The tenor sax is one of the great emblems of jazz. From Coleman Hawkins to Lester Young. Byas and Ben Webster. Dexter, Trane. Getz and Sonny Rollins, on and on. And today's practitioners like Branford and Brecker, Joshua Redman and James Carter. Hundreds in between, and there among the many lies the immensely talented George Coleman.
We've all enjoyed his fine work, but for some reason, George Coleman sits in a quiet place. Grand publicity has avoided him, but like fine wine, he's aged nicely. He was wonderful and full-bodied going back to the 1950s and has tasted just great over the years. Despite a great career and consistently fine playing, he's one of those guys who doesn't seem to get the acclaim he deserves. Like Clifford Jordan or Von Freeman. But it's Coleman's bright and burnishing tenor that graces Miles Davis' Four & More
and My Funny Valentine
the live 1964 concert that stands as a jazz classic. Thought that was Wayne Shorter with Ron and Herbie and Tony? Nope. Look again. How about Hancock's classic Maiden Voyage
? That was Wayne, right? Wrong. George Coleman.
Coleman's tenure with Miles was very important and influential, though relatively brief. Perhaps if there had been a really good New York Yankees centerfielder between DiMaggio and Mantle, his name wouldn't readily jump to mind in barroom sports discussions. Coleman is the best who served between Coltrane and Shorter in Miles' revered bands. So be it.
Coleman isn't bitter about it at all or disappointed. A self-taught player, writer and arranger, he's proud of his accomplishments. But in his guy-next-door, laid-back manner he does find it curious sometimes that his name isn't featured more prominently. Perhaps history will be kinder in that regard.
Unfortunately, that history may be coming soon, because Coleman is ready to retire, he says. Tried to do it this year, but there was a lot of good work and he delayed it. In 2003, people are likely to see very little, if anything, of Coleman. Our loss, but Coleman's earned a time of relaxation, having tired of the rigors of the road. At 67 (born March 8, 1935 in Memphis) Coleman hopes to step aside, if his axe doesn't call him from the closet from time to time.
Before his departure, Coleman's left us with more good work, linking back to his ties with Miles, he plays tenor on the new 4 Generations of Miles
, a live disc in which he joins fellow Miles alumni Ron Carter, Jimmy Cobb and Mike Stern on a series of tunes well known from the Davis book. It's a very solid CD of covers, and Coleman manipulates the numbers in fine fashion. “All Blues," "Green Dolphin Street," "Freddy Freeloader," "Blue in Green," "My Funny Valentine" and more from the mainstream Miles (even though Stern played in the electronic 1980s) are all performed with a nice edge. It's a good statement by all, with typically fine rhythms from the ageless Cobb, rock solid support and sweet tone from Carter's bass and edgy and angular guitar from Stern.
"This is just one of the so-called concept albums," he said matter-of-factly. "But apparently, it's worked into a pretty good idea, from the acclaim that it's getting. Jimmy and I have played together. Ron and I played together in a band. I hadn't played with Mike Stern. I didn't really know the young man until they started mentioning his name. Then I had the opportunity to actually meet him and he's a nice guy. His forte is really rock. Considering that, I thought he did a real good job with us. That was basically what we did, Miles repertoire through the years, the things that he's recorded. So this is what we were trying to get across, convey this thought on the album. It came out pretty good actually."
His biggest break as a young man was touring with blues legend B.B. King, which got him out of Memphis. In addition to his wide exposure with Miles, in 1958 Max Roach asked Coleman, then living in Chicago, to join his band, which included Kenny Dorham at the time and later Booker Little. He moved to New York later in the year, through his career has worked with Gene Ammons and Johnny Griffin, Slide Hampton's octet, Lionel Hampton, Lee Morgan, Charles Mingus, Chet Baker, Ahmad Jamal and Betty Carter and many more. He's got several quality albums to his own name and is the recipient of a New York Jazz Award presented by New Jazz Audiences and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Jazz Foundation of America. It's a full musical life.
"I'm looking at semi-retirement," Coleman said. "I announced my retirement last year. But the beginning of this year, there was so much work coming in, and lucrative work, that I couldn't turn it down. I had to un-retire myself. We never like to think of ourselves as being mercenary, but it's a fact of life. Money's what we have to deal with to live."
"I feel like my contributions, from records, teaching experiences with various people I've taught through the years that have gone on to become really great players — that's enough gratification, whether I get any acclaim from the media or the powers that be in the industry," he says quite calmly. Coleman is just a guy who likes to get along. He's modest and comfortable with where he stands.
"There are certain people that are well publicized. Me, I've always been in the background. I've never been bitter about it. I've had people say, as a matter of fact it sounds like a broken record, ‘Man, you should be this...Why don't they give you what you deserve,' and all that. I feel I've done enough. I look at myself and I say I've accomplished enough. I've played with some of the great players in the business. Didn't sound too bad. Made a few records of my own. With all these things, I feel like I can retire and be happy."
Coleman said people are always interested in his time with Miles, which brought him great exposure and experience and put him in with the Young Lions of the day, Hancock, Carter and Williams. Pressures and erratic paydays contributed to him leaving, but he made his mark before he left, and has continued to make his mark ever since.
"He had somebody call me and said he wanted me to get in touch with him," said Coleman of Miles, who in Miles, the Autobiography calls Coleman a great musician. "Time went by and I never responded, because I didn't know what that was all about. Then finally he called me in person and told me he wanted me to join the band and I accepted. This was in 1963. Immediately after that, we went out to the west coast. During that time it was a sextet with Harold Mabern, Frank Strozier and myself and the other elements, Ron Carter and Jimmy Cobb and Miles Davis. However, we never did record with the sextet. That would have been interesting if we had, though, I think."
"It was hardly even two years. It was really only a year and a few months. But it was quite a rewarding experience for me. I learned a lot. I became a lot freer in my playing during that time than I had previously been. Because I had a chance to stretch out and experiment a little bit. The environment that I was in was fertile ground for me to be able to do this," said Coleman, who acknowledged the legendary rhythm section Miles had put together could have been intimidating to some. "They were young bucks and I was the old man and in some instances I was sort of ridiculed because of that, but it was all in a playful way."
"People even today ask me about these records and they say, ‘I wake up in the morning with your solo,' and ‘This is some of the greatest stuff.' And it makes me feel good when I hear this," he said. "Especially because ... They had a documentary on Miles, on TV. They were talking about all of his bands. Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter. Do you know through this whole entire thing, of about two hours, my name was not mentioned once? It was unbelievable. It was almost like someone completely deleted me out of the band. And it was strange, because they said, ‘the 1963 band with Tony Williams, Ron Carter and Herbie Hancock.' No word of my name was mentioned. Those were the times I recorded with the band, '63-64. How could they miss? It was very strange. I wasn't perturbed about it, but it made me start wondering. This must have been deliberate. It had to be. I don't know why. I really don't know why."
Coleman said he's often asked why he left that Davis band. He respond with amusement, his voice rising up high as he tells the tale as one might do chatting at barbershop on a Saturday morning. "I say well listen: Because I would be up on the stand some nights when he was not there and the people would think I was Miles Davis. Isn't that bizarre? People had never seen this man! They didn't know whether he played tenor or trumpet or nothin'. They just knew it was Miles Davis. And on several occasions, I had people come up to me and say, ‘Oh, Mr. Davis, you were so wonderful.' They really didn't know. They didn't know what he played or nothin'."
"Fortunately, I was able to hold down the fort when he was not there, but it was not like him being there. I was under a tremendous amount of pressure with the club owners, and he wanted me to perform without him."
The reason, Coleman said, is that Miles' was in one of his periods of bad health, particular his ailing hip. (The trumpeter had two hip replacement surgeries in his lifetime).
"He needed a hip operation. He was in constant pain. He would always tell me, ‘Man, my hip hurts.' He was in a lot of pain, so some nights he wouldn't show. One night I got him out of the bed. We were in California. We going to perform at this place called Adam's West, a big venue where bands would come in. This particular night, he was laying in bed at the Chateaux Montmarte, where he lived, where all the big Hollywood stars stayed. Very ritzy looking. Really didn't look like a hotel.
"Anyway, I said, ‘Look, man, you got to get outta bed. It's tough for me.' So he got up and performed that night. But it was a lot of coercion I had to do. I don't think he ever really understood the amount of pressure I was under when Miles didn't show. That was one of the basic reasons. There were several other little things. That was the main thing, why I left. It was too much pressure on me."