George Coleman at Dizzy’s on a Weeknight

Tenor Saxophone

George Coleman took the stage at 10. Elderly, tottering to the bandstand. He should have had a cane. Black elastic-waist athletic pants, eyes a little vague. He struggled to step up, so inept, so clearly weak in the legs that he seemed in real danger of falling.

I was at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola with my husband, only two tables away from the stage, a last-minute escape for his birthday that seemed to be panning out better than ever. We’ve never had a bad night at Dizzy’s, where we can sit at a table alongside a few dozen other more or less civilized adults, and musical scholarship somehow comes together with brilliant musicianship without putting our heads in a vice. The drinks and the jazz float us over Columbus Circle and the south end of Central Park, in view of the city’s prettiest late-night fairy-lights. Tonight’s band, the Joe Farnsworth Primetime Quartet, was no exception.

Farnsworth, the drum master, had spotted Coleman in the audience, and urged him up to the stage. The regular sax man, a lean collegiate looking guy with a squint, stood adjusting his mouthpiece as Coleman approached. He finally looked up, squinted an assessment of Coleman’s difficulties, and hauled the old man up to the bandstand by the back of his collar. Both seemed completely comfortable with the proceedings–no gesture of thanks from Coleman, no smile of comfort from the sax man. It was all about getting Coleman up there where he belonged–onstage–and getting on with what it was all about: the music.

The sax man hung his horn around Coleman’s neck, whispered in his ear with a gesture at the instrument, and scooted backstage without another glance. “All about the music” also means that when you get an unexpected break from two shows in a row at 10 pm, you scoot. You take your moment alone with your cigarette, or your Jack-and-coke, or your mineral water.

George Coleman may be best-known for playing with Miles Davis, most notably on albums and in concert with Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams in the 1960‘s. He’s also known for leaving Miles Davis. The stories surrounding that episode, partly blaming Davis’s health, but also suggesting a clash of egos among the other greats in the quintet, could make up an HBO miniseries, if jazz was considered as screenworthy as cooking crank or ersatz-medieval feudalism. But defining Coleman’s long and broad career by those dramatic years would be unfair. He is known more significantly for powerful musicianship, emerging out of Charlie Parker’s bebop legacy, flavored by the Memphis blues of his upbringing, and forged in decades of recording, touring, and pushing musical boundaries. He is also admired for his generous spirit, bringing his insight to the next generation of jazz musicians in countless workshops, demos, and teaching positions with New York University and Long Island University, among others.

He retired, more or less officially, in 2003 after recording 4 Generations of Miles, a live tribute album to Miles Davis. He steps out from time to time. Tonight, March 12, is one of those nights. It happens to be only a few days after Coleman’s birthday, and the guest appearance could very well be part of an impromptu celebration. He’s just turned 79. His health seems to hang in the balance as precariously as Miles Davis’s did during Coleman’s stint with him in the 1960s. Tonight also happens to be the anniversary of the death of Coleman’s childhood idol, Charlie Parker, who passed away when Coleman was only 20 and in the heat of his young musical development.

The headliners tonight play bebop-style, lightning-fast jazz, original compositions and extended riffs on the classics. They are heavy hitters. Harold Mabern, on piano, is a jazz maverick with a legend of his own. He’s descended from high enough in the jazz heavens that sorcerer-drummer and bandleader Joe Farnsworth, who can seemingly conjure four hands while keeping a beat faster than rain, calls him “professor.” Saxophonist Eric Alexander, Mabern’s protégé, is a rising star who plays like quicksilver runs away from a burst thermometer. Into this dazzling firestorm steps–or totters–George Coleman.

Two loud French guys sit at the table behind my husband and me. Not kidding–one of these guys is actually wearing a boat-necked striped shirt. The headliners’ brilliance has not once fazed them into shutting up, but even their tongues seem to seize as Coleman begins. The whole room appears to ease back, catch on the upbeat of a breath. Coleman backs away for a moment as well, seeking the support of the piano at his back, then comes forward again, hefts the borrowed sax, puts it to his lips without fussing at the mouthpiece. Blows a time or two, a veteran clearing his throat. Finding his center.

Mabern leads him into a standard classic. It’s like a dollop of something old-fashioned and sweet, after the nouveau pizzazz of the first set. Smattering of applause. Then Coleman lights up, and a whole different being emerges on the bandstand. His white pouf of hair becomes a blinding halo, his swaying gait becomes a swing. He goes to work with a full-on wail. Is this even the same instruments that Alexander was blowing? Instead of quicksilver, this is slow-forged gold. Instead of lightning and crackling cloud-thunder, this is oceanic. The song of jazz’s cathedral.

George Coleman plays two long jams with Joe Farnsworth’s quartet, pouring out an abundance of vintage-bottled jazz that opens up as it breathes, offering mellow fruits and surprising new notes. His genius has clearly not stopped forming, even in semi-retirement. Toward the end of his brief set, he seems to catch a few extra breaths in between notes, but this is his only sign of weariness. He pushes out soaring tones not meant for the tenor saxophone as he builds to the end. It’s got to be Charlie Parker inhabiting the instrument for that last moment, offering Coleman his benediction. Saying something like, “I guess I’m not all dead.”

Ten years ago, just before his retirement, George Coleman said, “I know jazz is alive and well and will always be. It’s a very special music. It’s for special people. People who have hip-hop minds and hip-hop ears and rap ears, they aren’t suitable to listen to this music. They don’t even deserve to listen to it. They don’t. The people who are interested in great music, nice sounding music, and creative, slow ballads and up-tempo and waltzes. Jazz covers all of those facets. There’s some kind of jazz that everybody can appreciate.” (George Coleman: This Gentleman Can PLAY, by R.J. DeLuke. All About Jazz, March 13, 2004.)

If George Coleman’s ambrosial moment tonight is about purism, this roomful of listeners doesn’t mind. If there are “hip-hop rap ears” tuned in tonight, they’re traitors to their school. Because as Coleman ends on a long, impossibly high note, we’re all right there with him. As Eric Alexander steps up to retrieve his horn, we’re all awash in ambrosia, applauding and hooting and stomping our feet.

The applause dies down eventually, and Alexander puts the sax back around his own neck. Squints at the mouthpiece, commences fiddling with it again. Quicksilver can be a bitch to channel. Coleman steps out of centerstage. A half-minute later, we realize he’s still hovering there, trying to negotiate the knee-bending trick of stepping down. Instinctively I reach across our table toward him, as I once did to help my own father.

But my husband is quicker. He’s up and around to the edge of the bandstand before I’ve formed the actual intention, lending George Coleman a hand. Someone has reminded my husband that today is the anniversary of Charlie Parker’s death, but he doesn’t know that Parker was Coleman’s childhood idol, or that the two are mystically connected by Coleman’s birthday being so close to the anniversary of Parker’s passing.

We came to Dizzy’s tonight for my husband’s birthday. He’s an amateur guitarist, not in any kind of mystical line of descent from Miles Davis or Charlie Parker. But as he offers his arm to an elderly legend and guides him to a seat, we both feel we’ve stumbled into a moment of human and musical grace.


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