From blowing the blues with B.B. King in Beale Street clubs and Delta jukes to exploring the outer boundaries of modern jazz with Miles Davis at New York’s Lincoln Center, saxophonist George Coleman has lived several musical lives. And he’s not finished yet. In the seventh decade of his career, Coleman remains an internationally renowned presence in the jazz world.
Born in Memphis to a musical family on March 8, 1935, he got his start at Manassas High School, famed as the city’s jazz high school ever since big band leader Jimmie Lunceford was a gym teacher there leading a band of students in the late 1920s. At 15, after hearing bebop great Charlie Parker, young George picked up an alto sax. He was such a quick learner that, two years later, he’d played with Ray Charles and was on the road with B.B. King, earning a place in blues history with the sax solo on “Woke Up This Morning” (RPM Records, 1953). He returned home to do some more studying and to make a name in the thriving Memphis club scene, rejoining King’s band in 1955, this time exclusively playing the tenor sax that King had given him.
But Coleman was a jazzman at heart, and in 1956 he moved to Chicago, where a jazz scene second only to New York was in full swing.
The City of Big Shoulders was the City of Big-Toned Tenormen, among them two of the best anywhere - Gene Ammons and Johnny Griffin. With his Memphis soul and modern ideas, Coleman fit right in. In 1958, he was playing with a local group called the MJT + 3 when Max Roach, the premier jazz drummer of the time, caught a set and asked Coleman to join his quartet, which included Kenny Dorham on trumpet. It meant relocating to New York City, the world’s jazz capital. Coleman was ready to make the move. He’s been a New Yorker ever since. When Dorham left the Roach band, Coleman’s old Manassas classmate and fellow B.B. King alumnus Booker Little joined. They stayed with Roach for two years, leaving to join trombonist Slide Hampton’s forward-thinking octet, which also included the young Freddie Hubbard.
Jazz was still mainstream popular music back then, and a player of Coleman’s caliber was in high demand. In 1963, he was working with organist Wild Bill Davis when he got the call every young jazz player dreamed of, an invitation from Miles Davis to join his group. Coleman had reached the pinnacle of the jazz world, but it looked a lot like a Manassas High School reunion. Davis’ band at the time was a Memphis outpost featuring pianist Harold Mabern and alto saxophonist Frank Strozier. But along with being known for hiring great musicians, Miles was also known for constantly changing them, and before long, Coleman’s hometown pals were gone and he was part of a new Miles Davis Quintet that included pianist Herbie Hancock, bassist Ron Carter and drummer Tony Williams. That’s the group that played Lincoln Center in February, 1964, and made some of Davis’ finest Columbia LPs, including Seven Steps to Heaven, My Funny Valentine, Four and Miles Davis In Europe.
Coleman left not long after the Lincoln Center concerts, replaced by Wayne Shorter. But he was soon back in the studio with his Davis bandmates Hancock, Williams and Carter, along with Freddie Hubbard, recording Hancock’s groundbreaking 1965 Blue Note LP, Maiden Voyage, which included such future jazz standards as “Dolphin Dance” and the title track, covered more than 20 years later by the jam band Phish.
As if the stint with Davis hadn’t given Coleman a high enough profile, his contributions to Hancock’s highly successful album cemented his place as one of jazz’s top tenor players.
His versatility served him well, and over the next decade, he would work with swing vibraphone pioneer Lionel Hampton, hard-bop trumpeter Lee Morgan, John Coltrane’s drummer Elvin Jones, jazz singer Betty Carter, singer/trumpeter Chet Baker, the great bassist/composer Charles Mingus and a host of other jazz giants. When he wasn’t on the bandstand, he was writing and arranging for other bands.
In 1974 Coleman began focusing on his own groups, leading quartets, quintets and octets. Jazz had gone from being the popular music of adults to being art music, taught in universities and more often presented at theaters and festivals than in two-drink-minimum nightclubs. Coleman made that shift easily and today, although retired from touring, he remains an internationally recognized musician and educator, having taught at New York University, the New School University and Long Island University. He continues performing, usually with his son George Jr., on drums, and has an album scheduled for release in 2013. He’s also appeared in a number of movies and TV shows, onscreen as well as on the soundtracks, including the 1992 science fiction cult film Freejack and the 1996 Whitney Houston/Denzel Washington hit The Preacher’s Wife. Coleman has even appeared on Captain Kangaroo and has done fashion spreads for Ebony and Travel & Leisure.
But it’s his warm, hard-bop tenor, imbued with a deeply Southern blues feeling forged in those Beale clubs more than 60 years ago, that continues to set Coleman apart. He revisited his musical roots most vividly with the 1998 CD Memphis Convention, a gathering of Bluff City jazz masters, including reedmen Bill Mobley and Bill Easley and several generations of pianists, including Coleman’s old Davis bandmate Mabern, James Williams, Donald Brown and Mulgrew Miller.
George Coleman remains living proof that you can take the jazzman out of Memphis, but you can’t take Memphis out of the jazzman. The Mississippi still flows deep through George Coleman’s tenor sax.