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George Coleman

George Coleman is an NEA Jazz Master

No tenor saxophonist better epitomizes the robust muscularity of that heavyweight instrument of jazz expression than George Coleman. With brilliant technique and a deeply soulful tone firmly rooted in his hometown of Memphis, George has performed with many of jazz’ most legendary figures and influenced countless saxophonists during his half century in music.

Growing up in Memphis’ rich musical environment of the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, alongside such notables as Booker Little, Harold Mabern, Frank Strozier, Jamil Nasser, Hank Crawford, Phineas Newborn Jr., and blues immortal B.B. King, Coleman began to teach himself to play the alto saxophone in 1950, upon being profoundly affected by the music of Charlie Parker.

So prodigious was his talent that George was soon performing locally and in 1952, at the age of 17, was invited to tour with B.B. King after the guitarist heard him in a local club. Coleman spent three more years on the vibrant Memphis scene, expanding his musical knowledge through his associations and influences, and writing for popular artists including the Moonglows and Ray Charles.

In 1955 he rejoined B.B.’s band, but this time on tenor sax, which would become his primary horn from that point on.

In 1956 George moved to Chicago, along with Booker Little. The bustling jazz scene brought him together with local heavyweights like Gene Ammons, Johnny Griffin, John Gilmore and Ira Sullivan, and he joined Walter Perkins’ group, The MJT + 3. When Max Roach heard George with this unit in 1958, he invited him to join his own quartet featuring Kenny Dorham on trumpet.

Coleman moved to New York later that year and has made his home there ever since. Booker soon replaced Dorham in the group and George remained with Max for two years. When eminent trombonist Slide Hampton formed his octet in 1959, George and his Max Roach bandmates Little and Julian Priester formed the brass-heavy front line with Slide and Freddie Hubbard.

He remained with Hampton until 1962, touring Europe for the first time during his stay. But more importantly, he began focusing more on his own composing and arranging, laying the foundation for his own octet that would be formed in 1974 and which is still a powerful force on the scene today.

After a brief stint with organist Wild Bill Davis, a call from the incomparable Miles Davis in 1963 briefly re-united Coleman with his old Manassas High schoolmates Mabern and Strozier, who soon departed in favor of the personnel that would form one of the most influential groups in jazz history.

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Album Review

Shirley Scott: Queen Talk: Live at the Left Bank

Read "Queen Talk: Live at the Left Bank" reviewed by Stefano Merighi

Era la “regina dell'organo." Shirley Scott ha attraversato la stagione magica del jazz degli anni d'oro affiancando l'egemonia di Jimmy Smith, proponendo uno stile sempre graffiante ma più sofisticato ed elusivo, divenendo un simbolo di quella musica di comunità che a Philadelphia ha sempre incontrato grande entusiasmo. Una musica senza progetti particolari, erede di una tradizione popolare che dal gospel arriva ad un soul-jazz articolato, ricco di palpitante energia, talvolta selvaggio, tecnicamente impeccabile. Come dimostra questo doppio CD ...

Album Review

George Coleman: Live At Smalls Jazz Club

Read "Live At Smalls Jazz Club" reviewed by Jack Bowers

Tenor saxophonist George Coleman, one week past his eighty-seventh birthday when Live at Smalls Jazz Club was recorded in March 2022, has not yielded an inch to Father Time, skating up and down his horn with the awareness and agility of someone many years his junior. It is entirely appropriate that this album should be a part of the Smalls Living Legend series, as Coleman easily qualifies for that honor. Before appraising the music, a brief side ...

Album Review

George Coleman: Live At Smalls Jazz Club

Read "Live At Smalls Jazz Club" reviewed by Pierre Giroux

If you are an aficionado of tenor saxophonists with a big, bold, biting tone who can run changes in the blink of an eye, then George Coleman is your man. Now in his 88th year, over the course of his long career, he has had a gamut of experiences including B.B. King (1952/1955-56), Max Roach (1958-59), Slide Hampton (1959-61) and Miles Davis (1963-64). His discography both as a leader/co-leader as well as a sideman covers a panoply of well-known jazz ...

Album Review

Shirley Scott: Queen Talk: Live At The Left Bank

Read "Queen Talk: Live At The Left Bank" reviewed by Pierre Giroux

Queen Talk is a fitting title for the current release from the archivist label Reel to Real Records as Hammond B-3 organist Shirley Scott had the soubriquet “Queen of the organ" at the height of her career. This limited-edition hand-numbered 180 gram 2-LP set produced by Zev Feldman and Cory Weeds presents a never-before-released live 1972 recording from the Famous Ballroom in Baltimore. Other heavyweights on this outline are tenor saxophonist George Coleman, drummer Bobby Durham and, for three tracks, ...

New York Beat

Smoke Celebrates 10th Annual Coltrane Festival with George Coleman / Eric Alexander Quintet

Read "Smoke Celebrates 10th Annual Coltrane Festival with George Coleman / Eric Alexander Quintet" reviewed by Nick Catalano

Four months after opening their new expanded room, Smoke Jazz & Supper Club co-owners Paul Stache and wife Molly Sparrow Johnson reinstituted their annual Coltrane festival with a show dubbed “Countdown 2023." Fittingly, the festival opening featured 87 year-old tenor legend and frequent headliner George Coleman together with saxophonist Eric Alexander and drummer Joe Farnsworth--members of the One For All group that helped establish Smoke as the iconic club that it has become. Originally opened in 1999, Smoke, ...

Building a Jazz Library

George Coleman: An Alternative Top Ten Albums

Read "George Coleman: An Alternative Top Ten Albums" reviewed by Chris May

Born in Memphis, Tennessee, saxophonist George Coleman cut his teeth in local rhythm and blues bands and made his first recording, aged twenty, with B.B. King in 1955. That year he switched from alto to tenor, because King already had an alto player; but Coleman has continued to play the alto from time to time and, on a few occasions, the soprano, too. By 1957, after being spotted and recruited by drummer Max Roach, Coleman had arrived in New York ...


George Coleman: The Quiet Giant

Read "George Coleman: The Quiet Giant" reviewed by R.J. DeLuke

This interview was first published at All About Jazz on March 13, 2004. 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 ...

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Chris Pitts
saxophone, tenor
Warren Keller




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