Steve Colson: Doing Jazz Justice

Gordon Marshall By

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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 and Andrew Cyrille, 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 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, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan.

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's Time Out (Columbia, 1959) and a George Shearing record with Peggy Lee.

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.

AAJ: I can hear that in your music.

SC: Oh, definitely. Then I went out immediately and bought an Art Blakey 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'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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