This Saxophonist Spends His MacArthur "Genius Grant" on Mentoring Young Jazz Musicians

Steve Coleman
Steve Coleman
Photo by Tracy Collins

When asked about the importance of music to communities like the South Side of Chicago or South Central Los Angeles, alto saxophonist and MacArthur "Genius Grant" recipient Steve Coleman pauses. “We often use words like ‘community,’ but it’s really ‘people,’ and I try to never forget that."

Coleman grew up on Chicago's South Side and was mentored by local saxophone legend Von Freeman. For many years, Freeman played every Tuesday at a small club called the New Apartment Lounge, where a young Steve Coleman first encountered the older master. The impact of Freeman’s mentorship on Coleman, now 59, formed the basis for his own mission to mentor others through extended artistic residencies, like the one he will be undertaking in Los Angeles for three weeks starting tonight (Monday, Nov. 30) at Bluewhale in Little Tokyo.

“In different cities you had people who were inspirations to other people," Coleman says. "In Chicago it was Von Freeman, in Detroit it was Marcus Belgrave. I don’t look at what I’m doing as new, I’m just trying to keep that kind of thing going, to pass it down and be an inspiration to people like others were an inspiration to me.”

Coleman’s efforts have been endorsed and funded in part by the MacArthur Foundation, which in 2014 awarded the saxophonist a fellowship worth $625,000 over five years, allowing for a more robust residency model.

He received his MacArthur fellowship part for his creation of M-Base (short for "Macro-Basic Array of Structured Extemporizations"), a way of thinking about improvised music he first developed in New York in the late '80s alongside saxophonist Greg Osby, pianist Geri Allen, vocalist Cassandra Wilson and others. Coleman continues to teach M-Base techniques and methodologies to younger musicians through various workshops and residencies, and saw his MacArthur fellowship as an opportunity to expand upon them. “For nine years I was doing these workshops at the Jazz Gallery in New York, and I always wanted to try this residency thing further.”

After doing his first extended residencies in Chicago and Philadelphia, Coleman and his band, Five Elements (trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, guitarist Miles Okazaki, bassist Anthony Tidd and drummer Sean Rickman), will set up shop in Los Angeles from Nov. 30 to Dec. 21 and present outreach events throughout Southern California, from the college campuses of UCLA and CalArts, to the World Stage in Leimert Park.

“Some [young people] have never seen people play instruments. I remember when I was very young, I saw the Duke Ellington band, and I didn’t know who they were, but I’ll never forget the impact it had on me. One of the things we try to do is to inject energy into an area, so people will have the inspiration to either continue [playing music] if they are already doing it, or to start doing it if they’re not doing it.”

Coleman also will be performing 19 nights at Bluewhale, supplemented by special guests and local artists. In 2010, not long after the club had opened, Coleman became the first nationally prominent musician to play at Bluewhale, and owner Joon Lee hasn’t forgotten that early vote of confidence.

“We had been trying to put this residency together for years,” says Lee, “and at his last show [in December of last year], Steve called me up to the stage and announced in front of the audience he wanted to do a residency at the end of this year. It kind of felt like he was proposing to me in front of the crowd, and of course I said ‘yes!’”

“Bluewhale is very, very important," Coleman says of Lee’s club. "You need to have places that aren’t afraid to try experimental stuff. New York always had these underground types of places, a lot of experimentation playing in private houses and basements. Coltrane, because his music wasn’t understood very well toward the end, wanted to have a storefront where people could come in and witness them putting together the music. I want to bring some of that activity to the public eye, like open rehearsals at Bluewhale in the daytime, where anyone can attend and ask us questions about how the music is being put together.”

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Coleman can personally attest to the impact of his mentorship on the musicians of the future. “In fact,” he states, “a lot of the people who [took part in previous residencies] either became associated with me or who are in my band now," including Five Elements trumpet player Jonathan Finlayson, who first sat in with Coleman was he was just 13 years old, and pianist (and fellow MacArthur recipient) Vijay Iyer, who was Coleman says was "not even sure he wanted to do music" before an M-Base residency convinced him otherwise.

“People forget everything starts small," Coleman says. "I just want to keep that spirit going, no matter how old I get. I want to stay connected to creativity, with creative people. If that’s happening on the L.A. scene, that’s great. And it is happening.”

Steve Coleman's residency at Bluewhale runs through Dec. 21. For complete show dates, visit bluewhalemusic.com. For more information on the rest of Coleman's L.A. residency, visit m-base.com.


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