George Coleman Jr. was destined to become a musician. The native New Yorker was born to parents who were both integral parts of the city’s jazz scene in the 1950s. George Sr.’s luminous career includes playing with Miles Davis and B.B. King. And during a time when female musicians were anomalies, his mother, Gloria, was a bassist for Duke Ellington. Although he tried to break the mold by working as an engineer after college, George Jr. ultimately decided to return to his roots and pursue his talent on the drums full time.
Now, Coleman is putting his family’s unique and heartwarming story on film as the producer of “Another Kind of Soul: A Coleman Family Legacy.” Part of the documentary tells about his parents being estranged for many years and then coming together later in life to record an album and perform on stage with their son. Coleman’s mother passed away in 2010, so the footage they have of that concert has special meaning since it was the last time the three of them would play together. “That’s what I want people to get from the film. Family is complicated, but there are ways that you can reconnect and sometimes they’re not always the direct route. And for us, it was really through music,” he said.
You got your bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering. When did you make the decision to work in music full time?I was trying to forge my own identity, different from my parents. If your parents are doctors, you become a musician, if your parents are musicians, you become a doctor or engineer. Probably around 2005 the idea germinated and then I put the things in motion to make that happen. In 2007, I actually took off and started doing music full time. And the truth is, it really changed the way I played because as much time and energy you put into something, there’s nothing like really being focused on it as a singular pursuit. So that really changed my playing and I started getting a lot more work because people noticed a change in my playing as well.
How did your parents influence you when you were starting out? Did they encourage you to go into music?No, they were kind of like, ‘Don’t do it.’ There’s a funny story about my dad when I was like, ‘Hey, I’m thinking about leaving the corporate world and doing music full time,’ and he was like, ‘Well, good luck’ and kind of hung up on me. And I went on tour right after that because I specifically planned it to make sure I wouldn’t have much of a gap between the corporate world and music because you end up reading The New York Times and drinking coffee for a couple of months. So I went right on tour in Asia. When I came back a couple of months later, we laughed about it and he said, “Man, I just didn’t know what to tell you. I wanted to say, ‘You’re out of your mind,’ but I didn’t want to discourage you.” They didn’t discourage me, but it was a tough life for them. My dad started doing incredibly well much later in life.
You have said your mom was a trailblazer. I think the interesting thing about my mom was that most female musicians were vocalists. But my mother was a bass player, which was a very unusual instrument for a woman. And she was somewhat diminutive, so it was really amazing that she was able to handle that instrument. Her teacher was this very famous bassist by the name of Oscar Pettiford. So for her first gig right out of high school, he recommended her for Duke Ellington. My mother auditioned with Duke Ellington, who is, and was, even back then, quite the icon musically. And my mom said she played so loud because she figured it was a big band and she didn’t want them to think because she was a woman, she couldn’t be heard above the band. A few minutes in, they said, “You don’t have to play so loud; you got the gig.” And Billie Holiday was one of her closest friends and my sister’s middle name is Lady after Lady Day after Billy Holiday. And my mother had a jam session at Birdland, where all the great musicians would headline. She was one of the bands that would play either late or between sets. So she met all the great musicians of New York. My mother was very attractive too, so she had a lot of suitors. I had many musicians say that they could have been my dad, except that my dad was much bigger and stronger than them.
What does your dad tell you about the music scene in New York in the ‘50s?If you talk to my dad about that time frame, I think the thing that he would say the most is that there were just so many venues and opportunities to play. That music was a 24/7 pursuit. There were breakfast jams, midday jams and evening jams. Basically, these guys worked seven nights a week and almost 18 hours a day if they could. And plus the sets were much longer. Today, you’re lucky to play two one-hour sets. Back in those days, there were four, five or six. And I think that’s the main difference. Because like anything you do, if you’re doing it with that level of consistency, and not just in the practice room, but actually performing that much on a daily basis, you get to be pretty damn good.
Tell us about the concert you three played together and how that became the impetus to get the film made.My mother, father and I had recorded a record which was the first one we ever did together as a family. My parents had been estranged so it was a really wonderful experience. So we were going to be playing a record release party at the Jazz Standard. It was really a crazy day, Jan. 20, 2008, because it was the inauguration of President Obama and also my birthday. It wasn’t planned, it just happened. A couple of days before, I got a call from the editor who said I wasn’t fit for the project and that he wasn’t interested in supporting it anymore. I had an idea in my mind that this might not happen again, my parents playing together. So I had to pony up a ridiculous amount of money because I didn’t know any better, to do this last minute shoot, which I’m glad I did. Now I’ve got his footage of this amazing concert and, fast forward a couple of years later, my mother passes away. So now the impetus to get this thing finished just rises to a fever pitch.
What do you want viewers to take away from it?One of the things I didn’t want to do was a jazz documentary where I just show footage of my dad playing and maybe me playing with him and talking a little bit about his amazing history and that’s that. For me, this story is extremely personal and it’s really about the relationship between a family and how music is sort of like this intertwined entity that perversely and positively affects that relationship. You know, my parents split up because my mom was a musician. She wasn’t a stay-at-home mom where the guys would go on the road and do their thing and everybody was quiet about it. My mother was actually on the scene and she’s from New York. So when my dad was doing whatever he was doing, I mean, he was a young guy. He was gaining fame — he played with Miles Davis, which was the pinnacle at that time — so my mom’s girlfriends who were musicians would rat him out essentially. And my mom was so strong, raising two kids pretty much on her own and having to put her career somewhat on hold to raise us and put us through college. So this thing is a testament to her fortitude. So this film really is about the culmination of music blowing up my family and then us being civil enough to get together to do this record and play and perform together. I mean, my parents, I don’t know the last time they were actually in the same room together, much less in the studio and months later, on the bandstand. It’s the coolest thing.