or basis for a lot of different cultures in different ways. I think it went south, I think it went southwest, I think it went west. I mentioned Nigeria, Ghana, and Mali. I think it went north. I think that European culture took another turn, but predominantly it’s based on what happened in ancient Egypt. I mean you can see our calendar system and a whole bunch of other things are things that came from Egypt. Ther e was a lot of going back and forth between the ancient Egyptian civilization and Mesopotamia. At first with the Sumerians and then later on with the Assyrians and Babylonians and all those people. So there’s a lot there that has alkso been influenced by Egypt and probably vice a versa because those are veruy old cultures too. And then India, starting with the Indus Valley civilizations I think they call them Harapan. And going on into the Vedic stuff. I saw a lot of stuff in southern India that was very, very Egyptian. That’s the best way to put it.
I was going to these places to make these connections. Now where Cuba and Haiti and Bahia and those places fit in is that, of course, the Yoruba thing was brought over to this world. Mainly those three places is where it’s real strong, although I hear that Belize has some stuff happening.
TS: I’ve been to Belize. I’ve been there three times now. Steve, you need to check it out.
SC: Well, everybody’s says there’s some stuff happening there. But there have been certain places, and even some places in the States previously, maybe not so much today, but there have been certain places where this knowledge was preserved in soime form or another. Obviously it’s been changed, but in some form or another it’s been preservedwhether you’re talking about Santeria, or Condomble, or Voodoon or whatever. So those were the things I was interested in. I was really interested in the knowledge itself and checking out various living traditions that still sort of carry on to see examples of this thing as close as I can. Obviously it’s only going to be so close, we’re talking about thousands and thousands of years. I do a lot of studying of ancient texts and things of that order. Also, I try to study what I think they studied which, is mainly, to put it simply the nature of things. I’m probably far off your question at this point, but that’s basically where I’m trying to come from and my music is r eally just an expression of all of that. Now, it’s not in an obvious way. It’s not direct it’s more symbolic.
I’m certainly not the first person to do any of this. In Chicago there was a group called the Pharoahs, which later became Earth, Wind, and Fire, and of course, there’s AACM, Sun Ra. There was a lot of groups and people who have delved into all these areas.
TS: While we’re talking about musicians from Chicago and ancient Egypt, and you just mentioned Sun Ra. Could you comment on his impact on you as a musical artist and just as a human being. What does Sun Ra’s legacy mean to Steve Coleman.
SC: Well, that’s hard to put in words. First of all it’s just inspiring. Like a lot of people, originally I thought Sun Ra was crazy. As I got more serious and I realized that everywhere I was looking people like Sun Ra had already covered. I started to realize that others have been down this road before in their own way. Musically, there’s not a direct influence. I’m more influenced by what I see and what I experience. By the time I got really hip to Sun Ra I was already past the stage where I was emulatating other musicians. I didn’t get direct musical things from him. The person I probably got the most direct musical things from is probably John Gilmore who played with Sun Ra. Even that is not the same as when I was in my emulation stage. It was more inspiration and just being inspired by their story and what I knew about them and what I could read about them. You know, I checked out that book Space is the Place and different things. Whatever I could check out, and whenever I could talk to one of the m. I’ve only talked to Gilmore once unfortunately. So I’m always interested in what was happening. I’ve talked to people who worked with Sun Ra and they’ve told me what rehearsals were like and what kinds of things Ra would do. I’m just inspired by the whole story of it. But I’m definitely stumbling to find my own path, to try and figuire things out, because Sun Ra as you know was very cryptic. It wasn’t like there waws a lot that you could grab directly, I mean, you would have to be around him a long time I would think.
July 11, 1998. Washington, DC