Steve Coleman

For the American football player, see Steve Coleman (American football).
Steve Coleman

Steve Coleman in Paris, July 2004
Background information
Born (1956-09-20) September 20, 1956
Origin Chicago, IL, USA
Genres Improvised music, Jazz, Avant-garde M-Base
Occupation(s) saxophonist, composer, improviser
Instruments Saxophone
Labels JMT, Pangaea, Novus, BMG, Label Bleu, Pi Recordings
Associated acts Steve Coleman and Five Elements, M-Base Collective, Strata Institute

Steve Coleman, born September 20, 1956, is an American saxophone player, spontaneous composer, composer and band leader. His music and concepts have been a heavy influence on contemporary jazz.[1]

Background, influences, and activities

External video
Jazz Composer and Saxophonist Steve Coleman, 2014 MacArthur Fellow, MacArthur Foundation[2]


Steve Coleman grew up in the historically black South Side of Chicago, where music was "around all the time", just "part of the community" and "the sound of everything else".[3] As a child, he was "in these little singing groups, imitating the Jackson 5, singing in church or something like that".[3] He started playing alto saxophone at the age of 14. According to Coleman, his father, who he described as "a Charlie Parker nut", urged him in the jazz direction, but Coleman, who had already taken an interest in the playing of James Brown’s altoist, Maceo Parker, had instead joined a funk band.[4] But about three years later he began to study the music of Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane and other masters of bebop and beyond.[3] After spending two years at Illinois Wesleyan University, Coleman transferred to Roosevelt University (Chicago Musical College) in downtown Chicago in order to concentrate on Chicago's musical nightlife. Specifically, Coleman had been introduced to Chicago premier saxophonists Von Freeman, Bunky Green and others from whom he learned. He told: "When I was growing up and playing in Von Freeman's sessions, there were certain things that were important: Your sound, your groove, and how you express yourself. … There was always this criticism for not having a sound, not having a good groove, a lot of criticism on rhythm: This cat can't swing, he has no feel, etc. So, it's … a matter of learning this particular idiom from these masters who came before you. You have to get with what it is they're good at expressing. How to make it feel a certain way, how to blend, how to swing? You get cats talking about floating the rhythm, swinging the rhythm, and all these different terms".[5] - Steve Coleman also was in contact with Sonny Stitt whom he regards as one of the "cats like Sonny Rollins, Coltrane, Bird [Charlie Parker] … on that same level".[5] In addition to Freeman and others, Stitt was Coleman’s connection to the era of great players like Charlie Parker.[5]

New York

In order to open up new opportunities for further developments, Coleman moved to New York in 1978 where he got, among other things, the experience of playing in big bands (in the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra, Slide Hampton's big band, Sam Rivers’ Studio Rivbea Orchestra, briefly in Cecil Taylor's big band, and in several other big bands).[6] He found out that "there is a certain discipline that you get, especially a phrasing thing and learning how to play with large groups of people in a group. That carries over to what you do with a smaller group".[6] Soon he began cutting records as a sideman with well-known figures like David Murray, Doug Hammond, Dave Holland, Mike Brecker and Abbey Lincoln. For the first four years in New York Coleman spent a good deal of time playing in the streets and in tiny clubs with a band that he put together with trumpeter Graham Haynes, the group that would evolve into the ensemble Steve Coleman and Five Elements that would serve as the main ensemble for Coleman's activities. In this group, he developed his concept of improvisation within nested looping structures. Coleman collaborated with other young African-American musicians such as Cassandra Wilson and Greg Osby, and they founded the so-called M-Base movement.


Steve Coleman said that Charlie Parker has been "probably my biggest influence".[6] John Coltrane became a prototype to him too, in terms of his music as well as his approach and his further development. Coleman explained: “Charlie Parker, for me, was a extremely sophisticated blues player. He had a very sophisticated way of expressing the blues. It was like a … ‘space blues’ … very high science. And John Coltrane, for me, carried this more foreword into … I want to use the word “world music” but [not in terms of music from “third world countries”]. … John Coltrane wanted to do a kind of universal music, a music of all the people. And this idea influenced me a lot.”[7] Among the living musicians in Coleman’s early days, Von Freeman influenced him most as an improviser, Sam Rivers influenced him most compositionally, and Doug Hammond was especially important to his conceptual thinking. But many other musicians influenced him too. West African music (from Guinea coast; with its complex interlocked patterns) has been another huge influence on him since the late 1970s. This interest brought him in contact with ways of thinking in traditional non-western cultures which he began to study in the 1980s. Coleman was also inspired by natural things like flight patterns of bees[8] and certainly there was the influence from the African-American popular music Coleman heard in his youth, especially from James Brown.[9] In the course of his career, many more influences have been added.

Recordings and tours

In 1985 Steve Coleman got the chance for his first recording as a leader (released by the German label JMT) and from then on he has recorded extensively (until 2003, since then less frequently). He also had a rather tight touring schedule that included mainly tours through Europe (e.g. averagely about 50 concerts per year in Europe in the time from 1995 to 1999).[10]

Research trips

Coleman regards the music tradition he is coming from as African Diasporan culture with essential African retentions, especially a certain kind of sensibility. He searched for these roots and their connections of contemporary African-American music. For that purpose, he travelled to Ghana at the end of 1993 and came in contact with (among others) the Dagomba (Dagbon) people whose traditional drum music uses very complex polyrhythm and a drum language that allows sophisticated speaking through music (described and recorded by John Miller Chernoff[11]). Thus, Coleman was animated to think about the role of music and the transmission of information in non-western cultures. He wanted to collaborate with musicians who were involved in traditions which come out of West Africa. One of his main interests was the Yoruba tradition (predominantly out of western Nigeria) which is one of the Ancient African Religions underlying Santería (Cuba and Puerto Rico), Vodou (Haiti) and Candomblé (Bahia, Brazil). In Cuba, Coleman found the group Afrocuba de Matanzas who specialized in preserving various styles of rumba as well as all in Cuba persisting African traditions which are mixed together under the general title of Santería (Abakua, Arara, Congo, Yoruba). In 1996 Coleman along with a group of 10 musicians as well as dancers and the group Afrocuba de Matanzas worked together for 12 days, performed at the Havana Jazz Festival, and recorded the CD The Sign and the Seal. In 1997 Coleman took a group of musicians from America and Cuba to Senegal to collaborate and participate in musical and cultural exchanges with the musicians of the local Senegalese group Sing Sing Rhythm. He also led his group Five Elements to the south of India in 1998 to participate in a cultural exchange with different musicians in the Karnatic music tradition.


The French computer-music research centre IRCAM offered Coleman to further develop his ideas in the form of interactive computer software at the IRCAM facilities in Paris with the aid of programmers and IRCAM technology. A concert in June 1999 featuring Coleman’s group interacting with what he calls his Rameses 2000 computer software program was the public result of this commission. However, there are no official recordings of this singular project available.

More research trips, professorship and workshops

In 2000 Steve Coleman withdrew from performing and recording in order to travel extensively to India, Indonesia, Cuba and Brazil and he continued his research as an associate professor at the University of California at Berkeley in the years 2000 to 2002. He has conducted a lot of workshops[12] and he thinks of himself like a West African Griot, like a person that’s “documenting something in music, telling a story and passing information down” (Steve Coleman).[13] Trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson said about Coleman: “He’s a born teacher … he’s absolutely full of information.”[13]



Overlapping Cycles

The rhythms of Coleman's music of the 1990s were described in the literature as "circular and highly complex polymetric patterns which preserve their danceable character of popular funk rhythms despite their internal complexity and asymmetries. … On the scale of things, this is a very intelligent … music, a music which is hipper than any other music has been in a long time, a music which processes manifold stylistically experiences without abandoning its African American identity."[14] These rhythms are generated by overlapping rhythmic(-tonal) cycles of various, often “odd” (5, 7, 9 … beats) lengths interlocking like gear wheels in a very complex way.[15] The cycles are so long and their interaction is so complex that they appear unpredictable nevertheless well organized and grooving to the listener.[16] In order to communicate freely and expressively within these textures, the musicians must be able to hear these contrasting rhythms simultaneously[17] and that is challenging.[18] But the multilayered rhythmic-tonal textures heighten the possibilities for improvised interactivity[17] and their “odd” character is effective in the sense of the following statement of drummer Elvin Jones: „Some parts of Latin music are very rigid, as are some aspects of African rhythms. The flexibility comes from the number of people that are playing the rhythm. It is not always synchronized, so that gives it a certain movement that makes it more fluid. When I applied it, I opted for the fluidity rather than the static portion of the rhythms.”[19] Steve Coleman’s overlapping cycles of various, often “odd” lengths provide a very fluid (multilayered) basis for improvisation.

Timbre, structure

Trumpeter Graham Haynes said about Steve Coleman: “He ‘sings’ (on the saxophone) in his way. He’s got his own sound. He’s got a very particular kind of vibrato”.[20] Coleman prefers a subtle expression of timbre and concentrates more on the rhythmic, melodic, structural aspects of music versus timbral considerations using timbral elements as aids for expressing sophisticated rhythm-melodies. He wrote: “I feel strongly that the younger generation that is involved in creative music today are foregoing the detailed rhythmic and melodic developments demonstrated by the older masters (which take an incredible amount of concentration to develop) in favour of more ‘effects’. These trends tend to pendulum back and forth, as each generation reacts to the excesses of the previous generation by moving in the opposite direction.”[21]

Balance, symmetry, change

One of the main principles at work in Coleman’s music is “balance and form”.[22] As an obvious kind of balance, he realizes symmetry through melody, rhythm, tonality, form, harmony and instrumentation. However, he works with these structures from a dynamic point of view, i.e. as they progress through time.[23] The process represented by the change between the various musical structures is a central aspect of his music.[24]

Intellect, intuition, embodiment

Though Coleman’s music is a highly structured, complex, “very intelligent music”[14] it is performed in a spontaneous, groove based way similar to dance and sports. Coleman wrote about these similarities between improvising in music and sports in an essay.[25] Among other things, there he described the art of varying the rhythms in subtle ways and seamlessly flowing from one rhythmic form to the next without any break in the forms as “can be observed in the most forms of dance of the people of the African Diaspora as well as sports like boxing, basketball, football, Capoeira, etc. where there is a smoothness to the shifts of direction that is based on timing”. He mentioned the necessity of a lot of specific preparation: “The various 'paths of possibilities' have been studied, worked out, analyzed and internalized, after which the mind and body have been trained to respond by reflex to the dynamic configurations as they develop in real time. … A finely tuned and constantly adjusting balance needs to be developed where one can respond in reflex to the changing musical conditions. … In the African Diaspora this balancing act is as much about style (i.e. how it is done) as it is about what is being done.”

Tonalities, further development

Already in his first recordings, Coleman’s solos sounded somehow “other-worldly and yet familiar at the same time” due to the use of unconventional tones as “belonging to an alternate tonality”.[26] Since the second half of the 1990s he has used complex sounds based on an expanded, nevertheless not “free” but elaborated[27] tonality in his music. Coleman has constantly developed his music further. In 2009 he said: “What we (he with his band members) work on is the language itself. How things fit together, how to answer. It's just like church. … It's call and response, which has been going on since Africa, since forever. It's just that we have our own call and response patterns."[28]


Coleman has stated that he does not agree with “using categories to describe music today, in particular I don’t use the term Jazz. Preferring a more organic approach to music I use the term Spontaneous Composition.”[24] “I have never considered the music of people like Duke Ellington, Don Byas, Charlie Parker, Art Tatum, John Coltrane, Muhal Richard Abrams, Henry Threadgill – I have never considered this creative tradition ‘Jazz’.”[29]

Inspirations and the music's meaning

Steve Coleman has been described as an indefatigable person who “constantly learns, studies, observes”, searches to “learn from others, from the world, from nature, and to transmit that knowledge, share his discoveries, his quest”, with an “incredible vitality that he generates on the music scene”.[30] – Coleman said: “The main thing that I consciously try to follow is things I find in nature, in universe. Basically I see the universe as sort of giant palette of forms within forms. So there are forms within forms, within forms, within forms … infinitely - apparent forms because these things are really continuums that approach something definable but never quite exactly become that (like an amoeba where there is an approximate shape with things like dropping and changing). … To me the beauty is the interaction of these forms. … I try to imitate that in my music pretty much. In trying to go for that I think a lot of different things from a lot of different perspectives. There is spiritual stuff, dreams, logic, figure-stuff … I use everything at my disposal … wild analogy whatever.”[31] “I listen to music all over the world and everywhere inside of my world … I use all these tools, imagination, feeling, dreams, intellect ….”[7]

Furthermore, Steve Coleman has stated that his main concern is the “use of music as a language of sonic symbols used to express the nature of man's existence. There extends back into ancient times musicians who have attempted to express through music the various visions and realities that they perceive, and for me this is the driving force behind many of the ‘so-called’ innovations in music (and indeed in other fields as well). I feel that the various tools and fields of inquiry that people have used (physics and metaphysics, number, language, music, dance, astronomy, etc.) are all related and present one holistic body of work. The various forms that my music assumes are not only intuitively inspired by but intuitively and logically determined by the human perception of ‘The Great Work’ (i.e. the creation of all Nature by the Universal Mind).

“One of the primary methods that I use to create my music is linked to two concepts: Sacred Geometry (the use of shapes to symbolically express natural principles), and Energy (the potential for change and change itself in physical, metaphysical and psychic phenomena, including Life, Growth, etc.). I use various kinds of musical structures to symbolize the Sacred Geometry and specific kinds of musical movement to reference the various states of Energy. In any event the concept of Change is central to my theory. It is the Change between the various musical structures that represents process, with the structures themselves being symbolic of various principles. I believe that it is through the Spontaneous Composition of forms that these ideas can be most readily expressed, regardless of external stylistic appearances. It is the movement that is important.

“These ideas, although rare, are not new in music. There have been musicians from virtually every culture that have worked in this areas as is documented in the earliest writings on music. Musicians as diverse as Johann Sebastian Bach, Béla Bartók and John Coltrane have stated similar ideas.”[24]


Already at the beginning of the 1990s Clarinettist and composer Don Byron regarded Steve Coleman as an exceptional personality of American music history.[32] In 2010 pianist Vijay Iyer (who was chosen as "Jazz Musician of the Year 2010" by the Jazz Journalists Association) said: “To me, Steve [Coleman] is as important as [John] Coltrane. He has contributed an equal amount to the history of the music. He deserves to be placed in the pantheon of pioneering artists.”[13] "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."[33]

In 2014 drummer Billy Hart said that “Coleman has quietly influenced the whole jazz musical world," and is the "next logical step" after Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, and Ornette Coleman.[34]

In September 2014, Coleman was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship (a.k.a. "Genius Grant") for "refreshing traditional templates to create distinctive and innovative work in ... jazz."[35][36]

Recordings, free downloads

Some older CDs can be downloaded for free from Steve Coleman’s web site. There are also many private concert-recordings distributed among aficionados.


As leader

Steve Coleman and Five Elements, except otherwise noted


As sideman

With Sam Rivers

With Doug Hammond

With Abbey Lincoln

With Dave Holland

With Chico Freeman

With Billy Hart

With the Errol Parker Tentet

With David Murray

With Cassandra Wilson

With Geri Allen

With Michele Rosewoman

With Robin Eubanks

'With Stanley Cowell

With Lonnie Plaxico

With Cindy Blackman

With The Roots

With Ravi Coltrane

With Anthony Tidd’s Quite Sane

Documentary film

The DVD "Elements of One“ by Eve-Marie Breglia shows Steve Coleman and his band in the years from 1996 to 2003 encountering: Von Freeman, Afro-Cuban musicians in Cuba, West-African and Afro-Cuban musicians in Senegal, rappers in the United States, Indian musicians in India, ancient Egyptian philosophy in Egypt, and a computer-music research centre in Paris. The DVD contains the 98 minutes long documentary and additional scenes (60 minutes).


The Dozens: Steve Coleman on Charlie Parker and several other essays can be found on Coleman’s web site.


  1. Allmusic see also "Reception"
  2. "Steve Coleman". MacArthur Fellows Program. MacArthur Foundation. September 17, 2014. Retrieved December 13, 2014.
  3. 1 2 3 Steve Coleman in: Interview conducted by Thomas Stanley, July 11, 1998
  4. Sine Die Liner Notes, hosted at the Coleman's M-Base website.
  5. 1 2 3 Steve Coleman in: Johannes Voelz, Improvisation, Correlation, and Vibration: An Interview with Steve Coleman
  6. 1 2 3 Steve Coleman in: Fred Jung, My Conversation with Steve Coleman, July, 1999
  7. 1 2 Interview, November 14, 2004, Meldola, Italy, Cult-TV
  8. Steve Coleman in: Interview conducted by Nate Chinen, February 11, 1999, for the Philadelphia City Paper
  9. Steve Coleman in: Carina Prange, Steve Coleman - "Philosophy and Balance", 2006
  10. Tour information on Coleman’s Website
  11. John Miller Chernoff, African Rhythm and African Sensibility: Aesthetics and Social Action in African Musical Idioms, 1981; CD: Master Drummers of Dagbon
  12. Tom Greenland, Steve Coleman, January 6, 2011, AllAboutJazz
  13. 1 2 3 Michael J. West, Steve Coleman: Vital Information, June 2010, JazzTimes
  14. 1 2 Musicologist and musician Ekkehard Jost, Sozialgeschichte des Jazz, 2003, p. 377
  15. Drummer Sean Rickman explained: „It’s like a clock where certain wheels go this way, another one goes that way etc.” (DVD-documentary „Elements of One“ by Eve-Marie Breglia). See also: Vijay Iyer, Steve Coleman, M-Base, and Music Collectivism, Part 4. M-Base: Some musical elaborations
  16. Musicologist Martin Pfleiderer, Rhythmus, 2006, p. 284
  17. 1 2 Vijay Iyer, Steve Coleman, M-Base, and Music Collectivism, Part 4. M-Base: Some musical elaborations
  18. Guitarist Nelson Veras said about Coleman’s music: “It’s pretty high music, a kind of music you have to practise a lot because there are a lot of different layers in the music happening at the same time. It’s very easy to get lost, but it’s a very interesting, very personal kind of music.” – Drummer Dafnis Prieto said about Coleman’s music: “It is difficult, very challenging for the musicians to play it. You have to develop certain skills to play. … Of course it’s very complex music.” – both: Interview, November 14, 2004, Meldola, Italy, Cult-TV
  19. Ashley Kahn, A Love Supreme: The Story of John Coltrane’s Signature Album, 2003, p. 101
  20. DVD ‘B’ in Steve Coleman’s Album Weaving Symbolics
  21. Steve Coleman, Timbral Improvisation, The M-Base-blog, August 1, 2007
  22. Interview conducted by Carina Prange, Steve Coleman - "Philosophy and Balance", November 16, 2002
  23. Steve Coleman’s essay Symmetrical Movement Concept
  24. 1 2 3 Steve Coleman’s own contribution to this article
  25. Steve Coleman, The Sweet Science: Floyd Mayweather and Improvised Modalities of Rhythm
  26. Stanford music teacher Rob Kohler, The Other Notes: A Lesson Learned from Steve Coleman at the Stanford Jazz Workshop
  27. e.g. see: Steve Coleman Symmetric Questions, August 3, 2007, The M-Base blog
  28. Andrew Gilbert, Steve Coleman: a master of creative musical improvisation, The Seattle Times, April 3, 2009
  29. Steve Coleman, The ‘Nexus’ of a Musical Language and Jazz, August 4, 2007, The M-BASE blog
  30. Michel Lecomte, Label Bleu, biography see also: Catherine Conway Honig reviews Elements of One, April 2005, scene4magazine
  31. Workshop, April 29, 2004
  32. Christian Broecking, Der Marsalis-Faktor, 1995, p. 120
  33. Larry Blumenfeld, A Saxophonist's Reverberant Sound, June 11, 2010, The Wall Street Journal
  34. Kristin E. Holmes, Genius grant saxman Steve Coleman redefining jazz, October 09, 2014, web portal (Philadelphia Media Network)
  35. 21 Extraordinarily Creative People Who Inspire Us All: Meet the 2014 MacArthur Fellows

External links

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