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George Coleman: This Gentleman can PLAY

By Published: March 13, 2004
"He needed a hip operation. He was in constant pain. He would always tell me, ‘Man, my hip hurts.' He was in a lot of pain, so some nights he wouldn't show. One night I got him out of the bed. We were in California. We going to perform at this place called Adam's West, a big venue where bands would come in. This particular night, he was laying in bed at the Chateaux Montmarte, where he lived, where all the big Hollywood stars stayed. Very ritzy looking. Really didn't look like a hotel.

"Anyway, I said, ‘Look, man, you got to get outta bed. It's tough for me.' So he got up and performed that night. But it was a lot of coercion I had to do. I don't think he ever really understood the amount of pressure I was under when Miles didn't show. That was one of the basic reasons. There were several other little things. That was the main thing, why I left. It was too much pressure on me."

Despite the band's now legendary status, then it was just a working band and payday could be erratic, he said. "These little inconveniences were also prevalent in the band when I was there. But it was a great experience, so I endured these little inconveniences because I gained a lot from just being a part of that band. Any little inconvenience I had to go through, it was worth it. For me to be in that band, playing with him, in that period of time. All the elements there were great for good music."

The albums Coleman made during that time hold the test of time, and his playing is typically solid. On the live session (issued as two albums but now available together on CD) is superb.

"I'm not being egotistical, but I do feel that was some very important music during that period of time. It really showcased him. I enjoyed it, four albums with him when I was there. It was an enjoyable experience and I obtained a lot of knowledge and experience working with him, as I did with all the other great players that I worked with, Max Roach included."

Another recent highly-regarded album where Coleman put his personal stamp was Ahmad Jamal's Olympia 2000 recorded two years ago in Paris on the occasion of the pianist's 70th birthday. "They know about George Coleman, but I think the world is going to know a little bit more about George as a result of the release of this CD. He plays superbly," Jamal told All About Jazz in an interview after the CD's release.

"That came out pretty good," said Coleman. "Of course there were some other nights when we might have had some better renditions of that material. That's the way it is. The same thing with Miles' live recordings. None of us felt we had put away an A-concert. We'd say, ‘Man, we played much better on that other concert we had.' But then, when we got a chance to listen to it, we found out it came off pretty good, considering." But he's critical of his own playing, always looking for ways to improve.

"When I'm on a record, I'm listening to myself and 90 percent of the time, I'm basically displeased with what I played. I always think of another alternative. Maybe I should have done this on this particular bar or this chord. Sometimes, I haven't had time to research the tune. Like with "How Deep is the Ocean" I probably hadn't played that in about 40 years. And he started off on it, what can I do? I think we might have run it down in a soundcheck rehearsal one time, but we had never played it until that time. Three weeks after we ran it down. Plus the fact that Mr. Jamal is such an improvisational wizard, there's no telling where he might go harmonically. You don't know what kind of chord he's going to play, so you have to listen all the time. I felt like I hadn't had a chance to listen to find out what he was going to do. That made me stay on my toes, playing with him. That was a very, very interesting experience."

Coleman is always on his toes. From his early days in Memphis, a fertile music town, and through the years. His journey gave him valuable experience and confidence. Manassas High School was Coleman's alma mater, which had a mass of talent including Harold Mabern, Booker Little, Frank Strozier, Hank Crawford and Charles Lloyd. The city also had the extraordinary pianist Phineas Newborn. It was in Memphis that Coleman did some work for the great Ray Charles, and a bit later B.B. King heard Coleman in a local band hired the young man to play tenor saxophone.

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