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Steve Colson: Doing Jazz Justice

By Published: April 14, 2010
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 black—and 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?

SC: 1972.

AAJ: Who were some of the first musicians in it you were involved with?

SC: Chico Freeman
Chico Freeman
Chico Freeman
was the first. We would go catch Fred Anderson
Fred Anderson
Fred Anderson
1929 - 2010
at his shows...Those were the guys I knew before I actually joined. Then Joseph Jarman
Joseph Jarman
Joseph Jarman
, Fred Hopkins
Fred Hopkins
1947 - 1999

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
Art Ensemble Of Chicago
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 Hines
Earl Hines
Earl Hines
1903 - 1983
' 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 elements—earth, water, fire and air—are in balance. For example, in "A Love Supreme," [Andrew Cyrille, Ode to the Living Tree (Evidence, 1997)], Oliver Lake
Oliver Lake
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.

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