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Steve Colson: Doing Jazz Justice

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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
David Murray
David Murray
b.1955
sax, tenor
and Andrew Cyrille
Andrew Cyrille
Andrew Cyrille
b.1939
drums
, 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
Reggie Workman
Reggie Workman
b.1937
bass
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: Oh—you 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...

SC: Yeah.

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 was—well the classics, piano concertos, as well as Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington
1899 - 1974
piano
, Count Basie
Count Basie
Count Basie
1904 - 1984
piano
, Ella Fitzgerald
Ella Fitzgerald
Ella Fitzgerald
1917 - 1996
vocalist
, Sarah Vaughan
Sarah Vaughan
Sarah Vaughan
1924 - 1990
vocalist
.

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 me—Dave Brubeck
Dave Brubeck
Dave Brubeck
1920 - 2012
piano
's Time Out (Columbia, 1959) and a George Shearing
George Shearing
George Shearing
1919 - 2011
piano
record with Peggy Lee
Peggy Lee
Peggy Lee
1920 - 2002
vocalist
.

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 theory—like you do, but like many black musicians did not.

SC: The third album that I had, I bought. It was Horace Silver
Horace Silver
Horace Silver
1928 - 2014
piano
.

AAJ: I can hear that in your music.

SC: Oh, definitely. Then I went out immediately and bought an Art Blakey
Art Blakey
Art Blakey
1919 - 1990
drums
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
John Coltrane
John Coltrane
1926 - 1967
saxophone
'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.

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