Steve Colson: Doing Jazz Justice
As well as being a great music educator, Steve Colson is one of the most versatile jazz pianists of the last forty years, with a grasp of idioms ranging from swing to free, and from European romanticism to new music. What's more, he is a master of compression, incorporating these sources into solos and compositions with the balance of a fine blended coffee.
Colson has never been one to trumpet his own achievements, nor is he given to self-promotion. From his efforts as a student reformer at Northwestern in the late 1960s, to his work revitalizing and commemorating the culture of his native Newark, NJ, he has ever been all about community and communing.
A great many of his peers, including David Murray and Andrew Cyrille, seek him out avidly as a collaborator, in order to draw him away from his teaching duties. In addition, he is a great bandleader in his own right, when he chooses to put together an ensemble, such as the trio-add-voice of The Untarnished Dream (Silver Sphinx, 2010), with Cyrille on drums, Reggie Workman on bass, and his wife, Iqua, singing.
All About Jazz: I very much hope to do you justice, Steve, as I know justice, in its many senses, has been a great theme for you throughout your career.
Steve Colson: Oh, yes. Thank you.
AAJ: Going back to your involvement in the student movement at Northwestern.
SC: Ohyou went way back now!
AAJ: Since you are a great educator, I would like to get a sense of your own educational history going back to studying piano as a boy. Now, did you take instructions, or were you self-taught?
SC: I was very fortunate. My teacher actually has a song dedicated to him, "Teachers/World Heroes" [No Reservation (Black Saint, 1980)]...Henry Smith; he was a rehearsal pianist for the Metropolitan Opera. He was a child prodigy himself. He was organist for the church.
AAJ: So you must have been very motivated to practice, which leads to another question: did you have to be prodded to practice, or were you one of those students who just took to the instrument naturally?
SC: Well, yes I was. When I was young, in church, there was a guy a couple of years older than me, Leonard Brown, and he used to play the piano, and I would kind of look over his shoulder. And my parents noticed this, and so one day they asked me, "Would you like to have a piano?" As soon as the piano was in the house I practiced regularly.
AAJ: So you started as a classical musician, student of classical music...
AAJ: But you must have had a love of other forms as well.
SC: Yeah, I was listening to different types of music. In my house my parents played... there waswell the classics, piano concertos, as well as Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan.
AAJ: I can hear that in your music as well as the more modernistic strains, which is something I want to get into, the balance in your music, between history and modernism. But what was your first musical love?
SC: I really dug all of it. I started off playing simplified versions of classical masterworks, a lot of waltzes...The first couple of albums I had, my father bought meDave Brubeck's Time Out (Columbia, 1959) and a George Shearing record with Peggy Lee.
AAJ: Now that's interesting, because these are not artists on the same level with black artists like Basie or Ellington.
SC: The thing is, though, they had a mastery of composition and form.
AAJ: I imagine being white, they had access to training in European theorylike you do, but like many black musicians did not.
SC: The third album that I had, I bought. It was Horace Silver.
AAJ: I can hear that in your music.
SC: Oh, definitely. Then I went out immediately and bought an Art Blakey album.
AAJ: That's quite a shift, to the heavy-hitting Art Blakey!
SC: See, I had some cousins a little older than me. And the oldest one of them was around 17 when I was ten. I had access to their music, and we would trade...In 1961 John Coltrane's My Favorite Things (Atlantic) came out.
AAJ: Did you play in a band, or publicly as a soloist?
SC: I didn't get in the band, but I did play a couple of times. And the bandleader, he had listening parties. Anybody could come. I was getting a lot of music from a lot of different sources.
AAJ: That's the great thing I hear in your music: you'll never step too far in one direction. If you start to play free, you'll pull back and do something more mainstream; a samba will give way maybe to a funk groove...How naturally did improvising come to you?
SC: I started by imitating. I remember playing along with that album My Favorite Things, the title tune, and "Summertime." And then there was an Art Blakey number, "Dat Dere." I think that's actually the first piece I ended up playing off the record. Then I went back and there was a George Shearing one.
AAJ: When did you start to really know what you were doing?
SC: About 14. I didn't really have any training in jazz. But by then I knew that I wanted to play piano professionally.
AAJ: Did you want to go into jazz or classical?
SC: Well I had thought that I wanted to play jazz, but I was being guided into a classical school. I hadn't ruled anything out.
AAJ: You wanted to keep all doors open?
SC: Exactly...So I went to Northwestern University.
AAJ: Now you played a major part in bringing African-American studies into Northwestern. Was that a practical motivation on your part, or a more general assertion of civil rights?
SC: When I was at Northwestern, there were only a hundred freshman in music, and out of that, three of them were blackand two of those were women...Blacks and Jews had only been accepted two or three years before that. So we were there now, but for our presence to have any kind of meaning, we had to take action. We needed scholarships, organizations to address our circumstance. We wound up having to take over the bursar's office. As a result, we were able to institute a black dorm and a black dean. Almost all of the members of that dorm went on to found African-American studies programs in universities across the country.
AAJ: Now you also met your wife, Iqua, at that time. Was she a music student as well?
SC: Yes. She started with piano and then switched to voice.
AAJ: Which came first, your relationship or music?
SC: We met and we talked a little bit and we wound up going on a few dates, and then later she ended up in the band.
AAJ: And that's been a great partnership throughout your life...Now when were you admitted in the AACM?
AAJ: Who were some of the first musicians in it you were involved with?
AAJ: People you still perform with. Now you continue to work with Chicago musicians, and you were drawn to Chicago in the first place. Evidently you have a real affinity with the place. Did Iqua grow up in Bronzville?
SC: She grew up in Hyde Park.
AAJ: Well, Bronzevile has a great mythology, wherein the blacks were excluded from white society, but where they created their own burgeoning culture in spite of that.
SC: Well, the boundaries of Bronzeville were fluid and disputed, so I'm not certain about whether where Iqua was from is included in that.
AAJ: New York has a reputation for iconoclasm, whereas Chicago, even in a group like the Art Ensemble of Chicago, tends to embrace the past. Does this have to do with the idea of going back to where the wound was incurred, or where the fight back began?
SC: A lot of the elements we think of as originating in New Orleans actually came from Chicago. Of course, Louis Armstrong came up and developed the jazz solo there. There a lot of things about jazz in Chicago that make it very very strong. Also, the radio programming, like Earl "Fatha" Hines' show. And of course the blues...But to get to your point, yes, the exclusion of the black musicians kept the music from being diluted and commercialized...Then there was Captain Dyett, the great educator who trained so many Chicago musicians and the tradition of school jazz bands.
AAJ: You've had a very distinguished academic career, and I'm sure that has been a great reward. But do you ever wish you had made more of your career as a practicing musician in a way that would have given you a higher profile?
SC: At one point Iqua and I were traveling quite a bit, and we enjoyed that. And I'm looking forward to playing more in that context. But musicians often have to compromise to do that, take pay cuts and work in less than ideal situations.
AAJ: That said, it has given you the opportunity to make yourself a great scholar...Which brings me to some of the topics of your scholarship, like the classical theory you bring up in your AAJ Megaphone column [The Power in Music] about vibrations leading to mental sublimation. Your work, with the balance I mentioned previously, makes me think in this context of the classical definition of justice as being a situation in which all the elementsearth, water, fire and airare in balance. For example, in "A Love Supreme," [Andrew Cyrille, Ode to the Living Tree (Evidence, 1997)], Oliver Lake and David Murray are going off on these almost Ascension-like tangents, and you are doing something like throwing a little water on their fire with your subdued, pastel comping.
SC: Yeah, one way of looking at it.
AAJ: And also later on the album, there's a ballad and you give it a hard edge.
SC: You hit on something. We kind of have layers. That might me one of my concepts.
AAJ: Another thing I like about your work is the way you bring back themes at the end of a piece, just hinting at them before you actually play them again in full.
SC: Sometimes it's actually part of the music. Once we get into the beginning of the head, actually all of us are improvising. The thing about these guys is, they're listening, and I'm giving them cues to keep a mechanical read of the piece from happening. It's all part of the flow.
AAJ: Now I'd like to get to some of your other projects, like Blue Ark with Amiri Baraka.
SC: First of all, Amiri's a very great poet. I think he's the greatest poet in the language... We've worked with Ellington pieces, some Bud Powell...
AAJ: With Baraka I would have expected something like Albert Ayler.
SC: Yeah, we do that to. Also, a composition based on the works of Willie "The Lion" Smith, who was from Newark, and was Duke Ellington's teacher.
AAJ: How about "Greens, Rice and a Rope"? Great title!
SC: I did that in 1989.
AAJ: Now I imagine that relates to slavery. Is the rope a noose?
SC: Yes, but it also has other meanings, like something that binds and ties together. It was based in part on Ellington's "Black, Brown and Beige."
SC: That's cool. If someone thinks I'm like Mingus, I'm happy with that...But I'll tell you, one night I was playing at Sweet Basil [New York City], and Art Blakey came up to me afterward, and he grabbed me around the shoulder and shook me! And he said, "You guys sounded great!" And to have someone like that, who you've looked up to all your life...
AAJ: Validation from one of your heroes is hard to beat.
Steve Colson, The Untarnished Dream (Silver Sphinx, 2010)
Steve & Iqua Colson, Hope for Love (Silver Sphinx, 2003)
Bright Moments, Return of the Lost Tribe (Delmark, 1998)
Andrew Cyrille Quintet, Ode to the Living Tree (Evidence, 1997)
Andrew Cyrille Quintet, My Friend Louis (DIW, 1992)
The Colson Unity Troupe, No Reservation (Black Saint, 1980)
Page 1: Sharon Sullivan Rubin, Courtesy of Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM)
Page 3: Sharon Sullivan Rubin , Courtesy of Fully Altered Media