Legendary jazz saxophonist, George Coleman, visited the Aaron Copland School of Music (ACSM) at Queens College this past month to lead a masterclass for the graduate jazz program. Students from other universities attended the event, including those from New York University (NYU), the City College of New York (CCNY), and even the Prince Claus Conservatoire in Holland. The ensemble that accompanied Master Coleman consisted of graduate pianist Yu-Chen Tseng, graduate drummer Dexter Stanley Tauvao, and graduate bassist Mason O’Donnell.
With his robust and hardy color on the saxophone, Coleman has infatuated audiences for decades. He received the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Jazz Master Fellowship in 2015, the highest honor bestowed upon American jazz musicians. At the height of his career in the 1950s and 60s, he collaborated with a plethora of the best minds in jazz, including Miles Davis, B.B. King, Ray Charles, Herbie Hancock, and Charles Mingus. Now at age 88, it’s indisputable that the language and culture of jazz still runs through his veins.
Having performed in the old-school jazz scene, Coleman places a great value on being able to keep up with the ensemble by relying on aural and theoretical skills. Graduate jazz drummer, Dexter Stanley Tauvao, attests that, “Master Coleman is the most direct teacher I’ve witnessed. He would play a melody and expect you to have it within one or two tries, but then he would modulate that same line into a new key and expect you to do so as quickly as he did. That’s how he learned on the bandstand, and I appreciate that he expected us to be able to learn at a professional level like that too.”
While jazz has always and will always maintain an essential insistence on ear training, it’s clear that Master Coleman has a certain standard that he holds his mentees to. He reminisces on past recording processes, explaining that, “All the stuff you hear on the records, we didn’t rehearse that. That was spontaneous.” He further elaborates on the impromptu nature of performing as one of the most famed jazz musicians of his time, commenting that, “A lot of people say ‘oh man you must have rehearsed that a lot’, we didn’t. That was right off the top.”
Being able to improvise and keep up with your ensemble aurally is a necessity when it comes to staying afloat in the world of jazz, but being able to do it legitimately and dependably will allow for progress and growth. Upon discussing the erudition of jazz and the experiences you must have as a musician in this field, Professor Antonio Hart shared an anecdote from his early days as a jazz saxophonist. “I was playing at Bradley’s, I was the new kid on the block and Mr. Coleman pulled out a saxophone and said ‘Cherokee in B, let’s go.’ I didn’t kill it, but when he smiled, I was relieved. You have to do that. That’s part of this experience, we call it ‘sharpening your knife’. You go out there, you get your butt kicked, but then you can come home and you practice.”