Miles Davis had two great great bands. The first with Coltrane and Cannonball. The second featured Wayne Shorter on Tenor Sax. But in between the two came a few others. Today I want to talk about Miles, but I really want to talk about George Coleman.
South Park did an episode a couple of years ago about James Cameron going down to the depths of the seas and “raising the bar”. Sometimes I think the “bar” has fallen very low for popular culture, and sometimes I know that it isn’t always true. But when it comes to Jazz, “the bar” has been so engrained in my psyche that I forget most people don’t think this way. For me and a handful of hundred others, the bar has a name: George Coleman
I have stated before, all modern roads in jazz tend to lead back to Miles and/or Blakey. Here we have no exception. In the middle years, between Coltrane and Wayne….there was big George.
I’m not sure I can express it properly…
You tired? "George Coleman was in the gym at 7am after working in the club till 3."
You need a gig? "George Coleman is driving up and down the FDR looking for work."
Are you practicing enough? "George Coleman still practices five hours a day"
You will learn every song in every key, because you never know what someone like George Coleman might play.
"I heard George Coleman whistling a tune the other day and you can sure bet I went home to make sure I knew how to play it….’cause sure enough, George Coleman called it the next night."
"I’ld walk 10 miles in the snow to play with George Coleman.'
When George Coleman enters a room, the most interesting man in the world isn’t quite so interesting anymore.
The above comments were among the many George Coleman references said to me and others by the great Harold Mabern in the late 1980s. Well, I made up that last one…
George Coleman was born March 8th 1935 and Harold Mabern on March 20th 1936. Both were born and raised in Memphis, Tn. Their buddies growing up included Trumpeter Booker Little and Saxophonist Charles Lloyd. And BB King. George is the 2015 Jazz Master of the Year as per The National Endowment of the Arts. He has received the “Keys to the City” in Memphis twice and was given a Lifetime Achievement Award in 1997 from The Jazz Foundation of America. George Coleman is the consummate Jazz musician and one of the few living legends left alive.
Harold Mabern was a piano and ensemble instructor at William Paterson College (now University) whose own resume is quite incredible. Harold is a legend in Jazz himself. I’ll address Harold’s discography in another diary. I was a student in William Paterson’s Jazz Studies program from 1986 until 1990. Harold was an imposing figure who always would talk to every student about George Coleman (and Clifford Brown and Ahmad Jamal and, every now and then, Perry Como) at any and every opportunity. But in the 88/89 season, I was lucky enough to take piano lessons with Harold and be in an ensemble with him as the faculty director. Im not sure he’ld “know me from Adam” today. That doesn’t really matter. Everything I ever needed to know about Jazz, I’ve learned from Harold Mabern.
And Harold taught about George Coleman.
Its you or no one from Max Roach+4, Deeds, Not Words (1958)
Personnel: Max Roach (Drums)-Art Davis, Oscar Pettiford (Bass)-George Coleman (Tenor Saxophone)-Booker Little (Trumpet)-Ray Draper (Tuba)
George (on Alto) started playing with BB King around 1950. He also wrote some for Ray Charles. By 1955 (back with BB after some time away) he switched permanently to Tenor Saxophone. In 1956 he moved to Chicago with Booker Little. In 1958 he was invited to Max Roach’s new band
Billy’s Bounce Taken from "Max Roach 4 Plays Charlie Parker" (Emarcy, 1958)
Max Roach (drums), Hank Mobley, George Coleman (tenor saxophone), Kenny Dorham (trumpet), Nelson Boyd, George Morrow (bass)
Shirley From ''Max On The Chicago Scene'' by Max Roach Plus Four,1958
By the end of 1958, George moved to NYC and recorded with the great Jimmy Smith
J.O.S from The Sermon!
Jimmy Smith – organ, Lee Morgan – trumpet, George Coleman - alto saxophone, Eddie McFadden – guitar, Donald Bailey – drums
In 1959, George Slide Hampton’s band and stayed with him until 1962.
George then did a short stint with organist Wild Bill Davis before he got the call. You can look back on my two earlier Miles Davis diaries to see what was happening with miles up until 1963. But in 63, Miles began to make some changes in his band.
Miles hired 17 year drumming phenomenon Tony Williams, December 12, 1945 – February 23, 1997. Tony grew up in Boston and began playing professionally at age 13 with Sam Rivers. Tony Williams is simply one of the most influential drummers in Jazz since the 1960s.
1962 saw Tony’s first release as a leader. This includes Sam Rivers on T-Sax. “Tomorrow Afternoon” from Tony Williams Lifetime. Tony will go on to reuse the Lifetime name when he creates one of the first fusion bans with John McClaughlin and Larry Young.
Miles also hired pianist Herbie Hancock, born April 12, 1940. Herbie is originally from Chicago. The story goes the Miles invited Herbie over for what Herbie thought would be a formal audition. Miles left Herbie alone in a room with a piano and Herbie just sat there and played, with Miles basically futzing around his home. Miles, however, was listening and hired Herbie after he sat there and played (for what I believe was a few hours). Miles lkied to say that Herbie was like him, he wanted to listen to the music.
But this was 1963. In 1962 Herbie released his first album and it featured a tune he wrote that many people know…Watermelon Man from Takin Off, 1962
From Hancock's "My Point Of View" album, 1963
And Miles hired on bass the man who is probably the most recorded artist in all of music history. He is on over 2500 records. He has played with…..everyone….even Tribe Called Quest. Ron Carter, born May 4, 1937.
Here is Ron in 1961 with Bobby Timmons and Albert Heath, Softly, In A Morning Sunrise from In Person
My Godfather is a sax/woodwind player who grew up with my dad. For a while he was in Lionel Hampton's band. He met Ron Carter a few times in the early 60s. I'm sure this story has altered some over the last 50 years, but the way he tells it is that he remembers Ron being a guy who was an excellent Cello player but couldn't get work with an orchestra (because he was a Black man trying to play symphonic music in 1961? I don't know, but I really doubt the answer is more complicated than that if this story is true)
Here’s an early recording of Ron with Jaki Byard. Hi-Fly, 1962
The new quintet--Miles, George, Herbie, Ron and Tony—only made one studio record. And they aren’t on all of it. But Miles didn’t like the original tracks he recorded with a slightly different band and so on May 14, 1963 this quintet recorded. They included the original version of the Miles classic, Seven Steps to Heaven. This cut is a rehearsal/alternate cut slightly different from what might still get played on Jazz radio.
But this group released three live albums. The first is called In Europe and was recorded in France in 1963.
I Thought About You
And George also appeared in the well-known Carnegie Hall concert from February 1964. This was first released as two separate albums, My Funny Valentine and Four And More, but have since been available as a double CD in the correct running order. Columbia records must be acting cranky lately, most of the cuts are not currently available on Youtube. They were available 6 months ago.
Stella by starlight
My Funny Valentine
I transcribed George’s solo from My Funny Valentine for an ear-training final in 87. I got most of it wrong, but learned a lot in the process. Transcribing is the process of listening to a solo and learning to play it and writing it out. It is essential to learning how to play jazz, though you don’t necessarily need to actually write the solos out to learn from them.
Mid 1964 is when George leaves Miles. I want to continue with George today, I’ll get to Miles with Wayne in the near future. A whole diary for the 4 or so short years for the Second Great Quintet will come.
However, between George and Wayne, Miles used Sam Rivers, September 25, 1923 – December 26, 2011.
When I Fall In Love from A New Conception, 1966
Sam was born in Oklahoma and moved to Boston in 1947. I’m not sure, but I think it was his connection to Tony Williams that got him into Mile’s group. He is on the 1964 live recording, Miles Live in Tokyo.
If I Were a Bell
Miles thought Sam to be a bit too avant guard and Wayne will follow him. Sam Rivers goes on to do great things, including writing a jazz standard, Beatrice
From 1964, Fuchsia Swing album. Sam Rivers: Tenor Sax Jaki Byard: Piano Ron Carter: Bass Tony Williams:Drums
In the 1970s, Sam ran a jazz loft with his wife downtown Manhattan on Bond Street.
Tranquility from 1974’s Crystals
Back to George Coleman…..
So George is out of Miles’ band in 1964. In 1965 George makes a series of recordings with Chet Baker and Kirk Lightsey on piano, Herman Wright on bass, and Roy Brooks on drums
Fine and dandy
On a misty night
In 1965 George also plays on Herbie’s classic album, Maiden Voyage, with Ron and Tony and Freddie Hubbard
Here’s Dolphin Dance. I’ll come back to this record next time I focus in on Herbie
It’s interesting to consider that while playing the really advanced stuff with Herbie Ron and Tony, George still retains his “Chicken Shack” soulful roots.
For instance, in 1966 he records with Jack McDuff “I Can’t Find the Keyhole Blues”
And then by 1968, he performs on his friend’s first recordings as a leader. Harold Mabern.
Alex the great
Rakin’ and Scrapin’
There was a point in the early 1990s that I knew at least 5 different sets of guys who had a copy of Rakin’ and Scrapin’ sitting in the living rooms of their apartments like a work of art.
Heard it Through The Grape Vine
Ahh….Harold on electric piano!
George also begins to record another jazz god, Elvin Jones. They record a few in the late 60s and early 70s.
Blues inside out
In the 70s, we see George recording some very fine Dutch Jazz musicians, I am unsure if George relocates to Holland or Europe for any length of time.
"On Green Dolphin Street" album. Personnel: George Coleman (ts), Rob Agerbeek (p), Rob Langereis (b), Eric Ineke (d)
He also begins writing more of his own tunes and starts his octet.
In 1976, George records on the classic Cedar Walton album, Eastern Rebellion
5/4 Thing (written by George)
And in 1977 he releases his first album as a leader, Amsterdam After Dark. Here is the title track.
By the time the path of my life began to include an awareness of George Coleman, he was leading a quartet with Harold Mabern and Jamil Nasser and various drummers. Other than local bands that have friends of mine as members, the only group I’ve seen perform more than the George Coleman Quartet was the Grateful Dead. There used to be a club in NYC called Fat Tuesday’s where George and the group would play every few months. I also saw them at the Village Vanguard a few times. Eddie Gladen once scolded me and my friends for sitting too close to the drums up in the back, but Harold said we could sit there! Er….I think it was Eddie Gladen.
This live recording from Yoshi’s in Japan 1987 is pretty much exactly what they sounded like. This is Up Jumped Spring’
Up Jumped Spring
In the 90s, George made some recordings with Ahmad Jamal
My Foolish Heart
And he’s been recording still. This is from 1999 with Harold again
Have You Met Miss Jones
In 2002, he formed a band called 4 Generations of Miles. A quartet, the members were George, Ron Carter, drummer Jimmy Cobb and guitarist Mike Stern
There Is No Greater Love
In 2007, hes back with organ players and recorded with Joey DeFrancesco.
Er….I can honestly say that I’ve done gigs with Eric Alexander--20, 25 years ago--and I think with John Webber too. I was in small ensembles in school with Joe Farnsworth. And when we were young men, we did together do a few things that idiotic young men do. But I’m not as good as these guys. I wasn’t back then and I’m not now. There’s no shame in that, not everyone can be a starter in the NBA.
Here's George from last year with Joe and Eric.
2013 On a Misty Night
This particular diary will probably be the first one I post to my facebook page, so Joe might become aware of the fact that I've been doing these....which means Harold might....which means that George Coleman might, but I doubt anything moves that far up the "food chain".
The jazz community sometimes feels a touch like the Mafia. To follow that analogy...this is my family and I am but a soldier, not even a made guy (though...that PhD in Cultural Anthropology I have might complicate things). George is the Don and Harold the consigliere, Eric and Joe are Capos. But its a big family and there is nothing secretive about it, I will write more about this, largely New York City centered, "family."
Here they are from about 6 weeks ago doing I Covered the Waterfront
George Coleman. Nearly 60 years of recording jazz. More than 60 years playing it professionally. Classic recordings. Soulful funky “listener friendly” recordings. Small groups, Octets. Big Bands. Band Leader. Composer. Arranger. Pfft…
From George’s website
Despite his seemingly overwhelming schedule and commitments in jazz, Coleman has amassed formidable credits outside that scene as well.
Working briefly in the ‘60s with the outspoken and courageous actor/activist couple, Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis marked an area of interest that would remain with him in the ensuing years. George performed on the soundtrack and appeared in Sweet Love, Bitter – the intriguing and disturbing 1967 film featuring Dick Gregory, based somewhat on the life of the idol of George’s youth, Charlie Parker. And he also appeared in Freejack, the 1992 science-fiction film with Emilio Estevez, Mick Jagger and Anthony Hopkins; and 1996’s Preacher’s Wife with Denzel Washington and Whitney Houston. He was also featured on the soundtrack of Spike Lee’s first film Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads.
Television credits include Bill Cosby’s 1991 A&E special, Revue, as well as appearances on CBS’ The Guiding Light, and the venerable children’s show Captain Kangaroo.
A handsome and imposing figure, George has also amassed some significant modeling credits. In 1991, still photographs with pop icon Madonna appeared in major newspapers and magazines as part of the Truth or Dare! promotional campaign. And in 1997 he appeared in magazine layouts for The Preacher’s Wife. He’s also done fashion layouts for Ebony Magazine and Travel and Leisure.
Ya….that’s the bar: George Coleman. That’s how good a musician is supposed to be. If you aren’t at least trying to live up to George Coleman’s example, you ain’t doing shit. That’s what Harold Mabern taught me. Harold Mabern never lies.
Thanks for listening everyone! It’s really a joy to do these. I’m not sure quite what to write about next week, but I’ll think of something fun! Please support your local jazz musicians and all local live music.
(PS In academia, I hold someone else as an example of what the bar is supposed to be. Eric Wolf is to anthropology and social science what George Coleman is to jazz and music)