Music » Artist on Artist

Jazz iconoclast Steve Coleman on the ancient bedrock of human creativity

The saxophonist, composer, and M-Base founder talked to local reedist Geof Bradfield during a Chicago residency that ends with a Millennium Park concert on Thursday.

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Few jazz musicians over the past four decades have developed a practice as rigorous and original as that of alto saxophonist and composer Steve Coleman, whose many awards include a 2014 Mac­Arthur Fellowship. A Chicago native, he grew up on the south side in thrall to the music of bebop pioneer Charlie Parker, whose harmonic dexterity and rhythmic invention remain cornerstones of Coleman's work. He studied with Chicago legend Von Freeman, a fiercely individualistic player who no doubt helped Coleman find the fortitude to trust in his own vision. By the mid-80s that vision had crystallized as M-Base (it stands for "macro-­basic array of structured extemporization"), a term for his approach to music that also became the name of a loose collective ensemble that originally included reedist Greg Osby, vocalist Cassandra Wilson, and pianist Geri Allen. M-Base dug into rhythms from around the world, melding the buoyancy of bebop with hard funk grooves and complex polyrhythms.

Since then Coleman has relentlessly refined and evolved his ideas. He shares many of his recordings and compositions for free via his website, and he's traveled around the world to conduct workshops and absorb ideas from locales as far-flung as Cuba, India, and Indonesia. He's been in town for much of the past month, conducting a residency at the Logan Center on the campus of the University of Chicago and leading workshops elsewhere in the city with young musicians. His extended visit culminates with a performance by his long-running band Five Elements at Pritzker Pavilion on Thursday, August 6.

Interviewing Coleman for this week's Artist on Artist is Chicago reedist Geof Bradfield—like Coleman, a deep thinker who fortifies his original compositions with historical research and globe-spanning curiosity. An assistant professor of jazz saxophone and jazz studies at Northern Illinois University, he's written a suite of music about the life of great trombonist and arranger Melba Liston and another based on his tours across Africa. His current band Our Roots, which has an album due in October, was inspired by a recording of Leadbelly compositions by Clifford Jordan but also plays Bradfield's takes on work songs and field hollers, including the music of blues preacher Blind Willie Johnson and Gullah folk group the Georgia Sea Island Singers. He'll perform at the Chicago Jazz Festival in September with the Spin Quartet, a collaboration with trumpeter Chad McCullough, drummer Kobie Watkins, and bassist Clark Sommers, and he has a Monday gig at Andy's through the end of the year, playing the music of Andrew Hill with Dana Hall's Black Fire. Peter Margasak

Could you talk about what you're doing with the Logan Center residency? I saw one component of it yesterday, with the musicians' workshop.

Other than the kind of workshop that you saw, there's community outreach where we go out and do either open rehearsals or—I don't know if you'd call them workshops, because some of them are for kids. "Demonstrations" would be more accurate. Demonstrations, question-and-answer open rehearsals, and performances. They're not like performances at a nightclub or something—they're looser than that. They're in the surrounding south-side community. And then we do more formal performances at the Logan Center.

This might seem like a strange question, but why are you doing this?

I learned a lot from older musicians when I was coming up. I'm just giving back and trying to inject some energy into the scene.

I've done this before, in the 90s. We did a series of these out in the Bay Area, on the west coast. I've done them all over the world, really. In Brazil and Africa and Cuba and India—we've gone to different places. But I'm just trying to step it up a bit, make them more frequent. I'm trying to do four cities a year, with a minimum of three weeks in each place—that's the idea. We're doing it here, we're doing it next in Philadelphia, then in Los Angeles, and then we're picking a fourth city.

That longer residency gives you the luxury of some time with local musicians and some time with local audiences—is that part of the idea?

Normally a tour is a series of one-­nighters. You can't get into anything because it's just one night in a place, and most of it actually is traveling. This takes all that out of it. You're just in one spot. This kind of thing was done more in the past—Miles would come here and play at some club like the Beehive for three weeks. People would play some club, and then the hotel—the rooms would be right up above the club, so they had to do a lot less moving around. They played more—which is another benefit of this, by the way, that we're doing a lot more playing—and as a result they played better.

It gives your band a chance to develop in a way they can't necessarily in a one-­nighter series on the road.

It's a lot less stressful, and you're concentrating on music.

It has its challenges. I have to figure out a way to pay for the musicians and pay for the trip. I'm doing all this through my nonprofit, which is called M-Base Concepts Inc. We also have a website,, that continues this kind of activity online, so that people in Australia or Mexico or wherever can be somewhat of a part of it. It's not just the residency in Chicago; it's an overall effort.

I think it was all in 2014, when you won the MacArthur Fellowship, the Guggenheim, and the Doris Duke—were those all that year?

Yeah, there was one Doris Duke in 2014 and a different Doris Duke in 2015. The first one was called an Impact Award, and the second one was the real award, the Artist Award. I wasn't eligible to win the bigger one until I won the smaller one.

That's a huge influx of both recognition and funding all at one time—has that had a big impact on your work or your ability to do work like this residency?

Recognition has impact on what other people see, and then that can parlay into you getting requests for things—you know, like interviews, some gigs, and things like that. It has impact in that sense. But as far as the actual music, I don't think any award writes any piece of music. If anything, I've seen it hurt people. That's not just awards in general, but that's money. Money and creativity, which Von Freeman told me a long time ago, really don't mix too well.

From an artist's standpoint, it's a lot of money. It's not going to drastically change your lifestyle; mainly what it does is allow you some breathing room to further concentrate on what you were already concentrating on that got you there in the first place. In the end, it doesn't change the amount of work—it doesn't really change anything except for how people perceive you. If you have to get some equipment or if you have to drive somewhere or take a flight somewhere, it allows you to do that, whereas you'd be struggling to do that before. I just use it to include more people. This workshop is a pilot, and we don't have a whole lot of support outside of the few partners we have right now—we're hoping to get more support later. So yeah, I have to shore up more of it on my end, and the grants help in that sense.

I've been listening to your two most recent CDs, the one with Five Elements—

Before you ask that question, one more thing. People don't realize that you have to pay taxes on all of that. So it's not what it looks like!

I know! I've gotten three of those Doris Duke Chamber Music America grants, and it's great until the end of the next year.

You have to plan very carefully, because the bigger the amount, the bigger the taxes.

I know a lot of musicians get kind of stuck that way—they get surprised by it.

I wanted to ask you about your most recent CDs. They're very different recordings, but they seem to be tied together by the theme of the human body. You have one with Five Elements, Functional Arrhythmias, and then you have a larger project called Synovial Joints. I was just wondering if you could talk about how the titles all reflect parts of the human body—the cardiovascular system and things like that—and how that guided the compositional process.

I don't quite understand the question, but they were both created the same way. They're both completely improvisations. That may not make much sense until I explain it later, but I just improvised and then transcribed my improvisations for everybody to play. When there's multiple parts, I improvised multiple times, obviously. But that's not a new process—as far back as Johann Sebastian Bach, people were doing that already. So it's not a big deal. Duke Ellington did it; lots of people do it. That's basically what it was—all those are improvisations. I tell people that about Synovial Joints, and some musicians don't believe me.

It's very intricate music, and I guess I could see why some people would be surprised that it was all improvised.

But if I played the original improvisation for you—which is just something that I recorded on my iPhone or with my computer, I just turned on my iPhone and started playing. That's really all it was. It's nothing that deep. The reason that they don't believe it—you know the guy who's doing the videotaping with us? His name's Dimitri [Louis]. The reason why he said he didn't believe it is because it was too precise. What people don't understand is that that precision is exactly what I've been practicing for all these years—since I was a teenager, basically. They don't realize that that's exactly what Charlie Parker and all of those guys did—the improvisations were very, very precise. You could write them down; they weren't like compositions, they were compositions.

Mingus makes this point when he talks about Bud Powell and Charlie Parker in the liner notes to one of his albums. He said that what everybody's not getting is that these are compositions; they're not just improvisations in the way a kid might improvise. There's a lot of preparation involved, but they are spontaneous. Von Freeman told me that his goal was to play an idea that he heard in his head that he'd never played before, but play it the first time exactly like he wanted to play it, without practicing it. This is something that I've always strived for and I still strive for. That's the main thing that you try to do. You try to get an idea in your head, hear it, and play exactly what the idea is.

That's an extremely high level of improvisation.

Many musicians can do this. I witnessed this myself in my apprentice years. I sat down on the bus and I watched Thad Jones write out compositions without his horn, without a piano—just in a notebook, as if he was writing a letter. And his stuff came out perfect. He might have changed one note later. And I saw Sam Rivers do the same thing. I've seen Cecil Taylor do it. I knew it could be done, because I saw these people doing it. That's the advantage of apprenticeship. That was something that I've always practiced towards.

There are people in the [Five Elements] group, like [trumpeter] Jonathan [Finlayson] and [saxophonist] Maria [Grand], who have seen me do that. Maria, she saw the original improvisation; she saw the finished result; she saw the steps in between. She even transcribed some of the stuff herself. She knows, because she started with me from the beginning. I mean, she couldn't play at all when I first met her. And I met Jonathan when he was 13, so he's seen a lot of stuff too. He's 33 now. So they don't question it because they've come up seeing it, you know?

It's like talking. We're talking to each other, and I've never had this exact conversation before. I'm saying new things. I'm using words that I've used, but I've never put it together in this way before, because what I'm saying depends on what you say. What you say depends on what I say. I always tell people that music is just like that. Charlie Parker and Von Freeman and all these guys, that's what they were going for. They said that they were trying to play like they talked. That's what they meant.

Yesterday in the workshop, you played not only the head to [Parker's] "Confirmation" over one of your rhythmic modes, but also a first chorus of a Bird solo and made it fit into that mode. It made me think of this time I heard you down at the New Apartment Lounge and we talked a bit, years ago. One thing that you said I've been thinking about for a long time. You said that most younger musicians didn't understand Charlie Parker the same way you did—that you didn't see his music at all like they do. We got into something else right after that, and I never got you to elaborate on what you meant.

I had this conversation with Sonny Rollins recently. I went up to his crib and hung out with him maybe three months ago and spent the night there and everything, and we were talking about Charlie Parker. And one of the things I was telling him was that I didn't see his music and Charlie Parker's music and really all of those guys' music—Art Tatum, whoever—I didn't see their music as being in 4/4; I didn't see them as playing eighth notes; I didn't see any of that. That was a sort of modern overlay or perspective on what they were doing. I just hear their music as these individual sentences that are put together in different ways, just like I was talking about with the talking thing. And he was like, "Yeah." It didn't surprise him at all, but it would surprise a young person if I told them that!

Most of these people who are in school have learned how to read before they learn how to play. Reading and notation is a part of how they see things. So when they say, "This is in 4/4, this is in 3/4, this is an eighth note," they're referring to sound as if it's notation. But it's the other way around: the sound is there, and in the notation you're just trying to describe what the sound is in symbolic language as best you can. It's writing. It's like the difference between talking and writing, or talking and reading. What you can express through talking is much more than what you can express through the written word. And it's the same thing with music. What you can express in sound—there are rhythms that can't even be notated using our current Western system.

Or if you did notate something like it, it wouldn't sound quite right. It wouldn't have the right emphasis.

Thad Jones may write some eighth notes, but if you're not in that tradition, they won't be played the way that people in that tradition play them. If you took classical players and gave them a Charlie Parker solo, it's gonna sound horrible. The notation system is still pretty general. There's so much that's left up to interpretation. Interpretation depends on who a person is, culturally where they're at, what's been happening in their culture, what kind of tradition it comes out of. The guys in the 40s are not going to interpret things the same way as people interpret them now. People forget this. People talk about music as if it's a separate thing. Music is people. Without us, there is no music. Not as we know it, anyway. It's not like there's elephants and gorillas around here with saxophones and drums and pianos—that's a human thing. It's an artifact of humanity. All of that is what's happening with humans.

My main thing is that you need to study more of the human part than you do the artifact, because the human is the cause of the artifact. If you study yourself—I mean deep introspection and reflection—and then study other people, you'll learn a lot more about music than you will studying music per se. Because all these things are just a result of the way we're structured, the way we're wired. If you look at the human, then you start to see all these connections between all these other artifacts. People always say, "Oh Steve, it's amazing that you can connect astronomy and synovial joints and this and that," and I say, "Why? It's all created by humans. It's all the same shit." Why would it be different? We're not talking about something that was created by some alien from Jupiter.

It's the same minds behind those systems.

It's the same approach—well, "approach" is not the word I'm looking for. It's the human thing that's in there. Religion, philosophy, mathematics, science, geometry, physics—all of that was created by humans. It's all connected, because it all has some of the way we are in it. If some of it was created by snakes and stuff, then it'd be some different shit. [Laughter.]

We have something that makes us uniquely us, and that's been there throughout history and for a lot of prehistory. That's not that long—that's only about 4,000 years. But humans have been around a lot longer than that. Our calendar system goes back to the ancient Egyptians. It's not significantly different from where it was back then. Because I'm a musician, I study music. And as far back as I've gone in music, as far back as I've been able to go with the written word and everything, we've had the same intervals, we've had the same issues with rhythm. Perfect fifths and all that stuff have been here as far back as I can see. It's not something that started in Europe; it's not something that started with the classical composers. It goes way, way back. I'm just saying: that comes out of the way we are. You don't hear any lions roaring in octaves, or dogs doing major triads.

Well, if I could ask you about a couple more recent humans . . .

I'm sorry to get all ancient on you.

No, it's fascinating! That was an incredible answer to what's different about Charlie Parker.

You talked a little bit about Von Freeman earlier; I was wondering if you could talk about Bunky Green some. You've mentioned him in other settings as a mentor of yours as well.

He's probably the second-­biggest influence on me when I was in Chicago. Actually, I could understand Bunky before I could understand Von, in some ways. It took me a while to begin to understand Von Freeman. Bunky was clearer. I think that's probably because Bunky is closer in age to me than Von. Bunky was born in '35 and Von was born in '23. I was born in '56, and I think some of it has to do with that, just the proximity of the generations. Something about Bunky's playing was clearer to me in terms of what he was doing. Von's playing, there's very few patterns there. A lot of younger players learn to play in a patterned kind of way. Von has almost none of that. There's so many different elements to his playing that it's very hard to pin it down. I don't know if you've heard of Charles Davis, but Charles Davis is a tenor and baritone player who's from Chicago—he went to DuSable just like all those other guys.

Sure—he played some with Cedar Walton and Hank Mobley.

When I first joined Thad Jones's band, Charles was playing on baritone. He was an older cat than me, so he was kind of a mentor. He told me right away, "Sounds like you've been listening to Von—all that shit you can't sing. You can't sing it back." [Laughter.] And I understood what he meant. He meant that it was harder to get with. You have to understand that Charlie Parker—one of the reasons why his playing is so clear to people is because so many people imitated him. They're not just being influenced by Charlie Parker, but they're also being influenced by the people who were influenced by Charlie Parker.

Do you think that Von's playing is less obvious now because he had fewer imitators than somebody like Bird?

Well, first of all he's less known. I know this because I introduced Von's playing to a lot of people myself. If you didn't grow up here, you're not going to know much about his playing. I heard him every week for years. When I talk to people about Von Freeman, the first thing they say is, "What record can I get?" Because most of these musicians, they live off of records. Whereas I grew up listening to live music. There's a lot more you can hear in live music than on records. The record should support the live music, not the other way around.

Especially with Von, even when I listen to recordings of a gig I was at afterwards, there's something about being at the New Apartment Lounge, in the community he'd been playing for for so many years, that makes the impact of the music different. I don't think you can get that on record.

Most of the recordings I have of Von, all the ones that I listen to, are things that I recorded myself. The influence of Von on me that's on record is very, very small.

I have one of yours that I really like, actually—one that you recorded. "Ain't Mis­behavin'," from maybe [the club] El Matador—that's pretty incredible.

Yeah, you can hear me hollering on there. [Laughter.]

You have this bigger project on Synovial Joints—a lot more musicians—and I'm just guessing that some of them don't know your music as well as your working group, Five Elements, does. I'm just wondering how the rehearsal process is different with that big group, with a lot of classical musicians.

That particular group, you're right, you have some musicians who only read, who don't improvise well—not from my perspective, anyway—and then you have my core group of musicians. The core group of musicians are doing what they always do, pretty much, only they have to be able to read too, obviously. The key to both of those groups are the people that you pick.

For everything that somebody put out on record that you hear about, there's 20 or 30 things that you don't hear about, that were done live or done in rehearsals or whatever. I've tried this before—I tried it with the ACO [American Composers Orchestra], and it wasn't that happening. I tried it with different musicians and it wasn't that happening. Over the course, you experiment. That particular group of musicians, I started working with in 2013, and over a period of time they started getting used to my methods, because in the beginning it was shocking to them. But they were young—they were not just so-called classical musicians, but they were young. And that helps, because young people are usually more open. It's a neuroplasticity thing. They're usually more flexible, and they can learn something. Whereas an older musician—I'm not age discriminating, but an older musician would be more resistant to the idea and also less inclined to work on stuff. So I got a good group of young people, and then I worked with them over a couple of years. Synovial Joints is the result of a couple of years of work. It's not just a few rehearsals.

That's amazing, the time commitment.

Well, like I said, the main thing is not the music itself, it's the people. It's the people getting used to each other and becoming comfortable with each other. That makes a huge difference. They started coming to my concerts and I came to a few of theirs. We hung out for a bit, and that produces the camaraderie that you hear in the sound: musicians hanging out. People don't realize that. With those groups, like the Miles Davis groups in the past and the groups with Bird and all that, those people hung out. They didn't just get together on one day. They were more like each other in certain senses. And going back to this residency, this helps promote that. Naturally, we're all in the same spot—there's a lot more hanging out. People get more comfortable.  v


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