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.
, 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
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
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
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.