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George Coleman: This Gentleman can PLAY

By Published: March 13, 2004
"My first influence was Charlie Parker. He was probably the uppermost and foremost player to ever come on the scene, playing jazz. I had an opportunity to hear a lot of great players when I was down there. Stan Getz had that popular sound and it was on the jukeboxes during that time. Jazz tunes were on the jukeboxes during that time. Dizzy was on the jukebox. These things were on wax," said Coleman. "I had opportunities to hear various players. We listened to a lot of records down there, we accumulated a lot of jazz. And fortunately during that time we did a lot of playing. Because when I moved from my residence in north Memphis down to Beale Street, things began to happen. I began to get a lot of experience. Running into different musicians playing different styles. Some of the older piano players, some of the modernists, the in-betweens, the boogie woogies. I had a full scope of everything. R&B, you name it. Blues, jazz, everything."

"I'm self-taught, but I was able to absorb all these things from being around these great musicians. I can read music, I can write and arrange. I wrote things for Ray Charles' band when I was 18 years old. Arranged some of his hit records, ‘Lonely Avenue' and ‘I Got a Woman,' and those things. I was commissioned to do the arrangements for him, because he came through and they needed a band behind him. They gave me the record and I transcribed his stuff. And when he came through he was very happy with everything. The only thing he changed, was a chord on ‘Drown in My Own Tears' or one of those things, on the end. That was the only thing he changed on my arrangements.

"All of us had big ears. We could hear stuff on the record and just write it down. But that's what we grew up doing. So when you start talking about Berkley [School of Music In Mass.], and these young men that go there for four years, I learned that stuff in about the first two years of picking up a saxophone," he said with pride.

"It was not only me, some of my contemporaries like Lee Morgan and Frank Foster. Frank Foster was formally trained. He's great. But all of these guys, they learned quickly. I remember Frank Foster sent in an arrangement of ‘I'll Remember April,' for the high school band in Memphis and it was so hip. He had tempo changes and everything. Very well voiced. That was one of the highlights of our band, that arrangement."

Coleman maintained an interest in sports, particularly football, during high school and it took him away from the marching band, "because I was on the field playing football," but he played alto sax in concert band and other school groups that didn't compete with the gridiron. "I liked sports, but I liked music too. In my final year, I gave up football and stuck strictly to music," he said, "and then when I graduated, that was it. I knew that that's what I was going to do for the rest of my life."

The break with B.B. King came in 1955.

"And that's when I made my transition from alto to tenor, because I was playing alto saxophone. He needed a tenor player for the band. So they hired me and he bought me a tenor. And that was it. From 1955 up to the present day, tenor sax has been my forte. Although on occasion I do play alto. And recently maybe a little bit of soprano. But I really concentrate on tenor."

The blues band also provided him with his first lesson in what The Road was really like. For a young George Coleman, it was exciting. Nowadays, to quote his old boss, the thrill is gone.

"We traveled all over the United States," he recalled fondly. "We were traveling in a bus. We weren't doing any flying. Each day we had a series of one-nighters. Sometimes 30 in a row. We were moving all over the place. Sometimes leave that night after the gig and we wouldn't arrive at the next gig until time to hit. We'd get in town maybe 5 o'clock. We wouldn't have the chance to check in. We'd be dressing on the bus. The valets would take the equipment and set up the stage. We put on these uniforms and hit the stand. That was a great experience. My first experience with the road."

"Now, I'm not crazy about it. I've had enough traveling. If I never go anywhere ever again, stay right here in New York, that would be fine with me. Because I've been everywhere. Rome, Vienna, Berlin, London. Many times I've been to these places. These are great places. When you get the opportunity to travel it's a great thing, but sometimes you don't really get a chance to see anything because you're moving. The next day, you're out of there," said the battle-weary sax man.

Through it all, in spite of the difficult nature of the music business and a universal decrease in record sales, Coleman is optimistic about the music to which he devoted his life.

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