The tenor sax is one of the great emblems of jazz. From Coleman Hawkins to Lester Young. Byas and Ben Webster. Dexter, Trane. Getz and Sonny Rollins, on and on. And today's practitioners like Branford and Brecker, Joshua Redman and James Carter. Hundreds in between, and there among the many lies the immensely talented George Coleman.
We've all enjoyed his fine work, but for some reason, George Coleman sits in a quiet place. Grand publicity has avoided him, but like fine wine, he's aged nicely. He was wonderful and full-bodied going back to the 1950s and has tasted just great over the years. Despite a great career and consistently fine playing, he's one of those guys who doesn't seem to get the acclaim he deserves. Like Clifford Jordan or Von Freeman. But it's Coleman's bright and burnishing tenor that graces Miles Davis' Four & More
and My Funny Valentine
the live 1964 concert that stands as a jazz classic. Thought that was Wayne Shorter with Ron and Herbie and Tony? Nope. Look again. How about Hancock's classic Maiden Voyage
? That was Wayne, right? Wrong. George Coleman.
Coleman's tenure with Miles was very important and influential, though relatively brief. Perhaps if there had been a really good New York Yankees centerfielder between DiMaggio and Mantle, his name wouldn't readily jump to mind in barroom sports discussions. Coleman is the best who served between Coltrane and Shorter in Miles' revered bands. So be it.
Coleman isn't bitter about it at all or disappointed. A self-taught player, writer and arranger, he's proud of his accomplishments. But in his guy-next-door, laid-back manner he does find it curious sometimes that his name isn't featured more prominently. Perhaps history will be kinder in that regard.
Unfortunately, that history may be coming soon, because Coleman is ready to retire, he says. Tried to do it this year, but there was a lot of good work and he delayed it. In 2003, people are likely to see very little, if anything, of Coleman. Our loss, but Coleman's earned a time of relaxation, having tired of the rigors of the road. At 67 (born March 8, 1935 in Memphis) Coleman hopes to step aside, if his axe doesn't call him from the closet from time to time.
Before his departure, Coleman's left us with more good work, linking back to his ties with Miles, he plays tenor on the new 4 Generations of Miles
, a live disc in which he joins fellow Miles alumni Ron Carter, Jimmy Cobb and Mike Stern on a series of tunes well known from the Davis book. It's a very solid CD of covers, and Coleman manipulates the numbers in fine fashion. “All Blues," "Green Dolphin Street," "Freddy Freeloader," "Blue in Green," "My Funny Valentine" and more from the mainstream Miles (even though Stern played in the electronic 1980s) are all performed with a nice edge. It's a good statement by all, with typically fine rhythms from the ageless Cobb, rock solid support and sweet tone from Carter's bass and edgy and angular guitar from Stern.
"This is just one of the so-called concept albums," he said matter-of-factly. "But apparently, it's worked into a pretty good idea, from the acclaim that it's getting. Jimmy and I have played together. Ron and I played together in a band. I hadn't played with Mike Stern. I didn't really know the young man until they started mentioning his name. Then I had the opportunity to actually meet him and he's a nice guy. His forte is really rock. Considering that, I thought he did a real good job with us. That was basically what we did, Miles repertoire through the years, the things that he's recorded. So this is what we were trying to get across, convey this thought on the album. It came out pretty good actually."
His biggest break as a young man was touring with blues legend B.B. King, which got him out of Memphis. In addition to his wide exposure with Miles, in 1958 Max Roach asked Coleman, then living in Chicago, to join his band, which included Kenny Dorham at the time and later Booker Little. He moved to New York later in the year, through his career has worked with Gene Ammons and Johnny Griffin, Slide Hampton's octet, Lionel Hampton, Lee Morgan, Charles Mingus, Chet Baker, Ahmad Jamal and Betty Carter and many more. He's got several quality albums to his own name and is the recipient of a New York Jazz Award presented by New Jazz Audiences and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Jazz Foundation of America. It's a full musical life.
"I'm looking at semi-retirement," Coleman said. "I announced my retirement last year. But the beginning of this year, there was so much work coming in, and lucrative work, that I couldn't turn it down. I had to un-retire myself. We never like to think of ourselves as being mercenary, but it's a fact of life. Money's what we have to deal with to live."