Justice (Steve Colson)

The operation was touch and go. My first telephone interview, assigned by All About Jazz, and I had to improvise to get the job done. And yet, that is what makes me a jazz musician as a writer… I had been in email contact with Iqua, pianist Steve Colson’s wife, and I had set up the time and date with her.


And so I called, a weekday evening, and he answered. He has an African name, Adegoke, or “Ade”, and I was inclined to call him “sir”. But I asked him, “Is it all right if I call you Steve?” He said it was fine.


There is a defining moment in his life, going back to 1971. To put this in proper perspective, you will have to understand this was just one year after the Kent State massacre. There were just under a hundred black students at Northwestern University at this time, and Steve and six friends planned the occupation of the Bursar’s office for changes in racial policy. In the process, Steve and his friend Andre went into the undergoing tunnels and mapped them so when the National Guard tried to enter the doors were chained closed. Every black student participated. Colson and four classmates had the chains around them when they came out.


It resulted in the founding of a black dorm for the school, reformed admissions and curriculum, and in the long run was the impetus for the establishment of the African Studies programs across the country, for which the occupiers each became major players and department heads.


In the context of his involvement with The Association for the Advancement of Creative Music (AACM), I introduced this. “You’re going way back!” he responded, in his grand, earthy, dark voice.


The conversation was just as grand, dark and earthy, with a foray back into his childhood and how much he enjoyed playing piano, even then, and how he switched between jazz and classical, just as open to either, though choosing jazz in the long run, when he went to school.


The balance of freedom and order in his work is like a light- and dark-blended coffee. He adapts himself with protean accuracy to context, which involves much playing with such other great veterans of the free jazz scene as Joseph Jarman and Roscoe Mitchell.


His honors now are legion Newark, New Jersey, and where he teaches in nearby Montclair and Bloomfield. The city has honored him, and has commissioned composed work, for he is also a composer. And his scholarship is distinguished as well, often involving music theory in ancient history. He lectures on the Egyptian system, and the Greek, by way of the Egyptian.


But again, this belies his earthy, jazzy nature. He has been compared to composers like Bartok, but the comparison with Charles Mingus satisfies him most.


As for a great memory as a musician, about 40 years ago, he played at a club in Chicago with some friends. The great jazz drummer and leader of The Jazz Messengers, who funneled some few generations of hard-hitting new talents into the jazz world—the drummer Art Blakey, was in the audience.


Colson tells me how he came up afterward to the stage, smiling and beaming. He shook him by the shoulders. “You guys sounded great!” Ade is a man of great strength. This was still a moment that brought him to a peak of emotion.


So I talked to Ade, with my primitive cord with suction cups connecting my recorder to the receiver. The sound was dusty and full of static. I lost much of the detail in the transcription. Yet I concentrated hard, and I got the gist of it, the essence and hypostasis that will last. I have since adopted a more stable process of recording phone interviews, but this is the interview I am proud of. This is the one that’s part of the history of human rights, and of human music.


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