Here is the Place, Our City: An Exclusive Interview with Adegoke Steve Colson
Newark Arts’ Jarrett Adams spoke with Jazz Musician Steve Colson about his upcoming performance at NJPAC on April 7th, 2017. This article is a sneak peek of more interviews to come in our new E-Newsletter, The Ambassador’s Palette’s spring issue coming soon!
NA: It is my understanding that you and your wife are two of the biggest names in modern jazz, how do you view yourselves as artists on the jazz scene, past, present, and future?
IC: Well, we do think we are really good. But we are not famous in the way that people see fame in popular music. So yes, we are well known as artists, but it’s a funny scene. Some people think of art and entertainment as the same thing. We look at art as something a little bit different than entertainment. We do consider ourselves artists, and some people say jazz – but that’s a loaded word as well. We consider ourselves artists, we do a lot of presentations, but as far as rank I don’t know how we would approach that.
NA: Can you break that down a little further, the aspect of being an artist vs. being an entertainer?
IC: Well we would like to think of ourselves as artists and what we do as entertaining. But some people think of entertainment as the goal. And for us that is part of the process or part of what we hope we are presenting, but we’re not only focused on entertaining.
It’s been a transition. A lot of time in the history books they’ll write about the progression in music and how in the 1920s or so, musicians were more concerned about performing dance music, so that the public could dance and enjoy themselves. When you get to about the 1940s – to what you would call the modern jazz or beat bop era, the musicians were more concerned about their performance, than providing the audience with some kind of dance support. They were more interested in just performing their music, sort of like a concert as opposed to providing dances. Its been a change psychologically, whether you are working to supply fun for the audience, or whether you are trying to pursue a level of art that takes the listener to another realm.
NA: You have roots in Chicago, how did you end up in Newark and working with the Newark Arts Council?
IC: I was born in Newark. I was in and out of Newark until I left for college. My grandparent’s home was in Newark. On Sundays my family, my parents, brothers and sisters we would all come to Newark to attend Bethany Baptist Church. In fact where the church is now, is where my grandparents’ home previously stood. When they passed and the church moved its location from Market Street, they acquired the land where my grandparents home was, and that’s where the church is now.
My wife is from Chicago, so when I left and went to school, I went to Northwestern University in Evanston, and that’s where I met her; we were both in the music school. And when I graduated I stayed in Chicago, and I lived in Chicago altogether for about 16-17 years. So I got very familiar with Chicago, and eventually we decided to move here to Jersey. So I’m back in Essex County, and that’s how I got back into association with different people in and around East Orange and Newark.
NA: Can you break down the Chicago Arts Scene and your transition back the New Jersey? What were some of the differences and similarities?
IC: In Chicago, first of all, it is a major place for the development of art and the development of jazz performance in the United States. And it is still a very big music town – music and arts. It was good for me, because when I had my options to go to college, that was one of my thoughts, that Chicago was one of the big cities and major influences for jazz. That’s what I was interested in, becoming a jazz musician. So I was going to a classical music school because it was an excellent school, but the training at Northwestern was for classical performances like Mozart and Bach and Beethoven. So it was a feeding school for the Chicago symphony orchestra. That was the type of music they presented and the type of music they taught. I was learning jazz on my own, and when I got out of school, I was very fortunate because Chicago is where the AACM began. That’s the Association for Advancement of Creative Musicians. I became familiar with some of its members; they had put out some recordings. When we started playing with Fred Anderson – he’s a great saxophonist in Chicago who was an original member – and my college band started playing with Fred Anderson and his band, I became familiar with members from the AACM. When I moved from Evanston to Chicago, I joined the organization. My wife also joined the organization and from there we have been able to associate with a lot of the great musicians that came out of Chicago in the middle 60s and 70s.
We recorded our first record in 78’ and 79’ and that helped us start traveling internationally. We were actually traveling and doing major shows and jazz festivals all over Europe, before I moved back to New Jersey. That really helped us as far as getting our recognition, and playing to different audiences. We’ve traveled throughout Italy, France, Germany, Holland and Austria quite a bit, and that was great for our musical education to hang out with different musicians and very well known people.
In terms of Newark, I just started performing a lot in and around Newark; the Newark Museum had Jazz in the Garden, and I have performed at Symphony Hall. I’ve worked with Amiri Baraka in his group the Blue Ark, him and Amina Baraka, and performed a lot. Anybody that knows poetry knows Amiri Baraka is one of the great literary minds, and a great poet. So I was very fortunate to work with him. And that helped me get involved with some of the Newark musicians. And also travel in and around this area with someone who is internationally famous. Because Amiri was such a literary person, he did a lot of notes for great people – it was great to be around Amiri, he was a master theorist in terms of politics and social movements. That helped me to become more familiar with people in Newark, to play in and around Newark.
I was also invited several times by Clement Price to the Madhouse and the Marion Thompson Wright Lecture series. Clement Price was a great historian associated with Rutgers University, and he had an annual event, so I was involved with several of those series. I brought my band to perform, so Clement Price and Amiri Baraka helped keep me established in and around this area. The piece I’m doing is dedicated to them, it is called, “Here is the Place, Our City” it is going to premiere on April 7th at 8 p.m., that’s a Friday. The piece is also a dedication to Newark for its 350th year anniversary, but as I’m writing the piece there are really two people that I owe quite a bit to. In fact, Clement Price was the one who forwarded my name to do a piece for Newark’s 350th year, and I am very humbled to have been mentioned in that regard. It was NJPAC that made the official commission.
NA: What’s it like performing in dedication to Amiri Baraka now that he has passed? What does it mean to you?
IC: Well I’ve played with Amiri for over 34 years. We’ve traveled overseas, and in fact we did a big piece when NJPAC first opened. In 1998, we did a singing praise for Dr. King, but it was the first one at NJPAC. Newark had always done the celebration, but I had been commissioned to write a piece that would be premiered for Martin Luther King when NJPAC first opened. I asked Amiri Baraka and Richard Wesley to join me and collaborate with me on the piece – and we actually did an orchestra piece at NJPAC back in 1998. So I’ve played with Amiri for many years. In terms of Newark being 350 years old, hanging out with Amiri I never used to realize that, and Amiri would mention it every once and while and say, “You realize Newark is the 3rd oldest city in America?” You know, I feel humbled that Clement Price suggested my name as far as the 350th celebration, so that’s how I feel about those two individuals. I’ve known them and played with them and they’ve actually helped me for many years since coming back to New Jersey.
NA: My next question is about the music you have done with your wife. Do you guys still collaborate on music? If so, how did you develop your chemistry?
IC: Yes, we collaborate all the time. We put together our record company together back in the late 70s. My wife writes music but she also writes most of the lyrics. If I would write a song, I would give it her and suggest she completes the lyrics. So she has done a lot of the lyrical work for our music, but we also collaborate on actual music together. And she has done several songs of her own. We do that and listen to see what songs will go together, and we’ve put out several records on our own label, called the Silver Sphinx. It’s been great that I have a partner that also has a musical background – if I’m going through any kind of situation, she kind of understands it because we’ve done a lot together. We’ve traveled to a lot of places together, as performers or as educators; we’ve both been involved in education. So that helps as well, because we are able to go back and forth between the performance aspect or the teaching aspect. I’ve given a number of lectures it’s been a great situation for me, not only am I able to write my own music but I have a person who I’m close to, to add words when I need words, or sometimes make the arrangements when we have to travel.
As musicians, we’ve learned that you need to be self reliant, or its good if you have knowledge to be self reliant, because music is one of the easiest things to use where you don’t have to compensate those who created it. It’s different because its intellectual property. But people feel that music should be free. Nowadays with the Internet and the way people download things – they can take a blank CD and rip off the data and pass it on, right now its very difficult for musicians getting paid for their work. My wife and I have been able to meet some of these challenges. And we have gone through difficult situations like anybody else, but we have been able to work independently and self-sufficiently and know a lot about the business because of it. So having my own label and being able to push my own records or make my own deals as far as how my music will be heard – that becomes that important in terms of a career, particularly how things are now.
NA: Throughout your career what has been some of the accomplishments you are most proud of?
IC: Well the things that I am proud of and things that I appreciate has a lot to do with the people I’ve been able to meet. My wife and I have played on some of the biggest jazz festivals in the world, and there are some musicians you meet with a particular kind of circumstance. One thing I really savor was when we were at North Sea Festival and I had a chance to have my name on the same bill with names like Dizzy Gillespie, Art Blakey, Mongo Santamaria, Ray Charles, Tito Puente, Oscar Peterson, just the greatest musicians on the planet. I was actually involved in a conversation with Dizzy Gillespie and Freddie Hubbard when Oscar Peterson walked up and asked if he could join the conversation. That’s pretty much a highlight in my life.
Oscar Peterson is one of the best pianists to ever live, and Dizzy Gillespie and Freddie Hubbard, the same thing in terms of their trumpet playing. So I was standing around with three of the musicians that I admire. And it was hard to wrap my head around the idea that I was standing there talking to them.
But the other thing is my wife and I have managed to start our own record company. We were only in our 20s when we started our record company. I put out a record, this November — it was my solo CD. But we managed to do these things just the two of us. So, I’m kind of proud of those things. I’m proud of the fact that my wife has become the Arts supervisor for the East Orange district at the Cicely Tyson School. So we’ve managed to meet and interact with some very wonderful people. Great artists and musicians, that’s pretty much what does it for me.
Jarrett Adams is the content manager for Newark Arts E-Newsletter “The Ambassador’s Palette” and a graduate of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland. He is heavily involved with art and politics within the City of Newark, where he was born and raised and currently resides.