Chicago-born jazz musician Steve Coleman will tell you that he’s had a handful of exceptional mentors during his decades-long career. So when the alto saxophonist and composer got a call near the end of 2014 informing him that he had received a MacArthur Fellowship, Coleman knew he wanted to do the same for the next generation.
In that spirit of mentorship and community building, Coleman, together with his Five Elements band, recently completed a two-week residency hosted by the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts at the University of Chicago, with emphasis on teaching and performing the improvisational jazz that has defined his career. Coleman and bandmates Jonathan Finlayson, Anthony Tidd, Miles Okazaki and Sean Rickman led workshops for students at UChicago and worked with young musicians in the Chicago Public Schools.
Coleman and his colleagues also spent time at the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center, playing music and answering questions about their careers. “I think people respond better when they see people who look like them, or who maybe have come from the same type of situation,” Coleman said. “One kid told me he grew up right around where I grew up.”
Coleman first started playing music as a student at South Shore High School, not far from UChicago’s campus. That grew into a career that has spanned four decades and several continents, with Coleman in his work exploring philosophy, the relationship language has with music and improvisational computer software. He leads the nonprofit M-Base Concepts, Inc., and has received a Doris Duke Impact and a Doris Duke Artist Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship and a MacArthur Fellowship.
Coleman’s time at UChicago is part of an expanding set of residencies at the Logan Center that bring artists together with students, faculty and the community, often around the creation of new work. Artists-in-residence have included composer and UChicago alumnus Philip Glass, actress/playwright Anna Deavere Smith, and French filmmaker and artist Agnès Varda. UChicago’s Theater and Performance Studies’ residency program Chicago Performance Lab invites emerging and established ensembles to spend a month in residence at the Logan Center to develop new work and perform throughout Chicago. Jazz flutist Nicole Mitchell is currently in residence, and artist Kapwani Kiwanga’s site specific exhibition opens in January 2017 at the Logan Center.
A passion for music and helping others
Coleman first was a resident at Logan in 2015 and came back again this fall. His talents mesh well with the Logan Center, contributing to the cultural vitality of the South Side through community partnerships and through helping to grow the center’s emerging reputation as a hub for jazz, said Bill Michel, executive director of UChicago Arts and the Logan Center.
“Steve is passionate about both his music and helping others,” Michel said. “He brings a wonderful energy and willingness to explore different avenues and partnerships.”
The residency included partnering with M-Base, Free Write Arts and Literacy, Arts + Public Life at the University of Chicago, the Rebuild Foundation, and the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, as well as the Jazz Institute of Chicago. The Reva and David Logan Foundation provided significant support for the residency.
Coleman’s residency culminated in a performance at the Logan Center Performance Hall. Of the band’s seven public performances during the two-week period, including appearances at venues like the Arts Incubator, Stony Island Arts Bank and the Dorchester Art + Housing Collaborative, five were free; Coleman wanted to make sure that those who weren’t familiar with his music could have a chance to see him play.
“When you come and you try to have a sustained presence, that makes a different kind of impact than when you just come for one day and then split,” Coleman said. “If people know you’re coming back, it’s a big deal.”
Reflecting on his career, Coleman said he owes a lot to mentors of his own, like Thad Jones, Sam Rivers, Von Freeman and Doug Hammond. Community building is something he has pursued during his career, doing residencies since the mid-’90s, frequently without outside financial support. He says that a main goal of his MacArthur Fellowship is to draw attention to his outreach work, in hopes that he can keep securing financial backing to fund residencies and mentorship opportunities in the future.
During his Logan residency, Coleman said his work with youth at the juvenile detention center stood out. Coleman and his bandmates partnered with Free Write Arts and Literacy for a visit to the detention center, where they were joined by Grammy-nominated rapper and spoken-word artist Kokayi, a longtime collaborator and occasional band member with Coleman. The musicians encouraged youth to try out instruments like the drums and bass, and talked about their own lives and careers.
“At the end, they said they were really, really inspired, and they were really happy that we came,” Coleman said. “Sometimes one visit like that could change the whole thing around.”