Saxophonist Steve Coleman Named MacArthur Fellow

I had trouble rising and shining this morning. NPR was telling me about drone strikes in Iraq and I wasn’t sure of my sense of dread was related to world affairs or the state of the book I’m wrestling with.

But when my wife said, “Hey, Steve Coleman just got a MacArthur!” my eyes popped open.

Yeah…least something’s right.
Having just been named among this year’s recipients of a MacArthur Fellowship—often referred to as a “genius grant”—Coleman, an alto saxophonist, composer and bandleader, earns placement among 21 “exceptionally creative individuals with a track record of achievement and the potential for significant contributions in the future,” according to the MacArthur Foundation press release. He also joins a long line of jazz musicians—from Ornette Coleman to Jason Moran—previously honored. And he gets a stipend of $625,000 with no stipulations or reporting requirements.
I’ve already spilled out much in print and online about Coleman during the past 20 years. I first interviewed him in 1998 through a three-hour conversation that spilled into a 4,000-word piece for Jazziz magazine, of which I was then editor-in-chief. I can’t offer a link to that piece, or to another long Q&A for Jazziz in 2012. But here are links to a Wall Street Journal piece of mine on Coleman from 2010, and another on this blog last year.
I can’t think of a musician I’d more heartily endorse for a MacArthur Fellowship.
Steve Coleman came of age at a moment when the jazz world experienced a disheartening and somewhat disenfranchising schism. The standard bird’s-eye view of New York’s jazz scene in the 1980s and ’90s depicts a mainstream revival of 1960s tradition, a wild and woolly downtown, and nothing in between.After his arrival in New York from Chicago in 1978, Coleman established a third way, a middle way, that has not only sustained his own music through decades as enduringly vital, thrilling and a source of deep cross-cultural and interdisciplinary exploration but has also inspired a large and wide-ranging community of musicians, spanning generations, to forsake conventions and restrictions while finding their own original voices.
Here’s how pianist Vijay Iyer described that impact in an interview for that Wall Street Journal piece:
“It’s hard to overstate Steve’s influence. He’s affected more than one generation, as much as anyone since John Coltrane. It’s not just that you can connect the dots by playing seven or 11 beats. What sits behind his influence is this global perspective on music and life. He has a point of view of what he does and why he does it.”
As for the creativity and inventiveness embodied in Coleman’s work, I can state with confidence that the approach to rhythm that Coleman developed and has taught to scores of musicians is as influential for contemporary musicians as, say, Ornette Coleman’s “harmolodic” concept. Here’s how singer Cassandra Wilson expressed it, for that same article:
“The first song that we wrote together,” recalls Ms. Wilson, “made me realize that I should be writing stuff that actually comes from who I am, and not worry about whether it fits inside a certain expected formula. There was a rhythmic science I didn’t know anything about, so that everybody is clued in to what’s happening with the drums more than the harmonic structure.”
Coleman apprenticed early on with important elders who represent a breadth of jazz approaches: saxophonists Von Freeman and Sam Rivers, among others. His early work straddled the best large ensembles of both mainstream and experimental scenes. He is about as serious a student as I have ever encountered of the legacies of Charlie Parker and John Coltrane, and what he distills from this history is more concerned with artistic intent and aesthetic values than, say, form or technique (although his mastery of those aspects is clear). He has also delved as meaningfully into ritual and symbol systems of other cultures and the natural world in ways that echo the work of, say, pianist Randy Weston.
However, Coleman’s refusal to conform, his rugged independence and, sadly, even his use of electric bass in his bands, have led to a conundrum that might well be affected by a MacArthur grant: While his stature is great among musicians and his musical influence quite obviously looms large, his work has been (as has that of so many true and uncompromising innovators) frequently trivialized within the larger mainstream commercial and nonprofit marketplaces.
And yet this has stifled neither his artistic output nor his growing influence. He was among the earliest and most persistent American musicians to forge bonds with Cuban musicians once the doors to such exchange reopened during the Clinton administration—and in doing so he formed lasting connections and anticipated much jazz to come. He has organized and led workshops at clubs and nonprofit spaces for some 30 years, creating an educational environment that demystifies and makes accessible some very advanced concepts. And he has more directly nurtured the development of at least a dozen musicians that I have subsequently focused my own critical attention toward.
At our first meeting, Coleman told me “”I play a community music.” And he does. His ability to build sturdy communities that engender artistic risk-taking, humanistic values and collaboration echo his jazz heroes and have, in turn, made for an organic flowering of musical creation that simply would not otherwise have happened, and that defies what are often limiting and retrograde ideas about jazz’s relevance and aesthetic future.
It’s tempting for writers like me to call up fellows like Coleman, fresh off the announcement, and ask: What will you do with the money?
I won’t ask Coleman. And I suspect the answer is pretty much what he has been doing all along.
Image: Saxophonist Steve Coleman/© Michael Weintrob

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