A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Wikimedia Commons

Wikimedia Commons

Steve Coleman needs no introduction. As one of the most formidable improvisational thinkers of the past few decades, he has left an immeasurable impact on the modern jazz scene today with his incisive perceptions and research into the rhythms of music of the African diaspora, as well as his forward-thinking conceptions of just about every other parameter concerning contemporary improvisors negotiating their relationship to this music known as jazz. Drummer Billy Hart is quoted as saying of Steve:

Steve Coleman’s way of playing is so influential. You’ve got the Wynton Marsalis regime, and the strongest force other than that is Steve Coleman. He’s produced Vijay Iyer. That’s Steve Coleman. I mean we could name anybody, they’re influenced by him. You could name Greg Osby, and there’s Jason Moran. I mean Scott Colley, Marvin “Smitty” Smith, Robin Eubanks, Dave Holland is even influenced by that. As a concept, that’s totally Steve Coleman’s Arguably, Dave Binney is influenced by that as a concept, definitely that’s Steve Coleman. It’s incredible. There’s a group in Belgium called Aka Moon, and they sound like Dave. They all have influenced this whole thing. Danilo Perez, I mean that whole concept is that. Jeff Watts, Branford Marsalis, Ravi Coltrane, that’s all Steve Coleman’s influence as far as I’m concerned. (Being Here, 260)

Steve is one of 25 featured interviewees in Radhika Philip‘s Being Here (2013), a study into creativity and improvisation in the contemporary New York city scene. Many of her interviewees are alumni of The Jazz Gallery, and full list itself is rather remarkable: Andy Bey, Ben Monder, Billy Hart, Bill Frisell, Brian Blade, Butch Morris, Chris Potter, Dafnis Prieto, David Binney, Dave Douglas, Gregoire Maret, Henry Threadgill, Jane Ira Bloom, Jason Moran, Kenny Wollesen, Maria Schneider, Mark Turner, Robert Glasper, Steve Coleman, Thomas Morgan, Vijay Iyer, William Parker. 

In her introduction to Steve’s interview, she mentions that their interview “was longer than any other single interview I have done. Steve spoke for more than four hours without pause…The transcript was one hundred and eighty pages long.” Radhika graciously gave us permission to post some excerpts from this interview, but we recommend the book wholeheartedly for its insights into the minds of many of New York’s most adventurous, innovative improvisor-composers:

Steve Coleman on music:

I think of music as a craft. I don’t think of it so much as art, in the Western sense of the world. I think of it more as a craft that is used for something, like language. Language has a function, and that function is to communicate ideas—vibrations that I have in my brain. Music for me is a language, a tool, and the main purpose that I try to use music for is the expansion of consciousness. The best explanation I ever heard came from a conversation that I had with Sonny Rollins. It was a long conversation, and he told me that for him there were only two kinds of music, that which expands consciousness and that which contracts consciousness, and he said that he wanted to be a part of the tradition that was involved in expanding consciousness. That was the best explanation I ever heard for what I felt I was trying to do. And so I usually steal his explanation, because I haven’t found another way to put it better and more succinctly…

…A guy once asked Coltrane, “Do you think that music can affect the way people think?” And Coltrane was very careful in his answer. He said, “Well, I don’t think of it quite that way.” He said, “I think that music can have some effect, some influence, on the initial thought pattern, and then those thought patterns effect the way people think.” He wasn’t saying that music was something you used to hypnotize somebody to get up and go do something, but that music is vibrations, and that those vibrations can act in a certain way.

Radhika Philip: How is spontaneous composition different from improvisation?

Improvisation is—if I go (hums “Shave and a Haircut, Two Bits”) and I go (hums it again, adding an eighth note in between “two” and “bits”), I’m improvising you know. Improvising comes from the word “improve.” It means to take something, and to do something else with it. Hopefully improve on it. So you can take something, and you make a variation of it. It’s basically the same as variation. It’s not that deep. Composition is where you’re bringing into being another form. It includes for variation, that’s all part of it, it even includes playing things that you’ve memorized and all that, but all of those things become a tool to a higher goal, and the higher goal is to create a new composition.

A last question: Do you consider yourself a jazz musician?

I don’t call my music jazz, I don’t think about things like that. There’s just the sound itself, and of course that sound is based on a long tradition, just like my personality is based on a long tradition. I don’t exist in a vacuum you know. I mean I come from a tradition of people and everything. That’s just the way it is. I could try to ignore it, but that’s the way it is. It was like that before I even started thinking about it. It’s the same thing with music. I mean, there is a tradition of musicians, of music, that my thing is mostly coming out of. It doesn’t mean I can’t listen to other things. I can listen to music made in China, or Indonesia, or anywhere, but that does not stop the fact that my own tradition is what mostly informs my music.

Steve Coleman and Five Elements perform at The Jazz Gallery this Friday and Saturday, March 28th and 29th, 2014. The band features Coleman on alto saxophone, Jonathan Finlayson on trumpet, Miles Okazaki on guitar, Anthony Tidd on bass, and Sean Rickman on drums. Sets are at 9:00 p.m. and 11:00 p.m., $20 general admission ($10 for Members). Purchase tickets here.