WORDS: CHRIS WONG
Analog PHOTOGRAPHY: AM
In the Cellar, a small basement jazz club on the west coast of Canada, the mystery and magic of jazz are about to unfold. On the bandstand are three of Vancouver’s most accomplished jazz musicians. Seated in front of them is an American jazz icon: tenor saxophonist George Coleman. George was a member of Miles Davis’ quintet from 1963 to 1964. He also played on some of the most significant jazz albums of the mid 60's, including Miles’ "Four & More" and Herbie Hancock’s "Maiden Voyage" and in the 50 years since then, George has kept playing with his distinctive tone and improvisational acumen.
At the beginning of the set George simply says to the band: “Green Dolphin, E Flat, vamp.” To the non-jazz musician, these instructions would be shrouded in mystery. But the pianist knows right away that George wants to play the jazz standard “On Green Dolphin Street”, in the key of E Flat, with a short piano intro. So without hesitation, he starts the song and the bassist and drummer seamlessly join in before George plays the tune’s timeless melody and improvises a characterful solo.
Before the other songs in the set George doesn’t say a word. He just starts playing and the musicians quickly identify what each song is and what key he’s playing them in. A few times the bass player subtly looks at the piano player, who uses a hand signal to indicate what key the song is in. It all sounds harmonious and rhythmically in sync, even though there hasn’t been any prior discussion or rehearsal, and there’s no music in front of the players. This is the essence of jazz. Years of experience performing for audiences, learning hundreds of tunes, practicing in solitude, and single-mindedly studying the jazz art form prepares an instrumentalist to be able to play like this. They’re not encumbered by having to think about the mechanics of what they’re doing. Instead, they’re playing with a deep intuition that’s magical to witness.
Three months after this performance, which took place in April 2013, George told me that doing gigs this old school way isn’t meant as a test for the players. “I've just always felt that if you can play, you don't really need a lot of rehearsing,” said George, on the phone from his home in New York City. “If you know the songs, and if you're experienced, that's all you need to know. Just play.”
He was born March 8, 1935 in Memphis, Tennessee. Early in his distinguished career George played with Ray Charles and B.B. King, but his body of work isn’t in the idioms associated with his musically rich hometown or in the areas to the south - the Mississippi Delta and New Orleans. That said, there’s something very southern and soulful about his sound. And compared to saxophonists who emphasise torrents of notes, his expression is more nuanced, sounding abstract at times but always vigorously swinging.
Back on the bandstand, George takes it a step further by segueing mid-tune into another song. The band doesn’t miss a beat and stays right with him. In these moments they’re showing their agile proficiency. At the same time, they’re learning from a master, receiving unspoken mentorship in the jazz tradition the way it used to be passed on. As for me, I’m in the shadows of the subterranean club, quietly savouring the music shaped by mutual respect and heartfelt passion.
Chris is researching and writing a book about two Vancouver jazz clubs, from different eras, both named the Cellar. You can read more about this project here.