“I Don’t Have Any Regrets”: A Conversation With George Coleman

The jazz titan looks back on his storied career and a newly released archival live recording from 1971.

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George Coleman in the late 1960s. Credit: Francis Wolff/Mosaic Images. 

Almost 50 years ago, the tenor saxophonist George Coleman held court at a Sunday concert produced by the Left Bank Jazz Society, a noted organization promoting live jazz in Baltimore. He led an estimable quintet including trumpeter Danny Moore, pianist Albert Dailey, bassist Larry Ridley and drummer Harold White through a scorching bop-rooted set. The program featured a handful of chestnuts such as George Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm,” Clifford Brown’s “Joy Spring” and John Lewis’ “Afternoon in Paris,” and on each extended exploration, Coleman exhibited the rhythmic agility, harmonic resourcefulness and improvisational inventiveness of a jazz veteran.

Vernon Welsh, a co-founder of the Left Bank Jazz Society, recorded Coleman’s 1971 appearance, and only now has it been released by Cellar Live/Reel to Real as The George Coleman Quintet in Baltimore. When presented the recordings a half-century later, Coleman was pleasantly surprised by his performance but didn’t recall much else from it besides the band’s personnel and the venue. Why the lack of specificity? Probably because he’s spent his entire career as a mighty journeyman, playing myriad international dates with a legion of jazz greats too numerous to mention. Today he maintains an active recording career, with recent output including inspired discs for the Smoke Sessions label and a collaboration with the bassist and singer Brandi Disterheft.

Coleman was only 36 when he performed at the Left Bank Jazz Society’s favored venue, the Famous Ballroom. And even though he’d accumulated tremendous experience playing with such jazz luminaries as drummers Elvin Jones and Max Roach and trumpeters Chet Baker, Lee Morgan and, most notably, Miles Davis, Coleman didn’t release an album as a leader or co-leader until six years later.

A year before Coleman’s date in Baltimore, his former boss Davis had released Bitches Brew, a monumental double-LP that galvanized the jazz community and sparked a tsunami of electric jazz fusion. During this period Coleman remained a bebop torchbearer who resisted fusion’s allure. “I looked at jazz fusion as a commercial commodity,” he explains. “The so-called fusion was just a long, drawn-out chord and maybe just a simple beat; that’s what I thought. It was one step away from rock ’n’ roll, and it didn’t reflect any portion of the R&B that I grew up with. It was something like avant-garde jazz — something that people would try to skate through in playing the music. They would always try to get around from playing bebop, because it was a complex music. I also felt like bebop was the true jazz; it required a lot of mental aptitude, a lot of musical skill — and it was a challenge. Bebop offered a challenge for me; jazz fusion didn’t. So I didn’t do it.

“Had I did, I may have been higher regarded as a performer. I always felt like I was at the back of the sheep,” he continues. “A lot of fans always supported me, but the jazz media always tended to be distant regarding my music. But I accepted it. And here I am now at 85. I don’t have any regrets. I’ve done pretty good up to this point. I haven’t starved; I haven’t been thrown out into the streets. I’ve always been able to make a living. Not like some other people who get $50,000 or $100,000 for a concert. But I’m happy the way things have turned out for me.”

Coleman gigs at the 2019 Charlie Parker Jazz Festival in New York. Credit: Jack Vartoogian/Getty Images.

What were your first reactions when you heard the recordings of that 1971 set at the Left Bank Jazz Society?

I was somewhat surprised that my performance was as good as it was. I must’ve had a pretty good [saxophone] reed that day. Things came out pretty good. I missed a few notes, of course. I know the notes that I missed. But if I can get maybe 75 to 80 percent out of what I intended to play, then it’s OK. Once in the blue moon I might reach 90 percent of what I want out of my playing, in terms of sound, execution and ideas. It doesn’t happen too often. I’m my worst critic.

You performed regularly for the Left Bank Jazz Society. Why did you like that organization and place so much?

The audiences at the Left Bank Jazz Society liked us. I’d played there with several other people too. They had recorded us with Jimmy Cobb and Wynton Kelly. There were a lot of people who came out to the Left Bank on Sundays. The sets were always on Sundays. What was really inspiring was the amount of Black people that would come out to catch the jazz shows. That’s what I remember most about the Left Bank.

Vernon Welsh was responsible for all those recordings — unauthorized, I might add. But this is the result of some of those recordings. It got into the right hands. [Saxophonist and Reel to Real owner] Cory Weeds is cool. I’ve worked with Cory for a while too. There were a couple of gigs that I’ve played with him. Cory’s a good guy.

Were you taken aback when you found out that you were recorded unauthorized?

No. I didn’t worry about it, because I knew that they had been doing that. Every time we’d perform, they had the tapes on. They do that all over the world. I got recorded on a whole bunch of stuff in Europe. There are videos, audio — all kinds of stuff. Some of it has been released and some people are benefiting from it. Sometimes my people at BMI hunt those recordings down, and then BMI sends me a little money. But at my age now, things like that I can’t worry too much about. I’m 85 now, so I don’t worry about little things like that. I just try to keep moving.

Talk about growing up in Memphis, which produced a lot of other great jazz musicians — trumpeter Booker Little, pianists Harold Mabern and Phineas Newborn, and saxophonists Charles Lloyd and Hank Crawford.

Well, I grew up there playing and listening to R&B. I played with B.B. King, Bobby Blue Bland, Little Junior Parker, Memphis Slim — all of those are real country-blues guys. I also played with Howlin’ Wolf and Clarence Gatemouth Brown. I played with Louis Jordan when he came through Memphis.

But during the course of coming up through R&B in Memphis, I was learning jazz. Jazz was my specialty, and that was what I wanted to play because I was listening to Charlie Parker, Sonny Stitt and all the other great jazz saxophone players. Most of the great jazz players were spawned from R&B bands. John Coltrane and Clifford Brown played in R&B bands. We all had a little taste of R&B, which was good for us.

You started recording as a leader later in your career. Your first album, Meditation [a.k.a. Dynamic Duo], an LP with pianist Tete Montoliu, didn’t come out until 1977. What took so long?

Well, nobody asked me. Bill Grauer, the guy who ran Riverside Records years ago, he heard me out in California when I was playing with Miles Davis. He said, “When you come back to New York, I want to record you.” But before I got back in New York, he passed away.

Then I never was that interested in recording a solo album, because I never felt like I was really up to par. I always felt like I needed to get a little bit more under my belt before I really put something down.

And nobody was really offering any kind of compensation either. The jazz guys who were recording during those days were doing it for like $200 or $300 dollars for an album. If someone had called and said that they would give me between $1,000 and $3,000 and would pay for the band, I might have recorded earlier. But nobody was saying that.

Eventually the jazz world came around to your greatness. In 2015, you were inducted into the National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters Fellowship. What were your thoughts when you received the news?

Well, a lot of my longtime friends and contemporaries said that it was a long time coming. They said, “You should have had it 30 years ago.” They were people I respected, like Jimmy Heath, Lou Donaldson and a lot of other notables.

It was an honor to receive. But if I could have given it to the people whom I thought were worthy of it, it would be someone like Harold Mabern. He should have gotten it before he passed away. There are a lot of other people who really deserved a NEA Jazz Masters award who didn’t get it. And there are a lot of other people who got it who were non-musicians, and they were getting the grant money too. … That’s when I got a little pissed, because Harold should have gotten one of those awards.

Covid-19 has put a lot of live jazz performance to a halt. We’re just now seeing a glimmer of light in terms of a vaccine. Share some of your reflections of 2020.

At my age now, I don’t worry about a lot of things too much. The Jazz Standard closed down. [Ed. note: The club has announced that it plans to relocate.] It was one of my favorite clubs, and they paid well too. The Jazz Standard always had a great crowd. When I played there, I’d always invite the younger musicians on Sunday nights to play with me.

The good news is that the current U.S. political mess is being eradicated. So that makes me feel good. Of course, I’ve found out that I don’t like to discuss politics with even my best friends, because sometimes there are conflicts. But I feel good about Joe Biden being elected president.

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