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George Coleman: This Gentleman can PLAY

By Published: March 13, 2004
"I feel like my contributions, from records, teaching experiences with various people I've taught through the years that have gone on to become really great players — that's enough gratification, whether I get any acclaim from the media or the powers that be in the industry," he says quite calmly. Coleman is just a guy who likes to get along. He's modest and comfortable with where he stands.

"There are certain people that are well publicized. Me, I've always been in the background. I've never been bitter about it. I've had people say, as a matter of fact it sounds like a broken record, ‘Man, you should be this...Why don't they give you what you deserve,' and all that. I feel I've done enough. I look at myself and I say I've accomplished enough. I've played with some of the great players in the business. Didn't sound too bad. Made a few records of my own. With all these things, I feel like I can retire and be happy."

Coleman said people are always interested in his time with Miles, which brought him great exposure and experience and put him in with the Young Lions of the day, Hancock, Carter and Williams. Pressures and erratic paydays contributed to him leaving, but he made his mark before he left, and has continued to make his mark ever since.

"He had somebody call me and said he wanted me to get in touch with him," said Coleman of Miles, who in Miles, the Autobiography calls Coleman a great musician. "Time went by and I never responded, because I didn't know what that was all about. Then finally he called me in person and told me he wanted me to join the band and I accepted. This was in 1963. Immediately after that, we went out to the west coast. During that time it was a sextet with Harold Mabern, Frank Strozier and myself and the other elements, Ron Carter and Jimmy Cobb and Miles Davis. However, we never did record with the sextet. That would have been interesting if we had, though, I think."

"It was hardly even two years. It was really only a year and a few months. But it was quite a rewarding experience for me. I learned a lot. I became a lot freer in my playing during that time than I had previously been. Because I had a chance to stretch out and experiment a little bit. The environment that I was in was fertile ground for me to be able to do this," said Coleman, who acknowledged the legendary rhythm section Miles had put together could have been intimidating to some. "They were young bucks and I was the old man and in some instances I was sort of ridiculed because of that, but it was all in a playful way."

"People even today ask me about these records and they say, ‘I wake up in the morning with your solo,' and ‘This is some of the greatest stuff.' And it makes me feel good when I hear this," he said. "Especially because ... They had a documentary on Miles, on TV. They were talking about all of his bands. Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter. Do you know through this whole entire thing, of about two hours, my name was not mentioned once? It was unbelievable. It was almost like someone completely deleted me out of the band. And it was strange, because they said, ‘the 1963 band with Tony Williams, Ron Carter and Herbie Hancock.' No word of my name was mentioned. Those were the times I recorded with the band, '63-64. How could they miss? It was very strange. I wasn't perturbed about it, but it made me start wondering. This must have been deliberate. It had to be. I don't know why. I really don't know why."

Coleman said he's often asked why he left that Davis band. He respond with amusement, his voice rising up high as he tells the tale as one might do chatting at barbershop on a Saturday morning. "I say well listen: Because I would be up on the stand some nights when he was not there and the people would think I was Miles Davis. Isn't that bizarre? People had never seen this man! They didn't know whether he played tenor or trumpet or nothin'. They just knew it was Miles Davis. And on several occasions, I had people come up to me and say, ‘Oh, Mr. Davis, you were so wonderful.' They really didn't know. They didn't know what he played or nothin'."

"Fortunately, I was able to hold down the fort when he was not there, but it was not like him being there. I was under a tremendous amount of pressure with the club owners, and he wanted me to perform without him."

The reason, Coleman said, is that Miles' was in one of his periods of bad health, particular his ailing hip. (The trumpeter had two hip replacement surgeries in his lifetime).

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