George Coleman and I only have 15 minutes to talk. I’m initially worried—how does one extract over half a century’s worth of jazz and wisdom from a conversation that’s shorter than most power naps?—but the self-taught saxophonist speaks with a gentle drawl that’s somehow calming and invigorating at the same time. In anticipation of Coleman’s and Harold Mabern’s public conversation on Friday, April 17 and a concert with Harvard Jazz Band on Saturday, April 18, we discussed lessons learned and advice given. Below is an edited excerpt of our conversation.
What’s the single most important musical lesson you’ve learned during your career?
I’ve learned to be tolerant, and I’ve learned to be generous. I’m 80 years old now, and I don’t want to be harboring any animosity. And that helps me with teaching and expression, especially with students from all over the world. I feel like whenever I get on the stand and people respond and have a good time listening to the music, it has a positive effect on me and reminds me to keep giving. Every time I tell myself I’m going to stop or retire, I see people when they come in from different areas of the world, and they ask me, “Can I have an autograph?” These things are good for me, remind me of my purpose.
Name a few mentors who really helped you shape your “hard bop” style.
Most of the people who helped me during the beginning of my career are back in Memphis. I was 17 when I first picked up the horn, and I had people there who gave me as much information about jazz and music as I could’ve obtained studying formally at an institution, which I never did. All my stuff I got through others who came from all walks of life, from different eras – some of them were older, some of them were people who had a much more modern approach. Ray Charles came to the city one time in Memphis, and needed some arrangements for his songs which I had been listening to; jukeboxes they used to call them. You’ve probably never even heard of a jukebox, but you’d put a nickel in and you’d be able to listen to whatever you wanted. And I listened to Louie Jordan, B.B. King, Elvis Presley, Charlie Parker, Dizzy [Gillespie] all the time.
Do you have any advice for aspiring jazz artists who are students now or tips that would have helped you when you were just starting out?
The thing is, when it comes to this music of jazz, it’s just a lot of hard work and practice. So that’s what you’ve got to do. You’ve got to have a little bit of talent – or maybe a lot of talent – but you have to cultivate that talent, whatever instrument you’re playing. Be thinking about it all the time, whether you’re riding the subway or watching a movie and listening to the music. Say, “Oh wow, that was a diminished chord, or, that was a dominant seventh.” All these little elements that seem trivial tend to help you. Think music at all times.
What do you hope that Harvard students are getting from your residency with the jazz program at Harvard?
Well, I don’t know. It’s like jazz: We’ll just have to see. Whatever they’re interested in. I’ll try to give them as much insight as I possibly can. A lot can be accomplished in a short time.
A public conversation with George Coleman and Harold Mabern, moderated by Harvard professor Ingrid Monson, will be held 4 p.m. Friday, April 17 at the Barker Center’s Thompson Room. Admission is free and open to the public. Coleman and Mabern, hosted by WGBH journalist and Memphis native Callie Crossley, will perform with the Harvard Jazz Band in Memphis Jazz Giants, 8 p.m. Saturday, April 18 at Sanders Theater. Tickets for the performance are $15 general admission/$8 students and seniors, available at the Harvard Box Office.