When tenor saxophone player George Coleman, who will be inducted into the new Memphis Music Hall of Fame this week, describes his career, he uses words like "overlooked," "ignored," and "forgotten." But he speaks them without the faintest hint of bitterness or regret.
Ironically, Coleman, one of the great hard-bop tenor saxophone players, knows he was out of time, carrying on the traditions of Charlie Parker while all around him the young lions of free jazz were following the lead of another Coleman: Ornette. George Coleman may have been forgotten by the jazz critics, but his skills were noticed and prized by players such as John Coltrane, B.B. King, Chet Baker, Miles Davis, and Max Roach. That, he says, is what matters.
Memphis Flyer: You are one of a long list of great jazz players who graduated from Manassas High. What did that school have that was so special?
George Coleman: We had some very good music teachers there. Professor W.T. McDaniel [also an initial Memphis Music Hall of Fame inductee] was a good high school instructor. After that, it's Matt Garrick, the father of Dee Dee Bridgewater. Jimmie Lunceford [another inductee] started the program. I didn't know Jimmie though. I didn't know until much later that he had even been a part of that program. The instructors were good. Emerson Able taught there for a while too.
Can you name some of the musicians who you went to school with there?
Harold Mabern, Frank Strozier, and Hank Crawford were all there.
Were you all playing together as students?
Kind of but not really, because I was on the football team and was playing football all the time. I was an athlete. Or I professed to be an athlete. It wasn't until later that I really began to get serious about playing music. When I graduated, I went straight to playing the saxophone. Booker Little and I hooked up. He was such a talent. Then I went downtown to Mitchell's Hotel on the corner of Hernando and Beale. It was quite famous because a lot of musicians would come from out of town and stay there. And they would jam with us. People like Ernie Wilkins, who was arranging for Count Basie and was in Basie's band, and the Turrentine brothers, Tommy and Stanley.
And you guys were playing jazz, not blues?
There was a humorous story about Sunbeam Mitchell. He'd always say, "Goddamn, y'all need to play some blues for the people." And we would.
What was life like at the Mitchell Hotel?
We weren't making much money. But I stayed at the hotel, and we played every night. We played seven nights a week in that place. So I'd just come out of my little room.
I was still a kid. I'd go out during the day and shoot some pool or play some touch football. After that, I'd come back and practice a little. I kept my horn out on the bed all the time. I hardly ever put it up in the case. Except when I went to sleep. Then early the next morning I'd take it out and put it on the bed and there it would be until the gig that night.
In 1955, you go on tour with B.B. King. But even then it's not all blues and R&B. What were the shows like?
The shows were very hip. We'd go on and play some jazz tunes written by Onzie Horne. Really nice stuff. We had a male singer named Harold Collins who sang ballads like "Happiness Is a Thing Called Joe," and we had a female singer. And we had a female sax player, Evelyn Young. Two trumpets, an alto sax, a tenor, a baritone, and B.B. playing guitar. We'd be out there on the road, and we'd meet so many other great players who were also touring. Louis Jordan was on the road, and Sarah Vaughn was in a package with us. We had a good blues book, but Onzie Horne was writing the hip jazz.
You played alto sax until your first road gig with B.B., right?
Yes. He bought me a tenor at this place in Houston. Of course, I had to pay him off.
When did you transition from being a jazz player playing R&B gigs to being more of a full-time jazz player?
Chicago changed things a lot. Mabern and Frank Strozier came before me. We hooked up and had a really good family-like thing going. We played the Blue Note, the famous club, with the Walter Perkins Group. We had Paul Serrano on trumpet. Bob Cranshaw on bass. Chicago was like a 24-hour jazz thing.
This is when you hook up with Max Roach?
He came through, and he liked the way I played. He liked me and Booker Little too, but I was the first to go.
Booker Little — also a Manassas student — died young but still accomplished quite a bit.
Booker was gifted. A real phenom. He put guys like Wynton Marsalis to shame.
In your long career, can you pinpoint any one moment that, in your mind, might be described as a high point?
I recorded with Chet Baker after I left Miles [Davis]. We went into the studio and all five albums we recorded in maybe two sessions. There are 30 tunes on those five albums. I'd never played with Chet live, this was all in the studio. And we never practiced. We didn't have time to practice. Charts were laid out on the stand, and we'd go in each day, take the charts, run them down, and record. And Chet, of course, he had a problem with drugs. So he could only record so long, and he'd have to go out and get something.
Working like that, did you realize how good those sessions were at the time?
I wasn't too much aware of the value until later when people would come to me and say, "Hey, so you played with Chet, huh?" And I'd tell 'em I never played with Chet. Not on a gig, anyway. I just recorded with him. But it was really rewarding. And he could really play.
And you were used to working like that because Miles wasn't much for rehearsal either, right?
No, we didn't rehearse much. Even when we were a sextet, I think we maybe rehearsed once. Frank Strozier, myself, Mabern. Maybe we rehearsed twice. But for the rest, charts were put on the stand and we'd play them, Miles and I.
Are you able to get enough distance to see the role you played during this explosive time in jazz history?
I was basically ignored, and in a sense I still am. Maybe it's because I left the [Miles Davis] band. But I had no choice. I had a lot of animosity from the other members. Not Miles.
But, you know, a lot of cats would come into the clubs and think I was Miles Davis. Because he wouldn't be there. He would take off. And that was understandable at the time, because he had a bad hip problem and was always in pain. That would leave me standing out front playing. Ron Carter and Herbie Hancock were always trying to be ultra-hip. They were the young lions, and I was the old-fashioned bebop player.
I always tell this story, but one night Miles kicked off — I don't remember what — but he went down to the bar to have his nightly bottle of champagne, and I just played the wildest shit you can imagine. It wasn't exactly Ornette Coleman because it was swinging, and I was still picking my notes, but everybody's up there going, "Yeah!"
After that, I didn't play that no more. I just wanted to show them, and they were astonished because they didn't think I could play that style. But I grew up in Memphis where these guys who didn't know how to play was playing like that. But it wasn't avant-garde then, it was just guys who couldn't play.
Throughout your career you've grown and changed but never abandoned your bebop roots.
That's the way I play. And people know me for playing that kind of style.
Memphis Music Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony
Cannon Center for the Performing Arts Thursday, November 29th, 7 p.m. Tickets are $100, $50, or $30. memphismusichalloffame.com