Despite the band's now legendary status, then it was just a working band and payday could be erratic, he said. "These little inconveniences were also prevalent in the band when I was there. But it was a great experience, so I endured these little inconveniences because I gained a lot from just being a part of that band. Any little inconvenience I had to go through, it was worth it. For me to be in that band, playing with him, in that period of time. All the elements there were great for good music."
The albums Coleman made during that time hold the test of time, and his playing is typically solid. On the live session (issued as two albums but now available together on CD) is superb.
"I'm not being egotistical, but I do feel that was some very important music during that period of time. It really showcased him. I enjoyed it, four albums with him when I was there. It was an enjoyable experience and I obtained a lot of knowledge and experience working with him, as I did with all the other great players that I worked with, Max Roach included."
Another recent highly-regarded album where Coleman put his personal stamp was Ahmad Jamal's Olympia 2000 recorded two years ago in Paris on the occasion of the pianist's 70th birthday. "They know about George Coleman, but I think the world is going to know a little bit more about George as a result of the release of this CD. He plays superbly," Jamal told All About Jazz in an interview after the CD's release.
"That came out pretty good," said Coleman. "Of course there were some other nights when we might have had some better renditions of that material. That's the way it is. The same thing with Miles' live recordings. None of us felt we had put away an A-concert. We'd say, ‘Man, we played much better on that other concert we had.' But then, when we got a chance to listen to it, we found out it came off pretty good, considering." But he's critical of his own playing, always looking for ways to improve.
"When I'm on a record, I'm listening to myself and 90 percent of the time, I'm basically displeased with what I played. I always think of another alternative. Maybe I should have done this on this particular bar or this chord. Sometimes, I haven't had time to research the tune. Like with "How Deep is the Ocean" I probably hadn't played that in about 40 years. And he started off on it, what can I do? I think we might have run it down in a soundcheck rehearsal one time, but we had never played it until that time. Three weeks after we ran it down. Plus the fact that Mr. Jamal is such an improvisational wizard, there's no telling where he might go harmonically. You don't know what kind of chord he's going to play, so you have to listen all the time. I felt like I hadn't had a chance to listen to find out what he was going to do. That made me stay on my toes, playing with him. That was a very, very interesting experience."
Coleman is always on his toes. From his early days in Memphis, a fertile music town, and through the years. His journey gave him valuable experience and confidence. Manassas High School was Coleman's alma mater, which had a mass of talent including Harold Mabern, Booker Little, Frank Strozier, Hank Crawford and Charles Lloyd. The city also had the extraordinary pianist Phineas Newborn. It was in Memphis that Coleman did some work for the great Ray Charles, and a bit later B.B. King heard Coleman in a local band hired the young man to play tenor saxophone.
"My first influence was Charlie Parker. He was probably the uppermost and foremost player to ever come on the scene, playing jazz. I had an opportunity to hear a lot of great players when I was down there. Stan Getz had that popular sound and it was on the jukeboxes during that time. Jazz tunes were on the jukeboxes during that time. Dizzy was on the jukebox. These things were on wax," said Coleman. "I had opportunities to hear various players. We listened to a lot of records down there, we accumulated a lot of jazz. And fortunately during that time we did a lot of playing. Because when I moved from my residence in north Memphis down to Beale Street, things began to happen. I began to get a lot of experience. Running into different musicians playing different styles. Some of the older piano players, some of the modernists, the in-betweens, the boogie woogies. I had a full scope of everything. R&B, you name it. Blues, jazz, everything."
"I'm self-taught, but I was able to absorb all these things from being around these great musicians. I can read music, I can write and arrange. I wrote things for Ray Charles' band when I was 18 years old. Arranged some of his hit records, ‘Lonely Avenue' and ‘I Got a Woman,' and those things. I was commissioned to do the arrangements for him, because he came through and they needed a band behind him. They gave me the record and I transcribed his stuff. And when he came through he was very happy with everything. The only thing he changed, was a chord on ‘Drown in My Own Tears' or one of those things, on the end. That was the only thing he changed on my arrangements.
"All of us had big ears. We could hear stuff on the record and just write it down. But that's what we grew up doing. So when you start talking about Berkley [School of Music In Mass.], and these young men that go there for four years, I learned that stuff in about the first two years of picking up a saxophone," he said with pride.
"It was not only me, some of my contemporaries like Lee Morgan and Frank Foster. Frank Foster was formally trained. He's great. But all of these guys, they learned quickly. I remember Frank Foster sent in an arrangement of ‘I'll Remember April,' for the high school band in Memphis and it was so hip. He had tempo changes and everything. Very well voiced. That was one of the highlights of our band, that arrangement."
Coleman maintained an interest in sports, particularly football, during high school and it took him away from the marching band, "because I was on the field playing football," but he played alto sax in concert band and other school groups that didn't compete with the gridiron. "I liked sports, but I liked music too. In my final year, I gave up football and stuck strictly to music," he said, "and then when I graduated, that was it. I knew that that's what I was going to do for the rest of my life."
The break with B.B. King came in 1955.
"And that's when I made my transition from alto to tenor, because I was playing alto saxophone. He needed a tenor player for the band. So they hired me and he bought me a tenor. And that was it. From 1955 up to the present day, tenor sax has been my forte. Although on occasion I do play alto. And recently maybe a little bit of soprano. But I really concentrate on tenor."
The blues band also provided him with his first lesson in what The Road was really like. For a young George Coleman, it was exciting. Nowadays, to quote his old boss, the thrill is gone.
"We traveled all over the United States," he recalled fondly. "We were traveling in a bus. We weren't doing any flying. Each day we had a series of one-nighters. Sometimes 30 in a row. We were moving all over the place. Sometimes leave that night after the gig and we wouldn't arrive at the next gig until time to hit. We'd get in town maybe 5 o'clock. We wouldn't have the chance to check in. We'd be dressing on the bus. The valets would take the equipment and set up the stage. We put on these uniforms and hit the stand. That was a great experience. My first experience with the road."
"Now, I'm not crazy about it. I've had enough traveling. If I never go anywhere ever again, stay right here in New York, that would be fine with me. Because I've been everywhere. Rome, Vienna, Berlin, London. Many times I've been to these places. These are great places. When you get the opportunity to travel it's a great thing, but sometimes you don't really get a chance to see anything because you're moving. The next day, you're out of there," said the battle-weary sax man.
Through it all, in spite of the difficult nature of the music business and a universal decrease in record sales, Coleman is optimistic about the music to which he devoted his life.
"When I go to Europe and observe their appreciation and how well it's received over there and Japan and places like that, all over the world, rather than here in the United States...When I see that, I realize and I know jazz is alive and well and will always be. It's a very special music. It's for special people," he said. "People who have hip-hop minds and hip-hop ears and rap ears, they aren't suitable to listen to this music. They don't even deserve to listen to it. They don't. The people who are interested in great music, nice sounding music, and creative, slow ballads and up-tempo and waltzes. Jazz covers all of those facets. There's some kind of jazz that everybody can appreciate."
"Even if they listen to the guys like – and I like this man, he was great – Grover Washington and Stanley Turrentine. These guys are considered commercial players. But both of them could play. But they play the money music. They're money players, Grover and Gerald Albright, you know. And my good friend Dave Sanborn. Dave studied with me too. He's another money player, but he's a good player."
Sanborn is one of the many Coleman has influenced and it makes him happy to see the funky alto player's success.
"We had some great times together. I gave him some insight on harmony and how to get through changes. And he made an album after we worked together, and a lot of people noticed. They said, ‘Wow, man. You're playing some different stuff. Less funky than you used to play.' He attributed it to my instruction, and the time we spent together," said Coleman.
"There are some people I've influenced, maybe never actually taught for any long period of time. Like Eric Alexander. He's a great player and a good friend of mine. Some people said we have similar styles. But he's been by my house, but we didn't get into any long drawn-out lessons. This young man, he was just able, with his musical intelligence, to conceive different things that I do and apply them to his style of playing. But we play differently. There's a been a few others, all over the world. I get a chance to hear from them sometimes.
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