Steve Coleman began playing music just days before his 14th birthday as a freshman at South Shore High School on the south side of Chicago. His first instrument was violin but later that year he switched to the alto saxophone. Looking for the best improvising musicians to listen to is what brought Steve to the music of Charlie Parker, although it helped that his father listened to Parker all the time. After spending two years at Wesleyan University, Steve transferred to Roosevelt University in downtown Chicago in order to concentrate on Chicago's musical nightlife. By the time he left Chicago in 1978, he was holding down a decent gig leading a band at the New Apartment Lounge, writing music, playing Parker classics, and getting increasingly dissatisfied with what he felt was a creative dead end in the Chicago scene.
After hearing groups from New York led by masters like Max Roach, Art Blakey, Woody Shaw, The Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra, Sonny Rollins, etc. come through Chicago with bands that featured great players with advanced musical conceptions, Steve knew where he wanted to go next. Hitchhiking to New York, he scuffled until he picked up a gig with the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Big Band, which led to stints with the Sam Rivers Big Band, Cecil Taylor's Big Band, and others. Soon he began cutting records as a sideman with those leaders as well as pivotal figures like David Murray, Doug Hammond, Dave Holland, Mike Brecker, and Abbey Lincoln. The most important influences on his music at this time were listening to tenor saxophonist Von Freeman (who primarily influenced Coleman as an improviser), saxophonist Sam Rivers (who influenced Steve compositionally), and drummer/composer Doug Hammond (who was especially important in Steve's conceptual thinking).
Even playing with these masters only went part of the way toward paying the rent, and so for the next four years Coleman spent a good deal of time playing in New York City's streets for small amounts of money with a street band that he put together with trumpeter Graham Haynes, the group that would evolve into the ensemble Steve Coleman and Five Elements. Within a short time the group began finding a niche in tiny, out-of-the-way clubs in Harlem and Brooklyn where they continued to hone their developing concept of improvisation within nested looping structures. These ideas were based on ideas about how to create music from one's experiences – this became the foundation which Coleman and friends call the M-Base concept.
After reaching an agreement with the West German JMT label in 1985, Steve and his colleagues got their chance to document their emergent ideas on three early Coleman-led recordings Motherland Pulse, On The Edge Of Tomorrow, and World Expansion. As his ideas grew, he developed computer software modules which he referred to as The Improviser which was able to spontaneously develop improvisations, harmonic structures, and drum rhythms using artificial intelligence. It was also during this time that Coleman came into contact with the study of the philosophy of ancient cultures. This began in the late 1970s with his listening to music from West Africa and studying about the African Diaspora, but in the 1980s Steve began to study and read about the ideas behind the music. He began to see that there was a sensibility that connected what he was interested in today with the ancient cultures of the past.
1995 was an important year for Steve. In an effort to follow the development of certain philosophical and spiritual ideas obtained by studying ancient cultures (primarily ancient Egypt) and following up on the 1993-94 research trip to Ghana, Africa, Steve wanted to meet and collaborate in a creative way with musicians who were involved in certain ancient philosophical/musical traditions which come out of West Africa.
In 1996 Steve rented a large house in Havana and along with a group of 10 musicians and dancers, a three person film crew and the group AfroCuba de Matanzas - the collaboration was started. For 12 days the two groups hung out together, worked, practiced, and conceptualized in order to realize their goal. After their performance at the Havana Jazz Festival the musicians went into the Egrem Studios in Havana and recorded the collaboration. The results of this effort are preserved on a recording made for the BMG France recording company called The Sign and The Seal by Steve Coleman and The Mystic Rhythm Society in collaboration with AfroCuba de Matanzas.
Although this project went well, Coleman viewed the results as he did every other project he has been involved in, as a step along a certain path. It did demonstrate another step in the evolution of his music, but it is being on the path that is important to Steve. The combined group of Steve Coleman and The Mystic Rhythm Society in collaboration with AfroCuba de Matanzas did a major tour of Europe in 1997. That year also saw Steve form a big band called Steve Coleman and The Council of Balance. This group recorded Genesis which was released as part of the two CD set released by BMG France called Genesis and The Opening of The Way. Much of the important segments of this activity from January 1996 on have been preserved in the form of a documentary film shot by Eve-Marie Breglia based on Steve's music and the theme of cultural transference tentatively entitled Elements on One.
Winner of the 2010 ASCAP/CMA Award for Adventurous Programming, The Jazz Gallery is a nonprofit organization that nurtures the youngest generation of professional jazz musicians by giving them an audience for their performances and a stage upon which to assemble their bands. The Gallery is open 3 to 5 nights per week, 50 weeks per year, and produces more than 150 events per year.