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HARVARD UNIVERSITY

Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

DISSERTATION ACCEPTANCE CERTIFICATE


The undersigned, appointed by the
Department of Music
have examined a dissertation entitled
M-Base:
Envisioning Change for Jazz in the 1980 's and Beyond
presented by
Matthew Daniel Clayton, II
candidate for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy and
hereby certify that it is worthy of acceptance.
Signature
Prof. Ingrid Monson
l<^Ji&~4M-a~2f-

Signature vj
Prof. Kay Shelema;

IWA

Signature_
Prof. Michael Veal

Date: January 23, 2009

M-Base:
Envisioning Change for Jazz in the 1980s and Beyond
A dissertation presented
by
Matthew Daniel Clayton, II
to
The Department of Music
in partial fulfillment of the requirements
for the degree of
Doctor of Philosophy
in the subject of
Music
Harvard University
Cambridge, Massachusetts
December, 2008

UMI Number: 3350952

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iii
Professor Ingrid Monson

Matthew Daniel Clayton, II

M-Base: Envisioning Change for Jazz in the 1980s and Beyond


Abstract
This dissertation explores the history and music of the M-Base collective, a
group of young, African American jazz musicians based in Brooklyn, NY in the
1980s. Connecting M-Base to both the history of collectivism in black American
music in the 20th century and the jazz fusion movement of the 1970s, it discusses the
accomplishments of M-Base during its initial development from 1985 to 1992. As an
acronym for Macro Basic Array of Structured Extemporizations, M-Base fused jazz
with funk, rock and hip-hop, giving the collective an instantly identifiable sound.
With the name "M-Base" being coined in 1985 by saxophonist Steve Coleman, the
members of M-Base sought to escape being pigeonholed by any prior labels that
would incorrectly categorize them. Despite this resistance to categorization, the
dissertation situates M-Base within the history of jazz and connects it to a long
standing tradition of innovation in the art form. Ethnographic interviews, musical
analysis, and a historical framework work together to provide a portrait of M-Base.
In addition to speaking about the impact of the M-Base collective more
broadly, four of the most prominent M-Base musicians - saxophonists Steve Coleman
and Greg Osby, trombonist Robin Eubanks, and vocalist Cassandra Wilson - are
profiled. Each profile consists of biographical information and also contains musical
examples to underscore the artist's style. These four musicians are a microcosm of
what was at the time a network of several other men and women in the collective.

iv
An entire chapter is dedicated to the M-Base collective's only recording,
1992's Anatomy of a Groove. Each song is analyzed in order to provide insight into
M-Base's musical world. The final question that this dissertation addresses is
whether M-Base was a lasting musical movement. After 1992, Steve Coleman was
recognized by critics as the leader of the group and the original collective disbanded.
Although M-Base exists today, it is solely under the leadership of Steve Coleman.
The musical advancements made by M-Base in its early years left their mark on the
jazz world and influenced a new generation of artists seeking to evade the growing
conservatism in the jazz mainstream.

Table of Contents
Chapter 1
Introduction

Chapter 2
The Collective Spirit: M-Base and Musical Collectives

19

Chapter 3
Black Science: Steve Coleman

43

Chapter 4
Different Perspectives: Robin Eubanks

74

Chapter 5
Season of Renewal: Greg Osby

96

Chapter 6
Point of View: Cassandra Wilson

120

Chapter 7
M-Base: Jazz Fusion?

142

Chapter 8
Anatomy of a Groove: The M-Base Collective

167

Chapter 9
Conclusion

194

VI

For Mom and Dad,


Rebecca,
Monique, Sean, and Sean, Jr.

1
Chapter 1
Introduction
Jazz history has been filled with artists who were dedicated to re-imagining
the standards by which the music was played. In fact, this penchant for musical
evolution was the norm up until the emergence of so-called neoconservative jazz in
the 1980s. This neoconservative turn in jazz, which jazz writer Eric Nisenson
laments,1 saw a rise of young, predominantly African American musicians
championing the jazz of the 1940s, 50s, and 60s and recreating these styles in their
own music. The return to prominence of bebop, hard bop, and modal jazz in the jazz
mainstream - which replaced the ascendance of free jazz and jazz fusion in the 1970s
- coincided with the institutionalization of jazz in conservatories and universities
throughout the Unites States. With most of this new generation of jazz musicians
being formally trained in college to play the music, there was a flowering of
technically proficient artists who sought to capitalize on the new favor found in
playing traditional jazz. Yet out of this same group of young musicians, who
benefited from an unprecedented level of access to formal education in jazz, arose a
different assemblage of improvisers. These musicians wanted to continue to push the
envelope and do what many before them had done: create something that was both
reflective of the time period in which they lived and also full of new ideas. Coming
together in the mid-1980s, this group, called the M-Base collective, attempted to
establish a new musical vocabulary and to challenge the notion that jazz in their time
was inherently stagnant.

Eric Nisenson, Blue: The Murder of Jazz (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997), pp. 11-27, 220.

This is the first study dedicated entirely to the history and music of the MBase collective. It is based on both my independent research on the topic and
ethnographic interviews with the members of the group. In the end, I found it
important to ground my discussion of M-Base in the history of jazz in particular and
African American music in general. I discovered that the members of M-Base
consciously conceived of their efforts as contributing to a deep heritage of black
American, improvisatory music that had ties with the African diaspora.2 They
attempted to break the mold of what it meant to be a jazz musician, and sought to
create new ways of expressing the feeling of jazz. Unlike their neoconservative
contemporaries, M-Base musicians engaged black popular music, such as funk, rock,
pop and hip hop, to give their music a distinct flavor and edge. The M-Base
collective was dedicated to innovation, with its members determined to find
alternative solutions to the question of how to further the reputation of jazz
throughout the world. M-Base existed as a network of artists who all found comfort
in each other's quest for individuality and musical freedom.
Setting Boundaries and Defining M-Base's Voice
This dissertation examines the rise of the M-Base collective and its
relationship to the musical traditions that came before and were contemporaneous
with it. Although the musicians in M-Base resist stylistic classification, a closer look
at the musicians and their music reveals that they are intrinsically linked to the jazz
tradition. In this light, their contributions to jazz history can best be understood and
evaluated in relation to the accomplishments of prior and current generations of jazz
musicians. A few important decisions were made to limit the scope of this
2

Liner Notes. M-Base Collective. Anatomy of a Groove, New York, 1992, Columbia CK 5341.

manuscript. First, I focused on a specific time period that would encompass the
initial M-Base movement: 1985-1992. These two bookends were chosen because of
significant events that happened at each juncture. In 1985, the group adopted the
name "M-Base," and two of the leading figures in M-Base - alto saxophonist Steve
Coleman and vocalist Cassandra Wilson - made their debut recordings as leaders. In
1992, the M-Base collective released its only recording as a unit, Anatomy of a
Groove. The year 1992 also coincided with the breakup of the collective as it was
originally conceived. Second, the fracturing of the M-Base collective after 1992 led
most of the members to turn away from the type of music they made with M-Base,
with the exception of Steve Coleman. Steve Coleman continued on with the M-Base
concept and to this day remains dedicated to adding to the strength of his own
interpretation of the M-Base collective. Finally, although 1985 and 1992 are the
central points of departure and closure respectively, there is historical information
both prior to and after these dates that I discuss to give a fuller sense of what the
musicians established in relation to jazz history. As the chapters on jazz collectives
and jazz fusion will show, M-Base was tied to a history of music that had direct roots
from the 1960s and 1970s.
The M-Base collective came about at a time when there was a need for a
different voice in jazz. In addition to the straight ahead jazz being played, which
received increasing media coverage, there was the rise of instrumental pop that
appealed to an easy listening audience. There was a void waiting to be filled, one that
called for music that was as serious as the straight ahead jazz crowd and as groove
oriented as instrumental pop. M-Base was both of these things and more, drawing

from a wide range of jazz and popular musics to create a unique blend of styles. The
1980s were a time of relative conservatism in musical taste in jazz, and M-Base
shook the foundation of this stance. The reason that the M-Base collective was so
successful in bringing about a shift in the music was that M-Base's musicians were all
deeply involved in the straight ahead jazz scene as well. Therefore, they knew from
an insider's perspective what needed to be changed, refined, and added to make
something truly worthy of consideration. Not only did the musicians in M-Base want
to be different, they wanted to be provocative and engaging on a whole new level.
One of the central points of this dissertation is that the M-Base collective
created original music that was unique and innovative. At first glance, it may appear
that I am setting up a contrast that positions the neoconservative musicians as
derivative and the M-Base musicians as explorers of new musical territory. Yet I
think the situation deserves a more nuanced treatment. It is easy to pit these two
groups of young jazz musicians against each other, but in reality many of them were
friends and shared the bandstand on occasion.3 The imitation/innovation divide is
one that is not as clear cut as it may seem when considering the jazz scene in the
1980s. The critically acclaimed and appointed leader of the neoconservative
movement, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis,4 formulated a style of traditional jazz that
certainly borrowed key elements of past jazz styles but he also contributed a sound
that was his own. M-Base, on the other hand, made it a priority to conceptualize new
melodic formulas, grooves and song forms while keeping the primacy of

3
4

Steve Coleman, "Interview with Author," February 27, 2006.

Leslie Gourse, Wynton Marsalis: Skain 's Domain: a biography (New York: Schirmer Books, 1999),
pp. 127-153.

5
improvisation central to its music. Both the neoconservatives and M-Base had
elements of tradition and innovation within them, but in different degrees. I would
argue that the musicians in M-Base were more innovative because they created a
sound and style that was not directly derivative from a previous style of jazz or any
other music. Although Wynton Marsalis once said that M-Base was not "jazz,"5 he
was referring to the M-Base collective's attempt to break out of preconceived notions
of category and labeling. The central difference between M-Base and the
neoconservative group is that M-Base based its entire existence on being contrary to
expectation and on locating a new sound for jazz music. They were not preoccupied
with upholding tradition; rather, they were busy trying to create a new tradition for
future generations of musicians to emulate and build upon.
Historical Ties and Future Musings
This dissertation contributes to a body of literature on jazz collectives in
particular and jazz history in general. The recent work by Ben Looker6 and George
Lewis7 on the Black Artists' Group (BAG) and the Association for the Advancement
of Creative Musicians (AACM), respectively, has added important weight to the
discussion of jazz collectives and their relationship to current jazz aesthetics.
Looker's book records what previously had been an undocumented chapter in St.
Louis' musical tradition, emphasizing the importance of BAG members in the
development of a creative engagement with jazz music, dance and theatre. Lewis'
5

Wynton Marsalis and Frank Stewart, Sweet Swing Blues on the Road (W. W. Norton & Company,
1994), pp. 141-142.

Benjamin Looker, Point From Which Creation Begins: The Black Artists' Group of St. Louis (St.
Louis: Missouri Historical Society Press, 2004).
7

George E. Lewis, A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008).

volume is a long awaited inside look at the AACM (of which he is a member), where
he looks at all aspects of the collective as it spanned four decades. In addition to
these two landmark works on collectives, there have been texts written on related
topics that I discuss in this work. Stuart Nicholson's books particularly come to mind;
one deals with jazz fusion8 and the other with jazz in the 1980s.9 Paul Tingen's book
on the electric period of Miles Davis's career proved helpful when situating Davis as
an important leader of the jazz fusion movement.10 Davis's autobiography also added
a personal perspective from this central figure.11 Then, there are the works that deal
more broadly with topics relating to either jazz history in general or specific related
aspects of jazz history and practice. There are many texts that could be mentioned
here, but I will name a few central ones. Two classic jazz ethnographies are the ones
published by Paul Berliner12 and Ingrid Monson,13 with the former focusing on
improvisation and the later on musical interaction. Ted Gioia's book on the history of
jazz provides a thorough overview of jazz from its early days to the end of the 20th

Stuart Nicholson, Jazz-Rock: A History (New York: Schirmer Books, 1998).


9

Stuart Nicholson, Jazz: the 1980s Resurgence (New York: Da Capo Press, 1995).

10

Paul Tingen, Miles Beyond: The Electric Explorations of Miles Davis, 1967-1991 (New York:
Billboard Books, 2001).
1

' Miles Davis with Quincy Troupe, Miles: The Autobiography of Miles Davis (New York:
Touchstone, 1989).
12

Paul F. Berliner, Thinking in Jazz: The Infinite Art of Improvisation (Chicago: University of Chicago
Press, 1994).
13

Ingrid Monson, Saying Something: Jazz Improvisation and Interaction (Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 1996).

century,14 while Gunther Schuller's works on early jazz15 and the swing era16 are
perhaps the most sprawling treatments of their subjects. My work on M-Base seeks
to fit within the body of jazz scholarship, hopefully finding a place in between
historical and musical analysis.
I hope that this dissertation will inspire future study of the musicians in and
music of M-Base. One of the main areas where research into the M-Base collective
could be expanded would be the music of more individuals of the group. I selected
the careers and music of alto saxophonists Steve Coleman and Greg Osby, trombonist
Robin Eubanks, and vocalist Cassandra Wilson because in my opinion they are the
central figures of the M-Base movement. Yet there are others whose music could be
explored during their tenure with the M-Base collective. Two musicians who come to
mind immediately are pianist Geri Allen and trumpeter Graham Haynes. My study is
not meant to be all inclusive and thus makes some key choices regarding what to
cover and what to omit. Perhaps a further study into the topic will attempt to follow
all of the musicians who contributed to M-Base. Another direction that one could
take while looking at the M-Base collective would be to follow the trajectory of Steve
Coleman's career to the present. Coleman has become the self professed guru of the
M-Base philosophy,17 and his music reflects years of engagement with the approaches
cultivated during the initial phase of the collective. The centrality of Steve

14

Ted Gioia, The History of Jazz (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997).

15

Gunther Schuller, Early Jazz: Its Roots and Musical Development (New York: Oxford University
Press, 1986).
16

Gunther Schuller, The Swing Era: The Development of Jazz 1930-1945 (Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 1989).
17

Steve Coleman, "M-Base, an explanation," www.m-base.com/mbase_explanation.html.

8
Coleman's efforts to develop M-Base into a full fledged phenomenon is something to
which an entire book could be devoted. It has been my mission, on the other hand, to
present the M-Base collective as just that: a collective of individuals who equally
shared in the success of the group. No matter what direction is taken in expanding
upon the themes discussed and analyzed here, I seek to present a strong foundation
for any future look into the M-Base collective and facilitate a dialogue about what
exactly M-Base means to the past and the present.
As forward looking as the members of M-Base were, they were all grounded
in a deep historical perspective where they adapted practices from earlier generations
and made them their own. Like most artists, many of M-Base's musicians had
musical heroes that they emulated at first and then moved beyond to find their own
voice. Steve Coleman was a Charlie Parker aficionado, internalizing Parker's
patented technical speed on the alto saxophone and turning it into something different
with his own lexicon. The other alto saxophonist in the group, Greg Osby, loved
Julian "Cannonball" Adderley's sound and style and fashioned his own tone on that
model. Vocalist Cassandra Wilson studied the vocal delivery of jazz singer Betty
Carter, and crafted a round toned voice that showed signs of that influence. On the
trombone, Robin Eubanks received guidance from trombonist Slide Hampton, who
schooled Eubanks in the ways of pioneering trombonist J.J. Johnson and pushed him
to formulating his own style. In addition to studying the masters of their respective
instruments, the members of M-Base grafted jazz techniques on contemporary pop
music language. Call and response, playing over chord changes, blues inflections,
and extended song forms were all included in M-Base's music, a music that was laced

9
with a distinctly 1980s sound. The fusion of this so-called 80s style with classic
elements of jazz is one of the hallmarks of the M-Base collective. M-Base managed
to embody the stylistic traits of 1980s pop, hip-hop, and rock without compromising
their allegiance to jazz. The collective's emphasis on original compositions, as
opposed to playing "covers" of pop songs or jazz classics, was similar to the
AACM's declaration to only play new music by the members of the group.18 This
was their way of looking towards the future without copying the canonical works of
previous jazz masters and composers.
Although it is beyond the scope of this dissertation, I believe that M-Base had
a lasting influence on burgeoning jazz musicians. This is seen especially in the
playing styles that Steve Coleman and Greg Osby innovated; many young saxophone
players (in my observation) have implemented certain nuances that were started by
Coleman and Osby. These nuances included the polytonal leanings of Steve
Coleman and Greg Osby's compositional and improvisational style, which are
discussed in detail in chapters 3 and 5, respectively. Another musician who
developed a similar style of playing is tenor saxophonist Gary Thomas, someone who
was not a member of M-Base but was a frequent collaborator with Greg Osby in Jack
DeJohnette's Special Edition band. In addition to the model presented by M-Base's
two alto saxophonists, vocalist Cassandra Wilson has since achieved great success as
jazz's top singer. Her deep, resonant voice is one of the most identifiable in jazz, and
her efforts with the M-Base collective were a springboard for her future efforts with
Blue Note records. Yet M-Base's dedication to eschewing imitation inspired young

18

George E. Lewis, "Experimental Music in Black and White: The AACM in New York, 1970-1985,"
Current Musicology, nos. 71-73 (Spring 2001-Spring 2002), pp. 103-104.

10
musicians to try and evade the well traveled road of bebop phraseology. Aside from
the bebop and free jazz lexicon, the M-Base collective created a third vocabulary that
musicians could use and borrow from in order to find their own voice. Even if bebop
still dominates jazz pedagogy, and young jazz musicians still learn and internalize
stock patterns for II-V-I progressions, M-Base presented a much needed alternative
and outlet for those seeking to add color and variety to their musical palette.
Documenting the M-Base Sound
The M-Base collective documented its existence mainly on the recordings of
individual leaders instead of the collective as a whole. The label that recorded the
vast majority of M-Base's music was JMT (which stands for Jazz Music Today), a
small German label established by Stefan Winter that eventually was distributed by
the larger, New York based Polygram records. In 1993, Winter released an album
called Flashback on M-Base,,19 a compilation of selected tracks from the releases of
Greg Osby, Steve Coleman, Cassandra Wilson, and Robin Eubanks. Flashback on
M-Base also includes one track from a release by a group called Strata Institute,
which was an offshoot of the M-Base collective and recorded two albums. Given the
collective aspect of M-Base, it is somewhat strange that they did not record as a unit
more often. Their one group effort, Anatomy of a Groove, was released on Columbia
records in 1992. I devote an entire chapter to analyzing the music from Anatomy of a
Groove because it is the only existing recorded representation of what the M-Base
collective accomplished together.

19

Steve Coleman, Robin Eubanks, Greg Osby, Cassandra Wilson. Flashback on M-Base. Munchen,
1993, JMT 514 010-2.

11
This decision to record under the leadership of different members of the
collective allowed for a very diverse depiction of what M-Base represented. Instead
of getting a homogeneous vision of M-Base through many unified statements, one
finds a heterogeneous mixture of recordings by Osby, Coleman and others who each
had something different to say. The fact that they often appeared on each other's
recordings underscored the mutual support they had for each other and the underlying
group sentiment that M-Base fostered. In a sense, then, the listener gets a sampling of
the various members' version of M-Base, which are linked by a constant use of funk
derived grooves and colorful melodies. The M-Base collective was made up of many
individualists who shared the spotlight when it came to one another's music.
The search for an identifiable M-Base "sound" is complicated by the fact that
M-Base members like Steve Coleman insisted that M-Base was an approach rather
than a specific style.

What exactly was this approach? It was a way of

conceptualizing structure and improvisation in any type of music. This is implied in


the last two letters of the acronym "M-Base": structured extemporizations. As I will
discuss in chapter 2, the title M-Base was a fusion of computer jargon and
imaginative labels for jazz derived concepts. Upon listening to and studying the
music emanating from the M-Base collective, it soon becomes clear that there is
certainly a stylistic "method to their madness" no matter how much they deny being a
specific genre. For example, the omnipresent use of bass ostinatos and layered
rhythmic cycles is one defining musical characteristic of M-Base. Leaning towards
funk inspired grooves is another characteristic, although they could also "swing" as
convincingly as the leading figures in straight ahead jazz. There certainly are
20

Coleman, "M-Base, an explanation."

12
differences according to the writing styles of each individual composer, but an
overarching cohesion in the application of certain musical techniques unifies the
members of M-Base. Perhaps this is what they mean when they say they had an MBase "approach." I am not suggesting that all of the M-Base collective's music
sounded the same; rather, I am positing that there is an identifiable link between the
various members of M-Base's music that can be seen as a host of unifying stylistic
traits. If there appears to be a tension between the approach/style distinction when
describing M-Base's music, it should disappear when considering that both coexist in
different stages of the musical process. It is true that M-Base's musicians approached
their music in a specific way (i.e. theoretical basis), and it is also true that the music
resulting from this approach had a certain sound as well (i.e. practical application).
Also, it is important to point out that whereas the "approach" side of defining M-Base
comes directly from the musicians themselves, the "style" side of the discussion
arises out of my own observations and analysis.
Overview
This dissertation looks at the M-Base collective from a historical,
ethnographic, theoretical and analytical perspective. In an effort to contextualize MBase in the jazz tradition, much discussion is given to the way in which the group
extended and added to the history of jazz music. To add more specificity to this
study, I have chosen to delve into the careers of four of the principal members of MBase. Musical analysis underscores this volume as well, with examples being chosen
to highlight the stylistic norms of the collective's music. It is my hope in the end to

13
show that the M-Base collective fostered a spirit of change within the jazz scene of
the 1980s, a lasting effect that lingered well into the next decade and the 21 st century.
Chapter 2 presents the history behind the M-Base collective and relates it to
earlier efforts of collectivism within African American musical traditions. The most
obvious precedents are discussed, such as the AACM and BAG, as well as some
broader and perhaps more indirect connections. The latter includes the big band era,
the black church, and the explosion of R&B and funk within the black community in
the 1950s and 60s. I will exemplify how M-Base was an extension of the black
collective impulse, something which has roots in an African American experience
that fought external attempts to confine, control, and decimate black freedom in the
United States. A larger point made in this chapter is that the push for change amongst
black Americans was a natural part of their communal enterprise, one in which a
common cause (desegregation, musical freedom, etc.) united members of the
community to achieve collective autonomy.
Following this chapter on musical collectives, the next four chapters are
personal and musical profiles of key M-Base contributors. Each chapter presents
brief biographical information before considering the musical experiences and
theories that define each musician's work. Looked at individually, it is possible to
comprehend the way in which these musicians added their own perspective on MBase in particular and jazz in general. When considered as a whole, these four
musicians fit together like pieces of a puzzle that create a larger image of the M-Base
collective's vision.

14
Chapter 3 discusses the work of alto saxophonist Steve Coleman, and looks
at his musical roots and accomplishments. Central to Coleman's aesthetic is a love of
staggered rhythms and quick phrasing inspired by the music of bebop alto
saxophonist Charlie Parker. Growing up in Chicago, Coleman began developing a
personal sound after a chance encounter with nagging bees. After moving to New
York in 1978, he began working professionally as a jazz saxophonist alongside some
of the genre's biggest and most highly regarded names. Coleman made his recording
debut as a bandleader in 1985, a project that included originally composed, mostly
straight ahead jazz compositions. The recordings that followed were nearly all in the
vein of the M-Base style he developed with his fellow M-Base musicians. In looking
at two of Coleman's compositions, my aim is to reveal the inner workings of his
writing and playing style. By the late 1980s, Coleman was dubbed by critics as the
leader of M-Base. This led to friction within the group and the eventual demise of the
collective as it was originally conceived. The chapter concludes by considering Steve
Coleman's influence as a bandleader after the breakdown of the original collective,
and how his music today continues to develop the style of playing innovated with his
compatriots in the 1980s.
Trombonist Robin Eubanks is the subject of chapter 4. Eubanks was born to a
family of musicians in Philadelphia, where he honed his craft and studied music in
college. He made acquaintances with one of his musical heroes, trombonist Slide
Hampton, and soon became a protege of Hampton upon moving to New York.
Becoming a Buddhist in the early 1980s, Eubanks was interested in transferring the
spiritual peace and natural flow of spiritual energy he felt in his newfound religion

15
into his music. The solution he came up with was to juxtapose different styles of
music and unify them by writing melodies and rhythmic accompaniment that tied the
composition together. Eubanks left the M-Base collective before the dawn of the
1990s, but his contribution to the sound and aesthetic of M-Base was sizeable. In
addition to being one of the three people who helped decide upon the title "M-Base"
(Steve Coleman and Greg Osby were the others), he could be found performing and
recording both as a leader and as a sideman with his fellow M-Base members as the
1980s came to a close. After leaving M-Base, Eubanks returned to straight ahead
jazz, making predominantly traditional jazz recordings on his own and with bassist
Dave Holland.
Chapter 5 looks at the life and music of alto saxophonist Greg Osby. The St.
Louis born and raised musician had an early affinity for African American popular
music like soul, funk and R&B. His earliest professional experiences as a
saxophonist were playing with these types of groups. It was in college at Howard
University, and later Berklee College of Music, where Osby began studying jazz
seriously. Osby emerged in 1983 in New York as a major contributor to the jazz
scene, someone with a fresh musical perspective and determination to establish his
own voice. Like Steve Coleman, Greg Osby developed a theory initially based upon
happenstance that would soon define his musical approach. Osby remained dedicated
to the M-Base collective through the collective's 1992 recording, and thereafter
branched off into his own concoction of hip-hop jazz fusion before arriving upon his
own take on traditional jazz. His unique rhythmic and melodic approach is

16
exemplified in one musical example, something which is a microcosm of Osby's
penchant for leaping and disjointed phrasing and varied use of syncopation.
The final musician's profile in chapter 6 addresses the work of vocalist
Cassandra Wilson. This Jackson, Mississippi native began collaborating with Steve
Coleman in the early 1980s, and her affiliation with M-Base launched a brilliant
career as a headlining artist. At first a disciple of the vocal style established by jazz
vocalist Betty Carter, Wilson stepped out of Carter's influential shadow to craft an
equally round and sultry voice of her own. Her work as a member of M-Base was
well documented on a series of recordings for JMT where she was the leader. Yet it
was her success in the jazz mainstream after leaving the M-Base collective that
catapulted her to the widest critical acclaim of all of the members of M-Base. Upon
signing with Blue Note records in 1993, Cassandra Wilson released a hit recording,
something which has been followed by a series of commercially successful projects.
The aim of this chapter is to show what made Cassandra Wilson the powerful artist
that she was during her M-Base phase, and suggest that Wilson gained a majority of
her singing prowess while working within the M-Base collective. As the only
vocalist in the M-Base collective, and one of the few women in the group, Cassandra
Wilson challenged long standing notions that jazz singers were not as serious
musicians as instrumentalists and also that women could not compete with men in
jazz.
Chapter 7 considers whether M-Base should be grouped within the larger
rubric of jazz fusion. This chapter traces the history of the jazz fusion movement, and
looks closely at the contributions of one of its major figures: trumpeter Miles Davis.

17
In light of M-Base's vigilant stance against labels, I try to reconcile the differences
between how the members of M-Base conceived of their music and how I believe
their music fits into the history of jazz fusion. Other movements, like modal jazz and
free jazz, are discussed as well to contextualize the arrival of jazz fusion onto the
scene in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s. The M-Base collective's
relationship to straight ahead jazz is presented to show that the members of M-Base
operated on many stylistic levels. The aim of this chapter is to place M-Base as an
extension of an existing tradition in jazz history, and to show how the collective's
manner of changing the jazz scene was rooted in practices that deliberately fused the
vernacular and jazz.
The one recording that documented the M-Base collective's joint aesthetic,
Anatomy of a Groove, is the topic of chapter 8. This chapter begins with a discussion
of a landmark concert that the M-Base collective held in Brooklyn in December of
1988 entitled "M-Base Jams at BAM." This concert is significant in that the
collective at this point still had pianist Geri Allen and trombonist Robin Eubanks.
Then, Anatomy of a Groove is analyzed as both a philosophical and musical
statement. The liner notes to the album shed light on what the aims of the M-Base
collective were at the time and how the musicians wished to push the influence of
their music into the 21 st century. I continue the chapter by analyzing each of the nine
compositions on the recording, in hopes of illuminating some of the inner workings of
the M-Base sound. This chapter is in large part dedicated to musical analysis, and
can be seen as the culmination of similar excerpts found in all of the musician's
profiles chapters (chapters 3 through 6). Although no one recording can represent all

18
that the M-Base collective accomplished, Anatomy of a Groove remains the only
released statement of the M-Base collective as a whole and thus can be taken as a
crucial representation of the M-Base approach.
The conclusion, chapter 9, ties together the principle themes of the
dissertation and ponders to what extent the M-Base collective succeeded in changing
the face of jazz. As a collective, M-Base was a gathering of likeminded individuals
who were dedicated to making their mark on jazz in particular and music more
broadly. The strength of M-Base's contribution to jazz history can be measured both
by the uniqueness of its art and the lingering questions remaining as to what exactly
M-Base meant to its members and to its critics and followers.

19
Chapter 2
The Collective Spirit: M-Base and Musical Collectives
M-Base was born from a collective impulse, one in which the voices of many
coalesced through the channel of a unified spirit. Started by a group of young,
ambitious and talented African American jazz musicians in the mid 1980s, M-Base is
best described as an approach to music rather than a style.1 This approach was
established by the M-Base collective, a gathering of likeminded individuals who all
sought to create music that was new, fresh, and inspired both by the music of their
youth and the jazz and soul music of the past. What resulted was a mixture of styles fusing jazz, rock, funk, soul and hip-hop, along with rhythms derived from African
music.2 The M-Base collective developed a sound that was instantly recognizable,
making a name for itself amongst the up and coming jazz music of the 1980s. The
idea of a musical collective was not entirely new: M-Base was influenced heavily by
the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) of Chicago and
the Black Artists' Group (BAG) of St. Louis. In light of these two prior collectives,
and more broadly with a look at the history of black American music's frequent use
of a group aesthetic, M-Base becomes an extension of a tradition of creating music
with an eye towards fruitful collaboration and shared success.
The Birth of the Term "M-Base"
M-Base is an acronym for Macro Basic Array of Structured Extemporizations.
The name was conceived by alto saxophonist Steve Coleman in 1985, with the help

Steve Coleman, "M-Base, an explanation," www.m-base.com/mbase_explanation.html.

ibid.

20

of alto saxophonist Greg Osby and trombonist Robin Eubanks.3 According to Steve
Coleman, M-Base:
.. .means expressing our experiences through music that uses improvisation
and structure as two of its main ingredients. There is no limitation on the kind
of structures or the type of improvisation, or the style of the music. The main
goal is to.. .try and build common creative musical languages in order to do
this on some kind of large collective level (macro, basic, array).4
Coleman, Osby, and Eubanks consulted a thesaurus as they attempted to come up
with a title to describe the musical approach they were using.5 They wanted to be
sure to come up with a term that suited them and their ideas in order to avoid being
named by others. Greg Osby suggested that name M-Base was inspired by dBASE,
the first successful database program for personal computers; Steve Coleman denies
any connection between the two concepts.6 Coleman does admit, however, that
"Macro Basic Array" were names that were inspired by his interest in computer
programming: "We are from the computer generation and I was messing around with
programming at the time, so that is probably where the idea for 'Basic Array' came
from. 'Macro' (another computer term) just means big."7
The name M-Base and the group of musicians it came to represent was
inspired by a series of events prior to the formation of the term itself.
3

The initial

Robin Eubanks, "Interview with Author," March 17, 2006; Steve Coleman, "E-mail to Author," July
15, 2007.

Coleman, "M-Base, an explanation."

Eubanks, "Interview with Author."

Coleman, "E-mail to Author."

ibid.

21
impetus for the idea of a musical collective came from a group called Per Artists
Initiative, founded by drummer Doug Hammond in 1980-1.8 Steve Coleman refers to
Hammond as the "father of M-Base."9 In 1983, Steve Coleman and a group of
musicians who would become the M-Base collective created an organization called
MRA, a musician's referral service, which helped get their cadre of musicians work.
Hammond's Per Artists Initiative and MRA laid the foundation for M-Base, as Steve
Coleman recounts.10

Before they went by the name M-Base, they briefly were

known as Ninth Eye.11 By 1985, Coleman had coined the term that encapsulated the
lofty goals set by the members of the M-Base collective.
Based in Brooklyn
The M-Base collective was centered in a musical community from Brooklyn,
New York. Specifically, they were situated in the neighborhoods of Fort Greene and
Bedford-Stuyvesant. Steve Coleman, Greg Osby, Cassandra Wilson, Robin Eubanks,
Marvin "Smitty" Smith, and others lived in the borough because it was significantly
less expensive than living in Manhattan and it housed an active and vital artistic
community.1 In the mid 1980s, Brooklyn was home to many aspiring and
established musicians, and was also the site of a strong African American community.
These two factors allowed M-Base to flourish as a musical movement derived from
the streets of urban black America.

ibid.

ibid.

10

ibid.

" Greg Osby, "Interview with Author," January 3, 2006.


12

ibid.

22

M-Base became synonymous with Brooklyn, as the M-Base collective started


earning a name for itself as an exciting and daring group of young, black jazz
musicians. Just as there was a buzz around the "downtown" scene in New York,
referring to musicians such as John Zorn and those associated with him,13 a critical
mass of people began praising the music coming out of the M-Base collective from
Brooklyn.14 Members of M-Base could be found and heard all over New York,
including Manhattan, which still is considered the mecca and centerpiece of the jazz
world.
The M-Base collective started to gain international recognition as the 1980s
unfolded, with a majority of its members beginning solo careers and thus
strengthening the reputation of the group to which they belonged. The collective
performed together under each other's leadership, and sometimes performed under
the group name. It was quite a coincidence that such a large number of talented
musicians congregated in the same location and sought to share ideas and build a
group identity. The M-Base collective used Brooklyn as the launching site for their
worldwide fame.
The proximity of the musicians made it easier for them to meet and exchange
information and develop lasting friendships. Alto saxophonists Steve Coleman and
Greg Osby, who lived very close to each other, shared compositions and
improvisational techniques to strengthen both of their respective styles.15 The M13

George E. Lewis, "Afterword to 'Improvised Music after 1950': The Changing Same," in Daniel
Fischlin and Ajay Heble, eds., The Other Side of Nowhere: Jazz, Improvisation, and Communities in
Dialogue (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2004), pp. 165-166.
14

Stuart Nicholson, Jazz-Rock: A History (New York: Schirmer Books, 1998), p. 315.

15

Osby, "Interview with Author."

23

Base collective was started by a large group of African American musicians in


Brooklyn who met at each other's apartments to discuss the goals and objectives of
the collective. These meetings took place several times a year to enhance the success
of their then fledgling musical approach.
Collectives: Before M-Base
The notion of a musical collective was something that the M-Base collective
embraced due to the presence of similar collectives prior to its formation. Two
examples include the Los Angeles based collective headed by pianist and composer
Horace Tapscott from the 1960s throughout the 1990s, a collective which included
the Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra, the Union of God's Musicians and Artists
Ascension (UGMAA), and the Underground Musicians Association,16 and a
collective of musicians surrounding two record labels started in the early 1970s,
Strata-East Records in New York and Strata Records in Detroit.

More notable,

however, are the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM),
established in 1965 in Chicago, and the Black Artists Group (BAG), established in
1968 in St. Louis. Both the AACM and BAG prided themselves in fostering
adventurous attitudes towards music, and they presented unique takes on free jazz.
Whereas the AACM still exists today, BAG only lasted for four years, folding in
1972. Both groups were at their height of success in the late sixties and early

Steven Louis Isoardi, The Dark Tree: Jazz and the Community Arts in Los Angeles (Berkeley:
University of California Press, 2006).
17

"Strata-East Records," www.serecs.com.

18

"Interview: Charles Tolliver & Stanley Cowell," www.allaboutjazz.com/iviews/tolliver_cowell.html.

24

seventies.19 The M-Base collective thus had precedents in jazz to model themselves
after, most directly in the aforementioned Per Artists Initiative founded by Doug
Hammond but also with the AACM and BAG.
The AACM took the advancements of free jazz, during a tumultuous political
climate in the United States in the 1960s, and a deep appreciation for African culture
to create a movement that straddled the fence between parody and serious
commentary on the state of black America. With members such as founder and
pianist Muhal Richard Abrams, saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell, and trumpeter Lester
Bowie, the AACM and its progeny, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, spanned the entire
stylistic range of jazz, from blues, to bebop, to free. They made a niche for musicians
interested in expanding the language of jazz without ignoring the palpable and
visceral strain of the music known as free jazz. In performance, the Art Ensemble of
Chicago often wore African face paintings and long robes to emphasize their
connection to an African past and present. Their music was bombastic and profound,
with a twinge of satire, and they often explored the rough edges of jazz (i.e. the avantgarde) as much as they touched upon the finer points of the genre.
Similarly, BAG carved out a space for experimental jazz musicians who were
no longer satisfied with being pigeon holed in one style. With its founder,
saxophonist Julius Hemphill, and other members such as saxophonist Oliver Lake and
trumpeter Baikida Carroll, BAG became a collective that was linked geographically
19

Benjamin Looker, Point From Which Creation Begins: The Black Artists' Group of St. Louis (St.
Louis: Missouri Historical Society Press, 2004), pp. 167-173.
20

George E. Lewis, "Experimental Music in Black and White: The AACM in New York, 1970-1985,"
Current Musicology, nos. 71-73 (Spring 2001-Spring 2002), pp. 100-157; George E. Lewis, A Power
Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music (Chicago: University of Chicago
Press, 2008), pp. 85-214.

25
with the nearby AACM in Chicago for its daring and innovative approaches to
incorporating elements of free jazz and other earlier styles of jazz. In the midst of its
members dealing with the full stylistic range of jazz practices, BAG managed to keep
a blues sensibility at the heart of much of its work, staying true to its St. Louis roots.
As a young boy growing up in St. Louis, Greg Osby rode his bike by BAG's building
and was mesmerized by the sounds he heard wafting out of the building.21 One of the
strongest offspring of BAG was the World Saxophone Quartet, which carried on the
torch of BAG long after its demise.22 Interestingly enough, with the Midwest
increasingly becoming a difficult place to earn a living as a jazz musician, both the
AACM and BAG saw many of their members make a move towards New York in the
1970s and 80s.23
One of the things that remained distinct and different about BAG was that it
was also home to dancers, painters, and actors, despite the fact that its musical
division was the most influential and had the deepest historical impact. The
integration of all of the different art forms, from music, to visual, to theatre, was a
unique approach that BAG took to educating the surrounding community and
enriching the artistic lives of those involved in its many activities during its existence.
M-Base did not take this approach in its own collective, focusing solely on music.
The M-Base collective benefited from the models put in place by the AACM
and BAG. First, the establishment of a group identity that was marketable and

21

Looker, Point From Which Creation Begins, p. 78.

22

ibid., p. 237.

23

ibid., p. 213; Ronald M. Radano, "Jazzin' the Classics: The AACM's Challenge to Mainstream
Aesthetics," Black Music Research Journal, Vol. 12, No. 1 (Spring, 1992), pp. 93-94.

simultaneously internally meaningful was something that both the AACM and BAG
succeeded at doing. The M-Base collective thus knew that it was possible to
successfully congregate under one aegis and unify around a specific sound, attitude,
and aura. Just as important, BAG and the AACM opened up a wellspring of ideas
for how a collective of black jazz musicians could work together and still maintain
individuality in a group dynamic. These ideas included, among other things, the
importance of: (1) organizational leadership; (2) financial independence; (3)
community outreach; and (4) self promotion. Finally, M-Base learned that in order to
stay together as a collective, all participants had to contribute equally for a truly
egalitarian network of musicians to emerge. The breakdown of egalitarianism risks
leading to dissension and ultimately to the collapse and demise of a true musical
collective, resulting in a leader-follower paradigm in which one musician receives all
of the credit for the success of many.
Before the Jazz Collective: The Group Dynamic in African American Music
Another strong precedent for the M-Base collective's inherent sense of a
group identity came from the tradition of groups that developed a sound and style
within the big band format. The big bands allowed musicians to interact and form
musical and friendship ties, leading to an increasing network of players who created
lasting bonds.24 Artists such as Duke Ellington and Count Basie created an
immediately distinguishable writing and performing aesthetic, and the advent of the
big band allowed black musicians the opportunity to combine around a unified goal
of realizing the bandleader's vision. This may seem antithetical to the notion of a

24

Paul F. Berliner, Thinking in Jazz: The Infinite Art of Improvisation (Chicago: University of Chicago
Press, 1994), p. 49.

27

collective, where there is no "bandleader," but in fact the emergence of the big band
is perhaps the earliest precedent of the collective. The dissolution of the sole leader
into a group comprised of many leaders working together for a common goal was a
process that distinguished the AACM, BAG and M-Base from other groups prior to,
simultaneous with, and following the collectives, which still held on to the presence
of a bandleader.
The collective as the M-Base members envisioned it was a combination of the
big band philosophy of the 1930s and the bebop revolution of the 1940s. The fact
that the "M" in M-Base stands for "Macro" sheds light on how important the
conglomeration of many musicians was to the collective. Although the big band era
had its famous leaders, it also had famous soloists connected with its leader and
certain idiosyncrasies in orchestration that were intrinsic to the sound of a given band.
M-Base developed this idea even further, with all of its members, in my opinion,
being leaders in their own right and bringing forth a sound that was personal and
singular. One of the biggest differences between the big band and the M-Base
collective was that the former was geared towards dancing and the latter was
conceived for rhythmic head-nodding and intellectual internalization. This is where
the innovations of bebop come into play, where the bebop musicians strived to
achieve just what the M-Base collective aspired to: music for the mind. Such a
compartmentalization of mind and body is outdated25; music for the mind and body
often go hand in hand. Yet ideas about art music and popular music often touched on
the mind/body split, and jazz, once the popular music of America, ventured off into a

25

Simon Frith, Performing Rites: On the Value of Popular Music (Cambridge: Harvard University
Press, 1996), pp. 123-157.

28

realm of sound with bebop that brought it closer to the music of the concert hall than
the music of the dancehall.
One of the most unique and different bandleaders was Sun Ra, someone who
combined science fiction, Afrocentricism, and modern jazz in such a way that it
anticipated the arrival of M-Base's brand of "black science."26 As one of the leading
figures in what became known as "Afrofuturism," in which Sun Ra spoke of outer
space, black nationalism, and pan-Africanism in one breath, Sun Ra's approach to
leading a band was closer to the communal spirit inspired by the M-Base collective.
Pianist and scholar Vijay Iyer mentions Sun Ra, along with the AACM, in a paper
discussing the nature of M-Base's musical collectivism, the only existing scholarly
treatment of M-Base prior to the present writing.27
There are other examples of the group dynamic at play in black American
music, especially in the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s with Motown and the
1970s with the advent of funk music. One of the things Berry Gordy achieved with
Motown in Detroit, which was founded in 1959 and enjoyed phenomenal commercial
success as a black owned record label until it moved to Los Angeles in 1971,28 was
creating a "Motown sound,"29 in which various artists were backed by an

John Szwed, Space is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra (New York: Pantheon Books, 1997),
pp. 137-138.
27

Vijay Iyer, "Steve Coleman, M-Base, and Musical Collectivism," 1996,


www.m-base.com/music_collectivism.html.
28

Nelson George, Where Did Our Love Go?: The Rise and Fall of the Motown Sound (New York: St.
Martin's Press, 1985), pp. xiii-xiv, 27-189.
29

Suzanne E. Smith, Dancing in the Street: Motown and the Cultural Politics of Detroit (Cambridge:
Harvard University Press, 1999), pp. 154-162.

29
unmistakable rhythm section.30 Making such an identifiable style that was equally
marketable and successful allowed the Motown record label to attain international
acclaim as the sound of American popular music.31 Similarly, M-Base, although not
a specific style per se, boasted a signature sound that was immediately recognizable
and extremely distinct. Both Motown's and M-Base's success at creating their own
sound came from their group interplay, so much so that listeners who followed their
recordings would know what kind of music to expect when their name was
mentioned. By the time that funk music arrived in the 1970's, rock and roll had made
its mark in the black community and was now garnering more of a white audience,
while rhythm and blues was continuing its hold on young black music lovers. James
Brown, the "Godfather of Soul," gave rise to a new sound that coincided with the rise
of a newfound self love amongst black Americans, during a decade that followed one
of the most tumultuous decades in American history.32 Sparked by Brown's
leadership, a whole new generation of black musicians fostered a group mentality that
redefined the meaning of "groove" in black music.

Parliament Funkadelic and

Earth, Wind and Fire were two original offshoots of funk and soul music, and they
encapsulated the spirit of the music being made by groups reaching and connecting
with a new, younger black audience.34

30

Standing in the Shadows of Motown, Lions Gate, 2003 (video).

31

George, Where Did Our Love Go?, p. 103.

32

Rickey Vincent, Funk: The Music, the People, and the Rhythm of the One (New York: St. Martin's
Griffin, 1996), pp. 72-88.

33

Anne Danielsen, Presence and Pleasure: the Funk Grooves of James Brown and Parliament
(Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2006), pp. 40-94.
34

Vincent, Funk, pp. 186-188, 231-264.

30

The notion of a musical movement in black music parallels the collective


move that black Americans made in civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s. Martin
Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X were two leaders who were able to bring together
disparate strains of the black community, from those who sought peaceful change to
those who wanted to more aggressively dismantle an unjust political system.35 The
nature of the inequality was so devastating, particularly in the American south, that
blacks across the country knew that something must be done on a large scale level.
Jazz musicians were among the first artists to collectively reject segregation. As jazz
scholar Ingrid Monson observes, "By the early 1950s a sizeable portion of the jazz
world clearly felt that it was imperative for jazz musicians on both sides of the color
line to oppose segregation in jazz. A discourse linking jazz and integration became
an article of faith for many musicians and in the process coupled jazz with a moral
stance and politics that shared the goals of the emerging mainstream civil rights
movement."36 Fighting discrimination ever since being enslaved in this country,
African Americans' unified spirit was a survival tactic and instinct that allowed them
to overcome the most horrendous and seemingly insurmountable obstacles.37 Since
they were discriminated against in a monolithic fashion based solely on the color of
their skin, the response from black Americans was in turn equally collective.

Joe Street, The Culture War in the Civil Rights Movement (Gainesville: University Press of Florida,
2007), pp. 11,41.
36

Ingrid Monson, Freedom Sounds: Civil Rights Call Out to Jazz and Africa (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 2007), p. 37.
37

Street, The Culture War in the Civil Rights Movement, p. 164.

31
In many ways the music that black people in America have created reflects
and mirrors the changes and advances made in gaining greater degrees of freedom.38
The spirituals told of a newfound religious and internal liberation, with encoded
messages in their lyrics that allowed the music to signify for their understanding
alone as they literally and figuratively escaped bondage. Jazz music was a music that
emphasized improvisation, borrowing the norms of European harmony and the
American popular song form and innovating new manners of articulation and
phrasing, giving birth to both swing and the blues. The styles of music coming after
spirituals and jazz music similarly fused a soulful blues attitude with a new rhythmic
sensibility, be they rock, R&B, funk, or hip-hop. The culmination of the freedom
struggle in America in the 1950s and 1960s emphasized the importance of working
together, unifying around a common goal for the common good.39 This was certainly
reflected in the music of African American musicians of the mid-late 20th century.
African American led collectives like the AACM, BAG and M-Base exhibited this
newfound sense of freedom. Although M-Base was an all African American
collective, the musicians collaborated with non-African American musicians in a
spirit of sharing and open mindedness.
The black church tradition is another offspring of black collectivity, and the
music created by it is perhaps the clearest manifestation of African Americans
singing, playing, and worshiping together. When blacks in America embraced
Christianity, they also transformed the hymns that were passed on to them by their

ibid., pp. 4-5,44.


ibid., p. 57.

32

white captors.40 First came the spiritual, a blues inflected song which spoke of
stealing away to Jesus and reaching the promised land, both of which are metaphors
for literal emancipation.41 Black religious music evolved from this starting point into
gospel music, a music that was full of call and response, hand clapping, and intense,
driving rhythms.42 The latter describes the up tempo side of gospel, whereas the slow
side boasts virtuosic displays of vocal melismas and a soulful usage of vibrato, all
against a steady accompaniment of electric bass, organ or piano, and drums.43 In
particular, the black Baptist tradition developed a fascinating relationship between the
pastor and congregation, in which call and response was tantamount; the preacher's
sermons were punctuated with exclamations and shouting from the congregation in
response to his own excited and ebullient delivery. The worship experience that
African Americans shared allowed them to feel both connected to the spirit of God
and to each other as believers in Jesus Christ. The collective feeling and energy
within the black church remains one of the strongest facets of black America, and it
remains a significant theme in the story of African American life. The communal
nature of worship inspires a shared sense of the divine, which allows newcomers to
find salvation through fellowshipping with other believers and hearing the word of
God as delivered by the preacher. Musically, the choir and the instrumentalists create
40

Paul Harvey, Freedom's Coming: Religious Culture and the Shaping of the South from the Civil War
through the Civil Rights Era (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005), pp. 116-117.

41

ibid., pp. 123-124; James Weldon Johnson and J. Rosamond Johnson, The Books of American Negro
Spirituals (New York: Da Capo Press, 2002 (1925, 1926)).
42

Harvey, Freedom's Coming, pp. 149-152; Bernice Johnson Reagon, If You Don't Go, Don't Hinder
Me: The African American Sacred Song Tradition (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2001), pp.
12-41; Michael W. Harris, The Rise of Gospel Blues (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), pp.
151-272.
43

Harvey, Freedom's Coming, pp. 158-168.

33

a sacred and sanctified atmosphere as the congregation prays and communes with
God. The collective nature of worship in black church services fosters a sense of
togetherness, often leading churchgoers to a place where they internally transcend the
material world.
In summary, when looked at as a whole, big band jazz, R&B and funk, and
gospel music all contain different types of collectivity. The swing era of the 1930s
and 1940s saw the growth and success of the big band, where jazz orchestras played
compositions that ranged from the simple (head arrangements) to the complex
(suites). Under the leadership of a given bandleader, the big bands forged a name for
themselves as stars emerged from the ranks of the horn and rhythm sections and a
distinct sound emanated from the unique mixture of jazz individualists. The soul and
R&B of the 1950s and 1960s was typified by a developing style that glorified the
vocalist and made the instrumentalist totally subservient to the lyrics of the song. Yet
even in this case, the vocal and instrumental worked together to form an unforgettable
sound that could not work without each other, as was seen in Motown. The funk
music of the 1970s actually saw the return in prominence of the instrumental
"groove," and the emphatic utterances of James Brown fit perfectly with the staccato
and syncopated, funky rhythms of the genre. Finally, gospel music, which is as
strong today as it ever was, saw the ultimate unification of sound and spirit, with
choirs, congregations, and preachers all coming together to form a powerful and
provocative force that placed God in the center of the musical community. Although
none of these musics would claim to be a "musical collective" like M-Base would,
the connection between them and collectives like M-Base is strong, with the M-Base

collective being inspired by all of the aforementioned musics, although it may not be
evident by the sound that M-Base chose as their own.
The Uniqueness of the M-Base Collective
Although M-Base was linked with collectives that came before it and also
African American musics predating the collectives, the M-Base collective boasted
many features that were unique. M-Base members emphasize that it was an
approach to music, rather than a given type of music, which made it largely
theoretical in nature. This approach focused on rhythmic permutations,
improvisational techniques, and new melodic contours. Ironically, what resulted was
a very special and distinct sound that could be linked with M-Base. Despite this fact,
Steve Coleman still insists that M-Base is not a style of music.44 It is hard to deny,
however, that their blending of jazz, funk, and hip-hop was stylistically fresh and
novel. Another aspect of M-Base that was different from the other collectives was
the centrality of clean musical execution and impeccable articulation. The AACM
and BAG were typified by a deliberate timbral roughness, no doubt inspired by the
norms of free jazz. In contrast, the musicians in M-Base delivered their music with
surgical precision, akin to the bebop musicians forty years earlier. Some might say
that the AACM and BAG were more "emotional," linking their use of timbral effects,
various tonal colors, and relentless instrumental energy with an extroverted
personality. Yet the members of M-Base displayed a different type of emotion,
honing their intensity through serpent-like melodic lines and darting syncopated
rhythms that were both introverted and meticulous. The multifaceted personalities
rendered through the music of the M-Base collective reflected the individual
44

Coleman, "M-Base, an explanation."

35
differences amongst its members and the variety of musical voices contributing to the
fabric of sound M-Base presented both on recording and in live performance.
M-Base also featured three prominent women amongst its ranks, something
that, despite being seen in the aforementioned collectives like BAG, was still
uncommon amongst male dominated jazz groups in the 1980s. Vocalist Cassandra
Wilson used her voice both like another horn without lyrics and more traditionally as
she crafted beautiful melodies and narratives with lyrics. Pianist Geri Allen also
made sizeable contributions to the sound of M-Base. She met saxophonists Greg
Osby and Gary Thomas at Howard University, and the musical collaboration with
Osby continued through their move to New York. Finally, there was drummer Terri
Lyne Carrington, a child prodigy who joined M-Base in its earliest days. Although
her stay was brief (she was replaced by drummer Marvin "Smitty" Smith), her impact
on the sound of M-Base was lasting. She was the drummer for Ninth Eye, the name
that the collective used before M-Base.45 When Carrington first met Steve Coleman,
he patted out rhythms for her with his hands to convey the type of rhythmic sound he
wanted for his music.46 She was able to turn these rhythms into drum parts that
inspired the entire collective. After living in New York for four years, Carrington
moved to Los Angeles in 1988 and thus ended her tenure with the group. As three of
the most talented, gifted and qualified musicians of their generation, Wilson, Allen
and Carrington added another dimension to M-Base; M-Base's outstretched arms
constantly searched for the most innovative stylists available and they fit the bill
perfectly.
45

Terri Lyne Carrington, "Interview with Author," March 1, 2006.

The M-Base collective also took full advantage of the advent of personal
computers to facilitate quicker idea sharing and compositional experimentations.
Greg Osby spoke of how he would enter the chords or melodic line of a composition
on which he was working into the computer, and loop it until his improvisations were
seamless with the style of the composition.47 Steve Coleman also used the computer
heavily to experiment with his own melodic theory of "symmetry" - a theory dealing
with the twelve intervals of the chromatic scale - and other theories from
mathematics such as the Golden Mean and the Fibonacci series.48 Everyone in the
M-Base collective could hear each other's musical ideas thanks to new computer
programs that allowed for instant playback. For example, Greg Osby initially used
Dr. T's Music Software on the Commodore 64 keyboard controlled sequencer.49
Computer technology greatly enhanced the camaraderie amongst the musicians as
they shared musical ideas and sparked the creation of the M-Base approach to making
music.
The M-Base collective embraced the burgeoning hip-hop phenomenon,
placing them at odds with other young jazz musicians who shunned the new
movement. Although there was not a rapper in its ranks, M-Base used the rhythms
and sound of hip-hop as a foil for their jazz inspired harmonies and improvisations.
As an offspring of funk, hip-hop brought a new style to the fore which permeated the
M-Base approach. This was seen mainly in the rhythmic style used by the members

47

Osby, "Interview with Author."

48

Steve Coleman, "Interview with Author," February 27, 2006; Steve Coleman, "Symmetrical
Movement Concept," www.m-base.com/symmetrical_movement.html.
Greg Osby, "E-mail to Author," August 15, 2008.

37

of M-Base, with a heavy backbeat played by the drummer and staccato, "straight"
sounding phrasing by the horn players. This was in contrast to another group of
young, black jazz musicians led by trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, who thought that the
sound of hip-hop was degrading and not worthy of integration with jazz music's
illustrious past and present.50 The M-Base collective embraced a wide variety of
musics, and hip-hop, the newest innovation stemming from the black vernacular, was
one of the most central styles of music to influence its sound.
Unlike the musicians surrounding Wynton Marsalis, who copied the style of
an older generation of jazz musicians, predominantly from the 1950s and 1960s, the
musicians in the M-Base collective were not imitating an older style but rather they
were creating a new one, whose technical characteristics I will discuss. M-Base
brought forth a new sound that consisted of radically new melodic techniques that
gave their melodies an angular, winding quality, all over various rhythmic
permutations laid down by the drummer and rhythm section. They layered rhythms
much in the same way that an African ensemble would, and Steve Coleman speaks of
how African music influenced the style of M-Base.51 Since M-Base itself is an
approach to music, it cannot be pigeonholed into one unchanging style. Nonetheless,
there is a signature sound that M-Base musicians developed that cannot be denied, a
sound that inspired the musicians of the M-Base collective to make music that was
different from any other music made before by previous and contemporaneous

Wynton Marsalis and Frank Stewart, Sweet Swing Blues on the Road (New York: W. W. Norton &
Company, 1994), pp. 136-137.
51

Liner Notes. M-Base Collective. Anatomy of a Groove, New York, 1992, Columbia CK 5341.

38
assemblages of musicians. The music will be discussed in Chapter 8, when the MBase collective's album Anatomy of a Groove is analyzed.
The result of this break from convention was that M-Base, unlike Marsalis
and the new generation of boppers in the 1980s, did not have many imitators. To his
credit, Marsalis found a way to embrace the style of Louis Armstrong, Clifford
Brown, Miles Davis and Freddie Hubbard while creating his own "licks" and turns of
phrase. Yet he was the exception, as was his saxophone playing brother Branford,
whereas most of the musicians associated with them based their improvisations on
classic bebop lines. Since bebop and hard bop were embraced as the way to play jazz
in the 1980s,52 it was no wonder why so many aspiring jazz musicians took this path.
The M-Base collective, on the other hand, was playing in such a way that it would be
painfully obvious if someone was copying a peer such as Steve Coleman, whose ideas
were wholly new and still yet to be embraced as a standard by which to measure
one's competency as a jazz musician. The novelty of the M-Base collective's music
was a blessing in the sense that it allowed for exploration and risk taking, much like
all great innovations in art, and also an uncertain direction to follow because it was
yet to be seen whether their music would have a lasting influence like the music of
the bebop era. Interestingly enough, the only people who could be accused of
sounding anything like M-Base musicians were M-Base musicians; the theoretical
underpinnings of their melodic style made it an insider's art. As their sphere of
influence widened, artists who were drawn to their style of playing often managed to
join or become associated with the M-Base collective.

Scott DeVeaux, The Birth of Bebop (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), p. 2.

39
The M-Base collective's music was linked to its historical moment in that it
was an example of the newfound social freedom for African Americans in the 1980s.
This younger generation of musicians in their twenties happened to be the first black
Americans born without the burden of legalized segregation. Growing up in the
1970s, when "black is beautiful" became a rallying cry for post civil rights era blacks,
the musicians of the M-Base collective were emboldened by the political, social and
economic gains of their immediate predecessors. The legal equality proclaimed by
the federal government did not end racism or discrimination, however. Therefore,
young black Americans navigated a new space of attempting equitable treatment and
an undercurrent of residual racism throughout the country. Finding a voice for this
predicament, the M-Base collective expressed a bold declaration of black ingenuity in
particular and the vitality of black music as a genre in general. Although the
members of M-Base do not make any explicit claims about their music having a
specific political message, situating their music historically is important to
understanding the profundity of their contribution to the advancement of jazz music.
The Legacy of the M-Base Collective
This dissertation focuses on the years 1985 to 1992, two bookends marking
the beginning of the M-Base collective to the end of its existence as it was originally
conceived, documented by the recording Anatomy of a Groove. After 1992's
Anatomy of a Groove its members split off into their own respective careers, which
had been taking place all along but accelerated after the recording. As a result, Steve
Coleman took over the reigns of M-Base and continues to spread the word about the

40
M-Base collective today. M-Base lives on through Coleman's efforts, even though
the spirit by which it was founded - as a group without a leader - has changed.
Interestingly enough, the M-Base collective did not inspire another collective
to build upon the concepts of the group. Instead, certain bands borrowed nuances of
the M-Base approach to add to their own sound. Pianist Vijay Iyer is a self-professed
disciple of Steve Coleman and his version of the M-Base collective.53 Robin Eubanks
sees bassist David Holland's current group, of which he is a part, to be an extension
of M-Base.5 The improvisational styles created by Steve Coleman and Greg Osby
are so different from other ways of playing that their influence can be heard readily
on younger players aspiring to broaden their melodic palette. Tenor saxophonist
Gary Thomas, currently a professor at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore,
developed a sound and style that is directly influenced by M-Base, especially
considering his close friendship with Greg Osby. Although there is not a collective
explicitly using M-Base's ideas and theories, there are many artists incorporating MBase's logic into their own.
M-Base continued the tradition of innovation in jazz music, something that
was rare amongst the young jazz musicians of the 1980s. Ever since hard bop tenor
saxophonist Dexter Gordon returned from Europe and headlined at the Village
Vanguard in 1978, straight ahead jazz, with a very conservative bent, became
entrenched in the hearts and minds of jazz critics and fans alike. The return of the
acoustic jazz group to prominence, after a decade of free jazz and fusion in the 1970s,
gave rise to a new generation of young jazz musicians playing in the style of hard
53

Iyer, "Steve Coleman, M-Base, and Musical Collectivism."

54

Eubanks, "Interview with Author."

41
bop. M-Base came about at exactly this same historical moment, offering a different
perspective on the way that jazz music should be and could be played. Taking a very
modernist stance, in which breaking new ground was the primary goal, the M-Base
collective continued to forge the way for different approaches to music much like the
previous generations of jazz musicians had done ever since the genre's inception.
The format of a musical collective was especially effective considering that
M-Base was up against a very anachronistic jazz establishment. The power of the
united front that the M-Base collective presented was manifest in the strength of their
recordings and the lasting success of many of the collective's members. Recorded
predominantly by a small German label, JMT (Jazz Music Today), Steve Coleman,
Greg Osby, Cassandra Wilson and Robin Eubanks launched solo careers that featured
members of the collective and documented the M-Base sound. Although each of
these artists were also straight ahead jazz players, they chose to follow a different
path that pushed the envelope of musical convention and established an alternative to
the resurfacing of bebop in the 1980's jazz mainstream. Coming together under one
name - "M-Base" - reinforced the vitality of the creative spirit to move against
limiting notions of style and musical substance. The marketing forces at play still
pushed the "Young Lions"55 - the name that was given to Wynton Marsalis and his
cohorts - to the forefront of the jazz press. Yet, in spite of this fact, the M-Base
collective managed to develop a following and be heard over the increasing volume
of a strictly straight ahead jazz ethos.

Stuart Nicholson, Is Jazz Dead? (Or Has it Moved to a New Adress) (New York: Routledge, 2005),
p. 7; Howard Mandel, Future Jazz (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 7.

42

The lasting effect of the M-Base collective is felt in the manner in which it is
mentioned in current discussions of jazz history. Ted Gioia's history of jazz
references M-Base towards the end of the book.56 Stuart Nicholson's treatment of
jazz in the 1980s speaks in some detail about M-Base,57 as does his book on jazz
fusion.58 Alyn Shipton's A New History of Jazz speaks briefly about M-Base as
well.59 Yet in many instances, the M-Base collective has yet to be incorporated into
the fabric of jazz history like the AACM and BAG have been. It is long overdue for
the depth of M-Base's contribution to African American music in particular and
music in general to be treated fully and appreciated in detail for its range of concepts,
rhythmic peculiarities, and melodic creativity.
The success of the M-Base collective resulted both from its ingenious
blending of iconoclastic individualists and the precedents established by those groups
that came before it. There had long been a tradition of collectivism in black
American music, and that sort of collective music making facilitated an overarching
sense of togetherness that was embraced by M-Base. Forging new standards for
themselves, the members of the M-Base collective formed a bold type of collective
expression heretofore unseen in modern jazz.
56

Ted Gioia, The History of Jazz (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), p. 371.

57

Stuart Nicholson, Jazz: the 1980s Resurgence (New York: Da Capo Press, 1995), pp. 257-263.

58

Stuart Nicholson, Jazz-Rock: A History (New York: Schrimer Books 1998), pp. 315-318.

59

Alyn Shipton, A New History of Jazz (New York: Continuum, 2007), pp. 626-629.

43

Chapter 3
Black Science: Steve Coleman
While playing music with an incessant drive and graceful agility, alto
saxophonist Steve Coleman creates his own musical world by merging theory with
practice so effortlessly that it sounds both seamless and cerebral. By using his own
melodic theory of "Symmetry" as the cornerstone of his unique compositional and
improvisational style, Coleman produced a plethora of ideas that led to the formation
of his own groups. He developed into a musician who was sought after in both the
straight ahead jazz world and the more experimental aesthetic territory he navigated
with M-Base. Steve Coleman to this day remains true to the rhythmically complex
nature and sophisticated funk created by the M-Base collective. During the
formation of M-Base in the mid-late 1980s, Coleman was a vocal advocate for the
collective's forward looking ideas about music. His own point of view regarding the
importance of M-Base is well documented, as is the expanding intricacy of his music
on recording.1 Steve Coleman evolved into a master of the alto saxophone, and he is,
in my opinion, one of the few stylists after Charlie Parker to create a singular voice.
Between 1985 and 1992, when M-Base was a new collective, Coleman created music
that was as daring as it was precise.
Background
Steve Coleman was born and raised in the South Side of Chicago. Born in
1956, he began playing the alto saxophone at age 14 as a freshman in high school.2
After finishing high school, he attended Illinois Wesleyan University for two years

See Steve Coleman's personal website, www.m-base.com/recordings.html.

"Resume and Bio," www.m-base.com/resume_bio.html.

44

and then transferred to Roosevelt University3 in downtown Chicago. While in


college, he was particularly inspired by local tenor saxophonist Von Freeman and alto
saxophonist Bunky Green.4 Chicago has a long history as a jazz city, since it became
a major metropolis for blacks and jazz when black Americans migrated north from
the Southern United States to Chicago starting at the turn of the 20 century. By the
1920's, Chicago had a riveting presence in jazz.5 Of course, when Steve Coleman
was growing up some forty years later, the scene had changed. Von Freeman, who
was born in 1922 and remains a Chicago jazz legend, was an early inspiration for
Coleman. Rather than move to New York or travel internationally, Freeman chose to
stay in Chicago and lead a jam session at the New Apartment Lounge on the South
Side of Chicago. This legendary weekly jam session has inspired dozens of future
jazz musicians.6 On Freeman's 80th birthday (October 3, 2002) the area surrounding
the New Apartment Lounge - 75th street on the South Side - was renamed "Von
Freeman Way."7 Coleman's other main Chicago influence, alto saxophonist Bunky
Green, was less visible on the Chicago jazz scene. Green was initially known for
having recorded with Sonny Stitt in the 1960s, but later became Director of Jazz

Saxophonist Anthony Braxton also attended Roosevelt University; see Ronald M. Radano, New
Musical Figurations: Anthony Braxton's Cultural Critique (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
1993), pp. 51,60, 114.
4

Steve Coleman, "Resume and Bio," www.m-base.com/resume_bio.html.

William Howland Kenney, Chicago Jazz: A Cultural History, 1904-1930 (Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 1994).
6

John Corbett, "A Cause Without Glory: Von Freeman (Vonski, That Is) Blows the History of
Hardcore Chicago Jazz Through His Tenor Sax," Down Beat, Volume 68, No. 3 (March 2001), pp. 2227.
7

Jason Koransky, "Jazz World: News From Around the Swing Globe," Down Beat, Volume 69, No.
12 (December 2002), p. 14.

45
Studies at the University of North Florida and continues to perform sporadically.8
With these two living influences and his increasing knowledge of the history of the
music, Steve Coleman began to develop his own musical explorations.
In May 1978 Coleman left Chicago for New York, where he found work with
the Thad Jones-Mel Louis Big Band, Abbey Lincoln, and Dave Holland. In addition
to working these steady gigs, Coleman played on the streets of New York with a band
that he founded with trumpeter Graham Haynes. This group later became Steve
Coleman and Five Elements,9 a band that became Coleman's primary recording and
touring unit. Coleman signed with a small German label, Jazz Music Today (JMT),
in 1985, and it was with this label that Coleman first expressed and documented his
individual musical vision.
A New Type of Motion
There was an event in 1977 that shaped the concept that Steve Coleman later
developed. It happened in Chicago when he was twenty, while he was practicing in
Jackson Park at 67th and Cregier, down the street from his house.10 In his own words:
.. .There have been several points in my life where I had kind of
breakthroughs. It seems that progress goes real slow, and then something
happens, and you make this kind of conceptual leap forward, in terms of
understanding something or being able to express something.. .The first time it
happened was back in 1977.. .just when I was practicing in the park and
watching the flight patterns of these bees. It's totally unexpected that I would
8

Michael Jackson, "Keeping it Real," Down Beat, Volume 64, No. 5 (May 1997), pp. 30-32.

Coleman, "Resume and Bio."

10

Steve Coleman, "Interview with Author," February 27, 2006.

46
make any kind of musical connection to this at that time. The bees were really
just bothering me as I was practicing. But as I watched these bees, something
- kind of a flash - hit me, and that took years to work out.. .Yet I got the maybe a year later - the breakthrough of the idea that led me to see the
connection.11
In my interview with Coleman, he emphasized that it was specifically the hovering
patterns and jerky motion of the bees that gave him the idea of developing a musical
style that similarly seemed to "hover."12 He developed a theory to support this new
idea called "Symmetry," which will be discussed at length later in this chapter.
Coleman vividly remembers what it was like seeing the bees move and the
subsequent musical connection that followed. He recalls:
They flew a little like hummingbirds, only much faster, they'd hover in the air
and they'd stop, this hang-fly-hang-fly thing, they would always be moving,
but in a real small space. That fascinated me.. .1 thought about music, and I
said, 'Cats play straight up and down in a scalar fashion, nobody plays like
these bees move.' There's this thing that we used to call 'hanging,' where
people would hang on a note, like Coltrane would, breaking up an eighth-note
rhythm in a certain way that sounded hip, usually on upbeats. These bees
were doing that but on a real advanced level. Bunky [Green] and people were

11

"An Interview with Steve Coleman conducted by Nate Chenin (for the Philadelphia City Paper:
February 11, 1999)," www.m-base.com/int_chenin.html.
12

Coleman, "Interview with Author."

47

doing it too, but the bees were doing it more, and better. I wanted to play like
that, rhythmically and melodically.13
Such an epiphany led Coleman to search for a way to create this motion in his
saxophone playing.
Coleman noticed that most jazz musicians that he heard played in a sweeping
motion; he sought to develop a different style to mimic the hovering of the bees.
Coleman observed that musicians commonly played in a motion like flying birds - in
ascending and descending patterns. He makes the connection between this style and
what is called "lines." Coleman sang a familiar Charlie Parker lick in F major to
demonstrate what he meant by a musical line (Example l). 14
Example 1: Charlie Parker Phrase

(*, 1

Interestingly enough, musicians and critics alike called Parker "Bird" (this name was
not originally given to Parker for his musical style, but it later applied to his soaring
melodic ideas) which gives further credence to Coleman's assertion that lines looked
like birds in flight. Coleman soon created a method of playing that sounded very
much like an aural depiction of bees in motion. One key aspect of this new approach
was to circulate around particular pitches to give the impression of "hovering" around
a given location.

13

Peter Watrous, "Brooklyn's in the House: The New Scene's Hang-Fly-Hang-Fly Thing," The
Village Voice, Jazz Special, August 25, 1987, p. 5.
Coleman, "Interview with Author."

48

While still in Chicago, Steve Coleman noticed how musicians like Von
Freeman created something similar to the style for which he was searching. Coleman
called the sound "holes"; when he heard an improvising musician hold a note and
create a hesitating feeling, he would exclaim, "Oh, check out that hole!"15 His
excitement about this manner of playing fed his appetite for creating something new
which more explicitly emphasized this hesitating rhythmic approach.
Besides the bees, there were other nonmusical phenomena that inspired his
search for a different sound. Coleman's father was a boxing fan, and was especially
fond of the fighting styles of Sugar Ray Robinson and Muhammad Ali. Steve
Coleman observed their styles - the way they would bob and weave, jab, and evade
punches. He liked the motion of the boxer in the ring. In this way, Coleman was
similar to Miles Davis, who saw the connection between boxers and musicians; there
was a style and science to each profession and Davis emulated this both as a novice
boxer and a master musicians.16 In his essay "The Black Intellectual and the Sport of
Prizefighting," Gerald Early emphasizes the importance of the black boxer as both a
political and social symbol of what it meant to be an African American in the midlate 20th century.17 Another influence was basketball. Coleman especially liked when
a pro ball player such as Isaiah Thomas or Tim Hardaway would "cross over," a
move in which someone would bounce the ball from one hand to the other and
hesitate his step to make the defender lose track of him. Finally, Coleman mentioned

Miles Davis with Quincy Troupe, Miles: The Autobiography (New York: Touchstone, 1989), pp.
180-182.
17

Gerald Early, Culture of Bruising (Hopewell: Ecco Press, 1994), p. 33.

the great Chicago Bears football running back Gale Sayers, who was known for
breaking tackles with his cuts, shakes, and quickness of changing direction. All of
these sports examples also factored into Steve Coleman's vision for how he wanted
his music to sound.18
The Charlie Parker Connection
Although bees and sports contributed to the development of Coleman's
signature style, musically speaking Charlie Parker was the strongest connection.
Steve Coleman began listening to Charlie Parker seriously at age seventeen. Yet he
had heard Parker frequently while growing up, since Coleman's father was a big fan
of Charlie Parker's music. Initially Coleman did not like Parker: "He just sounded to
me - 1 had very weak ears at the time - and he sounded to me like a cat playing
chromatic scales and squeaking."19 Instead, he favored another Parker, Maceo
Parker, James Brown's alto saxophonist.20 The simpler style and funky accents of
Maceo Parker were easier for Coleman to pick up at first. However, after a few
years of playing, Coleman began to hear the brilliance of Charlie Parker's
conception.21
There are three main examples in Charlie Parker's body of work that are
direct precedents to the style that Steve Coleman developed. They are the
introductory theme to "Ko-Ko," the melody to "Moose the Mooche," and his solo in

Coleman, "Interview with Author."


ibid.
Steve Coleman, "Sine Die," www.m-base.com/sinedie.html.
Coleman, "Interview with Author."

50

"Klactoveedsedstene." Coleman said that he definitely took notice of these specific


examples as he developed his own manner of playing.22
"Ko-Ko" is a melody played by Charlie Parker on alto saxophone and Dizzy
Gillespie on trumpet that exemplifies the "holes" that Coleman became so fond of in
Chicago. In particular, Coleman was drawn to the first eight measures of the thirty
two bar AABA composition (Example 2).
Example 2: Ko-Ko, mm. 1-8

mr

fc

r * Tr

r r

is

IT r'r
*

3ESE

Although the solos follow the familiar chord changes to the song "Cherokee," the
introduction uses a different set of chord changes. What Coleman paid close attention
to was the hesitation created by the melodic line.

This rhythmic approach consisted

of placing accents on various beats in the metric structure to accentuate the


syncopated nature of the melody. An ambiguity exists between the underlying
timeline and the melody, which gives the melody the hesitating quality that Coleman
noticed. The melody itself has notes ranging from dotted half notes to eighth notes,
and they are placed at interesting points to create a flowing and dynamic melodic line.
In the key of B flat major, the melody to "Ko-Ko" starts on G, the sixth degree of the
scale, before it is followed by the tonic. There are also touches of the blues with the

22

ibid.
ibid.

51
minor third, D flat, emphasized in the third measure. The harmonies implied are
ambiguous in these first eight bars.
What was most important to Coleman was the rhythm of this phrase, which
created a staggered feeling. The anticipation of the next held note is tantamount to
what he heard in developing his own style. In looking at the first four measures of
Example 2, the held notes create a rhythmic syncopation that gives a lunging
sensation. The motion of the melody is an early precedent to the "hovering" patterns
in which Steve Coleman was so interested. Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie play
the melody in unison, with Gillespie an octave above Parker, and the strength of the
melodic line draws attention to the rhythm of the phrase. This gives the listener a
sense of how bebop can depart from the norm; usually, horns play over a clear
harmonic background provided by piano and bass. With only drummer Max Roach
to support them, Parker and Gillespie present a theme that darts and lunges as the
drummer's brushes thump out a steady 4/4 beat. Steve Coleman would develop a
similar manner of playing over a background, which involved rhythmically diverting
from the steady patterns played by the rhythm section. The result was an approach to
playing where the improviser navigates the accompaniment by creating a hanging
rhythmic sensation.
While the rhythmic pattern of "Ko-Ko" piqued Steve Coleman's curiosity, the
melody to Parker's composition "Moose the Mooche" (Example 3) presents a
melodic style that was similarly influential on Coleman. Based on the chord changes
of the Gershwin standard "I Got Rhythm," "Moose the Mooche" consists of a

52
Example 3: Moose the Mooche
Bb

C-

B\>

F7
3

M l

i7bpjJlrg

*l

F7

[? J

Bb

5*

Eb

Bl>7

J'i^^TJJ J

7 p |7^J 7 Jit;

F7

S^P

Bb

^ E f r

Bb

F7

F7

10

^ ^ 3E 5

Eb

Bl>7

^J

Jpc:

* - ^

Bb

Ab7

J331
L>J
* tnr

* '"

* In

j ' J ^^

A-

D7

7 J' 7 J 7 g J

16

1 r 1

y^-r-l

3EE*

I I
~r

G7
19

7 J) 7 JT~J |bp 7=p

53
C7

C-

F7

22

^ J jjJ

B^

C-

25

J I bJ

7 J1 7 J 7

Bt

F7
5

P LfT

i^p J j ] r

F7

r"rr

u * pip
E^

Bl>7

28

J J J p J J'ltJ J J J J ^ p hi>J 7 ^
B\>

F7

^=^ft

SSje

k,^J?

disjunctive style of playing that cuts into the regular 4/4 pulse with short syncopations
throughout the entire melody. Also in the key of B flat major, this thirty two bar
AABA composition emphasizes the fifth degree of the scale, F; the notes depart from
and return to F frequently in the A sections of the piece (Example 3, mm. 1, 3, 4, 5
and 7). The angular leaps in the melody create a different type of staggered motion
than "Ko-Ko," this time with short, quick rests between tones. This melody creates a
start-and-stop feeling, and it breaks up the time in such a way that it invents an
equally strong melodic and rhythmic concept.

Charlie Parker's enigmatic theme

presents in full view how an angular melody with frequent, jarring syncopations
creates its own unique sound.
Steve Coleman took the jagged and cutting style provided by Charlie Parker in
"Moose the Mooche" and, as will be shown, made it his own by radicalizing the
intervals and melodic content. Part of what made Coleman stand out was his

54

approach to melody. Coleman combined the relentless, stream-of-eighth-note


approach created by the boppers and the wide intervallic style of "Moose the
Mooche," resulting in a sound that was colorful and edgy. Steve Coleman broke out
of the convention of linear improvisational norms into a language that implied
tonalities and harmonies that were outlined by Coleman's unusual melodic patterns.
Coleman was fond of Charlie Parker's tone, which was biting and sharp in
comparison to the warm and round tone of Duke Ellington's alto saxophonist Johnny
Hodges. There is a connection between the short, staccato style presented in "Moose
the Mooche" and the funky accents of James Brown's saxophonist Maceo Parker;
Coleman linked these two influences both in sound and style and crafted a sound that
was somewhere in between the two Parkers. Coleman's tone is hard and straight closer to Maceo Parker's than Charlie Parker's - but his virtuosic facility on the
instrument was directly inspired by Charlie Parker. Coleman added his own
harmonic vocabulary to the mix, something which descended from bebop but did not
mimic it. What resulted was a style that Coleman created that sounded like no one
else but himself.
Finally, Coleman heard an improvised version of what Parker did in "Moose
the Mooche" in Parker's "Klactoveedsedstene."

In yet another thirty two bar AABA

song form in the key of B flat, Parker crafted a masterful improvised solo based on a
single rhythmic motive (Example 4). This motive begins in the 32nd bar before the
first A section of the solo section when Parker plays F on the downbeat of that
measure, followed by three beats of rest, and in the following measure - the first
measure of the A section - plays C on the downbeat of that measure. This simple

55
phrase sets up a string of permutations that are based on this rhythmic hesitation
(Example 4, mm. 1-10). Parker spins out his variations on this theme brilliantly,
with each phrase logically connected to what precedes and what follows it. This
example clearly illustrates the manner in which Parker could paint a picture or tell a
story with his saxophone, creating a coherent image or flowing narrative. Steve
Coleman took note of how the union of a strong rhythmic idea and an intriguing
melodic germ could create an entirely new style of playing.
Example 4: Klactoveedsedstene, Parker Solo
B\>

C-

F7

S
*

Bb

S^

G7

Bb

F7

-3*

&

lr-W

fcf-1

E\>

" J'JUJ
G7

i ' ^ * ^fr

^E

-*#Bb

Al>7

10

3^*f

G7

J ^ JJ I T
B\>

JJ^ J J j J
F7

' i j j 'j JbJ -f J^JllJ I


B\>

56
Symmetry
Coleman invented a theory for a melodic system that would give the
impression of the hovering bees he saw while practicing in 1977. He eventually
called the theory "Symmetry," because it involved equidistant movements around
tones. Symmetry became the principle means for how Steve Coleman improvised
and composed music.24
Steve Coleman arrived at the name for his concept because it best represented
the musical rules he created, even though preoccupations with symmetry were to a
lesser extent a part of other musicians' compositional processes as well. For
example, tenor saxophonist John Coltrane used a symmetrical tonal outline for his
landmark December 1964 recording A Love Supreme, in which the four movements
showcased a whole step- perfect fifth-whole step tonal modulation (F-Eb-Bb-C)
resulting in a I-V relationship in parts one ("Acknowledgment") and four ("Psalm")
and two ("Resolution") and three ("Persuance"), respectively.25 But Coleman's
approach to symmetry was very different; he used symmetry more locally by
implementing it in each melodic motive to produce a new technique and sound that
could approximate his buzzing inspiration.
Coleman's concept of Symmetry is a theory of melodic motion. It uses
intervals as its basis, and divides the twelve intervals of the chromatic scale into two
categories, which he calls "spirals." The first spiral starts with a unison on C, and
then simultaneously ascends and descends chromatically. The intervals that result

24

25

Steve Coleman, "Symmetrical Movement Concept," www.mbase.com/symmetrical_movement.html.

Lewis Porter, John Coltrane: His Life and Music (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998),
p. 236.

57
from this contrary motion are the unison, major 2nd, major 3 rd , tritone, minor 6th, and
minor 7 l . Notice that the same intervals occur twice in this process, dividing the
octave in half; this is what Coleman calls "the symmetrical mirror image of the
spiral."26 Coleman calls these "symmetrical intervals" (Example 5).
Example 5: Symmetrical Intervals

-m

Unison M2

Piano

n
M3 Tritone

*
m6

-V-

fr^Y y

3 ^

rT rt

J i -

fc*

m7

* \>

The second spiral begins with a C-D flat dyad, and then, just as in the first
spiral, simultaneously ascends and descends chromatically in contrary motion through
an octave. The intervals of the second spiral are the minor 2 nd , minor 3 rd , perfect 4th,
perfect 5 l , major 6*, and major 7th. Coleman calls these "non-symmetrical intervals"
(Example 6).
Example 6: Non-Symmetrical Intervals

2E
Piano

U :. U :
m2

9E^

m3

P4

P5

*
*=%*
M6

M7

V
^

* F 3EEE

J I '

The rules of his theory are as follows: if the musician plays a note followed by any of
the non-symmetrical intervals, then the next note played must be the exact same
distance from the first pitch in the opposite direction. For example, if a perfect 4th

Coleman, "Symmetrical Movement Concept."

58
from C to F is played, then the next note played must be G, since G is a perfect 4th
below C. In this example, C is what Coleman calls the axis and F and G are the tones
that are governed by it. One of the caveats to this rule is that the tones can be played
in any octave. The key is that the musician must think in terms of the intervals
moving around an axis. If a musician plays one of the intervals that Coleman calls
symmetrical intervals - namely the unison, major 2nd, major 3 rd , tritone, minor 6th,
and minor 7th - then he or she can play any tone after that. In Coleman's system,
only the non-symmetrical intervals must be rigidly played in equal distance around
the axis tone.27
Although Symmetry is a key aspect of Coleman's approach to playing the
saxophone, he also utilizes more commonly held theories of voice leading and
playing chord changes. Coleman integrated the principles of Symmetry into his style
in the early 1980s, and it became a central way for him to play within, or outside of,
the chord changes. The sonic effect of Symmetry is a kaleidoscopic array of tones
around shifting tonal centers; Coleman says that this elicits an "accordion effect in
time."28 One of the reasons Symmetry is so effective in the context of the M-Base
collective is that its music often has long vamps on single chords, allowing for
Coleman to superimpose various chordal and melodic structures over the static
harmonic background.
In his essay on Symmetry, Steve Coleman discusses how he learned to
methodically incorporate his theories into his playing. In his own words:

28

ibid.

59
When I first started dealing with symmetry I only dealt with the laws of
motion produced by the system without any regard for other types of
tonality.. .1 began writing symmetrical exercises for myself. Then I practiced
these exercises to get my fingers and ears used to moving and hearing these
ideas. It was only after doing this that I practiced improvising within these
structures playing at first in an open manner (not based on any outside
structure such as a song). Later I adapted these improvisations to structures
and forms. I did this by slowly integrating the ideas with the more traditional
improvisational style I was already playing. My goal was not to play in a
totally symmetrical style (as this would be as boring as playing all major
scales) but to integrate the style and give myself more options when I
improvise.29
Coleman thinks of his concept in terms of structure and movement.

At first,

he was solely interested in how Symmetry worked as movement through time. After
all, his inspiration for this theory was the movement of bees. In the process of
working with his ideas for nearly thirty years, he has become increasingly concerned
with the structure as well as the movement of his ideas. He compared structure to
architecture, and gave the example of how a major triad has a major third followed by
a minor third. Structure manifests itself musically through mathematics, in terms of
interval distances, voice leading, and other processes. Yet he also spoke of
movement in terms of duration, and how no music to his knowledge exists without a
temporal component. The unification of structure and movement is tantamount to

Coleman, "Interview with Author."

60
music in general, and Coleman identifies these two components as central to his
conceptualization of musical space.31
Steve Coleman's ultimate aim has been to internalize his own theory so that it
is second nature and intuitive. Although now a master of his instrument, he still
remembers a time when he was just getting started. "It was a serious struggle to play
even one note, and to figure out where my hands went and everything."32 As he
advanced as a musician, the fingerings and reflexes needed to become a proficient
saxophone player were ingrained in his mind and body.
I asked Coleman about how he went about incorporating his theoretical ideas
into his music. "I don't want to be thinking no theory or calculations or anything like
that when I'm playing," Coleman said. He described the various kinds of ideas that
he developed as "tools," like a hammer or a wrench. "I want it to be so mixed up [in
my mind] that I don't even know at any given moment what I'm using."33 Coleman
made an analogy to language and conversation. "The goal is to get it just like a
language. I'm not thinking, 'Adverb next, don't forget that conjunction,' you
know.. .I'm not thinking on that level when I talking to you; I'm thinking about ideas,
and whatever comes out with the language comes out because the words and phrases
are internalized. So, the same thing with music - 1 want to always play on the level
where the ideas behind all these things.. .are happening."34 Therefore, he sees music
and verbal communication in the same light; we build a lexicon that we can draw

31

ibid.

32

ibid.

33

ibid.

34

ibid.

61
from at anytime when we speak and it allows us to converse with others in a given
language. It is important to Coleman that this lexicon be one of his own making - not
that of Charlie Parker, or John Coltrane, or anyone else - and Symmetry provided that
opportunity for him to make his own unique contribution to music.35
Neutral Zone
Steve Coleman's body of recorded work is varied and vast. His first recording
under his own name, Motherland Pulse?6 is a session from 1985 that is acoustic and
showcases his love for straight ahead jazz. In the recordings to follow, Coleman
explored a more explicitly funky side of music, using an electric bass, electric guitar
and synthesizers frequently. His group, Steve Coleman and Five Elements, was a
principle source for the formation of the M-Base sound. Coleman's 1986 album
World Expansion (by the M-Base neophyte)37 was one of the earliest public usages of
the M-Base moniker.
There is one Steve Coleman composition that wonderfully demonstrates both
the "holes" that Coleman heard in Chicago and in Parker's "Ko-Ko," and his
Symmetrical Movement Concept: "Neutral Zone" from Coleman's 1990 release
entitled Rhythm People?9, Taken at a moderately up tempo 4/4 swing pulse, "Neutral
Zone" contains a melody that displays many rhythmic hesitations and "hovers"
frequently (Example 7; for example, see especially mm. 2, 12-14, 25-26). With an
odd 37 measures of music (not including 2 bars of rhythm section following the

Steve Coleman. Motherland Pulse, New York, 1985, JMT 834 401-2.
Steve Coleman. World Expansion (by the M-Base neophyte), New York, 1986, JMT 834 410-2.
Steve Coleman. Rhythm People, New York, 1990, Novus PD 83092.

62
melody and 4 bars at the top of each chorus), it seems as if the form of the
composition is determined by the whimsical melody. There is a very distinct form,
however; Coleman, Robin Eubanks, and others solo over it and keep the form
throughout. The tonal center is A in this piece, specifically A dominant 7.

The

piece implies other chords as well, but they are nebulous.


Example 7: Neutral Zone, Melody

CT'CJ

3EEJE

J 1* cjjj^J 7 J iyH

* &

iffip
^

Impff

3EE5

W
l

-0

[7 JU J

0-

3@g%

se

3 =

19

J *U

L 'y i '"Mr

* [

hr

rj 1 ^

63

25

^ J J J"

=^=

7 J\ J

28

31

=F*

^
^

34

"IjTj^O

i~*~

3E*

Coleman's use of Symmetry is integrated throughout the composition, and he


also uses some less transparent techniques of Symmetry as well. Both analyses of
"Neutral Zone" and the following example, "Black Phonemics," are mine. One of the
finer points of his theory is that an axis can have more than one tone; specifically, it
can have two tones which make symmetrical movements to two other tones.39 I have
labeled each example of Symmetry with lettered brackets, and I have also circled the
axis tones. In m. 6 (bracket A) there is an A-G axis that resolves to Bb-Gb (a minor
7th axis with a symmetrical move of a minor 2nd up and down, respectively).
Coleman specifies that, in the case of an axis with two tones, the symmetrical
movement fans out in opposite directions: ".. .you can think of [two tones] together as
an axis. Then you can expand out a half step on either side of this axis.. ."40 Another
aspect of Coleman's Symmetrical Movement Concept is that the axis tone can be
39

Coleman, "Symmetrical Movement Concept."

40

ibid.

64
approached from either direction (backwards or forwards).41

For example, in m. 10

(bracket B) the note D is the axis and is surrounded by the tones B (which precedes it)
and F (which follows it), making it a symmetrical move of a major 6th. In this
example, B is a major sixth above the axis tone D and a D is the major 6th above F,
when considering that F is thought of as being below D (following Coleman's octave
reduction rale). In m. 13 (bracket C), Coleman presents something which he calls
"nested axial movement,"42 which is when the axis of one series of tones overlaps
with another; in a symmetrical move of a minor 2" , there is a Bb axis (B-Bb-A) and
an A axis (Bb-A-Ab). The remaining brackets, D through G, are more examples of
Symmetry in "Neutral Zone." Notice that in bracket F (mm. 29-30) the axis tone Db
is preceded by C and followed by D natural, a symmetrical move of a minor 2nd; there
are two notes in between this moment of Symmetry that seem to be an instance in
which Coleman is mixing his theory with other melodic ideas. As Coleman says,
"There are many variations to the above laws of movement that are still considered
symmetrical movements according to this theory."43
Coleman's theory leads to a new form of musical analysis in which his
symmetrical melodic constructions can be identified. However, traditional modes of
musical analysis, like that created by Heinrich Schenker, can parallel Symmetry in
analyzing Coleman's music. Schenkerian analysis' emphasis on the interaction of
melody, counterpoint, harmony and form can be helpful in locating an interrelated use

41

ibid.

42

ibid.

43

ibid.

65
of motivic patterns.44 Coleman uses all of these aspects in his music, and often
intersperses more commonly held melodic structures and voice leading with his own
theory. Speaking of his use of axis tones, Coleman points out that musical analysis
can take many forms: "The analysis of the axial progression can be thought of in any
number of different ways. In other words it is possible to analyze these same
passages differently and still be well within the given laws."45 Perhaps thinking of
Coleman's symmetrical movements as underlying motivic structures can be an
interesting entry into understanding his work. As Coleman says, ".. .with some
imagination, the same [symmetrical] ideas could be merged with any other logic."46
Black Phonemics
Coleman's music is full of many idiosyncrasies, namely his dense rhythmic
structures, layered ostinatos, and blindingly fast execution on his instrument. One of
the clearest examples of the staggered melodic style he created - influenced by
Parker's "Moose the Mooche" - comes from the 1991 release Black Science?1 on his
own composition entitled "Black Phonemics" (Example 8). It is replete with all of
the hesitations that he loves (for example, mm. 3-11) and his intervallic penchant for
Symmetry. As the entire composition shows, Coleman builds rhythmic and melodic
tension through staggered accents and leaping phrasing.
Whereas "Neutral Zone" used a jazz swing feel, "Black Phonemics" makes
use of a funk groove. The music is fast and furious, and Coleman's virtuosity as an
44

Allen Cadwallader and David Gagne, Analysis of Tonal Music: A Schenkerian Approach (Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 1998), pp. 3-4, 111.
45

Coleman, "Symmetrical Movement Concept."

46

ibid.

47

Steve Coleman. Black Science, New York, 1990, Novus PD 83119.

Example 8: Black Phonemics, Melody

fH

3E
Dk

Dk

Dk

"(j)! J J J

dat

Bl>7+4

Bl>7+4

Dk

Bk+4

Dk

^ ^

IJT3

J~3_J3-4

3Z/14

Dk

Dk

14

5EE5
Dk

i ^ '^ J J f P
D

Bk7+4

Bl7+4

^
Bl7+4

Dk

ft.fr

IP
*

Dk

[ /

improviser is on full display after he renders the infectious yet complicated melody.
"Black Phonemics" is a 22 bar composition, split into two 11 bar sections with the
same harmonic material (m. 1 and m. 24 on the score are a pick-up and the first
measure of the next chorus, respectively) but with different melodic material. The
piece revolves around E minor. In the form, there are 4 measures of 5/4 interjected in

67
this otherwise steady 4/4 groove established by drummer Marvin "Smitty" Smith.
The darting nature of the melody can clearly be connected to the leaping phrasing of
"Moose the Mooche." Unlike in "Neutral Zone," Coleman often leaves substantial
space between phrases to create a fast moving and constantly changing melodic line.
Steve Coleman overdubs his alto saxophone to create a countermelody, but only the
top voice that he plays will be shown and analyzed here.
"Black Phonemics" contains a handful of examples of Symmetry. In m. 7
(bracket A), there is an axis tone of E that is followed by B and A, making a
symmetrical move of a perfect 5 . In m. 10 (bracket B), F is the axis, which is
followed by Bb and, after some intermediary material, C, making a symmetrical
move of a perfect 4th. In m. 15 (bracket C), A is the axis, preceded by Ab and
followed by Bb (a symmetrical move of a minor 2nd). In m. 18 (bracket D), E-F is the
axis (minor 2nd) that resolves to B and Bb (a symmetrical move of a perfect 5th). In
mm. 19-20 (bracket E), D is the axis tone resolving to G and A (a symmetrical move
of a perfect 4th). Finally, in m. 21 (bracket F), C is the axis followed by Db and B, a
symmetrical move of a minor 2n .
"Neutral Zone" and "Black Phonemics" combine all of the elements important
in Coleman's musical style - from the hesitations he heard in Chicago, to the
rhythmic sophistication of Charlie Parker, to the development of his Symmetry
concept. Yet their startling differences in both sound and style are testament to the
varied nature of Coleman's compositions.

68
Steve Coleman the Sideman
While he started his own group in the early 1980s, Coleman was a steady
fixture on recordings as a sideman under the leadership of bassist Dave Holland.
Dave Holland is best known as a bassist who worked with trumpeter Miles Davis
briefly in the late 1960s, and then went on to be a formidable bandleader in his own
right. Coleman and Holland's tenure together lasted for the entire duration of MBase's initial fame in the mid 1980s and early 1990s. Their albums include: Jumpin'
In48 (1984), Seeds of Time49 (1985), The Razor's Edge50 (1987), Triplicate51 (1988),
Extensions

(1990), and Phase Space (1991). Except for Phase Space, all of these

albums were released on the ECM label, a European label known for cutting edge
jazz. On these recordings with Holland, Coleman displayed his traditional jazz chops
in an acoustic format. Group configurations ranged from quintet sans piano (1984,
1985, and 1987), to quartet (1990), to trio (1988) to duo with saxophone and bass
(1991). Showcased in this "swinging" atmosphere, Coleman displayed more vividly
his indebtedness to the bebop pioneers as he effortlessly navigated chord changes.
In his recordings with Holland students of jazz will find the most accessible
presentation of Steve Coleman's style. With his ability to fit into any musical
surrounding, Coleman found a way to remain true to his own improvisational and

48

Dave Holland. Jumpin' In, Ludwigsburg, 1983, ECM 1269.

49

Dave Holland. Seeds of Time, Ludwigsburg, 1984 ECM 1292.

50

Dave Holland. The Razor's Edge, Ludwigsburg, 1987 ECM 1353.

51

Dave Holland. Triplicate, New York, 1988 ECM 1373.

52

Dave Holland. Extensions, New York, 1989 ECM 1410.

53

Steve Coleman and Dave Holland. Phase Space, New York, 1991 DIW 865.

69
compositional persona while accommodating another composer's music. What is
evident in these recordings is how much "at home" Coleman sounds in a traditional
jazz setting. This may have come as a surprise to some jazz critics,54 but Steve
Coleman's roots in jazz saxophone playing were deep and far reaching.
An example of this can be found on the album Triplicate, on a version of the
Duke Ellington composition "Take the Coltrane." In a trio format with Coleman on
alto saxophone, Dave Holland on bass, and Jack DeJohnette on drums, Coleman
plays several choruses of inspired blues. A twelve bar blues composition, Duke
Ellington's "Take the Coltrane" was a selection from the famed 1962 release Duke
Ellington and John Coltrane.55 In his solo, Coleman displays brilliantly how he
combines his own theory of Symmetry with traditional voice leading patterns typical
ofbebop.
Staying Relevant
Despite his esoteric theory of Symmetry and his extremely intricate approach
to improvising and composing music, Steve Coleman finds it important to stay in
touch with the vernacular. Specifically, he embraces hip-hop as the music that
represents a young generation of urban black Americans. Coleman has worked with
rappers in his group Metrics, and has also collaborated with the Philadelphia based
hip-hop group The Roots. Speaking of the connection between hip-hop and the blues,
Steve Coleman reflects on what he considers to be the music of his time:

Bill Milkowski, "Branford Marsalis and Steve Coleman: Gang of Two," Down Beat, January 1992,
Volume 59, No. 1, pp. 16-20.
55

John Coltrane. Duke Ellington and John Coltrane, New Jersey, 1962 Impulse A 30.

70

.. .[T]he music I grew up on, like funk, r&b, Motown.. .That's the blues of my
generation. Most jazz people think of the blues as Muddy Waters. But when
I think of the blues, I'm not thinking specific song structures or a 12-bar form.
Just like Billie Holiday and Lester Young said in interviews, I think of blues
as the feeling of regular people, not a style. It's not pretentious music, it's not
thought- out and it's not something you have to go to school to get trained to
play. The blues in schools is distilled and stylized. The blues I grew up with
was sung by people like James Brown who were expressing everyday
experiences. That's what the blues of today should be like, too - and that's
being played on the streets by rappers and hip-hop artists.56
This desire to keep a foothold in the music of his youth is reflective of the M-Base
collective's incorporation of various popular musics into their own blend of jazz and
vernacular culture.
M-Base.com
Steve Coleman has made it his business to spread the word about M-Base.
His personal website is m-base.com, and it disseminates information about his
background, his musical interests, his recordings, and more broadly the goals and
aspirations of the M-Base collective. To Coleman, the M-Base collective is very
much still alive and thriving. Yet its collaborative nature has changed, since Coleman
is the leader of the group now. Coleman reminisces on when M-Base began and how
it changed as he became recognized as its leader:

Dan Ouellette, "Steve Coleman's Jazz Outreach," Down Beat, October 1996, Volume 63 No. 10, pp.
28-31.

71
You see when I was working with Cassandra Wilson, Greg Osby, Geri Allen
etc. we made it a point to try and have a group that did not have a musical
leader (or a business leader). I was one of the pushier people in the group in
terms of trying to advance our musical way of thinking. When the press
began to write about us as a group they (the press) decided to make someone
in the group the leader. In every interview that I've ever done and when I
talked to anyone I made it a point to tell them that I was not the leader of MBase and that there was no leader. This made no difference to western
thinking journalists who insisted that there was a leader, and normally it was
written that I started (or was the leader of) M-Base.. .Eventually egos came
into play and this is one of the reasons why this particular group of people are
not really working together that much today.57
Since this dissertation is focused on the days prior to the disbandment of the initial
M-Base collective, it does not delve into the work Coleman did post 1992 (after the
M-Base collective recording Anatomy of a Groove). However, after 1992 Coleman
continued to lead his group Steve Coleman and Five Elements, formed new groups,
and made trips to Africa, Cuba and India to collaborate with local musicians and learn
new techniques to incorporate into his own music.
Another unique aspect ofm-base.com is that Coleman makes the vast majority
of his music available to download for free.58 Since many of his recordings are out of
print, Coleman has given those interested in his music access to his large musical
output without having to pay for it. In this way, Coleman has made it easy to
57

"An Interview with Steve Coleman conducted by Vijay Iyer," www.m-base.com/int_vijay.html.

58

Steve Coleman, "Why Do I Give Away Some of My Music?," www.m-base.com/give_away.html.

72

become familiar with his evolution as an artist, even if the music itself is far from
"easy." He is showing that artists can thrive when they reach out, educate, and share
their music with others.
Today, Steve Coleman seeks to create a music that is informed by many
different cultures while still remaining true to his core love of jazz. His travels to
Africa, Cuba and India, which are documented in the film Elements of One,59 opened
Coleman's eyes to the many musical bridges that exist between their cultures. MBase became a forum through which he could display his experimentations and
exploration of a variety of different musical traditions. Yet his musical experiments
are firmly rooted in his accomplishments as a saxophonist, something which he never
loses sight of as he consistently stretches the boundaries of his art.
Although Steve Coleman remains true to the sound created by M-Base, most
vividly in his group Five Elements, he reaches out to many other musical worlds
through intensive study and participation. His fascination with ancient Egyptian
culture and its many long held treasures is one example of his inquisitive immersion
into other ways of thinking. Speaking of this interest, Steve Coleman explains:
... [M]y study of Ancient Egyptian culture.. .drives me to go to all these
different places [around the world]. I believe that there's a certain stream of
knowledge that, when Egypt was destroyed, sort of fanned out to different
places - parts here, parts there. There are certain aspects that went to Asia,
certain aspects to Europe through Mesopotamia, Babylonia, etc. A certain

Elements of One, Eve-Marie Breglia director, Chod Production, Five Phases Management, 2004
(DVD).

73

aspect went through the Sahara to places like Mali, to places like Nigeria;
certain aspects went to Ethiopia.
I firmly believe that's what happened. And I'm in the process, in my
own way, of reassembling this thing. Part of what I'm involved in is studying
all these streams.60
As a world traveler, Steve Coleman expanded beyond the New York centeredness of
M-Base and interacted with the music that intrigued him in the African Diaspora,
Asia and Europe. To this day, Coleman constantly seeks to learn new things and
continues to evolve as an uncompromising and searching artist.

60

Larry Blumenthal, "Unshrouding the Mysteries of Steve Coleman," JAZZIZ, June 1998, Volume 15,
No. 6, p. 57.

74

Chapter 4
Different Perspectives: Robin Eubanks
In the mid 1980s, trombonist Robin Eubanks sought to break free of his
musical influences and to connect with likeminded musicians who also were
searching for musical freedom. The M-Base collective provided that opportunity,
and Eubanks in turn added warmth and flowing melodicism to this highly theoretical
and complex group. Initially a protegee of trombonist Slide Hampton in the late
1970's and early 1980's, Eubanks later concluded that emulating his heroes was no
longer enough.1 Recording extensively with bassist Dave Holland's band as well as
with his own groups, Robin Eubanks established a unique way of composing music
that allowed for many stylistic changes within a seamless and unified form. For
Eubanks, who became a Buddhist in 1983, musical evolution came along with
spiritual change.

Searching for a more holistic experience, Eubanks focused on the

flow of energy and how to channel it through his music.


As a close friend to Steve Coleman during their M-Base collaborations,
Eubanks often felt as if the two of them came to similar musical conclusions but from
entirely different processes.4 Whereas Coleman was highly mathematical and
analytical in his composing, Eubanks deliberately approached his music from a more
intuitive standpoint. In particular, Eubanks emphasized letting inspiration come
from the music he heard in his head, as opposed to a predetermined theory or

Robin Eubanks, "Interview with Author," March 17, 2006.

Other prominent jazz musicians who are Buddhist include saxophonist Wayne Shorter and pianist
Herbie Hancock.
3

Eubanks, "Interview with Author."

ibid.

75
technique.5 Although Eubanks left M-Base before the group recorded its only album,
Anatomy of a Groove, he was a member of M-Base during its most visible days in the
mid 1980s. Intrigued by the way in which the same musical idea could be looked at
from several different angles, Robin Eubanks combined his love of jazz and the
vernacular music of his youth to create a distinct sound that was unmistakably his
own.
Background
Born in Philadelphia, PA in 1955 to a musical family, Robin Eubanks began
studying music at the age of eight. Philadelphia, which was a major city for jazz in
the 1950s and 60s, has a rich legacy of jazz talent including tenor saxophonists John
Coltrane, Benny Golson and Jimmy Heath and trumpeter Lee Morgan. This handful
of musicians went on to reach international fame and increased the visibility of
Philadelphia on the music scene. As a Philadelphian, Robin Eubanks was able to be a
part of the still vibrant jazz community when he was growing up in the late 1960s and
early 1970s. He emerged as a star student of the trombone in college, graduating with
honors from the University of the Arts in his hometown of Philadelphia. His main
influences were J.J. Johnson and Slide Hampton, two of the greatest jazz
trombonists.6 At the University of the Arts, Eubanks also studied the finer points of
composition, arranging, theory and harmony to compliment his talent for and
knowledge of music.
In 1978, Robin Eubanks became a member of Slide Hampton's ensemble in
New York and moved to the Fort Greene neighborhood in Brooklyn. Here in the
5

ibid.

ibid.

76
early 1980s he met many of the members of what would become the M-Base
collective.7 Saxophonist Steve Coleman and drummer Marvin "Smitty" Smith
recommended Eubanks to Dave Holland when trombonist Julian Priester left
Q

Holland's quintet in the mid-1980s. Eubanks continues to play in Holland's groups,


and it was in Holland's band that he recorded with Coleman and Smith, two of his MBase contemporaries.
Eubanks's initial musical influence was funk music, and this stayed with him
as he matured as an artist. Groups such as Earth, Wind and Fire and James Brown
and the JB's interested him during his formative years.9 Although he played in many
straight ahead jazz contexts, Eubanks continued to dabble with the funk rhythms he
heard while growing up. This was a particularly appealing aspect of the M-Base
collective; they played music that was equally inspired by jazz and funk.
Like many of the members of M-Base, Robin Eubanks signed with the record
label JMT to document his evolving approach to playing and composing music.
When he recorded his own compositions, Eubanks employed a variety of styles to
create a mixture of feels and grooves. Yet his eclecticism never overshadowed his
focused sound and musical vision.
While in New York, Eubanks collaborated with a wide variety of artists. He
played with Elvin Jones, Art Blakey, Sun Ra, Eddie Palmieri, Stevie Wonder, and the
Rolling Stones, just to name a few. This variety of experiences influenced his world
view and inspired the wide range of styles he liked to employ as a recording artist.
7

ibid.

ibid.

ibid.

77
Eubanks prides himself in composing music that sounds natural without
sacrificing complexity. Speaking of his work, "[m]y compositions can change fluidly
from Swing to Funk to Latin to 11/8 or 7/4, without sounding forced or awkward.
This allows me to draw upon all of my experiences. I have the freedom to create
forms that unite diverse influences into new structures that are organic."10 By
organic, he means that his music often has a tuneful quality - no matter what the
meter, harmony, or melody - that allows for the music to be quickly internalized and
felt from within.
Robin Eubanks left the M-Base collective at the start of the 1990s to continue
to pursue his own musical interests. He found their collaborations to be fruitful and
learned much about group dynamics and cooperation. Interestingly, much of
Eubanks's music has a layered approach that can directly be traced back to his
association with the M-Base collective.
In 1998, Eubanks began teaching at the Oberlin College Conservatory and
currently serves as a tenured professor of jazz trombone there.11 He continues to have
a busy touring and teaching schedule, as well as a vital career as a recording artist.
His commitment to education and spreading knowledge about jazz music makes him
one of the most visible performers and educators today.

Robin Eubanks, "Biography," www.robineubanks.com.


11

ibid.

78
Apprenticeship
Although Robin Eubanks began playing the trombone at eight, he did not
learn to improvise until he was fourteen years old.12 His starting point was James
Brown's trombonist Fred Wesley, and the first solo he transcribed was one of
Wesley's.13 The initial jazz trombone album he heard was one of J.J. Johnson's. In
Eubanks' own words:
I heard a recording of JJ's called The Eminent J J. Johnson. I didn't know the
trombone could be played with that kind of fluidity and clarity. It really
scared me, because I thought that I would never be able to play anything like
that. I put that album away and went back to listening to my James Brown,
Chicago and Blood, Sweat and Tears albums. Something that was easier for
me to comprehend. I didn't listen to that JJ album for two years. Years later,
when I was able to understand JJ's playing better, I could appreciate the high
standards he set for all trombonists. He made it possible for us to make a
living playing jazz, in the bop, and later styles.14
While Eubanks was in college, Slide Hampton noticed his burgeoning talent
and
became his mentor, showing Eubanks exactly what it took to be a great jazz
trombonist. According to Eubanks:
When I was in college, Slide played a gig in Philadelphia. I went to hear him
and was totally mesmerized. I was on the front row every night. He had just
12

Robin Eubanks, Liner Notes. 4: JJ/SHde/Curtis andAl, New York, 1995, TCB 97802.

79
recently returned to the U.S. after several years of living in Europe. Al Grey
was in the audience also. I think he mentioned something about me to Slide.
I was shocked when Slide asked if I'd like to sit in. At the end of the night,
Slide asked me to join his group, "The World of Trombones." A group of
nine trombones and a rhythm section. I went to New York each week to
rehearse with Slide and the band. I stayed at Slide's apartment and would
practice with him eight to ten hours a day. He gave me the keys to his
apartment and took me under his wing. We played and talked about music all
daylong. Most of the time, he spoke about J. J. Johnson. He made me aware
of how difficult it was to play as concise and precise as JJ did. Slide is also a
master composer and arranger. He always encouraged me to write for his
various groups. I truly appreciate the time and consideration that Slide gave
to me.15
This type of first hand guidance from a master musician harkens back to the days
when jazz was taught through master-apprentice relationships, as opposed to
institutionalized forms of jazz education through the university as seen today.16 In
this sense, Eubanks received the best of both worlds: a first rate education at a
conservatory and the tutelage of one of the most important stylists on his instrument.
Joining bassist Dave Holland's quintet initiated another phase of Eubanks'
growth as an artist. Here, he also had a chance to play with two of his M-Base
cohorts, Steve Coleman and Marvin "Smitty" Smith. As is documented on the 1987

15

16

ibid.

Paul F. Berliner, Thinking in Jazz: The Infinite Art of Improvisation (Chicago: University of Chicago
Press, 1994), pp. 37-57.

80
recording The Razor's Edge, Robin Eubanks played in a frontline of horns that
featured himself, alto saxophonist Steve Coleman, and trumpeter Kenny Wheeler.
Smith was the drummer and was known for mastering a style of drumming that was a
mixture of jazz, rock and funk all at once. Dave Holland's piano-less group allowed
the musicians to explore the harmonic and melodic openness of the bass and drums
rhythm section. Eubanks sounds at home in this format, frequently superimposing
chord structures over cyclical bass lines and toying with the rhythmic foundation laid
by Smith. His partnership with Holland, which began a two years before The Razor's
Edge was recorded, was a lasting one that continues to this day. Although all of the
other members of the group have been replaced, Eubanks remains a constant from
this earlier phase of both of Holland's and Eubanks's career.
Since Eubanks struck out on his own to make his debut recording as a leader a
year after recording The Razor's Edge, it seems reasonable to mark 1988 as a
watershed year in Eubanks's career. The transition from sideman to leader is one that
nearly all master musicians make in the early stages of their careers; Eubanks waited
ten years to make his debut. As a leader, Eubanks honed his skills and channeled all
that he had learned to create his own musical depiction of what he saw and heard in
the world. Eubanks never turned back and has continued to lead his own groups since
in 1988.
Family Ties
Robin Eubanks came from a musical family, and this nurturing environment
birthed a handful of stellar talents. His mother has been a music educator for more
than thirty years. His brother Kevin is a guitarist who is featured on many of Robin

81
Eubanks' recordings and has come to fame in his own right as the musical director of
The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Another brother, Duane, is a trumpeter who has
played primarily in the Philadelphia and New York jazz scenes for years. Finally,
Eubanks's uncle is Ray Bryant, a famous jazz pianist.17
Eubanks made music his career path amongst a strong familial influence.
Although the path to success as a professional musician is often a daunting one,
Eubanks found confidence in his mother's and brothers' achievements. Robin
Eubanks had examples of what it took to be a great musician, and his personal
journey as an artist was aided by the knowledge that his family would support and
encourage his musical aspirations.
Robin Eubanks's family was similar to other musical families that achieved
great success in jazz. There are a handful of examples. The Heath brothers from
Philadelphia - saxophonist Jimmy Heath, bassist Percy Heath, and drummer Albert
"Tootie" Heath - were all fantastic jazz musicians They all were first rate musicians
who played with Miles Davis and the Modern Jazz Quartet, among others. Then,
there were the Jones brothers from Detroit, who rose to phenomenal acclaim. Pianist
Hank Jones was one of the most prominent bebop pianists, and his brother Elvin
Jones was the propelling rhythmic force behind the John Coltrane Quartet.
Trumpeter, composer and arranger Thad Jones similarly attained a wide sphere of
influence, especially as a bandleader. Finally, there is the Marsalis family from New
Orleans, perhaps the most famous musical family of them all. The father, Ellis
Marsalis, was a local jazz pianist and educator in New Orleans who raised his sons to
be professional musicians: saxophonist Branford Marsalis, trumpeter Wynton
17

Eubanks, "Biography."

82

Marsalis, trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis, and drummer Jason Marsalis. All of these
musical families boasted a combination of individuality and familial closeness,
creating an atmosphere of inspiration and friendly competitiveness.
Becoming world class musicians was not handed to any of these families,
however, and Robin Eubanks made a name for himself as a result of his own talent
and work ethic. One of the central characteristics of jazz music is having an
individual musical voice, and Robin Eubanks found his. Although having a musical
family certainly helped Eubanks, like any aspiring artist he worked at his craft and
nurtured his talent. Making the decision to dedicate his life to music was the first step
in becoming a serious musician, and Eubanks's commitment to his art form shows in
both his musical choices and resultant success.
Changes in New York
While working with Slide Hampton, Eubanks remembers that he emulated the
trombonist so much so that he felt like he began to sound like a combination of
18

Hampton and his other main influence, J.J. Johnson.

Building relationships with

Steve Coleman, Greg Osby, Marvin "Smitty" Smith, Terri Lyne Carrington, and
others provided Eubanks the opportunity to escape the gravitational pull of his mentor
and establish something that was distinctly his own. The M-Base collective provided
the chance to play music that was relevant to a younger generation of musicians, and
allowed him to encounter the music of his peers. Because of his many musical

Eubanks, "Interview with Author."

83

connections, Eubanks was able to get into the clubs in the city for free and listen and
talk to many of his favorite artists, both young and old.19
Robin Eubanks became a Buddhist in 1983, and this spiritual devotion
changed his life and his music. This religious decision was bora out of an intense
inner search for his own identity.20 The principles of Buddhism agreed with many of
the sentiments that Eubanks had already held, and confirmed a holistic worldview.
Philosophically, there was a direct link between the Buddhist search for
enlightenment and spiritual freedom and Eubanks's improvisational and
compositional explorations. Musically, this inspired an interest in musical forms that
flowed from one style to the next without breaking the overall continuity of the
composition.

Hence, Eubanks's debut as a leader in 1988, Different Perspectives,

was a mixture of styles that he wanted to reflect the multifaceted nature of his musical
interests.
In 1985, Robin Eubanks contributed to conceptualizing the term M-Base.
During an overnight stay for a gig that included both Jack DeJohnette's band and
Dave Holland's quintet, Eubanks helped develop the name M-Base.

Eubanks, Greg

Osby (who was then playing with drummer DeJohnette), and Coleman (who played
with bassist Holland along with Eubanks) felt that it was important to create a new
name for the group of young musicians they had founded. In this way, Eubanks,

19

ibid.

20

ibid.

21

ibid.

22

Robin Eubanks. Different Perspectives, New York, 1988, Winter & Winter JMT Edition 919 023-2.

23

Eubanks, "Interview with Author."

84

Osby, and Coleman collectively put M-Base on the map. Their discussion that
evening resulted in Coleman's development of the term.
Compositional Style
Robin Eubanks became fascinated with composing music that had shifting
feels and tempos while at the same time maintaining an effortless and smooth
sonority. Although he never came up with a specific name for this approach,
Eubanks felt that the title of his first album, Different Perspectives, reflected what he
was aiming for in writing music in this way.24 He was interested in looking at
melodic ideas from a variety of vantage points. For example, a single bass line could
imply many different rhythmic styles, such as swing, Latin, or funk. Attempting to
create a diversity of sounds within a unified whole, Eubanks sought to mimic the
many facets of his own personal interests and the coexistence of many differing
cultures within the world. His music became a microcosm of his broader look at
music cultures, moving gracefully from one style to the next.
Another way that Eubanks described the sound he was searching to convey in
his compositions was that of a radio that was switching stations. In his own words:
My thing was almost like going down a radio dial - when they used to have
dials - you could just go from one station.. .you could turn on the next one
and you could catch a fragment of all these different things, and I would do
that sometimes when listening to the radio.. .just go from a hip-hop station to
a classical station to a funk station to talk radio to this.. .and so within a fifteen
second span you heard all these different things, and I said I can put all that

24

ibid.

85
different stuff together to be a musical form.. .it doesn't have to be in the same
time signature or the same feel.. .if you could make it work.25
Those types of quick changes reflect a method of writing that Robin Eubanks was
interested in replicating. He would compose music that similarly switched from
genre to genre and all the while sounded intuitive.
Eubanks is particularly fond of using ostinatos in his compositions. This is a
way of bridging the stylistic gaps that he created when writing music in different
styles within a single piece. The repetitive and cyclical nature of ostinatos gives his
music an intense yet elastic feel, allowing for the bass line to conjure a relentless
melodic flow. Although his music cannot be pigeonholed to one particular style or
technique, the use of ostinatos is a signature characteristic of his writing.
An example of Eubanks' use of ostinatos can be found in "Midtown," the first
track on his debut album. The piece is supposed to reflect the chaotic yet fascinating
blend of people and cultures of Midtown Manhattan.26

Played in a straight eighth

note feel, the infectious ostinato that holds the piece together begins in G and
modulates three times, exploring the interval of a perfect 5th, with three bars of 4/4
and one bar of 2/4 (Example 1).
Example 1: Midtown Ostinato

26

ibid.
Robin Eubanks, Liner Notes. Different Perspectives.

i^ iJ j J i3

86
This serves as the basis for Eubanks's busy melody, which glides above the songlike
ostinato. The piece has other sections as well, offsetting the vamp established by the
recurring bass line. Yet the most memorable aspect of the composition is the
ostinato. Eubanks improvises over the form of the piece, always keeping the initial
germ of the piece - the ostinato - in mind. M-Base's first drummer, Terri Lyne
Carrington, provides the rhythmic foundation.
Eubanks also enjoys metric shifts in his compositions, something he uses to
create variety and excitement in his music. The brilliance of Eubanks's use of
different meters within a piece is that the elongated or abbreviated time signatures
come as a result of a continuing melody; the melodic material determines the
underlying meters. This is one of the hallmarks of Robin Eubanks's composing; the
song in his mind comes before the rigid placement of metric patterns.
Above all, Robin Eubanks identifies "funkiness" as the main ingredient in his
music.27 This is not limited to what is traditionally thought of as funk music, the
African American stylistic innovation rising in the 1960s and 1970s through
musicians such as James Brown. Eubanks expands the term to include such varied
musicians and music such as John Coltrane's drummer Elvin Jones, the classical
music of Bartok, and bebop.28 To him, "funk" is an attitude and manner of playing
music that he hears in many genres. It is a certain rhythmic attack that underscores
the music. It is difficult to classify, and admittedly subjective, but it is all the same
important to Robin Eubanks's sensibilities.

Robin Eubanks, "Concepts," www.robineubanks.com.

87
His Sound
Robin Eubanks has a distinctive trombone sound, characterized by a warm
tone and an extremely smooth execution, that is instantly identifiable. No matter how
difficult the passage or disjunctive the phrase, Eubanks plays the trombone with an
ease and agility that makes his music sound fluid and relaxed. There is a rich
resonance in his tone that carries through regardless of what style of music he is
playing, and this allows for his melodies to sing clearly and forcefully. The ease in
which he constructs his improvised lines is aided in large part by his bellowing, thick
sound. Every phrase that Eubanks plays - whether it is in a ballad, or in an up tempo
piece that displays his virtuosic command of technique - is delivered with the same
clarity and power that his sound facilitates.
A wonderful display of his sound can be heard on "You Don't Know What
Love Is," the jazz standard that he recorded on Different Perspectives. This
composition was used as a feature for Robin Eubanks when he played with Art
Blakey and the Jazz Messengers.29 It starts off as a duet between Eubanks and bassist
Peter Washington, who also played with Blakey while Eubanks was in Blakey's
group in 1988. Eubanks and Washington play the piece as a ballad, where Eubanks'
lyricism is fully displayed. He does not use vibrato very often; he delivers long tones
as if he is trying to reach somewhere far off in the distance. Later, they are joined by
drummer Jeff "Tain" Watts - the drummer for trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and his
saxophone playing brother Branford - to create a double-time feel, showcasing
Eubanks' swing feel and formidable facility on the trombone.

Eubanks, Liner Notes. Different Perspectives.

88

Another example can be found on his recording of the Stevie Wonder pop
song "Overjoyed," also on Different Perspectives. Eubanks briefly toured with Stevie
Wonder and admired his unique command of harmony and innovative melodic
idiosyncrasies.30 The way that Eubanks delivers the melody shows the purity of his
tone and the strength of his sound. He remains true to the feel of the original version
as recorded by Stevie Wonder, only adding improvised solos over the unique chord
changes. Even on a "cover" performance such as this one, Robin Eubanks manages
to make the piece his own with his hallmark sound.
It is clear that Eubanks succeeded in stepping out of the shadow of his
influences; he sounds completely distinct from them. In addition to the
aforementioned Slide Hampton and J.J. Johnson, Eubanks also cites Curtis Fuller and
Al Grey as his references for developing his trombone style.31 Crafting an identity
for himself was essential to him as he emerged as a successful artist. He
accomplished this in the same fashion that most aspiring innovators do: through hard
work, persistence, experience and risk taking. The result was a fantastic blend of
earthiness and edge, all unified by a constantly searching heart and mind. In my
opinion, Robin Eubanks became a trombonist that was on par with his musical idols.
Eubanks blended nicely with the frontline of horn players in the M-Base
collective. The two alto saxophonists, Steve Coleman and Greg Osby, both have
sounds typified by a bright and aggressive tone but are still distinct. Baritone
saxophonist Jimmy Cozier added a darker edge to the sound of the horns, due in large
part to the range of the horn itself. Trumpeter and cornet player Graham Haynes, son

31

Eubanks, Liner Notes. 4: JJ/Slide/Curtis andAl.

89
of the famous bebop drummer Roy Haynes, had a round sound that served as a
cushion between the cutting sounds of the saxophonists. Robin Eubanks added a
mellow sound to the horns, joining Haynes in providing a contrast to the saxophones.
All of these men could be heard in live performance together, although they did not
all record as a unit. By the time the M-Base collective recorded at the beginning of
1992, Robin Eubanks was no longer a member.
Robin Eubanks only recorded three albums as a leader while participating in
the M-Base collective. The first was Different Perspectives, followed by
Dedication32 (where he was co-leader with Steve Turre), and finally Karma.33 These
three recordings show a diversity of material that is a testament to the wide range of
music that Robin Eubanks studied and enjoyed. Interestingly enough, of the four
main contributors to the M-Base collective (Steve Coleman, Eubanks, Greg Osby,
and Cassandra Wilson), Eubanks's own music sounded the least like "M-Base"
during his tenure with the group. Instead of duplicating the busy and funky sound of
the collective on his recordings, Robin Eubanks chose to explore a conglomeration of
styles and sounds that reflected the many genres he fancied. However, jazz remained
at the heart of his recorded efforts, as was the case with the M-Base collective.
After M-Base
Robin Eubanks continued to expand his musical vocabulary after leaving the
M-Base collective in the early 1990's. His last recording for JMT in 1994, Mental

32

Robin Eubanks and Steve Turre. Dedication, New York, 1989, Winter & Winter JMT Edition 919
032-2.
33

Robin Eubanks. Karma, New York, 1990, Winter & Winter JMT Edition 919 044-2.

Images, was a continuation of the eclectic mixture of styles that he had cultivated in
his M-Base years. Yet hidden inside this album was a statement: the song "X-Base"
was written to signal a break from the M-Base collective - he was literally an "X"
member of the group.35 After this album, there was a marked change in Eubanks's
recordings; they were surprisingly more straight ahead in content. Traditional jazz
returned to the forefront of his music.
Eubanks released three straight ahead jazz albums in a row, from 1996 to
2001, and wrote music reminiscent of hard bop and modal jazz. An entire album was
dedicated to Eubanks's trombone forefathers: J.J. Johnson, Slide Hampton, Curtis
Fuller and Al Grey. He paid tribute to his heroes through original takes on familiar
jazz forms. Eubanks is clearly someone very much enamored with the sound of
acoustic jazz. On the aforementioned album, he wrote for a standard rhythm section
of piano, bass and drums and a front line of trombone, saxophone, and trumpet.
One carry over from his M-Base days was Eubanks's interest in playing the
electric trombone. On his 2001 release Get 2 It,26 Eubanks uses the sound of the
electric trombone frequently to color his rich sound with a guitar-like quality. He
even uses it to pay tribute to Jimi Hendrix, on a composition that he wrote entitled
"Blues for Jimi."37 Eubanks explains that his electric trombone is just his regular
trombone with one difference:

Robin Eubanks. Mental Images, New York, 1994, Winter & Winter JMT Edition 919 072-2.
Eubanks, "Interview with Author."
Robin Eubanks. Get 2 It, New York, 2000, REM001CD.
Robin Eubanks, "Audio Notes," Get 2 It.

91
Well, my version of the electric trombone is not really an electric
trombone.. .Basically it's just acoustic trombone, and I have a microphone on
the bell, and I run it into a bank of processors; usually a basic guitar multieffects processor that's been around for decades. I program the sounds to
work for the trombone.38
Although he used the electric trombone occasionally, it has never replaced his usage
of the acoustic trombone. His most recent release in 2007 is a much more electric
affair, with a live recording by his trio EB3. Yet considering his continued affiliation
with Dave Holland, the roots of traditional jazz are never far away from Eubanks'
horn.
Eubanks's dedication to jazz has allowed him to remain one of the most
active jazz trombonists on the jazz scene today. He provides a critical link to the
progression of jazz trombone playing in the history of the music. As an instrument
that is less widely played than other brass and woodwinds like the saxophone and
trumpet, the trombone has rarely been a featured instrument in jazz. This is why
Eubanks' contribution to jazz is so significant and crucial to the survival of the
trombone's legacy in jazz music.
Robin Eubanks's role as a teacher expands his sphere of influence as a master
musician and trombonist. As a professor at Oberlin, he has spread knowledge about
jazz history and educated aspiring artists about how to make a living as a jazz
musician. He teaches jazz trombone, and encourages his students to develop
individual voices on the instrument just as he did when he was studying in

38

Peter Madsen, "Robin Eubanks: Looking Ahead While Looking Back," Jazz Education Journal,
Volume 36, No. 3 (November-December 2003), p. 48.

92
Philadelphia. Teaching added another layer to Robin Eubanks's already far reaching
list of accomplishments as a composer, arranger, and performer.
Metamorphos
A composition that represents the way in which Eubanks likes to combine
varying styles in one piece is "Metamorphos." It is the opening track on his Get 2 It
recording, and was also recorded twice with the Dave Holland Quintet.
"Metamorphos" revolves around a ten beat bass line (Example 2), with A as the tonal
center, that is supported by a heavy backbeat in the drums to create a funk groove.
Example 2: Metamorphos Ostinato

Ss

3g
&

The ostinato can be broken down into a measure of four and a measure of six, with
the first measure of 4/4 always played with a funk accompaniment. The following
measure of 6/4 is where the piece changes: it is played either as funk, or swing, or
Latin. During an interview, Eubanks played the bass line on the computer and then
sat behind a drum set to demonstrate the way the composition works.39 The initial
funk groove can be played throughout the entire ten beat cycle. Yet when Eubanks
first composed the bass line, he let it play over and over on his computer to hear the
stylistic possibilities.40 In so doing, he noticed that the measure of 6/4 implies a

Eubanks, "Interview with Author."


1

ibid.

93
swing pattern as well as a funk beat. What Eubanks does is to superimpose two
measures of 4/4 over the measure of 6/4, with each quarter note equaling a dotted
eighth (Example 3).
Example 3: Metamorphos, Funk and Swing

Drum Set

&E

S
D. S.

n nr

r J1 r

r J1 r

The second rhythmic feel that Eubanks heard was that of a 12/8 Latin pulse
Example 4: Metamorphos, Funk and Latin

S
Drum Set

&

'y a r

D. S.

r r r

rfl

J_.

fe

94
Two measures of 12/8 are superimposed over the measure of 6/4, where three
sixteenths equal three eighths in the new feel (Example 4). The transition from swing
and Latin back to funk is quite striking, giving the piece an instantly shifting quality.
Eubanks writes simple melodies over the rhythmic feels, and they smoothly move
from the staccato punctuation of the funk and Latin grooves to the legato phrasing of
the swing sections.
Echoes of M-Base
Eubanks finds that Dave Holland's quintet has carried on with many of the
principles that M-Base initially started.41 As arguably the most successful acoustic
jazz group playing today, the Dave Holland Quintet plays with odd meters and mixes
jazz with other musics frequently in a similar way that M-Base did. The use of a
vibraphone instead of a piano gives Holland's group a shimmering sound,
complimenting the frontline of trombone and saxophone. The importance of playing
their own music as opposed to jazz standards is another M-Base influence, something
that all of the members of M-Base found to be essential to personal and group growth.
Robin Eubanks is a musician who has been an active part of the jazz scene for
thirty years, and he continues to grow as an artist with each new project. The
centrality of his involvement with the M-Base collective is felt in his music today,
through his dedication to new sounds and technological frontiers and his unflinching
commitment to individuality. M-Base was a training ground for Eubanks, along with
his serious study of the trombone with his mentors, and he emerged as a strong voice
for jazz trombonists and jazz music. His variety of experiences allows him to reach

41

ibid.

95
beyond what has been passed on to him and to create something entirely new from
within.

96
Chapter 5
Season of Renewal: Greg Osby
As an alto saxophonist and an individual, Greg Osby blazed his own trail with
a relentless intensity and introspective approach. On the surface, there is a striking
similarity between Osby's playing and that of M-Base's other alto saxophonist, Steve
Coleman. Both musicians play in a fleet fingered, angular style that is one of the
hallmarks of the M-Base approach. Yet Osby is certainly his own man, devising his
own melodic system and composing music in an idiosyncratic fashion. Naming his
method of improvising Shifting Melodic Order,1 Greg Osby developed a leaping and
fragmented manner of delivering ideas that was typified by many quick register
changes. The smoothness by which he presented his musical lines made for a quickly
moving, flowing and complex set of phrases. By the time he was leading his own
group and recording as a leader, Osby had already made a name for himself as a
sideman with drummer Jack DeJohnette and many others. His contribution to MBase was significant in that, along with Coleman, his unique musical voice was in
large part responsible for M-Base's rise to success in the 1980s.
Osby sought for his music to speak to the current sound of inner city
America,2 and proved that jazz music could be utilized to represent his generation just
as much as any other genre. The tenacity and endless creativity that defined his
attitude towards his music inspired many different outcomes in his recorded work; he
exhibited variety and experimentation in each new project. Greg Osby became a

Greg Osby, "Interview with Author," January 3, 2006.

See the quote on the main page of Greg Osby's website, www.gregosby.com.

97
standout musician because of his unflinching dedication to his musical vision and his
willingness to adapt to multiple musical situations.
Background
Born in 1960 in St. Louis - a city whose history in jazz goes back to the dawn
of the 20th century and continued through mid century with talents such as trumpeter
Miles Davis, saxophonist Oliver Nelson, trumpeter Clark Terry, saxophonist Oliver
Lake, and trumpeter Lester Bowie3 - Greg Osby began playing music in 1972 after
receiving a clarinet from his junior high school music teacher. A year later, Osby
began studying the alto saxophone. By the time he was in high school and had
undertaken three years of private lessons, he began to play around the city in soul,
funk and rhythm and blues groups. These were his first experiences playing
professionally, and helped shape his open minded approach to various styles of
music.4
In 1978, upon graduating from high school, Greg Osby enrolled at Howard
University and majored in Jazz Studies. It is here that he met pianist Geri Allen and
tenor saxophonist Gary Thomas, two musicians who would later involve themselves
with the M-Base collective.5 After two years at Howard, he transferred to the Berklee
College of Music in Boston, where he studied for three years from 1980 to 1983. At
Berklee, Osby met saxophonists Branford Marsalis and Donald Harrison, drummers

Terry Perkins, "Scene: St. Louis, Missouri," Down Beat, Volume 66, No. 10 (October 1999), p. 25.

Greg Osby, "Biography," www.gregosby.com/bio.html.

Osby, "Interview with Author."

98
Marvin "Smitty" Smith and Jeff "Tain" Watts, and other musicians who would go on
to achieve great success as internationally renowned jazz musicians in the 1980s.6
Osby moved to New York in 1983. He lived in the Fort Greene neighborhood
of Brooklyn, and immediately began playing with the biggest names in jazz as a
sideman. He began his foray in New York as a member of a group led by trumpeter
Jon Faddis. Soon, he had a stint with bebop trumpet legend Dizzy Gillespie. This
was followed by gigs with pianists Herbie Hancock, Andrew Hill and Muhal Richard
Abrams, trumpeters Woody Shaw and Lester Bowie, and subbing for the World
Saxophone Quartet. In addition to these high profile performances, Osby sat in with
many non-jazz groups in uptown Manhattan and Brooklyn to widen his knowledge of
and experience playing with many vernacular musics such as reggae, calypso, salsa
and soca. Soon after arriving in New York he met Steve Coleman and began a lasting
friendship that would inspire the earliest meetings of the soon to be M-Base
collective.8
In 1985, Osby joined drummer Jack DeJohnette's group entitled Special
Edition. Along with tenor saxophonist Gary Thomas, he became a part of this jazz
quintet, which allowed him to expand as a musical thinker. According to Osby,
"[m]y musical thinking for performance and composition advanced by light years as
Jack was open to my input and was very encouraging in pushing me to maintain a
steady flow of experimentation. It marked a major turning point in my development

ibid.

ibid.

ibid.

99
as an artist."9 Osby recorded three albums with Special Edition, all of which display
his growing confidence and increasing command as a soloist and contributor to a
group aesthetic.
Greg Osby signed with the German jazz label JMT in 1987 and began his
career as a bandleader. After recording three very different titles for JMT, Greg
Osby and Sound Theatre, Mindgames,11 and Season of Renewal,12 Osby changed
record labels and became a recording artist for the renowned jazz label Blue Note
records in 1990. He stayed with Blue Note for fifteen years, and in 2008 he
established his own record label, Inner Circle Music.
John Coltrane, Backwards
Just as Steve Coleman had a moment of clarity inspired by the movement of
bees that led to the development of his own melodic theory, Greg Osby had an
experience that inspired the creation of a theory as well. During a day at the Berklee
College of Music, Osby was listening to a classic rendition of the Sonny Rollins

1 "X

composition "Oleo" on his portable tape recorder.

It was the version played by the

Miles Davis Quintet, heard on the album Relaxin' with the Miles Davis Quintet,14
from October of 1956. Like Charlie Parker's composition "Moose the Mooche,"
"Oleo" is based on the chord changes to Gershwin's "I Got Rhythm." While Osby
9

Osby, "Biography."

10

Greg Osby. Sound Theatre, New York, 1987, JMT 87201.

11

Greg Osby. Mindgames, New York, 1988, JMT CD 834422.

12

Greg Osby. Season of Renewal. New York, 1989, JMT CD 834435.

13

Osby, "Interview with Author."

14

Miles Davis. Relaxin' with the Miles Davis Quintet, New Jersey, 1956, Prestige PRLP 7129.

100
listened to John Coltrane's tenor saxophone solo, the tape malfunctioned and began
playing the music backwards. Osby liked the sound so much that he went home and
transcribed the entire John Coltrane solo backwards and studied its interesting
contours and retrograde melodic motion.15 He began doing the same thing with
fragments of other solos, like those of alto saxophonists Cannonball Adderley and
Charlie Parker. The point was to study and familiarize himself with the sound and
motion of these solos played backwards.16 Ultimately these explorations led Osby to
create a melodic theory of his own, which he eventually called "Shifting Melodic
Order."17
"You're Gonna Pay for That"
Osby began working on his theory of Shifting Melodic Order while he was a
student at Berklee, but the ideas did not bear fruit until he moved to New York and
began to perform in high profile situations.18 When he joined trumpeter Jon Faddis'
group in 1983, Osby remembers that his initial experimentation with Shifting Melodic
Order on the bandstand led to some clashing with fellow musicians. "Faddis used to
come in and cut me off in mid solo," Osby recalls, because his new style of playing
stuck out over the traditional bebop of the ensemble.19 When Osby landed a spot in
trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie's group in 1984, he was fully immersed in his new
conception.

15

Osby, "Interview with Author."

16

ibid.

101
Once when Osby was wanning up before a performance at the Great
American Music Hall in San Francisco, when Gillespie was a special guest with Jon
Faddis' group, Dizzy Gillespie offered Osby a prediction regarding what he was
seeking to accomplish with his new playing style.20 As Osby reminisced, he was
practicing in a room adjacent to the room Gillespie was in. At the time, in 1984,
Gillespie wore long African robes and carried a walking stick, making him appear
like the sage that he was. As Osby was practicing his new ideas, he heard a tapping
of the walking stick against the wall. Osby went in to talk to Gillespie, who asked
Osby what he was working on. When Osby explained the patterns and techniques he
was studying - this occurred before he had come up with a name for them - Gillespie
said that he thought it was good that Osby was trying to find different ways to express
himself. Then, after encouraging him, Gillespie simply said, "You're gonna pay for
that." "That's all he said: 'you're gonna pay for that'," Osby remembered. I asked
Osby what Gillespie meant by that comment, and Osby said that he soon learned what
he meant; he began losing work as an artist. "People thought there was something
wrong with me, like I had some muscular problem or something," Osby said with a
twinge of sarcasm.21
It is important to note that before Osby ventured out on his own with Shifting
Melodic Order, he modeled himself after the bebop pioneers of his instrument.22 He
made it clear to me that while in college he was drawn to the styles of bebop

21

ibid.

102
virtuosos Charlie Parker, Cannonball Adderley, and Sonny Stitt.

Greg Osby was

particularly drawn to the music of Cannonball Adderley, whose soulfulness and


substance he admired. Osby remembers how he and Steve Coleman debated about
who was greater: Charlie Parker or Cannonball Adderley. Parker was Coleman's
favorite, while Osby preferred Adderley.24 Thus Osby and Coleman had contrasting
perspectives that manifested themselves in their playing styles.
After spending several months with Gillespie, Osby was drawn to the music
of Steve Coleman. Osby first heard Coleman on a 1983 recording by jazz vocalist
Abbey Lincoln, entitled Talking to the Sun,25 and immediately heard a kindred spirit
in Coleman's playing.26 The two first met in 1984 in front of the Village Vanguard in
New York, while Osby was performing with Jon Faddis. Coleman, who attended the
performance with Cassandra Wilson, greeted Osby by saying, "I hear that you're the
guy who sounds like me." Osby disagreed and responded, "No, I don't sound like
you."27 After meeting Osby before the performance, Coleman stayed for the show
and this chance encounter ultimately led to the two of them standing out in front of
the club talking about music all night long. They instantly became friends and began
collaborating soon thereafter.28 The collaboration between Osby and Coleman lasted

23

ibid.

24

ibid.

25

Abbey Lincoln. Talking to the Sun, New York, 1983, Enja 4060.

26

Osby, "Interview with Author."

27

ibid.

28

ibid.

103
for nearly a decade, and provided the center and motivating force for the formation of
the M-Base collective.
Shifting Melodic Order
Shifting Melodic Order is a theory that deals with the reordering and reregistering of pitches within particular scales. Osby realized that most musicians
played scales in a predictable manner derived from standard pedagogy: ascending
from scale degree 1 to 7 and descending in reverse order. By hearing a John Coltrane
solo backwards, Osby discovered that there could be many more ways to play a scale.
He noticed that changing the order of the pitches within a scale - and also the octave
that the tones are played in - added a surprising amount of color and vibrancy to the
most typical scales and chords. Osby's serendipitous discovery led him to a new path
of musical study and inspired the formation of a personal style of playing and writing
music.
Another main inspiration for this concept was what Osby calls "piano logic;"
by this he means the way in which pianists can approach playing with both hands.
Osby wanted to create a sound on the saxophone that mimicked the "two fisted"
attack that pianists can make on their instrument.

Swing era pianist Art Tatum was

a major influence on Osby's thinking.31 Osby discussed how this was an attempt to
move away from the standard models for jazz saxophonists:
I used to transcribe solos by Andrew Hill, Herbie Nichols, Bud Powell, [and]
Art Tatum and then do accidental and harmonic alterations. I'd extract from

31

ibid.

104
their lines and apply them to my instrument, making it sound as
unsaxophonistic as possible. That was a conscious effort, especially in my
formative years in college. Everybody else was practicing the same
saxophone solos, playing from the same musical lexicon, blowing the same
licks.32
Listening to pianists and studying their melodic lines allowed Osby's fingers to move
in different ways and attempt to replicate the cascading notes typical of pianists.33
When asked to provide an example of Shifting Melodic Order, Osby put his alto
saxophone around his neck and played an excerpt to illustrate his theory. Osby chose
pitches from the diminished scale, a scale that is defined by an alternating whole step
then half step ascent. First, he played the Eb diminished scale starting on D, both up
and down, making D the tonal center (Example 1). The scale degrees are numbered.
Then, as is shown (Example 2), he played it by shifting the pitches around both in
order and in octave. This simple example demonstrates how Shifting Melodic Order
comes into play in Osby's approach: he juggles the pitches of a scale around to create
an angular and unforgettable sequence of tones that are now instantly recognizable as
his own sound.34
Example 1: Diminished Scale

>J

hj
5^f

32

Dan Ouellette, "Saxophone Hang," Down Beat, Volume 67, No. 3 (March 2000), pp. 30-32, 34.

33

Osby, "Interview with Author."


ibid.

105
Example 2: Shifting Melodic Order

1 2

53*
'-'^j

fr* \> f

1 2

?T

1 2

4 2

^-*-

16

1 2

' 1 2' ^

1 2

3 4

1 2

5 6

J \im
6

^v

RJC

1 2

f^lff
W^
5

10

vi

aEE
3

w
5 '6

6
2

1 6

1 2

'":wmm
1 2

^F^
5

'

The next step for Osby was to make sense of this new conception as it relates
to voice leading and playing over chord changes. In many senses, Osby had to find a
new way to "connect the dots" so to speak when improvising over common,
longstanding chord progressions in jazz like the 12 bar blues, Rhythm Changes, and
Cherokee changes. One of the things that he used to achieve this was to add leading
tones to his new melodic configurations to briefly tonicize certain tonal centers on his
path between each chord symbol.35 It was of the utmost importance to Osby that his
new style of playing be applicable to virtually any and every musical situation.

35

ibid.

106
Regardless of what style he played in, Osby wanted to create an approach to playing
that had limitless possibilities.
On one occasion, I had the opportunity to play my alto saxophone with Osby
at his house, and he demonstrated certain ways that he would practice to make sense
of and familiarize himself with Shifting Melodic Order. Using a Jamey Aebersold
play-a-long CD that featured the song "Cherokee" in all 12 keys, Osby and I traded
choruses to explore the possibilities of his approach. One exercise was to improvise
over the chord changes without ever using the root of the chord. This is very difficult
given that nearly everyone who plays these already difficult set of chord changes
follows the path that the bebop musicians set (using the root frequently). I found it
hard to connect my ideas, steeped as I am in the language of Charlie Parker, but Osby
was able to follow my attempt with an effortless display of melodic originality, one in
which the evasion of the root seemed to benefit his leaping and uniquely detailed
playing.
Shifting Melodic Order was a result of Osby's desire to be what he calls a
"contributor" to the art form known as jazz.36 He was fully aware that originality is
one of the key characteristics of great artists, and he pursued this path to create both a
name for himself and to establish a personal mode of expression. His ingenious
method of rearranging tones to create new and idiosyncratic melodic structures is
utilized in all of his work, and is presented in so many different ways that it is hard to
pinpoint only one technique in his approach. The only overarching theme in Osby's
oeuvre is constant change, aided by the steady foundation of his own voice, as is seen

36

ibid.

107
in the variety of his recordings and live performances both as a leader and as a
sideman.
His Sound
Greg Osby's original melodic ideas are aided by a distinct and equally original
alto and soprano saxophone sound. His tone is best described as bright and sweet,
with a full sound throughout the entire range of his horn. Steve Coleman's sound is
harder; Osby's sound is gentler, but the timbres of both artists contain a forceful
edginess. Both men have beautiful tones, something they developed individually but
exhibited together in the M-Base collective. Osby's primary influence on his
instrument, Julian "Cannonball" Adderley, was also known for a round-toned sound
with a bluesy and soulful touch. Osby took this lesson from Adderley and made it
his own, contriving a sound that was new and personal, reflecting a striking and
engaging tone that matched his bubbling vocabulary on the saxophone.
Unlike the many tenor saxophone stylists with unique sounds, the alto
saxophone has seen considerably less variance in tone production. In the history of
jazz, tenor saxophonists have managed to craft a wide range of sonic possibilities,
from the "father" of modern tenor saxophone playing Coleman Hawkins' booming
and rough tone37 to the "cool" school of tenor saxophone with the light and airy tone
of Lester Young.

As these two schools of playing crystallized in the 1930's, a

plethora of tenor saxophone players emerged contemporaneously and in the following


decades, each with a different sound: Ben Webster, Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis, Stan

37

Gunther Schuller, The Swing Era: The Development of Jazz 1930-1945 (Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 1989), pp. 426-450.
ibid., pp. 547-562.

108
Getz, Dexter Gordon, John Coltrane, and Sonny Rollins to name a few. In contrast,
alto saxophonists in jazz were largely dominated by Charlie Parker's innovative take
on sound production. Parker diverged greatly from the main predecessor of his
instrument, Johnny Hodges, who on alto sounded like a smoother version of Coleman
Hawkins, with the addition of frequently bended notes. Parker developed a harder
and brighter sound for his instrument, and nearly all major jazz stars on the alto
saxophone followed his influence and were some variation on the Parker theme.39
Even the "lighter" toned alto saxophonists, such as Paul Desmond and Lee Konitz,
were indebted to Parker's bebop language. This lighter sound descended from Lester
Young, who was Parker's main influence.40 The reason for the differences in tone in
saxophone playing is partly due to each musician's embouchure and the varying
reeds, mouthpieces, and horns that they play. One major difference occurs when the
musician plays either a hard rubber mouthpiece or a metal mouthpiece. In general,
the harder toned tenor saxophonists played metal whereas the softer toned ones
played hard rubber mouthpieces. This is different for alto saxophonists, however;
nearly all straight ahead alto players utilize a hard rubber mouthpiece. The make of
horn can also affect the brightness or darkness of tone. By the time that the 1980s
came around, there were just a handful of alto saxophonists with unique sounds, with
Greg Osby being on of them.
Greg Osby's alto saxophone contemporaries were small in number, and only a
few can be called "sound innovators." Besides the aforementioned Osby and
Coleman, there is alto saxophonist Kenny Garrett. Garrett, Miles Davis' last
39

Ted Gioia, The History of Jazz (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), pp. 208-209.

40

ibid, pp. 205-206.

109
saxophonist in the late 1980's until Davis passed away in 1991, plays in a high
powered style and exhibits a tone that is perhaps the most radically divergent from
Charlie Parker's tone. Garrett's sound is closer to the sound John Coltrane had on the
alto saxophone on Coltrane's 1966 Live in Japan41 recording of "My Favorite
Things." Sounding nothing like Garrett, Osby developed a sound that was smooth
while at the same time bristling with emotion, a combination that set him apart from
the other masters of his instrument. What made Osby, Coleman and Garrett stand out
as the three most original voices on the alto saxophone in jazz during the 1980s was
that each of them developed their own musical vocabulary to match their new sounds
perfectly.
Although a master of up tempo pieces, Greg Osby displayed his sound most
wonderfully on ballads. An example of this is found on a duet between pianist
Andrew Hill and Osby on Hill's 1991 release But Not Farewell42 entitled "Friends."
This lyrical composition by Hill demonstrates why he was one of Osby's main
influences; its combination of sparkling melodies over strangely beautiful harmonies
allows Osby to shine. The clarity of Greg Osby's tone is complimented by a quickly
moving and verbose dialogue over the pianist's lush accompaniment. The way in
which Osby favors both long, singing tones and fast, complex passages equally makes
him a formidable improviser who searches every corner of a slow tempo ballad such
as "Friends." Osby previously recorded with Andrew Hill on Hill's 1989 release

41

John Coltrane. Live in Japan, Japan, 1966, Impulse GRD 4-102.

42

Andrew Hill. But Not Farewell, New York, 1990, Blue Note CDP 7949712.

110
Eternal Spirit,43 and recorded with him a final time on Osby's own 2000 recording
The Invisible Hand.44 Osby also gave a rhapsodic treatment of Hill's composition
"Golden Sunset" on his 2001 album Symbols of Light45 in a duet with pianist
protegee Jason Moran; Osby had recorded this same ballad with Hill on Eternal
Spirit. Upon Andrew Hill's passing in 2007, Greg Osby reflected on the influence
that the pianist had on him and his music:
Before I met Andrew, although I knew his music well, I hadn't figured upon a
realistic or applicable means of integrating my thoughts, studies, and creative
aspirations into a composite and personal approach to music. In many ways, I
was a wandering student in search of the elusive and indescribable mentor.
Andrew sensed this and took it upon himself to advise me. His unselfish
counsel, candor, and generosity provided me with solutions to many
unanswerable questions.46
There is a sense of buoyancy in Greg Osby's playing, a characteristic of his
sound that inspires an uplifting and floating feeling. This is heard especially in his
up tempo performances, such as those heard on his debut 1987 recording Sound
Theatre on the compositions "You Big...," "Return to Now," and "Calculated Risk."
Osby's note choices combined with his rhythmic feel elicits a gliding and slippery
sensation for the listener, and the jagged phrases that he employs creates a
kaleidoscopic sound that is both colorful and engaging. The effect of his playing
43

Andrew Hill. Eternal Spirit, New Jersey, 1989, Blue Note CDP 7920512.

44

Greg Osby. The Invisible Hand. New York, 2000, Blue Note CD 20134.

45

Greg Osby. Symbols of light (A Solution), New York, 2001, Blue Note CD 31395.

46

Phil Freeman, "Music: Andrew Hill - 1931-2007," The Village Voice, Volume 52, No. 18 (2 May-8
May 2007), p. 87.

Ill
style is a weaving in and out of chords with ease, and the facility he demonstrates on
his instrument is often dazzling and thought provoking.
Compositional Style
Greg Osby's compositions are linked by a perceivable quirkiness, no doubt a
result of both Shifting Melodic Order and his penchant for choosing exact voicings
for his music. Osby is meticulous in his notation, writing not only the melody and
harmony but also the rhythmic accompaniment in drum patterns and specific bass
lines. Although the music sounds crisp and inspired by instantaneous interplay, Osby
has made sure that it follows the blueprint that he created down to the most minute
detail. It is important not to confuse Greg Osby's desire to create a very specific
musical experience with a dampening of his band member's creativity. To the
contrary, Osby's music allows the musicians with whom he is playing, as well as
himself, plenty of room for improvisation. In most instances, his compositions follow
the commonly seen jazz schema of melody-solos-melody, situating him firmly within
the jazz tradition.
Osby's choice of exact voicings for his compositions is one of the ways that
he creates a distinct sonic experience. Unlike the traditional jazz "lead sheet," which
consists of the melody and the chord symbols corresponding to each measure of the
composition, Greg Osby does not write chord symbols in his music. Instead, he
writes the melody with an accompanying voicing for piano (or another instrument
such as the guitar) to go along with the melody. Osby developed this style of
composing music from his experimentation with writing music on the computer.47
Not being a pianist, he would experiment with voicings that he could enter into the
47

Osby, "Interview with Author."

112
music program and hear them instantly with the computer's playback. With this
method of hearing how the music sounded, Osby methodically writes a composition
from both the sounds that he hears in his head and the unexpected sounds he
discovers while toying with the harmonic possibilities. Since his music is often very
difficult to play, Osby would practice his own music by looping certain sections of a
composition or melodic germ on the computer until he got it exactly like he wanted
it.48 For a sideman playing with Osby, it can be understandably daunting to play a
piece of music without chord symbols, since they often signal instantaneously what
the music will sound like. This is why Osby frequently gives demo recordings of his
pieces to his band mates before recording. Once the music is internalized and
rehearsed, it sounds as natural and flowing as Osby intended it to sound.
Another characteristic of Greg Osby's compositions is that he frequently
notates the drum and bass parts. This is actually an aspect of his music that was
directly inspired by the M-Base collective; M-Base's music often features a notated
bass and drum line. The bass line was either an ostinato or a specific walking pattern.
Osby calls the drum parts he notates "drum chants,"49 and he makes sure that each
part is notated for the drum set, from the bass drum to the cymbal pattern. These two
aspects of Osby's compositional toolkit are left out of the common jazz lead sheet.
Greg Osby was certainly interested in studying the great composers, from jazz
masters like Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk to classical composers like

113
Debussy and Ravel.50 In this way, Osby considers himself as much of a composer as
he is a virtuoso saxophone player.
Man-Talk
Greg Osby's first recording for Blue Note records was Man-Talk for Moderns
Vol. X, released in 1991.51 This was a marked departure from his recordings with
JMT, in that the music was noticeably more commercial sounding in its engagement
with funk and R&B grooves. But Osby did not compromise the integrity of the
music; it is as clever and razor sharp as the music that typified his style. Man-Talk
for Moderns Vol. X was a starting point for a whole new direction for Osby, in that
his next two albums - 3-D Lifestyles52 and Black Book53 - were hip-hop albums with
rappers. However, after these first three recordings for Blue Note, Osby returned to
straight ahead jazz in his subsequent recordings.
The title track and Greg Osby composition "Man-Talk" is a rhythmically
challenging and melodically twisting composition that comes directly out of the MBase approach (Example 2). Played over a three note E minor ostinato in the electric
bass (E-D#-F#), a two note ostinao (Ab-G) in the electric guitar and a steady backbeat
that establishes the 4/4 pulse, the melody builds harmonic tension and release as it
moves from relaxed phrases to quickly moving, agitated melodic bursts. "Man-Talk"
is an eight measure composition that is repeated once before moving into the solo
section over an E minor vamp. The concise nature of the piece provides an

51

Greg Osby. Man-Talk For Moderns Vol. X, New York, 1991, Blue Note CD 95414.

52

Greg Osby. 3-D Lifestyles, New York, 1993, Blue Note CD 98635.

53

Greg Osby. Black Book, New York, 1995, Blue Note CD 92627.

114
opportunity to look at the melody in detail without neglecting the simple underlying
structure. In measures 3, 6 and 8, the melody dips into the lower register of the alto
saxophone. This plunging melodic effect originates in Osby's Shifting Melodic Order
concept. Despite its complexity, this melody is extremely catchy and once learned
lends itself to being sung out loud by the listener.
Example 2: Man-Talk

J fetal IJ jfe^i- ^tatife-^i

^ttJHWJ^Jcj)' i^i. J j ^ J g p ^
h*- 'T *"> , E |

^p=p=m&^

\mz

t^Ei!

^m

* -*?

"Man-Talk" exemplifies how Osby can create an enigmatic theme that at the same
time is memorable and infectious.
The leading tone plays a special role in this composition, serving as a frequent
destination in the melody. Although there is no ambiguity about the tonal center of
this piece - E minor - there remains a prominent usage of the leading tone D# to
connect the phrases within the melody (circled in mm. 1, 2, 3, and 5). The fact that
D# is also a part of the bass ostinato reinforces its importance. But the D# in "ManTalk" does not function like a leading tone normally does, that is, to resolve upward

115
to the tonic. Instead, Osby makes the tonic step down to the leading tone and leaves
the note D# hanging and unresolved, as opposed to stepping back up to the tonic E
(see brackets in mm. 3 and 5; in m. 3, D# at first steps up to the tonic and then steps
back down to the leading tone). This creates an oscillating feeling in the melody as it
is played against the rhythm section's accompaniment, with notes bouncing back and
forth from D# and creating a colorful array of tones.
"Man-Talk" provides an excellent example of the intricacy of Greg Osby's
musical ideas. Its use of a broad range of note values, from the quarter note to the
sixteenth, allows the music to take shape in an unorthodox fashion. Osby's use of the
triplet in this melody is also unusual, especially his combination of triplet sixteenths
that, when juxtaposed with longer note values, simulates an immediate speeding up of
the melodic line (see mm. 3, 4, 6, 7 and 8). Most importantly, "Man-Talk"
encapsulates a clear musical vision that is an unwavering dedication to rhythmic
sophistication and melodic peculiarities. This vision manifests itself throughout
Osby's recorded work, and is the mark of a true artist who is dedicated to the
uniqueness of his art.
After M-Base
After signing with Blue Note records and recording Man-Talk for Moderns
Vol. X, Osby began a new trajectory in his role as a bandleader. In 1992, a year after
Man-Talk's release, Osby recorded Anatomy of a Groove with M-Base and this
recording essentially ended his tenure with the group. Already very much involved in
the advancement of his own recording career, Osby proved that each album he made
would be different from the one that preceded it. After his second and third

116
recordings for Blue Note (3-D Lifestyles and Black Book), which took Osby in an
experimental direction that fused hip-hop and jazz, he returned to an acoustic jazz
format. This engagement with straight ahead jazz continues to this day, with Osby
remaining one of the most visible and acclaimed jazz alto saxophonists of his
generation.
The album that signaled his return to acoustic jazz was Art Forum,54 recorded
in 1996. His combination of originals and two standard ballads, "I Didn't Know
About You" and "Don't Explain," showcased the versatility and depth of Osby's
musical palette. On the two aforementioned ballads, he particularly shines, with a
beautiful tone and a slowly evolving thematic statement during his solos. On this
recording, Osby shows that he can swing forcefully and at the same time be sensitive
to every detail of a composition.
Osby remained true to his style of playing, regardless of what genre he was
found exploring. As someone who reached musical maturity in his early twenties,
Osby maintained a consistent and identifiable approach to playing music that placed
him among the most accomplished jazz musicians of any era. Once he had
discovered his own contribution to the music, he shared his gift as he toured with his
own groups and as a sideman with other groups. Such a clear sense of self defines the
greatest of artists, and Osby is certainly one of them.
In subsequent years, Greg Osby solidified his reputation as a challenging and
uncompromising musician who pushed the envelope. His 1998 release Banned in

Greg Osby. Art Forum, New York, 1996, Blue Note CD 37319.

117
New York55 was a live recording that supports this assertion. Recorded on a minidisc
player, the sound of the album harkens back to the days when bootleg live jazz
recordings were some of the most treasured because they captured both the spirit of
the music and the adventurous solos not heard on studio recordings. On the Charlie
Parker composition "Big Foot," Osby deconstructs the blues in Bb with an endless
creativity, and on Sonny Rollins' "Pent Up House" he avoids the cliches of the II-V-I
progression with superimposed harmonies and melodies of his own. Banned In New
York ends with Thelonious Monk's "52nd Street Theme," a common tag ending to
many live performances during the bebop era of the 1940's. In doing so Greg Osby
shows his indebtedness to the pioneers that came before him without losing sight of
the new advancements he has made as a result of personal development and
discovery.
In 2001, Greg Osby combined a string quartet and a jazz quartet in a uniquely
arranged album entitled Symbols of Light (A Solution). This was not an attempt at
mimicking the efforts of the Third Stream composers in the 1950's that fused
classical music and jazz. Rather, it was another example of Osby's far reaching
imagination and curiosity as a composer, arranger and soloist. The string quartet
functioned as another member of the rhythm section, with pre-composed melodies
and background parts that offset the improvised soloing and thematic statements of
the jazz quartet. Osby's composition "This is Bliss," a reworking of his composition
"Enchantment" from Season of Renewal, is a gorgeous example of how a tuneful
melody in Eb major can be enriched by the warm accompaniment of the string

Greg Osby. Banned in New York, New York, 1998, Blue Note CD 96860.

118
quartet. Symbols of Light revealed that Osby had his ears open to new configurations
of musicians, and is one of the most successful recordings of his illustrious career.
Greg Osby chose a different path than Steve Coleman after the M-Base
collective disbanded. While Steve Coleman furthered the accomplishments of his
brand of M-Base derived music, Greg Osby focused his attention on honing his voice
in the jazz mainstream. Osby created a niche for himself as an iconoclastic jazz
saxophonist and composer, and his expansive and far reaching knowledge of many
styles of music fit the multifaceted face of jazz. Since Steve Coleman is the one
primarily associated with M-Base today, Greg Osby stepped out of the shadow of the
collective and established his own style of music. This style was typified by keeping
the foundation of the jazz rhythm section intact - a walking bass, comping piano, and
time keeping drums - while building idiosyncratic melodies that resembled "ManTalk" in contour and interesting harmonies that did not always derive from the usual
chord symbols used in jazz. Although many musicians made M-Base the success
that it was, Steve Coleman nevertheless receives a majority of the public recognition,
and this is perhaps why Coleman has continued to pursue what M-Base started in the
1980s. Greg Osby knows that, like Coleman has stated, there was no "leader" of MBase.56 However, as a bandleader himself, Osby chose to pursue his own direction
and leave his affiliation with M-Base in the past. By doing so, he acknowledged that
his time had come to be recognized on his own merits. Despite their taking different
approaches to the breakdown of the M-Base collective as it was originally conceived,
both Steve Coleman and Greg Osby remain brilliant artists who make incredibly
unique contributions to the world of music.
56

"An Interview with Steve Coleman conducted by Vijay Iyer," www.m-base.com/int_vijay.html.

119
By branching out on his own, Greg Osby made it clear that he was ready to
take charge of his musical destiny. After periods as a sideman with Dizzy Gillespie
and Jack DeJohnette, among others, he had discovered that he could express exactly
what he aspired to both as a composer and a soloist. From his first recording for
JMT, it was clear that Greg Osby was a musician with an abundance of ideas and a
mind set on challenging and courageous musical material. His involvement with the
M-Base collective only strengthened an already present personal voice on his
instrument, and laid the foundation for an increasingly diverse musical career as a
formidable jazz saxophonist.

120
Chapter 6
Point of View: Cassandra Wilson
In an environment dominated by instrumentalists, M-Base collective vocalist
Cassandra Wilson, whose haunting, dark voice enchanted those around her, managed
to weave her personality into the texture of M-Base's intricate music. Wilson
developed as an artist as her affiliation with M-Base grew and her solo career
blossomed. With eight solo albums from 1985-1992, on which she composed the
majority of the music, Wilson was a prolific contributor to the sound of M-Base. In
the 1985 recording Point of View} she established herself as both a jazz vocalist and
an experimental artist who did not shy away from funk and other vernacular musics.
Despite the strength of her early recordings, Wilson received the greatest acclaim
after she left M-Base, most notably through her recordings for Blue Note records,
which began in 1993, and her Grammy award for New Moon Daughter in 1995.2
Her subsequent success as the most revered female jazz vocalist of her generation has
roots in her affiliation with the M-Base collective, a group that enabled her to explore
unconventional means of composing and singing while she fine tuned her vocal
prowess. Whereas her fellow M-Base members focused on specific theories, novel
compositional frameworks, and reinventing improvisational techniques, Wilson stuck
to a free spirited, intuitive approach that allowed her music to flow as easily as the
melodies she invented with her voice.

Cassandra Wilson. Point of View, New York, 1985, JMT 862 004.

Cassandra Wilson. New Moon Daughter, New York, 1995, Blue Note CDP 7243 8 32861 2 6.

121
Background
Born in 1955 in Jackson, Mississippi, Cassandra Wilson's parents encouraged
her to study music at young age. She was surrounded by a love for education; her
father, Herman Fowlkes, Jr., was a bassist, guitarist and music teacher, and her
mother, Mary McDaniel, was an elementary school teacher. Wilson began studying
piano at the age of six and studied for the next thirteen years. She also played the
clarinet in junior high school. Later, Wilson turned her attention to the guitar and
singing, where she was mostly self taught. Her father's knowledge of jazz influenced
her, but she was also exposed to the music of her youth in the 1960s and 70s: R&B,
soul, rock and funk.3
Wilson furthered her education at Millsaps College and Jackson State
University, both in her native Jackson, Mississippi. As a state and city that had just
desegregated in the mid 1960s, in the wake of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Jackson,
Mississippi represented a cultural crossroads for Wilson; she grew up at a time when
racial boundaries were just beginning to be broken. By the time she was in college in
the mid 1970s, Wilson took advantage of the equal opportunities for African
Americans and the recent openness towards racial equality in the south. Outside of
the classroom, her burgeoning interest in music flourished as she sang folk music,
funk, pop, R&B and jazz with local musicians. In 1981, a few years after graduating
from college, she moved to New Orleans briefly, and worked with the now famed
pianist Ellis Marsalis among others. Wilson was inspired to pursue a career in jazz
seriously, and moved to East Orange, New Jersey the following year. Now close to

Cassandra Wilson, "Biography," www.cassandrawilson.com; "Cassandra Wilson,"


en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cassandra_Wilson.

the New York jazz scene, she studied with trombonist Grachan Moncur, III, who is
heard on her debut recording Point of View, and began sitting in at jam sessions
around New York. It was in this process that she met Steve Coleman in 1982 and
their musical association began.4
In 1985, Wilson signed with the German label JMT as a solo recording artist,
the same year that Steve Coleman was signed to the same label. She stayed with the
company until 1991, when she recorded one album for Columbia records in 1992 (the
same label that recorded and released Anatomy of a Groove) and then signed with
Blue Note records in 1993, a breakthrough for Wilson. Her first release for Blue
Note, Blue Light 'Til Dawn,5 was a marked departure from her previous recordings
and signaled the end of her affiliation with M-Base. Yet, this break with her earlier
efforts ushered in a new wave of fans and supporters of her music. Blue Note
catapulted Wilson to a broader and more commercial audience.
Breaking into the New York Scene
When Cassandra Wilson arrived in New York City in 1982, she was just
beginning to find herself as an artist and began to separate herself from the influences
that would threaten to suffocate the efforts of any aspiring musician. Wilson recalls
the first time she began to frequent New York's jazz clubs:
At that time I was really into Betty Cater. I imagined that I was a great scat
singer, so on my first gigs I was oversinging. One night the bass player
leaned over and said, "Stroll." I didn't know what he meant, so I kept on
singing. Finally he stopped whispering and said out loud, "Hey, don't you
4

ibid.

Cassandra Wilson. Blue Light 'Til Dawn, New York, 1993, Blue Note CDP 0777 7 81357 2 2.

123
know what stroll means? It means lay out!" I'll never forget that. It was my
first big lesson in New York. I learned a whole lot in those days about sharing
the spotlight, communicating with the band, dealing with musicians, getting
your chops together.6
It would become clear that this experience had a lasting impact on Wilson, because
two of her signature traits are leaving ample space between her notes and giving the
rhythm section a chance to shine.
Wilson's first encounter with Steve Coleman in New York led to her
involvement with the M-Base collective. In her own words:
Coleman and I met in 1982 at a session where a big band he was in was doing
all Charlie ["Bird'] Parker music. I called out one of Bird's most difficult
tunes, "Cherokee." Coleman was impressed by a singer asking the band to
play "Cherokee," and we've been friends ever since. We talked that night for
two or three hours. I remember saying that Bird is great, it's all about Bird,
and Steve saying, "No, that's not what it's all about, because, yes, Bird was
great, but Bird is dead." Him being an alto player, I couldn't believe he didn't
worship Bird. But he said, "Yeah, I'm into Bird, but I'm also into developing
the music."7
Coleman's simultaneous knowledge of and respect for Parker's music, as well as his
desire to forge something of his own, greatly influenced Cassandra Wilson's thinking

Greg Tate, "Cassandra Wilson Moon Daughter: Meet This Generation's First Lady of Jazz," Essence,
Vol. 27, No. 3 (My 1996), p. 60. (www.geocites.com/BourbonStreet/4587/artcas9.html)
7

ibid.

124
about her music. Wilson continues to reminisce about her early conversations with
Coleman:
Steve told me, "You'll never accomplish anything in this music if you imitate
people. Bird and Sarah Vaughan have already said what they're going to say.
You need to say what you're supposed to say. Who are you? You have to
develop an individual sound. I can help you do that." It was really
challenging, but I felt empowered by learning how to deal with Steve's music.
He always expected me to be able to do that. I appreciated that about him.
He was so advanced, but he respected what I brought to the music - the
intuitive aspect of my approach.8
In the next few years, with Coleman's help, she met a host of musicians similarly
interested in bringing a new take on jazz, and these artists formed the M-Base
collective.
By the time of her debut recording in 1985, Wilson was heavily involved into
the sound and aesthetic of M-Base, as is reflected in her compositions and song
choices. This was most clearly seen in her use of funk rhythms and angular melodies.
Yet something always lurked beneath the surface of her involvement with the M-Base
collective: a desire to reinterpret the sound and style of traditional jazz. On Point of
View, this can be seen in her renditions of Miles Davis' "Blue in Green," the standard
"I Wished on the Moon," and her own composition "I Am Waiting." These three
compositions were interspersed with more funky and ostinato driven music ("Never,"
"Desperate Move," and "I Thought You Knew"). The musicians who support Wilson
on this recording - Steve Coleman on alto saxophone, Grachan Moncur III on
8

ibid.

125
trombone, Jean-Paul Bourelly on guitar, Lonnie Plaxico on bass, and Mark Johnson
on drums - weave in and out of the stylistic gap nicely, making for a mixture of
sounds and feels.
On her second release, 1987's Days Aweigh,9 Wilson ventured towards
straight ahead jazz territory. Only "Electromagnolia" and "Black and Yellow," the
first and last tunes respectively, are M-Base related. The title track, composed by
guitarist Jean-Paul Bourelly, is a moody and fanciful narrative whose contemplative
music complements the tone of the lyrics. Days Aweigh also features the Irving
Berlin standard "Let's Face the Music" and the Leonard Bernstein song "Some Other
Time." The very eclectic nature of this recording was typical of Wilson's work
during her M-Base period, which sometimes led to a lack of cohesion. Wilson admits
that, during this early stage of her career, she had not yet perfected the capability to
conceptualize an entire album as a whole.10
What Wilson had accomplished by this time, however, was a distinct, resonant
and personal singing voice. Her chance encounter with Steve Coleman in 1982 and
subsequent friendship and musical connection forced her to face the challenge of
developing herself as a unique artist. Wilson remembers that, when Wynton Marsalis
and his circle of musicians were gaining notoriety, Coleman and the soon-to-be MBase collective embraced her as an important new voice.11 This was particularly

Cassandra Wilson. Days Aweigh, New York, 1987, JMT 872 012.

10

Martin Johnson, "Cassandra Wilson: Female Vocalist of the Year," Down Beat, Vol. 66, No. 8
(August 1999), pp. 24-26, 28-29.
11

Larry Blumenfeld, "A Sisterhood of Spirit," JAZZIZ, Vol. 16, No. 6 (June 1999), pp. 44-50.

meaningful to Wilson because for the most part vocalists had been left out of the
discussion in the current jazz mainstream, which was dominated by instrumentalists.12
In a recent dissertation on the plight of jazz singers, Lara Pellegrinelli
describes how singers often are treated like second class citizens by jazz musicians:
".. jazz insiders constantly cast them as outsiders to a predominantly instrumental
tradition."

Pellegrinelli voices the opinions of instrumentalists, critics, and even

singers who feel that singers are not "real musicians,"14 and laments the all too often
exclusion of many vocalists from jazz literature in the formation of the jazz canon.15
In a telling moment in a video documentary on Wilson, Wynton Marsalis says that
"she's like one of us," which Pellegrinelli interprets to mean that Wilson was in
reality an outsider to the male dominated genre of jazz.16
Wilson joined M-Base on equal footing with all of the instrumentalists, and
this allowed her to build confidence in her talent as a singer and composer. Her voice
is most closely linked to the deeper toned singing of Betty Carter and Abby Lincoln,
with the former being her biggest influence. Yet she also listened closely to the way
that Billie Holliday shaped and phrased her melodic lines, making each word and
each note stand out and find meaning within the musical texture.17 Like any student
of their craft, Wilson studied all of the great female jazz singers. She also looked
12

ibid.

13

Lara V. Pellegrinelli, The Song is Who?: Locating Singers on the Jazz Scene (PhD Thesis, Harvard
Univesity, 2005), p. 2.
14

ibid.

15

ibid., p. 380.

16

ibid., p. 6.

17

Cassandra Wilson, "Coda: Listening to Billie," JAZZIZ, Vol. 22, No. 7 (July 2005), p. 74.

127
toward folk music, pop and soul. When it became her time to shine in the late 1980s,
Cassandra Wilson was ready with an arsenal of original material, unique
arrangements of familiar standards, and an elastic, round tone that filled musical
space to its capacity.
The M-Base collective and her connection with Steve Coleman helped Wilson
make her mark in New York not long after she arrived. She found a supportive group
of young musicians who were open to her creative energy and were likewise willing
to share their ideas with her.18 It is hard to imagine that Cassandra Wilson would
have been poised to make the leap into being the critic's choice for the new face for
jazz vocalists, some ten years later when she signed with Blue Note, if her musical
roots had not already been established with the M-Base collective. Yet Wilson had
cultivated considerable vocal skills before arriving on the scene with M-Base, and like Coleman, Osby and Eubanks - she was able to grow even further as an individual
through her collaborations with the group.
Many critics have considered Wilson's years with the M-Base collective to be
her "apprenticeship" period, years that to some yielded inconsistent musical material.
Famed jazz writer and critic Gary Giddins went as far as to say that this period was
Cassandra Wilson's time "in the wilderness."19 Since the M-Base collective was
largely a horn and rhythm section based movement, Wilson's role as their vocalist
could be seen as a welcomed addition but not an essential ingredient. Giddins asserts

Larry Blumenfeld, "Cassandra at the Crossroads," JAZZIZ, Vol. 23, No. 7 (July 2006), pp. 34-39.
Garry Giddens, Visions of Jazz: The First Century, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 642.

128
that, on her solo recordings on JMT, she gets lost in the mix of instrumentalists.20
Since Wilson's work with the M-Base collective is somewhat obscure compared to
her work on Blue Note, it has been easy for journalists and critics alike to dismiss
these years as a mere prelude to the main event: her commercial success.
Despite critics like Giddins, who emphasized the sometimes unevenness of
her work during this period, Cassandra Wilson remained in large part a formidable
jazz vocalist whose maturity is evident ever since Point of View. Her desire to be a
member of the band, like Betty Carter was, and not just a singer who fronted a band,21
is manifest in the way that her recordings showed real interaction between her and her
accompanying musicians. Ironically, considering that her M-Base years recordings
were overshadowed by her success at Blue Note, Wilson credits Steve Coleman for
her break with previous convention on her first Blue Note album Blue Light 'Til
Dawn in 1993.22 The move to Blue Note saw her return to guitar playing, something
that she had not done since she took up singing professionally in the 1980s. She often
eliminated the piano in her arrangements in favor of sparse percussion and guitar
based music. Wilson also ventured into pop, blues and folk sources for her material
once switching to Blue Note. Pellegrinelli observes that Wilson became known for
the blending of jazz and pop repertory.23 Yet what really happened was a change in
surroundings more than a change of artist; Cassandra Wilson's singing is as strong on
any JMT recording as it is on her Blue Note work.
20

ibid.

21

Johnson, "Cassandra Wilson: Female Vocalist of the Year," pp. 24-26, 28-29.

22

Dan Ouellette, "The Prodigal Daughter Returns," Acoustic Guitar, Vol. 17, No. 4, Issue 166
(October 2006), pp. 48-50, 52, 54-55.
23

Pellegrinelli, The Song is Who?, p. 299.

During her "apprenticeship" years with M-Base, Wilson experimented and


learned from the musicians of the M-Base collective, her first real professional
experience. Wilson did not study music in college; she received her degree in mass
communications and originally went to New Orleans for a job working for a
television station.24 Yet when she arrived in New York, her affinity for music took
hold and her love of singing developed into a professional career. Since Steve
Coleman was one of the first musicians she met upon arriving in New York,
everything fell into place as far as her finding musicians to collaborate with and share
her musical vision. The adventurous spirit of M-Base complemented Wilson's
searching nature, and catapulted her to a level of mastery that surpassed her own
expectations.
Blue Skies
Wilson's third album, 1988's Blue Skies, was the culmination of years of
toying with straight ahead jazz; it was a recording fully given to jazz standards.
Accompanied by a standard trio of piano, bass, and drums (pianist Mulgrew Miller,
bassist Lonnie Plaxico, and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington), Cassandra Wilson
performed ten jazz classics in a very traditional fashion - no funky twists and turns,
no angular melodic leaps, just pure jazz singing. This album was Cassandra Wilson's
best selling effort for JMT, and for many who celebrated her in 1993 with Blue Note
it foreshadowed greatness to come.

Ouellette, "The Prodigal Daughter Returns," pp. 48-50, 52, 54-55.


Cassandra Wilson. Blue Skies. New York, 1988, JMT 834 419-2.
Giddens, Visions of Jazz, p. 644.

Wilson's knowledge of the great songbooks was evident on Blue Skies. She
mixed her program with a balance of fast and slow, and demonstrated her range and
depth as an interpreter of the music. The compositions are, in order: "Shall We
Dance," "Polka Dots and Moonbeams," "I've Grown Accustomed to His Face," "I
Didn't Know What Time it Was," "Gee Baby Ain't I Good to You," "I'm Old
Fashioned," "Sweet Lorraine," "My One and Only Love," "Autumn Nocturne," and
"Blue Skies." Wilson treated each song carefully, was especially sensitive to the
words, and made sure that the message of each selection came through, thanks to her
impeccable diction and often laid back, behind the beat delivery. If there was ever
any doubt about whether Cassandra Wilson could or would sing the songs beloved by
many decades of jazz aficionados, Blue Skies proved that standards could suit her
perfectly.
What was surprising about this recording was how seemingly
"neoconservative" it was given that Wilson had a reputation for being an edgy artist.
By aligning herself with the M-Base collective, Wilson had been perceived as a
singer who was unconventional and pushed the envelope. Blue Skies was traditional
both in its conception and execution. It showed that Wilson considered herself to be
amongst the tradition of great jazz vocalists, regardless of era. Even if it was a bit old
fashioned compared to her previous work, this recording was a breakthrough for
Wilson because she demonstrated her ability to reach a wider audience with more
traditional tastes.
This is precisely why Blue Skies works and was a turning point in Cassandra
Wilson's discography; her decision to interpret the songs of the past also showed her

131
range and courage to tackle any musical situation. In hindsight, it is easy to paint
Wilson's pre-Blue Light 'Til Dawn recordings with one brush, with the exception of
Blue Skies. Yet six out of the eight recordings Cassandra Wilson recorded during her
M-Base years - Point of View, Days Aweigh, She Who Weeps,27 Live,2* After the
Beginning Again2 and Dance to the Drums Again30 - also contained straight ahead
jazz. It should not be a surprise, therefore, that Wilson would include jazz standards
in addition to her own compositions.
Nonetheless, Wilson, like the rest of her M-Base cohorts, did not want to be
pigeonholed in one style. Wilson always said that she kept her love of jazz and her
love of other musics - such as R&B, folk, and pop - separate, almost like two
separate parts of her musical personality.31 She even jokingly called herself
"schizophrenic" when it came to her delight in a variety of different sounds and
styles.32 The commercial success of Blue Skies relative to her other JMT recordings
was bittersweet for Wilson, because she did not want to be thought of as a copy of
great jazz vocalists such as Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, or Billie Holliday. She
wanted to create music that was as much about "now" as it was timeless. Perhaps
that is why she made her most radical departure from traditional jazz in her next
album, the recording which most squarely fit into the M-Base aesthetic.

27

Cassandra Wilson. She Who Weeps, New York, 1990, JMT 834 443-2.

28

Cassandra Wilson. Live, Munchen, 1991, JMT 849 149-2.

29

Cassandra Wilson. After the Beginning Again, New York, 1991, JMT 314 514 001-2.

30

Cassandra Wilson. Dance to the Drums Again, New York, 1992, Columbia CK 53451.

31

Johnson, "Cassandra Wilson: Female Vocalist of the Year," pp. 24-26, 28-29.

132
Jumpworld
Jumpworld, recorded in the summer of 1989 and released in 1990, was a big
departure from Blue Skies. Jumpworld featured all original material, and Cassandra
Wilson fully embraced the funky and complex sound that typified M-Base. Based on
themes from a comic book by Bruce Lincoln that spoke in metaphors about black
liberation, Jumpworld featured Wilson supported by Rod Williams on piano and
keyboard, Kevin "Bruce" Harris on bass, David Gilmore on guitar, and Mark Johnson
on drums. There were also special guests from the M-Base collective - Steve
Coleman, Greg Osby, Robin Eubanks, and Graham Haynes - and others closely
associated with them - tenor saxophonist Gary Thomas and acoustic bassist Lonnie
Plaxico. On the title track, "Jump World," rapper James Moore is featured, as well as
drum programmer Kirth Atkins. Not only was Jumpworld Cassandra Wilson's most
daring recording to date, it was also her most vivid representation of her allegiance
with M-Base.
On Jumpworld, Cassandra Wilson proclaims musically that she is not just
your typical jazz vocalist willing to sing standards. The eleven compositions on the
album are each very different, but fit together nicely as a whole with funk at the
center. In fact, the title of the first composition, "Woman on the Edge," describes the
sentiment given by the music well. Wilson composed or co-composed ten out of the
eleven songs, with the exception being Graham Haynes' "Grand System Masters" (a
reference to a hegemonic power found in Bruce Lincoln's comic book narrative).
The only straight ahead piece is Wilson's "Whirlwind Soldier," an enchanting and
33

Cassandra Wilson. Jumpworld, New York, 1989, JMT 834 434-2.

34

ibid., Liner Notes, Bruce Lincoln.

133
complex jazz composition with beautiful harmonies and a long, evolving musical
structure. The rest of the music directly avoids the trappings of traditional jazz while
at the same time revels in Wilson's lyrics.
Cassandra Wilson's personal voice, as described earlier in this chapter, took a
great leap forward with this album, both as a vocalist and a composer, and her
confidence as an innovator in the vein of M-Base's music is evident. Jumpworld is
innovative in the sense that the original compositions showed a distinct clarity of
musical vision that was similar to the sounds that M-Base made, which were
innovative at their core. This is the moment when she broke free of the shadow of
Betty Carter and became a brave new artist on the horizon. Although the recordings
she made after Jumpworld were admittedly more jazz oriented, with more of an even
treatment of straight ahead jazz and new material, Wilson had reached a new level of
depth as a musical presence on the international jazz scene.
Warm Spot
One of the most intriguing compositions on Jumpworld is "Warm Spot," a
piece that Wilson co-composed with the band that plays with her on the track: Rod
Willams, Kevin "Bruce" Harris, and Mark Johnson. The piece, in F minor, has two
contrasting sections that are propelled by ostinatos. The first section is a fast, straight
eight note feel in 4/4 time; the second is a slower, "half time" (each quarter note
equals a half note of the previous 4/4 pulse) feel in 9/4. Cassandra Wilson's
intervallic leaps upward in the melody of the first section are particularly pleasing,
given that she rarely sings in this somewhat higher range for her voice. The control

134
that she exhibits on this portion of the melody, marked by a tenderness and softness in
her voice, is contrasted with a hard and forceful sound in the 9/4 section.
"Warm Spot" unfolds in a methodical fashion, with the thematic material
being presented by the quartet of Wilson and rhythm section. The piece begins with
a 16 measure drum intra, followed by the first bass ostinato (Example 1).
Example 1: Warm Spot First Section Ostinato

v=-

y-

| i|iJ_jn-. i^

rjjjl^i
^

^m

The eight measure ostinato, which is layered on top of the drums, is repeated once
before the entrance of the vocal line. Cassandra Wilson sings the theme of this first
section, which is broken down into 16 measure phrases; the first phrase is shown
(Example 2).

The first section consists of vocal, electric bass, and drums, with the

entrance of keyboard at the end of the section. The drums accompanying the first
section play a consistent fast, eighth note pattern. This is followed by the contrasting
9/4 section, which is stylistically close to funk. A bass ostinato once again leads the
way (Example 3), with the keyboard now playing a prominent role along with the
drums and Wilson's vocals.

It is a dramatic change in mood, and Wilson sings more

forcefully to compliment this new feel.

135
Example 2: Warm Spot First Section Theme
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Her lyrics are more fanciful as well: "Coppercolored conjure man/wave your magic
wand and rescue me/I've been searching far and wide/for someone to care for me..."

ll

136
After this second section finishes, they return to the groove of the first section and the
lyrics of the first section as well.
There are some embellishments in the form of the song that add to the two
contrasting 4/4 and 9/4 sections. After the second time the 9/4 section is presented
(there is a piano solo during this section), there is an interlude over a pedal point C
tonal center with some superimposed chords used for color. This serves as a bridge
between two presentations of the 9/4 groove; after the interlude, the second feel
comes back, this time re-presenting the lyrics that Cassandra Wilson sang the first
time in this section. After the final statement of the second section, there is a repeated
vocal phrase that leads into a rubato section in major. The lyrics are: "I want to give
you all I can give you/leave not a trace behind." The accompanying chords are Db
major ("I want to give you"), D major ("all I can give you"), Db major ("leave not a
trace"), and finally E major #11 ("behind"). These two additions to the dual grooves
in the piece enhance the overall affect of the music.
Compositional Style
Cassandra Wilson has a definite approach to writing music, one in which she
allows her imagination to guide her. When asked about whether she lets
preoccupation with technique influence her musical decisions, Wilson had this to say:
Technique has to get in the back seat after a certain point. I read where some
writer said that I was too involved in technique, but technique is the last thing
that I think about when I'm on stage. Technique happens in the down time. It
happens when you work out puzzles for yourself on the piano or guitar. You
work out scales, difficult intervals. That's the practicing that I do. But once I

137
start writing, it's all intuitive. I'm not saying it's totally intuitive. There are
rational aspects to music. You have to figure out the logistics. But for the
most part, music is driven by the heart. And technique should be there by
now.35
She considers her method of composition to be an extension of the great jazz
composers that came before her:
I love to take apart a song. I love to look at a chord or series of chords and
find substitutions. That's one thing jazz musicians always do. Sometimes,
I'm stretching bars out. What might be one bar I'll turn into two bars. And
I'll give it some different changes now that I'm having two bars. The joy is in
finding different ways of saying something. Get inside a song and find
different ways of lifting the emotion. Go inside a song and find out what
makes it tick - a motif, something that one of the instruments is playing,
something in the harmony, a melodic line.36
Therefore, a mixture of intuition, analysis and experimentation takes place in
Wilson's compositions.
Like her fellow M-Base members, Wilson takes advantage of technological
advancements to aid her compositional process. Yet she differs when it comes to the
orchestration of the many parts that go into a piece; she often leaves a good amount to
her collaborators so that they can contribute something of their own. In her own
words:

Michael Bourne, "Becoming Cassandra," Down Beat, Vol. 71, No. 2 (February 2004), pp. 36-42.

138
The most I ever do is give the cats a sketch. At home on my computer, I work
out stuff, and give them a tape or burn a CD-R of some MP3s I've put
together. I sing on the demo, along with the arrangements.37
The music that results is a combination of Wilson's own musical vision as realized
through her writing and the creative spirit of her band members, whom she always
seeks to interact with as opposed to dictate to.38
As is evident by her output of one recording a year under her own name from
1985 to 1992, Wilson composed often and freely. After JumpworId, Wilson began
again to compose music that fit in the mainstream of the jazz tradition. Still using the
same core of musicians that she met during her M-Base phase until 1992, she allowed
swing, funk, and ballads to share nearly equal footing in her musical palette. Her last
recording of this period, Dance to the Drums Again, was a less than triumphant close
to her M-Base years. There was little evidence on this disc of what would follow in
her Blue Note years.
Wilson's Contribution to M-Base
Although she frequently cites Steve Coleman as the source of her desire to
join the M-Base collective in the mid 1980s,39 Wilson brought a flair of her own to
the highly theoretical group and added warmth to the sometimes extremely technical
collection of musicians. She was able to navigate the most difficult of M-Base's
music with a powerful sense of melody. This is evident on Steve Coleman's
composition "No Good Time Fairies," the first composition Steve Coleman shared
37

Howard Mandel, "Delta Spark," Down Beat, Vol. 69, No. 4 (April 2002), p. 28.

38

Blumenfeld, "A Sisterhood of Spirit," pp. 44-50.

39

Blumenfeld, "Cassandra at the Crossroads," pp. 34-39.

with Wilson. On this piece, Wilson sings Coleman's angular and intervallic theme.
In this way, Wilson is just like the fellow instrumentalists of M-Base; she could be
complicated and mysterious in one moment and accessible and forthcoming in the
next.
Without her voice and compositions the M-Base collective would have been
totally different; she added an essential aspect to the group. Wilson was aware of the
importance of being a bandleader as much as she was interested in being a part of the
band. The often deep, resonant quality in her voice colored every song that she sang,
and such a distinctive sound left an indelible mark on M-Base. Her compositions
ranged from simple to complex, but they were always unified by a strong melodic
sensibility. She learned from Steve Coleman and saxophonist and composer Henry
Threadgill to let the music shape the composition, and not the other way around;
many times she said that she didn't let the "bar lines" get in the way of the music.41
By letting the music take control, Wilson allowed the spirit of the moment to shape
her interpretation of her original material, the compositions of her M-Base
collaborators, and the standards she sang with so much conviction.
Cassandra Wilson became one of the most influential vocalists of her
generation after singing with the M-Base collective. M-Base challenged her, forced
her to think in different ways, and opened her heart and mind to musical possibilities
that were only being considered amongst the members of the collective.42 She found
new ways to interact with the ensemble, both in telling stories with her lyrics and in

ibid.

shaping melodies without lyrics. Her success as an artist that sold hundreds of
thousands of copies of recordings43 is in large part due to the training, camaraderie,
and open mindedness she fostered while a member of M-Base.
With that mainstream appeal, Wilson has remained true to the qualities that
made her a star. These qualities are originality, vision, daring and unpredictability.
Wilson possessed all of these characteristics when she joined the M-Base collective,
albeit in a more germinal stage. She grew into a prominent figure in jazz and was
featured in many high profile settings, such as Wynton Marsalis' Pulitzer Prize
winning epic composition Blood on the Fields and Ken Burns's film Jazz.
With all of the attention given to her since signing with Blue Note, Wilson
still remains grounded and in love with music. Wilson eloquently gives her point of
view on what it means to be a jazz musician:
This is not a path for lightweights, prima donnas, or those seeking stardom,
excitement, fame, and fortune. It is not a discipline that is honed in academia.
It is not learned in books, nor is it offered in finishing schools. It requires
hard work, strength, passion, tenacity, and the desire to succeed against all
odds. It means going out into the clubs, sitting in with the musicians, and
gathering the information bit by bit, story by story, night after night. It is
found in tight places and circles where women generally are not welcome,
where men and their way of knowing reign supreme. It can be hostile and
terribly intimidating. But once you're there and determined to get the
knowledge and stay the course, it can be one of the most rewarding pursuits
on the planet. There is a kind of heaven on stage, where the musical acumen
43

Johnson, "Cassandra Wilson: Female Vocalist of the Year," pp. 24-26, 28-29.

141
you muster and the dreams you can imagine through voice come together to
create something truly extraordinary.44
The passion when she speaks about the path taken as a musician is mirrored in her
singing. Fearless, courageous, and bold, Cassandra Wilson presents another unique
face amongst the constellation of stellar talent within the M-Base collective.

44

Cassandra Wilson, "What Betty Carter Taught Me," JAZZIZ, Vol. 16, No. 1 (January 1999), pp. 4244.

142
Chapter 7
M-Base: Jazz Fusion?
Theoretically, M-Base sought to create a categorical niche for itself that
evaded previous labels. In practice, however, it occupied a space somewhere in
between jazz and jazz fusion. There is no doubt that the members of M-Base were
trained as jazz musicians, since all of them had experience playing in straight ahead
jazz contexts. Yet, with the simultaneous arising of Wynton Marsalis and his cohort
of young, straight ahead jazz playing musicians, M-Base formed a parallel movement
of jazz that was inflected with funk and hip-hop rhythms. The M-Base collective's
decision to incorporate these vernacular musics mirrored jazz musicians' embracing
of rock music some fifteen years earlier and hence connected it to the birth of "jazz
fusion" at the end of the 1960s.
Should M-Base's music be called jazz fusion? Part of the M-Base collective's
mission was to name itself and all of its innovations so that others could not name
them, according to Robin Eubanks.1 With its placement in the 1980s, after the
dawning of jazz fusion in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, it seems logical to
explain M-Base's brand of improvisatory groove music as a type of jazz fusion.
Although the members of the group resist such a classification, is it an appropriate
appellation? By considering the hallmarks of jazz fusion created by Miles Davis,
Chick Corea, Wayne Shorter, and others, this chapter analyzes whether M-Base can
be properly placed under the umbrella of fusion and hence, whether or not important
ties should be drawn between M-Base and the electrified jazz that came before it.

Robin Eubanks, "Interview with Author," March 17, 2006.

143
Miles Davis and the Birth of Jazz Fusion
One of the strongest lineages of jazz fusion came from seminal jazz figure and
trumpeter Miles Davis. Davis made an aesthetic decision in the late 1960s to cease
playing straight ahead jazz and to explore instead rock and funk grooves laced with
advanced harmonies and modal improvisational structures. Recordings like Filles De
Kilimanjaro and In A Silent Way bridged the gap between the modal jazz of the late
1950s and the 1960s (ranging from Davis's 1958 recording of "Milestones"
throughout his recordings with saxophonist Wayne Shorter, pianist Herbie Hancock,
bassist Ron Carter and drummer Tony Williams) and the variety of electrified sounds
brought forth by Bitches Brew.4 Davis's choice to abandon the very music that made
him famous stemmed from his recognition that, in the late 1960s, acoustic jazz music
was not reaching the younger generation of consumers and music lovers.5 Also, his
decision was partially a matter of pride; he was confident that he knew more about
music than any rock musician.6 Davis sought to expand his fan base and
subsequently to create a new genre of music. What resulted was jazz fusion, a
category which often showcased horns and electric guitars soloing over rock and funk
rhythms. Fusion also emphasized a new prominence in the role of rhythm section
players. Specifically, it transformed practices rooted in blues guitar riffing and
extended them for exploration by an entire ensemble.
2

Miles Davis. Filles De Kilimanjaro, New York, 1968, Columbia CS 9750.

Miles Davis. In A Silent Way, New York, 1969, Columbia CS 9875.

Miles Davis. Bitches Brew, New York, 1969, Columbia GP 26.

Miles Davis with Quincy Troupe, Miles: The Autobiography of Miles Davis (New York: Touchstone
1989), p. 297.

ibid., p. 302.

That jazz fusion has its harmonic roots in modal jazz cannot be overstated.
Modal jazz was a reaction to bebop that deliberately moved away from chord-heavy
song structures and "running the changes" towards a freer and more open palette
upon which to improvise. Davis's Kind of Blue7 is a modal jazz masterpiece, and it
brilliantly displays the simplicity and succinct beauty that a few chords and simple
melodies can render when played with passion and verve. Modal jazz allowed
improvisers to superimpose various scales and harmonies over the provided chords,
with the most masterful musical minds (such as John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and
Wayne Shorter) able to dazzle the listener, and fellow musicians on the bandstand,
with their creativity. Jazz fusion was born out of this spirit of discovery amongst
simplicity, and Miles Davis, at the forefront of both modal jazz and jazz fusion,
provides perhaps the best example of how a jazz musician moves from one genre to
the next.
It is important not to forget that while modal jazz was developing, free jazz
had piqued the interest of jazz fans and critics as well. Ornette Coleman's arrival in
New York in 1959 brought about a seismic change which took the music one step
further than modal jazz and gave birth to free jazz.8 Free jazz often stripped away
discernable chordal structures and meter and placed emphasis on shadings in tone and
fluctuations in sound and rhythmic energy. Coleman is an interesting case because
his roots were, like Davis and modal jazz, in bebop. His first recording, Something

Miles Davis. Kind of Blue, New York, 1959, Columbia CL 1355.

David Lee, The Battle of the Five Spot: Ornette Coleman and the New York Jazz Field (Toronto:
Mercury Press, 2006), pp. 11, 14.

Else!!!!, utilizes a pianist in addition to bass and drums, and displays discernable
song forms like the 12 bar blues ("When Will the Blues Leave?") and the 32 bar
AABA song form ("The Blessing"). As is evident on this recording, Coleman's
unique gift was in avoiding all of the bebop cliches by creating scooping and
plunging melodic lines (techniques that were rooted in the blues) which smeared and
evaded clear cadences and regular phrasing. When Coleman omitted the piano in all
of his future recordings, the music sounded even "freer," with his landmark
collective, double quartet recording Free Jazz10 in 1960 providing the name for a
whole movement.11 Yet, even Ornette Coleman was seduced by the power of jazz
fusion, and in the 1970s created a group called "Prime Time," which launched
Coleman's own brand of electric jazz.12 Unlike Davis, however, Coleman's playing
did not change in this new setting; he remained true to the melodically tangled - or
what he called "harmolodic"13 - style of playing which made him a household name
in jazz.
Miles Davis wanted to create a new music with jazz fusion that the younger
generation of musicians could relate to. Although fusion was spawned by Davis, it
was capitalized on more so by his younger band mates. Davis reached out to a
younger audience, and deliberately attempted to capitalize on the success of rock,
R&B, soul, and funk. No one wanted to succeed at reaching the younger generation
9

Ornette Coleman. Something Else!!!!, Los Angeles, 1958 Contemporary S 7551.

10

Ornette Coleman. Free Jazz, New York, 1960 Atlantic LP 1364.

11

John Litweiler, The Freedom Principle: Jazz After 1958 (New York: W. Morrow, 1984), p. 13.

12

John Litweiler, Ornette Coleman: A Harmolodic Life (New York: W. Morrow, 1992), pp. 165-171,
180.
13

ibid., pp. 147-150.

146
more than Miles Davis, but he was only partly successful. Whereas Bitches Brew was
a landmark commercial success for Davis in particular and jazz fusion in general,
Davis's subsequent attempts at reaching a young audience, especially On the
Corner, 4 were serious disappointments for many listeners and critics. Davis was
envious when his former sideman, pianist Herbie Hancock, was successful with
young people with his album Head Hunters}5

hi addition to Hancock, several of

Miles Davis's younger band members went on to have successful careers in jazz
fusion: pianists Chick Corea and Joe Zawinul, saxophonist Wayne Shorter, guitarist
John McLaughlin, and drummer Tony Williams. After a five year hiatus that began
in 1975, Davis came back in 1980 with a style of music that was closer to
instrumental pop than his previous fusion albums. His live recordings like We Want
Miles16 showed a more gritty side to the otherwise glossy studio sessions.
Creatively, Miles Davis continued to seek refuge in popular music in the 1980s. He
was particularly struck by Prince's music, as his recording Tutu shows. Never to
miss a lasting movement or even a passing fad, Davis's last recording, Doo-Bop,19
boasted a hip-hop format complete with rappers; although only partially successful
(the instrumental track "Duke Booty" is the most satisfying to this listener's ears), it

14

Miles Davis. On the Corner, New York, 1972 Columba KC 31906.

15

Davis with Troupe, Miles, pp. 328-329.

16

Miles Davis. We Want Miles, New York, 1981 Columbia C2 38005.

17

Davis with Troupe, Miles, pp. 353, 384-386.

18

Miles Davis. Tutu, Los Angeles, 1986, Warner Bros. 25490.

19

Miles Davis. Doo-Bop, New York, 1991, Warner Bros. 9 26938-2.

147
was a testament to his searching spirit. As Davis always said, music had to be about
change.20
Musical Characteristics of Jazz Fusion
One way to describe fusion is that it is a movement that took modal jazz and
added a backbeat to it. Yet it was much more than that, because it brought about
innovative editing processes in the studio and newly developed soloing techniques to
accommodate the louder and more raucous electrified instrumentation.

The sound

of jazz fusion emphasized the prominence of horn soloists in place of vocalists


(which were heard in the popular musics from which they borrowed). What made the
music "jazz" was its emphasis on improvisation, and the improviser would explore
new ways to be heard over the wash of electrified sounds, from wah-wah trumpets, to
electric pianos, to highly amplified saxophone solos. Jazz fusion took the "riff," with
its origins in both the big band head arrangements of Count Basie and blues guitar
practices, and re-implemented them as backgrounds to soloists, new head melodies,
and improvised fragments to create a tuneful and often sing-able series of themes.
What made the music "fusion" was its combination of jazz techniques such as
improvisation with rock, soul, and funk rhythms, all in an electrified and amplified
setting. These rhythms would permeate the ensemble, with each member
internalizing the backbeat and creating a new type of interlocking rhythmic structure.
Phrasing differed from the standard "swinging" of the jazz musician; swing eighth
notes were replaced by straight eighth notes, and the easy lull of the hi-hat on beats 2
and 4 were hardened and fattened by an omnipresent backbeat.

Yet at its best, jazz

fusion brought the same intensity and brilliance of imagination that a masterful jazz
20

Davis with Troupe, Miles, p. 394.

148
performance did, and opened the ears of younger listeners raised on rock, funk and
soul to a whole new world of sound. Miles Davis's Bitches Brew is perhaps the best
example of this.
One of the innovations of modal jazz that was carried over to fusion was the
improvisatory technique of playing "outside" of the given chord changes. Since there
were usually only a few chords in a composition, with long vamps and ostinatos
throughout, improvisers learned how to build tension and release through creating
polytonal implications and superimposing scales and chords. Tenor saxophonist John
Coltrane was one of the early masters of these techniques. At first a virtuoso bebop
player, whose layered style of scalar playing was called "sheets of sound,"21 Coltrane
shifted his playing style in 1960 to complement the growing and rising phenomena
known as modal jazz. At first Coltrane was tentative; a recording featuring himself
and Ornette Coleman's band showed how initially it was difficult for Coltrane to
break away from the many bebop patterns he created.22 Yet by 1961, as his Live at
the Village Vanguard23 recordings display, Coltrane had began embarking on a new
language which changed the direction of his playing from vertical to horizontal. The
most famous piece from these recordings, "Chasin' the Trane," shows how Coltrane
could deconstruct a blues by breaking the 12 bar structure into shards of oscillating
dissonance and consonance. This technique would be called playing "outside,"
meaning outside of the given notes within the chord structure. Coltrane gained a lot

21

Lewis Porter, John Coltrane: His Life and Music (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998),
p. 111.
22

23

John Coltrane and Don Cherry. The Avant-Garde, New York, 1960, Atlantic LP 1451.

John Coltrane. The Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings, New York, 1961, Impulse IMPD
4-232.

149
of inspiration from the free jazz players as well, especially Ornette Coleman, who
had the courage to make playing "outside" an entire style of music. Yet the
difference between Coltrane's style of outside playing and many of the free jazz
musicians was that Coltrane often played clearly discernable melodic lines that went
outside of the chord changes, against the familiar backdrop of a standard jazz
rhythmic accompaniment; other free jazz musicians would play "outside" mainly with
sound effects and experimentations with all aspects of the musical structure. In other
words, Coltrane's early 1960s style of playing would create tension and release
through playing on top of the familiar, while the majority of other free jazz players
did so through toying with melody, meter, harmony, and rhythm all at once.
As was mentioned briefly earlier, Miles Davis' quintet with Herbie Hancock,
Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams made an art of playing "outside" of
the changes in a modal jazz setting, so masterfully so that they called their music
"controlled freedom."25 John Coltrane was a member of the first Miles Davis quintet
for nearly five years, and it is no coincidence that after Coltrane's tenure with Davis
that he was conceptually open to exploring new means of playing; Davis fostered this
spirit of creativity amongst his sidemen. When Davis pulled together his second
quintet in the mid 1960s, little did he know that his group's style of playing would
influence a whole new generation of young jazz musicians in the 1980s. This

Porter, John Coltrane: His Life and Music, pp. 202-205.


25

Paul Tingen, Miles Beyond: The Electric Explorations of Miles Davis, 1967-1991 (New York:
Billboard Books, 2001), p. 37.

150
version of the Miles Davis quintet's style of "outside" playing was extremely precise;
Nefertiti26 (1967) provides a prime example.
Playing "outside" was one of the most important innovations of M-Base, but
because of their unconventional melodic techniques their style of playing is often
shrouded in mystery. M-Base saxophonist Greg Osby said that people who listened
to their music would often, at a loss for a better term, call their music full of
"chromatics."27 Yet their manner of writing music and playing was original, because
they constructed polytonal melodies and complex metric shifts and polyrhythms with
both a bebop-like speed and accuracy and a laid back circularity of form; this is one
of the reasons why M-Base created a name for what they were doing. Nevertheless,
their approach has precedents in the modal jazz style, "outside" playing of Coltrane,
and the blending of jazz and rock in the 1960s and 1970s.
Is Fusion a Fitting Term?
M-Base trumpeter Graham Haynes expressed how musicians in America
operate in a label driven society, which ultimately puts the music and the musicians
"in a box."28 Many of the members of M-Base do not like the term jazz fusion being
used to describe M-Base's style. When asked in an interview, Steve Coleman told me
that in music everything is a fusion of something, from the days of Bach and Mozart
in Europe to the joining of blues and Tin Pan Alley in the United Sates.29 Greg Osby
said that to him jazz fusion was just a term without much substance that often meant
26

Miles Davis. Nefertiti, New York, 1967, Columbia CS 9594.

27

Greg Osby, "Interview with Author," January 3, 2006.

28

Graham Haynes, "Interview with Author," March 3, 2006.

29

Steve Coleman, "Interview with Author," February 27, 2006.

151
an electric bass and electric guitars were playing.30 Yet can we deny the sizeable
history of what jazz fusion has contributed to the evolution of jazz and its influence
on M-Base?
Although labels like "jazz fusion" inherently oversimplify the many different
strains of influences and techniques flowing into the music and its musicians, they are
necessary evils in an attempt to find a discourse about a given style or set of musical
practices. This point is especially relevant to M-Base, because the musicians
associated with the collective found it important to give themselves their own label.
Situating them historically in the framework of jazz history is in and of itself a
process of labeling. In order to describe M-Base's historical profile, situating them in
relationship to jazz fusion is necessary.
Like it or not, fusion is a term that endured to describe the music
encompassing electric jazz. Some observers have sought new terms to describe it,
most notably British journalist and historian Stuart Nicholson in his book Jazz-Rock.
In its preface, Nicholson begins to describe why he does not like the term fusion mainly because, in his view, it has come to be synonymous with smooth jazz and
commercialism.31 He therefore uses the term "jazz-rock" instead to encapsulate the
innovations that Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Joe Zawinul, Wayne
Shorter and others made.32 In many senses, this is a more limiting term since in its
title it only takes into consideration two styles of music: jazz and rock. It is
abundantly clear that the interplay between jazz and rock, R&B, soul, and funk in the
30

Osby, "Interview with Author."

31

Stuart Nicholson, Jazz-Rock: A History (New York: Schirmer Books, 1998), p. xiv.

32

ibid., p. xiii.

152
late 1960s and throughout the 1970s was much deeper than rock music alone.
Nicholson's choice of term creates a history in which the incorporation of other forms
of popular music such as funk, soul and pop are treated with suspicion. In his view
this intermingling ultimately leads to musical corruption.33 Nicholson puts forth a
European perspective on "jazz-rock," claiming that this is one of the only movements
in jazz that was not entirely spawned by African Americans.34 Yet I find the term
"jazz fusion" or just "fusion" to be fitting: first, because it is a broad enough term to
capture the spirit of the mixing of jazz and various forms of popular music; and
second, because it has stood the test of time. It is true, as Steve Coleman said, that
every type of music is a fusion of different styles. The field of ethnomusicology also
teaches us that there is no such thing as a "pure" style of music anyway; thus,
everything is a kind of fusion. In my opinion, jazz fusion is an inclusive term that can
account for all types of electrified jazz music and thus applies to M-Base as well.
Jazz Fusion: Beyond Miles Davis
Although Miles Davis was the man who put jazz fusion on the map, there
were others who followed him who made significant contributions to fusion's
development. The vast majority of these musicians were former sidemen of Davis.
Wayne Shorter and Joe Zawinul teamed up to create "Weather Report," a soulful mix
of jazz, rock, and blues that was as experimental as it was earthy.35 Chick Corea
created a stir with his group "Return to Forever," which used sophisticated electric

ibid., pp. xv-xvi.


ibid., p. xv.
ibid., pp. 164-181.

153
grooves that complemented Corea's own cerebral musings.36

Perhaps the most

commercially successful of them all, Herbie Hancock catapulted from Miles Davis'
band to a headlining star with his Head Hunters37 album and subsequent recordings.38
Later, there was a whole new generation of musicians interested in playing fusion,
most notably trumpeter Randy Brecker and his late brother Michael, who became one
of the most influential tenor saxophonists of the 1970s and the 1980s.39
One truism rendered by Stuart Nicholson in his book Jazz-Rock is his
recognition that jazz fusion branched off into a more commercial setting as well. In
the 1970s, musicians such as saxophonists Grover Washington, Jr. and David
Sanborn created a smoother and more "easy listening" style of fusion that might be
best described as instrumental pop. This music really came into its own in the 1980s,
when the genre earned the term "smooth jazz." Kenny G, the poster child of smooth
jazz, has inspired much controversy and is arguably one of the main reasons why
there exists a rift between traditional jazz musicians and those who play jazz fusion
today.40 Jazz historian Alyn Shipton claims that Kenny G's "simple, melodic alto and
soprano [saxophone] playing...is the antithesis of improvisation, collective
interaction, swing, soul, or heart."41 There is a sentiment amongst traditional jazz

36

ibid., pp. 196-202.

37

Herbie Hancock. Head Hunters, San Francisco, 1973, Columbia CK 65123.

38

Nicholson, Jazz-Rock: A History, pp. 191-194; Steven F. Pond, Head Hunters: The Making of Jazz's
First Platinum Album (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005), pp. 1-30.
39

Nicholson, Jazz-Rock: A History, pp. 50-52.

40

Christopher Washburne, "Does Kenny G Play Bad Jazz?: A Case Study," in Christopher Washburne
and Maiken Derno eds., Bad Music: The Music We Love to Hate (New York: Routledge, 2004), pp.
123-147.
41

Alyn Shipton, A New History of Jazz (New York: Continuum, 2007), pp. 625-626.

musicians that those who play smooth jazz can't really "play," meaning that they
have not technically mastered their instruments, and that they can't handle difficult
musical harmonic structures or play changes well. Interestingly enough, this
argument is the same as the one brought about in jazz when the beboppers accused
free jazz musicians of being musical imposters for their lack of playing the changes.
The fact that smooth jazz is commercially successful, much more so than straight
ahead jazz or even the harder side of jazz fusion as presented by Shorter, Corea, and
others, widens the gap between what Wynton Marsalis called "real jazz musicians"
and those who play instrumental pop.42
Nevertheless, to ignore instrumental pop as a legitimate offspring of jazz
fusion, as Stuart Nicholson does, is to neglect the significance of a new listening
audience for one type of jazz. Some would say that smooth jazz is not even "jazz,"
just as some argued that fusion was not jazz either. The audience for instrumental
pop was not the same audience for more challenging styles of jazz fusion, but it was
nonetheless an important addition to a growing body of listeners for the music that
originated in jazz practices. Greg Osby's album Man Talkfor Moderns Vol X was
his take on and answer to the growing smooth jazz phenomenon. Osby wanted to
show that music can be easy on a listener's ears and still have depth and substance.
This in many senses brings the discussion full circle back to modal jazz, which had a
simultaneously commercially and artistically successful album in Miles Davis' Kind
of Blue. Greg Osby wanted his album to have a similar effect. Some jazz purists
such as Marsalis might find it blasphemous to link Kind of Blue and instrumental pop,

42

Wynton Marsalis and Frank Stewart, Sweet Swing Blues on the Road (W. W. Norton & Company,
1994), p. 139.

but in many ways both styles served a similar function in their respective historical
moments. Both styles smoothed out the rough edges of the genre from which they
came (modal jazz and jazz fusion, respectively) and created a broader listening
audience for jazz in general.
In addition to jazz, the genre that influenced M-Base's musicians most
directly was the funk music of the 1970s. After all, this is when the members of MBase were in their teenage years and at their most formative stage of musical and
personal development. Steve Coleman was particularly impressed with James
Brown's saxophonist Maceo Parker, who was one of Coleman's earlier influences on
alto saxophone even before Charlie Parker.43 There is a sensibility in M-Base's
music that is directly taken from the horn riffs of James Brown's horn section, the
JB's, which boasted a staccato, accented and punctuated style of playing laced with
blues phrases. James Brown's music is also heavily modal, with long sections of his
compositions containing one or two chords and usually a modulation to a bridge that
then returns to the chorus. The members of M-Base could see the connection
between music like that of James Brown and that of modal John Coltrane and Miles
Davis, and they made that explicit in their own music.
M-Base: Looking Forward, Looking Back
M-Base wanted to create something that was its own style, something that was
not easily categorized. By fusing jazz and funk with early hip-hop rhythms, the MBase collective attempted to break the mold of what jazz fusion was traditionally
considered to be. Their vocalist, Cassandra Wilson, used her voice more like a horn
player rather than a singer; she sang lines with and without lyrics in a haunting and
43

Steve Coleman, "Sine Die," www.m-base.com/sinedie.html.

156
round timbre reminiscent of Betty Carter. Drummer Marvin "Smitty" Smith played
rhythms on the drums that were lopsided and complicated, establishing and creating a
musical foundation for the ensemble that shifted the accents and emphasis of the
melodic line. Horn players like Steve Coleman and Greg Osby invented their own
systems of improvisation to give a unique sound to their phrasing and melodic ideas.
The most traditional role of the group was played by the keyboard, bass, and guitar;
they stayed in their place as time keepers and harmonic indicators until it was their
time to solo. The M-Base collective had a sound that was immediately identifiable,
and their success at creating such a style makes a good case for granting them their
own autonomous sphere of categorization.
There is no doubt, however, that M-Base gained inspiration from the arrival of
jazz fusion on the musical scene in the 1970s and the presence of jazz masters to lead
the way. This group of young, aspiring African American musicians was dedicated to
exploring new sounds and musical structures that would separate and distinguish
them from the countless number of other jazz musicians. The fact that M-Base was a
movement that was started by young men and women seeking to integrate the
vernacular into their learned jazz styles distinguishes it from the early history of jazz
fusion, which began with Miles Davis, an older, established musician. Yet it was
older, established masters like Davis that paved the way for the success of M-Base.
Steve Coleman played with the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis band, Dave Holland, and
Abbey Lincoln; Greg Osby was a sideman of Dizzy Gillespie, Jack DeJohnette, and
Andrew Hill, and Robin Eubanks played with his musical hero, Slide Hampton.
Without the guidance and encouragement of the older generation of jazz musicians,

157
M-Base would not have had the musical depth and experience it needed to make it a
lasting movement. Yet it was the spirit of jazz fusion that ran through the veins of
the M-Base collective, allowing them to feel comfortable mixing jazz with rock, funk
and hip-hop and providing a template on which to base their own music. M-Base
sought to clarify what it was and what it was not, and although it evaded being
classified as jazz fusion it nonetheless rubbed elbows with the genre and grew out of
the aforementioned movement.
The members of M-Base also looked back to the roots of African American
culture in African music to find established precedents for their group dynamic.44 MBase's use of ostinatos and layered rhythms was taken from West African practices,
and their sound was polyrhythmic and often polytonal. One attempt to mimic the
sound of an African group in jazz was John Coltrane's 1960 recording of his
composition "Africa" with a big band ensemble.45 The melody was in D, over a
pedal point ostinato in E to create two tonal centers. Yet M-Base was much more
sophisticated in its blending of tonalities; they would often keep the key of the piece
clear, while the improviser would superimpose kaleidoscopic melodies that slipped in
and out of different keys so smoothly that it was often hard to decipher which key had
been tonicized. Steve Coleman and Greg Osby were masters of this technique, with
each of them creating a system that allowed for polytonality. Cassandra Wilson often
chanted to give M-Base a distinctly African sensibility. One distinct difference
between M-Base and African music remained that M-Base kept the separation of
performer and audience clear, much in the same way that a jazz musician or classical
44

Liner Notes. M-Base Collective. Anatomy of a Groove, New York, 1992, Columbia CK 5341.

45

John Coltrane. The Complete Africa/Brass Sessions, New Jersey, 1961, Impulse IMPD 2-168.

158
musician would. Also, despite their being funk rhythms present throughout their
compositions, M-Base's music did not readily lend itself to social dancing. It was
music for the mind and body, but more easily accessible to the mind.
The role that hip-hop played in the music of M-Base was much more of an
attitude than a substantive set of musical characteristics. As the major innovation of
black vernacular culture in the 1980s, hip-hop was a music that M-Base could not and
did not ignore. They were fully cognizant of the contribution that rappers and their
music made to the sound of black America. Yet M-Base did not have a rapper as a
regular member of their collective; instead, they took the edgy, in-your-face delivery
of the MC46 and transferred that to their respective instruments. One of the ways that
this was accomplished was to mimic the improvisatory nature of what rappers called
"free style." This was a process in which rappers would create and deliver poetry
instantaneously and without forethought, much in the manner by which a jazz
musician improvises when playing a solo. Over a rock steady 4/4 back beat, rappers
would rhyme and speak about various topics, from violence on the streets, to
romantic relationships, to just "kickin' it" with your friends. Many of the most
famous raps started out as free style material and crystallized themselves in the studio
as well produced and delivered rap songs. Perhaps the earliest and most successful
rap song was "Rappers Delight," from 1979, by the Sugar Hill Gang47; yet it was in
the 1980s that the style took over as a major musical movement. Run DMC was a

46
47

Emmett G. Price, III, Hip Hop Culture (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2006), pp. 34-37.

Tricia Rose, Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America (Hanover:
Wesleyan University Press, 1994), p. xi.

159
three man rap trio that was the first to break through to mainstream success, and they
put rapping squarely in the middle of media attention.
By the time that Steve Coleman had come to New York from Chicago in the
late 1970s, he was developing musical concepts that incorporated these new rhythms
and poetic cadences.48 Coleman shared these ideas with the members of M-Base, and
much of their collective spirit came from their shared interest in hip-hop. The style of
dress influenced them heavily; the colorful, baggy clothing of the 1980s hip-hop
musician and fan rubbed off on the members of M-Base. Yet M-Base was not one
dimensional in its presentation; they would as easily be found wearing suits and ties
as they would be found in T-shirts and jeans. The attitude of hip-hop is what M-Base
took from the music more than anything else: the militant stance, the push towards
new musical horizons, the "braggadocios" demeanor.
Musically, hip-hop was an extension of funk, and the near complete
elimination of live drummers in favor of drum machines made their music sound
mechanical in comparison. One of the newer innovations of hip-hop was the
"sample" and the "loop."49 Hip-hop musicians would sample older pieces, most
likely a catchy phrase or drum rhythm, and make that the foundation for an entire
composition. Then, they would loop these samples so that a small fragment of sound
would create several minutes of danceable music. The emphasis in hip-hop, as it was
in funk, was on dancing, and this made the background music to the rapping
infectious. Yet, as was mentioned earlier, M-Base was interested in complicating the
rhythmic structure, in bending and breaking it and making something new over which
48

Coleman, "Interview with Author."

49

Tricia Rose, Black Noise, pp. 67, 70, 73.

160
to improvise. This is the main reason why M-Base's music was more sonically dense
then any rap music that you would hear. It is no coincidence that the M-Base
collective's only group release was called "Anatomy of a Groove"; they literally
dissected and constructed beats and tempos that were complex and engaging.
Nonetheless, the influence of hip-hop on M-Base cannot be denied. While their
grooves were more complex and their improvisations more intricate, M-Base sought
to deliver a positive message for the state of African American culture, just as many
rappers did.
M-Base: Straight Ahead
It is important to note that outside of the M-Base collective each of its
members played straight ahead jazz. Steve Coleman played extensively with Dave
Holland's group. Holland has been an influential acoustic bassist and composer since
his days with Miles Davis in the late 1960s. Greg Osby gigged with Jon Faddis,
Dizzie Gillespie, and Jack DeJohnette, with whom he most extensively recorded and
toured. Osby also played with his hero, pianist and composer Andrew Hill, and with
Herbie Hancock as well. Robin Eubanks was a disciple of the great trombonist Slide
Hampton, and, like Coleman, recorded and toured with Dave Holland. Vocalist
Cassandra Wilson became a brilliant jazz vocalist, signed with Blue Note records, and
emphasized the more traditional side of her artistry. Pianist Geri Allen explored
acoustic jazz on her own recordings and also with Ornette Coleman. Clearly the MBase collective was steeped in the jazz tradition, and their members' identity as jazz

161
musicians was as important to them as it was to identify themselves as the "new
thing" on the musical scene.5
Steve Coleman's first album, Motherland Pulse, is a straight ahead, acoustic
jazz album. It opens with a blues, the most well-worn and traditional of jazz
compositional structures, called "Irate Blues." Perhaps Coleman's love of Charlie
Parker, in addition to Maceo Parker, made him decide to introduce himself musically
as a "swinging" jazz musician. The beauty and complexity of his melodic
constructions still hold close to the tradition of jazz compositions.
Hearing the members of M-Base in straight ahead jazz contexts sheds light on
how deep and learned their musical roots in jazz were. Their musical language was a
direct extension of the bebop school of playing, in which mastering fast tempos and
complicated sixteenth note runs permeated their improvisational tool kit. Their
intricate and detailed attention to chords and chord changes was also a tactic taken
from bebop. This is seen most clearly in the work of M-Base's two alto saxophonists,
Steve Coleman and Greg Osby. Cassandra Wilson's husky voice gave a darker yet
rich reading of jazz standards. Trumpeter and cornet player Graham Haynes, who
started collaborating on the streets of New York with Steve Coleman in the early
1980s, fused Coleman's concepts with a style of playing that was reminiscent of Don
Cherry.51 These jazz musicians came together to form M-Base as a means of creating
an identity for themselves outside of straight ahead jazz, but they were all the while
ensconced in it.

Nicholson, Jazz-Rock: A History, p. 315.


51

Haynes, "Interview with Author."

162
In this way, the weaving in and out that the members of M-Base did between
straight ahead jazz and their own brand of funk further complicated how they should
be classified. Were they straight ahead jazz musicians playing funk, or were they
funk musicians who played jazz on the side? Their ambivalence about categorization
is not uncommon amongst artists; many artists strive to be what Duke Ellington
called "beyond category."52 The very fact that they avoided being pigeonholed made
them more perplexing to the jazz aficionado.53 In the mid 1980s, M-Base was
promoted as a new movement of computer savvy musicians breaking the mold of
previous convention. Now, in hindsight, their preoccupation with innovation and
advancing the musical language they inherited makes them jazz musicians with
something to prove. What exactly did they have to prove? That jazz was not, as
Miles Davis put it, a music for the museum,54 that the music was still vital and
relevant to a young generation of curious and talented minds, and that funk could be
as intricate as any bebop riff.
The members of M-Base were not concerned about the ramifications of their
mixing jazz with funk; they called themselves "M-Base" to avoid others' baffled
attempts to classify them. Their straddling the fence between jazz and funk was part
of their mystique, and gave them the artistic license to call themselves whatever they
saw fit. Macro-Basic Array of Structured Extemporizations was surely an enigmatic
title, hence the acronym "M-Base" to simplify the labeling process. According to its

John Edward Hasse, Beyond Category: The Life and Genius of Duke Ellington (New York: Da Capo
Press, 1995).
53

Nicholson, Jazz-Rock: A History, p. 315.

54

Davis with Troupe, Miles, p. 352.

163
members, M-Base was not jazz, was not pop, was not "fusion," but rather was its own
stylistic entity.
M-Base's link to straight ahead jazz brought it closer to the tradition which
gave rise to bebop, modal jazz, and jazz fusion. As Steve Coleman said, "M-BASE
uses the same concepts of communication, balance and emotional structures as many
African-American forms of music in the past. In terms of some of the more technical
aspects it is closely aligned with the music of musicians in the 40's and 50's
(i.e.. ..Charlie Parker, Max Roach, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, etc....) but is
also influenced a great deal by the popular rhythm-based music of our youth (60's
and 70's)." 55 It can be seen as the next logical step on a continuum, in which jazz
always reinvented itself to keep the music evolving and moving forward. M-Base
drew from bebop in the way that the music was intellectually focused upon melodic
and rhythmic complexity. It borrowed the use of vamps and paucity of chords from
modal jazz, which they also connected to funk. Finally, they infused their music with
the popular rhythms of their day, taking a page out of jazz fusion's book. Indeed, MBase is a rambunctious child of jazz history.
Notice that in the previous paragraph, free jazz was not mentioned; in many
senses, M-Base was the antithesis of free jazz. Whereas free jazz musicians would
create at times a cacophonous blend of sonic textures, the members of M-Base were
meticulous, cleanly articulating the smallest of musical details. M-Base was a return
to the precise and analytical side of jazz, something which was lost in the fray of free
jazz's often intense mixture of sounds.

Liner Notes. M-Base Collective. Anatomy of a Groove, New York, 1992, Columbia CK 5341.

Yet M-Base took the spirit of revolution from all of the previous movements
of jazz to herald a new twist on the familiar genre of jazz fusion. This sense of
imminent change was felt by the musicians and stemmed from music that was
influenced by its surrounding culture. The political upheaval in the 1950s and 60s
during the Civil Rights era in America saw radical shifts in musical styles; many
attribute the rise of free jazz to such a political movement.56 The 1970s saw a
flowering of Black Power sentiments and a simultaneous rise in Black Pride,
accompanied by Afros, dashikis, and an increasing interest in Africa as the heart of
international black culture.57 Jazz fusion accompanied this rise of black self love in
America, as funk, R&B, and soul dominated the airwaves. By the 1980s, the Civil
Rights struggle was at least technically over, and young black Americans sought to
find something to motivate themselves, especially given that they were the first
generation of African Americans born without legalized segregation. When hip-hop
began a ground swell of interest amongst black youth in particular and eventually the
world in general, jazz musicians had a crisis on their hands: how do we remain
relevant in a time where the African American has a meteoric rise in iconic status?
The 1980s saw the arrival of Michael Jackson, Prince, Michael Jordan, and Oprah
Winfrey, four icons that transcended racial barriers and became heroes in the eyes of
both black and white America. Such a change in the status of black Americans, from
marginal to central, gave M-Base the opportunity to capitalize on the growing interest
in black American creativity. M-Base's music was a response to the question of

56

Joe Street, The Culture War in the Civil Rights Movement (Gainesville: University Press of Florida,
2007), p. 58.
57

ibid., pp. 103, 106.

165
whether jazz musicians could still bring the element of surprise to their art form, and
capture the hearts and minds of an audience hungry for African American innovation.
Placing M-Base in its Historical Context
M-Base was a musical movement in the 1980s that encapsulated the fervor
surrounding young black jazz musicians and the rising of black vernacular culture to
international status. The resurgence of black youth performing jazz brought about an
interest in recording and promoting them to an established jazz community, which
missed the glory days of straight ahead jazz. Their youth became a commodity, and
young stars like Wynton Marsalis were marketed as the new standard in jazz.58 MBase benefited from the media's attention to young jazz talent, even if its music was a
reaction to the conservative return to bebop by a cohort of young men led by
Marsalis. The other piece of the puzzle comes from the internationalization of the
African American entertainer, in which a global icon (like Michael Jackson or
Michael Jordan) could for the first time come from black America. The 1980s saw
the rise of black vernacular culture through hip-hop, which had a far reaching
influence throughout the globe. The members of M-Base were situated historically at
this moment when both jazz and street credibility were not only hip, but were also
marketable and profitable.
Out of all of the labels given to the different styles of jazz that emerged prior
to the formation of M-Base, jazz fusion is the one that fits M-Base the best. M-Base
took all that came before and blended the various styles together into a unique whole.
As mentioned earlier, the word M-Base in and of itself is a classification, one that the
members hoped would be sufficient for those seeking a means of placing them
58

Eric Nisenson, Blue: The Murder of Jazz (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997), pp. 44-46.

166
stylistically. Yet a stronger connection needs to be made between M-Base and its
musical precedents, one that links it to a history of constant flux, growth, and change.
With its roots in jazz, funk, rock, and hip-hop, M-Base is the 1980s answer to the
commercial side of jazz fusion known as smooth jazz and the reemergence of hard
bop playing amongst the so-called "Young Lions." M-Base's members were jazz
musicians who, like Miles Davis in 1968, saw that the vernacular must be engaged if
the music was to survive and regain its vitality.

167
Chapter 8
Anatomy of a Groove: The M-Base Collective
The M-Base collective was in many senses a unification of very distinct
individuals, and it also was a forum for a group ethos to develop. With the strong
musical personalities of Coleman, Osby, Eubanks, and Wilson at play, the M-Base
collective brought together a network of young musicians to attain a sound that was
new and vibrant. One of the most important events during the development of the MBase collective was the concert "M-Base Jams at BAM," a concert at the Brooklyn
Academy of Music on December 9,1988. This concert brought together the main
voices in M-Base and showcased their talent in the borough that gave rise to the MBase phenomenon. In December of 1991 and January of 1992, the M-Base
collective finally came together to record and document a unified musical statement:
Anatomy of a Groove. This remains the only release by the M-Base collective and
hence stands as an essential reference in understanding the music generated by and
connected with M-Base.
Uniting to present an inclusive showing of the many sides of the M-Base
collective, the recording and the concert mark moments in time where M-Base was
truly a collective and not a reflection of one man or woman's musical vision. With
many of the members of M-Base having successful solo careers, it became more and
more rare for the collective to surface and transcend egotistical leadership in favor of
communal representation. "M-Base Jams at BAM" was a tour de force of live music,
with special guests such as bassists Bob Hurst and Dave Holland present as well as
the core of the collective intact. Anatomy of a Groove is a modest amalgamation of
many of the voices of M-Base in a relatively concise format, with the nine songs each

168
providing different "grooves" that are all the while unified by M-Base's patented
electric jazz/funk fusion.
M-Base Jams at BAM
"M-Base Jams at BAM" was a part of the 1988 Next Wave Festival, and was
held in the Carey Playhouse of the Brooklyn Academy of Music.1 It demonstrated
the originality of the M-Base collective as well as the distinct sound of its members.
The music was full of high energy playing, and the songs fit together nicely as a
presentation of M-Base and its many faces. The New York Times presented a preview
of the concert and offered an explanation of why M-Base provided a stylistic home
for its musicians: "Not quite jazz, not quite pop, not quite new music, their work
hasn't had the sort of financial support it could have used. They needed a support
system, so they made one themselves."2 The article goes on to explain the
significance of the concert: "The show at the Brooklyn Academy has been a type of
re-acquaintance. Though the group has worked on other collaborative projects, this is
the first show to which they've all contributed publicly. And if the music at the
rehearsal was any indication, the concert will be spectacular."3
Cassandra Wilson began the program with a welcome that greeted the
audience and prepared them for what followed. She announced that the music was all
original material from the members of M-Base and was specifically composed for this

M-Base Jams at BAM, December 9, 1988, personal video recording of Greg Osby.

Peter Watrous, "Musical Mod Squads in Action," The New York Times, Section C, Page 1, Column 3,
December 9, 1988.
3

ibid.

169
occasion. After this brief introductory statement, the band came to the stage for two
one hour sets of music.
The first set of music featured music composed by Greg Osby, Steve Coleman
and Geri Allen. The music was tightly constructed and meticulous, with angular
melodies layered over funky rhythms laid down by drummers Tani Tabbal and
Marvin "Smitty" Smith and percussionist Sadiq Bey. Two of the premiere acoustic
bassists, Bob Hurst and Dave Holland, contributed a strong presence to the cyclical
patterns that were often propelled by ostinatos. When Hurst or Holland was not
playing, electric bassist Kevin "Bruce" Harris provided the melodic foundation. The
rhythm section was completed by pianist Geri Allen and electric guitarist David
Gilmore. Vocalist Cassandra Wilson was featured as well, singing a wordless melody
in one instance and then singing lyrics in another. The horn section consisted of alto
saxophonists Steve Coleman and Greg Osby, baritone saxophonist, flautist and
clarinetist Jimmy Cozier, trumpeter Graham Haynes and trombonist Robin Eubanks.
Greg Osby announced the names of the compositions before the last song of the first
set, sarcastically explaining the meaning behind the names of his compositions (like
"Ball and Chain," which was a commentary on a committed relationship), adding a
witty sense of humor to the otherwise dignified yet ebullient tone of the concert.
After a brief intermission, the second set of music featured compositions by
Steve Coleman, Greg Osby, Sadiq Bey, Geri Allen and Robin Eubanks. The energy
and sound of the group was similar to the first set; many of the songs had a cyclical
feel and intense melodicism that is part of the M-Base collective's style of playing.
Percussionist Sadiq Bey's composition included a spoken word poem that created a

170
more meditative and pensive atmosphere, which contrasted with the fast and intense
playing in the majority of the other selections. Steve Coleman announced the titles of
the compositions in this second set before the last song, and joked with the audience
when Geri Allen's composition received the biggest applause. The concert reviewer
in The New York Times agreed with the audience's reaction, calling Allen's piece,
entitled "A Drummer's Song," "the high point of the show."4 The concert came to a
close with Robin Eubanks's composition "Metamorphos," which allowed for one
final modal exploration.
The overall effect of "M-Base Jams at BAM" was a powerful statement made
by a collection of musicians who crafted innovative ideas with their instruments. In a
relatively loose atmosphere and with a supportive audience, the M-Base collective
presented a snapshot impression of what M-Base was about musically. The
prominence of edgy, colorful melodies over intensely funky grooves was one
distinguishing characteristic. Their dedication to improvised music as both high art
and "body" music was another, with Steve Coleman's incessant head nodding and
controlled fidgeting a sign of the latter. In this concert setting, the artists effectively
displayed what the acronym "M-Base" meant: a large group of people coming
together to improvise within a given set of compositional structures.5
The joy emanating from the participants in the concert was readily apparent
on the faces of the members of the collective. Steve Coleman and Greg Osby were
the most visibly pleased, with both alto saxophonists smiling regularly throughout the

Peter Watrous, "Review, Jazz: The Lure of Popular Music's Rhythms," Section C, Page 28, Column
3, December 14, 1988.
5

Greg Osby, "Interview with Author," January 3, 2006.

event. At the end of the second and final set of music, all of the members were
announced by Steve Coleman and they locked arms to accept and acknowledge the
applause of the audience. This memorable image of a united front where the
members of the collective joined together reminds the viewer and listener of the
importance of team work and collaboration in music. "M-Base Jams at BAM" was a
key example in the evolution of this collective that showed how well the many facets
of M-Base could coexist and complement each other.
Anatomy of a Groove: An Album Analyzed
When it came time for M-Base's musicians to record an album to represent
their approach to music, Anatomy of a Groove was the result of their collaborative
efforts. Recorded in December of 1991 and January of 1992, this was three years
after the "M-Base Jams at BAM" concert and thus had a few significant personnel
changes. One of the most conspicuous differences was the absence of trombonist
Robin Eubanks. Whereas the M-Base collective replaced other members with new
musicians playing the same instrument, Anatomy of a Groove was without a
trombonist. Geri Allen had also left, with the keyboard chair being filled by both
James Weidman and Andy Milne. A new bassist joined Kevin "Bruce" Harris:
Reggie Washington. The final addition was of an ensemble playing vocalist and
trumpeter, Mark Ledford, who was without any solo space on the recording. The
other participants were longstanding members who were featured on the
aforementioned concert: Steve Coleman, Greg Osby, Cassandra Wilson, Jimmy
Cozier, Graham Haynes, David Gilmore and Marvin "Smitty" Smith.

172
Anatomy of a Groove contains a subheading that raises questions about the
aim of this recording. The subheading reads: "Current Structural Developments in
21 st Century Creative Black Music." It is indeed another lofty statement from a
group of musicians who created an enigmatic acronym for themselves. The most
obvious meaning of this statement is a point of departure for the three brief statements
that Steve Coleman, Cassandra Wilson, and Greg Osby make in the liner notes. Steve
Coleman's comments are the longest of the three, and he waxes philosophical on
many topics, from the seeming randomness of crystal formation and its higher logic
(crystals appear on the cover of the album) to the coexistence of the intuitive and the
logical in the music of the African diaspora.6 In Coleman's own words: "[The]
unparalleled development of complex and subtle tonal-rhythmic relationships, along
with the ability to perceive intuition and logic as one 'science' gives African and
African-American musics their distinctive quality and character." Cassandra Wilson
speaks of M-Base as a way of life: "What's M-BASE?...More and more I find it's a
way of life.. .A means by which we can develop our musical capabilities to the
fullest, thereby expanding, re-defining and propelling the music into the 21 st century
and beyond."8 Greg Osby emphasizes how the M-Base collective provided him with
an opportunity to meet and join forces with the most advanced and adventuresome
minds on the jazz scene who were likeminded in their desire to create change. Osby
states that, "It was to my great fortune that I made acquaintances with some of the

Liner Notes. M-Base Collective. Anatomy of a Groove, New York, 1992, Columbia CK 5341.

ibid.

ibid.

ibid.

173
most provocative thinkers and individualists that the scene had to offer. Singularly,
their artistic presentations were abundant with ideas that only the inspired and
audacious would dare attempt. These ideas and conceptions, if somehow allowed to
integrate, could quite possibly breathe new life into a creatively 'dead' scene that was
in dire need of a complete revitalization."10 Yet it is telling that they do not use the
word "jazz" describe their music; they instead describe it in the subheading as
"Creative Black Music." This certainly is reminiscent of the kind of descriptive
language the AACM used to distinguish their efforts,11 and is yet another attempt to
both evade being pigeonholed into one style and unify the varied nature of music
produced by people of African descent.
It appears that the M-Base collective used Anatomy of a Groove as a
representation of "Current Structural Developments in 21 st Century Creative Black
Music," as a statement of what was to come. Taken most literally, the 21 st century
was still eight years away upon the recording of this album. Therefore, the M-Base
collective was attempting to foreshadow what "Creative Black Music" would sound
like in the 21 st century. Yet the juxtaposition of the word "Current" with "21 st
Century" creates a duality in time: both "now" and "in the future." This kind of
wordplay creates a tension in the meaning of this statement, and implies that the
current structural developments of the M-Base collective will be a part of the 21 st
century's expression of black music. Somewhat ironically, the collective as it is
represented on this album ceased to exist shortly after the album's release and hence

11

Ronald M. Radano, "Jazzin' the Classics: The AACM's Challenge to Mainstream Aesthetics," Black
Music Research Journal, Vol. 12, No. 1 (Spring, 1992), p. 80.

174
the M-Base collective as it was originally conceived did not make it into the 21 st
century. Yet Steve Coleman's individual efforts made sure that some version of MBase continued to thrive and contribute to the music world beyond the year 2000. n
The music on Anatomy of a Groove is a collection of nine compositions that
each exemplifies the distinct personalities within the M-Base collective. As the
inclusion of their personal statements in the liner notes might suggest, Steve
Coleman, Greg Osby and Cassandra Wilson receive the most attention on the
recording. Yet the other contributors also make the music come alive and they also
establish a style for the album. Looking at each composition gives some insight into
how the members of the M-Base collective defined their approach to music and also
what kind of structural tools they used to build their sound.
Cool Lou
The opening piece is a composition by Steve Coleman entitled "Cool Lou." It
is based on a four bar phrase that is used as a theme to separate different soloists
(Example 1). This theme is the very first thing you hear on the recording, with the
Example 1: Cool Lou Theme

cA /*

(/

<ff

V-

H: U^i

tyi-H

V-

H: ^ d :

^ ^

top melodic line and the harmony being played by the saxophonists and sung by
Cassandra Wilson, without the accompaniment of the rhythm section. After this
introduction, the rhythm section lays down a steady 4/4 funk feel, with drummer
Marvin "Smitty" Smith providing the foundation. Smith also simultaneously plays a
12

Steve Coleman, "Interview with Author," February 27, 2006.

175
wood block pattern that serves as another timeline pattern. The guitar, keyboard, and
bassfindtheir way in a cyclical modal vamp in C minor. The supporting rhythmic
patterns (guitar, bass and drums) all repeat, with slight variations, every three
measures. This implies a halftime feel of being in 6/4, although there is no triplet feel
to the straight eighth note pulse (Example 2).
Example 2: Cool Lou Theme with Accompaniment
c-

i
Dram Set

Wood Blocks

J3EE

p*

Electric Guitar

Electric Bass

4 ljji:

r ? jf

3E

E*E

JJJ J

"J J J J

yf

*f

After a statement of the theme over the rhythm section's playing, Greg Osby
takes the first solo. His characteristic displacement of the octaves and colorful note
choices unify his improvisational ideas, which are distinct and personal. Then, after
each statement of the theme, soloists are given a chance to show their prowess over
the simple yet infectious groove. Cassandra Wilson follows Osby's first solo, with
her scatting being probing and easy going, without using too many notes or ideas; her
sensitivity to the music complements the equally sensitive yet verbose saxophonists.

176
Keyboardist Andy Milne follows Wilson, with a solo that has sparkling right hand
melodic lines to build atmosphere. Steve Coleman solos next, with his signature
evasiveness of the tonal center, through his symmetrical approach to improvisation,
being showcased from the start. Coleman takes a very brief solo, as do all of the
soloists on this composition. The remaining soloist is guitarist David Gilmore, who is
supported by a background riff by the saxophonists. This is followed by more
soloing by Cassandra Wilson, who is backed by a new bass and guitar ostinato, and
then finally Greg Osby, Steve Coleman and Cassandra Wilson solo over the original
arrangement. "Cool Lou" ends with one final presentation of the theme and then a
fadeout over the soloing of Wilson and Coleman.
As an opening statement, "Cool Lou" establishes a strong and cohesive tone
for the M-Base collective's music. The choice to begin with such a rhythmically and
harmonically transparent composition allows M-Base to show how it is relevant to the
musics from which it derived: funk and modal jazz. As a point of departure, it creates
a link between the past and the future, with the past being the aforementioned jazz
and funk and the future being both literally the compositions that follow on Anatomy
of a Groove and, more broadly, the 21 st century.
Teefah
The second piece on the recording is a composition by pianist Andy Milne
called "Teefah." Whereas "Cool Lou" was easy to follow and grasp conceptually,
"Teefah" is a complex rhythmic and harmonic structure that showcases saxophonists
Osby and Coleman, keyboardist Milne, and drummer Smith. The melody is
reminiscent of the hesitations that Steve Coleman had an affinity for, and is played by

177
the two saxophonists. The underlying thread that holds the piece together is a bass
ostinato played by Reggie Washington that implies a different meter from the
predominant metric pulse of the composition. The meter in "Teefah" is 10/4, with
the soloists and the melody clearly conforming to this segmentation of the beat.
Marvin "Smitty" Smith creates a drum pattern that accents each quarter note, and he
often uses a drum fill on the 10 beat of each measure to set up the downbeat of the
following measure. The ostinato, which begins the piece, implies a faster 9/4 tempo
(Example 3).
Example 3: Teefah Ostinato

IJ

f =jj

Played by itself, it sounds like a walking bass pattern that could be a part of a swing
feel. However, when it is put together with the 10/4 accompaniment of the rest of
the ensemble, it creates a whole different feeling. It provides an over-the-bar line
melodic technique, with its cyclically implying perpetual motion. It takes two
measures of 10/4 for the ostinato to line up with the downbeat of the next measure;
these two measures include three statements of the ostinato (Example 4).
Example 4: Teefah Ostinato in 10/4

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* = *

nn n ^ VJ

*Pfl ra.ni.n ^i.raP rva

The form of "Teefah" is a modification of the common AABA song format.


Each section consists of two measures of 10/4, with the caveat being that the last A
section is just one measure. The form is AA'BA, with the third measure of 10/4 (the
first of the second A) containing a different melody. As is evident from the bass
ostinato, the harmonies are shifting constantly with the changing notes of the
recurring phrase, which ultimately oscillate around and return to B minor. Also, there
is a subtle guitar riff that alternates between the notes E and A during the A sections.
The B section, or "bridge," in addition to a new melody, introduces a new walking
bass pattern that keeps the same cross rhythm going but brings new harmonies into
the equation. When the final A section returns, the main ostinato does as well. The
soloists take turns exploring the harmonic and rhythmic structures, with each of them
improvising at a faster pace over the pulse to create a third layer of rhythmic tension
and release. Marvin "Smitty" Smith solos over the ostinato a few times to bridge the
horn and keyboard solos. Towards the end of the piece, there is a moment of
collective improvisation between Osby, Milne and Coleman; although they are all
playing simultaneously, there is not the least hint of clashing. "Teefah" ends with a
statement of the B section followed by the complete AA' section, which mirrors the
beginning of the piece except for an emphatic accented ending.
Anatomy of a Rhythm
"Anatomy of a Rhythm," a Steve Coleman composition, has two melodic
motives, one being more of a riff and the other being a short melody. The first
motive is what is heard at the very beginning of the piece, with the two saxophonists
playing together without accompaniment (Example 5).

179
Example 5: Anatomy of a Rhythm, First Motive

W*=-

^^

+ n>

^ *

The dissonance resulting from the minor second harmony in the phrase, combined
with the staggered rhythm, perhaps alludes to the "buzzing" bees that Coleman was
so fond of.13 After this four measure introduction, the rhythm section comes in on
the downbeat of the last quarter note of Example 4 with a colorful harmonic
progression, with the bass line and the chords changing every dotted half note to
create a syncopated harmonic and melodic accompaniment. The first three chords are
Db minor, E major 6, and B minor, with the harmonic foundation of the piece
oscillating around both Db minor and B minor; the latter receives more attention on
the whole during the solo section. Drummer Smith creates somewhat of a rock feel,
establishing a 4/4 pulse that is augmented by the triplet feel in the bass part played by
Reggie Washington. After several measures of just rhythm section playing, Osby and
Coleman return to play a modified version of the first motive. This is immediately
followed by the second motive, which is played by the two saxophonists and also
sung by Cassandra Wilson (Example 6).

13

ibid.

180
Example 6: Anatomy of a Rhythm, Second Motive

* r 11"

P^f

This eight measure phrase is ended in the eighth measure by a slide up to the last
note, G. After a measure of silence, the band restarts the music and Osby and
Coleman play a two note chord, E and G, with Db in the bass, to signal the beginning
of the solos.
The soloists respond dynamically to the intensity that is built by the preceding
music. Steve Coleman solos first, with a searching clarity that weaves in and out of
tonal centers and compliments the harmonic cycles underneath him. Keyboardist
Milne follows with his own style of melodic inventiveness, with his right hand
exploring the possibilities of the harmonic structure. Greg Osby takes the most
circuitous approach, dipping in and shifting octaves frequently, simulating the two
hand approach of the pianists that he fancied.14 There is more back-and-forth
between Coleman, Milne and Osby before guitarist Gilmore enters to solo. The piece
ends with the return of the first and second motives, exactly how they appeared once
the band entered in the beginning of the composition, except this time the piece ends
after the eight measure second motive.

14

Osby, "Interview with Author."

181
Nobody Told Me
The David Gilmore composition "Nobody Told Me" starts with an ostinato
that consists of two interlocking bass parts, played by Reggie Washington and Kevin
"Bruce" Harris. The piece is in 7/4, and the two electric bassists utilize slap bass
techniques for eight measures without accompaniment as an introduction. The 7/4
pulse could also be thought of as 3 and half beats, with half beats being something
that the M-Base collective would use in their compositions from time to time; Greg
Osby explained that it was an extension of a "long" and "short" beat concept.15 After
the eight measure introduction, the rest of the rhythm section comes in, this time with
James Weidman in the keyboard chair instead of Andy Milne, and the two bassists
continue with the ostinato as Marvin "Smitty" Smith lays down a funky drum pattern.
The piece is in Db minor, and the saxophonists come in with the first theme (Example
7).
Example 7: Nobody Told Me, First Theme

^m

\i >f

3E

This first theme, with its "hovering" quality of held notes and rests, creates a cross
rhythm in 5 (represented by the brackets in Example 7) against the 7/4 meter. This
serves as the melody for the first A section, with the entire piece following an
extended AABA format. In the head of the composition, the form is AA'A'ABA'A.
15

ibid.

182
With each section containing eight measures of 7/4, the second theme (A') arrives
after the first A section, which is also played by the saxophonists (Example 8). This
theme, unlike the first one, flows with the 7/4 meter, with its funky accents and more
traditional riff based approach to funk music offering a nice contrast to the first
theme.
Example 8: Nobody Told Me, Second Theme, mm. 1-2

The B section modulates to the tonal center of G, a tritone away from Db, and gives
the harmony G-B-Eb-G-Bb, which is outlined and played by the saxophonists and
sung by vocalists Wilson and Mark Ledford. After this eight measure departure, the
final two A sections revisit the melodic and harmonic material presented earlier.
The solo section opens the composition up for the new improvisational voices
of Jimmy Cozier and James Weidman, in addition to soloists that were heard from in
earlier compositions. Guitarist Gilmore takes the first solo and improvises over
drums only. Gilmore does not resort to flashy electric guitar effects; instead, he is
controlled and melodic throughout his solo. This is followed by baritone saxophonist
Jimmy Cozier, who solos over the first two A sections of the piece. James Weidman
then delivers a measured keyboard solo, taking the subsequent B and A sections of
the now condensed AABA form. Next Steve Coleman and Greg Osby "trade fours"
respectively, a process where each musician alternates taking four measures to solo,
over the two A sections. After this series of improvisations, the entire ensemble

183
returns with the B section melody and the final A'A sections. The piece ends like it
began, with an elongated version of the ostinato provided by Washington and Harris.
Non-Fiction
"Non-Fiction," a composition by Greg Osby and Cassandra Wilson, is another
ostinato driven piece, this time played by bassist Washington and guitarist Gilmore,
over a slow 10/4 pulse. Before the ostinato enters, there are three chords presented by
the horns, accompanied by keyboardist Weidman, with Mark Ledford on trumpet,
Osby and Coleman on alto saxophones, and Cozier on baritone saxophone. The
ostinato (Example 9) enters to establish the F minor tonality, played for two measures
with just the rhythm section.
Example 9: Non-Fiction, Ostinato

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This is followed by two themes that serve as the main melodies in the piece. The first
theme is played by Coleman over the ostinato and rhythm section for two measures
(Example 10).
Example 10: Non-Fiction, First Theme
F-

1 3
-* \v*

fi

fc

Then, the second theme is played by Osby and sung by Wilson on top of the first
theme and ostinato for another two measures (Example 11). Notice that both themes
imply the V chord (C7+9); the ostinato also implies a move to V but the tonic of F
minor is held in the keyboard throughout the entire measure. There are two measures

184
of this before the B section, which modulates down a half step to E minor for four
measures, with new
Example 11: Non-Fiction, Second Theme
F-

PP

3E

3-^3f

=W

thematic material from Osby, Coleman and Wilson. After the B section, the initial
two themes return in a final four measure A section, but this time the themes start in
F# minor for a measure, then F minor for a measure, the F# minor for a measure, and
finally F minor for the final measure of the form before the solo section. The
composition thus follows a variation on the AABA format, although the first A
section has two measures rather than four. Example 12 shows how the three
aforementioned melodic themes interact.
Example 12: Non-Fiction, First and Second Themes with Ostinato

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Cassandra Wilson and Steve Coleman solo over the form of the piece, taking
different approaches to the balladic march established by the rhythm section. Wilson
solos first, starting with singing the phrase "Love is a stranger" on the seventh and

fifth degrees of the F minor scale (Eb and C). She then moves into scatting, using
both her low and high register in a slow, brooding mix of vocal colors. Wilson uses
just a few notes at a time, leaving ample space between her phrases to create
atmosphere. After her one chorus solo, Steve Coleman enters to deliver his
improvisatory ideas for one chorus as well. Coleman, a master at both linear and
vertical improvising, takes a vertical approach in his solo, building arpeggios and
superimposing chords as he moves methodically up and down the saxophone.
Occasionally, Wilson sings behind Coleman as he solos. After Coleman's solo, the
first and second themes of the A section reappear and are played into a fadeout. The
ostinatos of the A and B sections remain constant throughout the piece.
Prism
James Weidman's composition "Prism" is an uptempo funk piece, with many
metric shifts, that revolves around two bass line motives. The rhythmic flow of the
composition is deceptive, in that there is a steady flow of quarter notes but many
offbeat accents and phrases and not one overarching meter. After an introduction by
the rhythm section that has several riffs played by the keyboard, bass and guitar, in
which they share the same melodies over a syncopated drum pattern, Coleman, Osby
and Cozier come in to play harmonized riffs over the accompaniment. The first bass
motive is a two-measure phrase (Example 13) that serves as a thematic anchor for the
piece and also establishes A minor as the tonality of the first section of the
composition.

186
Example 13: Prism, First Bass Motive

^S

It appears several times, entering at different points in the measure, implying different
meters. The second bass motive is first heard at the end of the head melody before
the solos, almost acting as a brief interlude, and is later heard as a theme behind the
soloists played by the horns and bass together (Example 14).
Example 14: Prism, Second Bass Motive
^

J "3 J

is

Unlike the first motive, this second motive always fits squarely into 4/4 time. This
motive signals a modulation to Bb minor, and is played four times in the solo section
before returning to A minor and the first motive. The form of the piece follows an
AAB format, with A coinciding with the first motive and B with the second.
Therefore, there are two tonal centers in the piece: A minor and Bb minor.
The soloists on "Prism" are a dueling Steve Coleman and Greg Osby,
followed by solos by the composer and keyboardist Weidman and drummer Smith.
As Coleman and Osby trade phrases, it becomes clear that, despite playing the same
instrument, they have developed two very distinct sounds and approaches to similar
material. Coleman's tone is darker than Osby's, and their melodic ideas are also very
different; Coleman plays in and out of the tonality in a flowing melodic fashion
whereas Osby attacks the music with a disjointed yet equally melodious approach.
After they solo over the form of the composition, James Weidman solos for a chorus
as well. Marvin "Smitty" Smith then takes a drum solo for one chorus, in which the

187
supporting motives are held constant throughout his solo. During the drum solo, the
horns play the B section motive along with the guitar of Gilmore, the bass of
Washington, and the keyboard of Weideman. After the solos, the two A sections
return for a final time, and the piece ends abruptly on a variation of the first motive
played by guitarist Gilmore (Example 15).
Example 15: Prism, Guitar Ending

Cycle of Change
"Cycle of Change," jointly composed by David Gilmore, Steve Coleman, and
Cassandra Wilson, has two contrasting sections with different harmonic, rhythmic,
and melodic material. The first section, which opens the piece, is in 9/8 and is based
on a Bb major 7+11 chord. There is a recurring bass line that creates a cyclical
melodic pattern (Example 16).
Example 16: Cycle of Change, First Section Bass Line

nd

The melody on top of this bass line, sung by Cassandra Wilson and played on the
keyboard by James Weidman (Example 17), establishes a slow motion feeling over
the churning 9/8 meter rendered by drummer Marvin "Smitty" Smith.

188
Example 17: Cycle of Change, First Section Melody, mm. 1-4
Bl>A7+11

#1

m%

te

te

S^f

fc

w
te

3^#

Another layer is created by guitarist Gilmore and a second bassist, who play an
ostinato against the melody and the bass line. With the primary bass line and
accompanying guitar and bass ostinato, both Reggie Washington and Kevin "Bruce"
Harris lend their electric basses to the melodic texture of this first section. This first
section modulates away from Bb briefly but returns to the tonic after a few harmonic
shifts. The second section, which immediately follows the first section after many
statements of the melody and variations on the melody, is in 5/4 and revolves around
Bb minor. The horns, Coleman, Osby, and Cozier, play a melody that serves as a
theme for this section (Example 18).
Example 18: Cycle of Change, Second Section Melody, mm. 1-4
B!>-

B!>-

B-

^1

^1 J

A7

^ j a

1^^ H

C7

In contrast to the lightness of the first section, drummer Smith creates a rock feel in
this second section. These two sections, with the first in 9/8 and the second in 5/4,
create polar opposite musical experiences: major versus minor, soft (9/8) versus hard

189
(5/4) sounding drum accompaniment, laid back (first section) versus aggressive
(second section) melodic material.
The composition follows the two contrasting sections, and soloists partake in
the differing moods created for them. At the beginning, there is a four measure
introduction by the rhythm section, followed by the melody. This 9/8 section unfolds
in four bar phrases, and the melody is expanded upon and accompanied with
harmonic shifts until there is a brief break which leads to the 5/4 section. After the
horns present a harmonized version of their melody, Steve Coleman solos over this
second section. Coleman navigates the chord changes seamlessly, and is followed by
a keyboard solo by Weidman, who also solos over this second section. Then, there is
a solo by Greg Osby over the 9/8 material of the first section. Osby is completely
comfortable in this odd meter, and makes it sound effortless and natural as he glides
in the major tonality accented by the tri tone. Osby's solo is followed by a return of
the second section in 5/4, but this time the harmony is a half step below, in A minor.
Guitarist David Gilmore solos for the remainder of the piece, with background horn
riffs accompanying him as "Cycle of Change" fades out.
One Bright Morning
Cassandra Wilson's composition "One Bright Morning" is a marked departure
from the rest of music heard on Anatomy of a Groove; stylistically it is close to pop
music with an African rhythmic influence. The piece begins with a rubato keyboard
introduction by James Weidman, which establishes the Eb major tonal center of the
piece. This is followed by two measures of drums by Smith that introduces the 7/4
meter and presents a lilting, simple rhythmic accompaniment. After this, there is an

190
eight measure presentation of the A section chord changes and rhythmic pulse by the
rhythm section, which is the first time on the recording where predominantly major
tonality chord changes are heard. Then, Cassanda Wilson enters with the melody,
which includes lyrics (Example 19). The melody is derived from the Eb major
pentatonic scale, except for the last two measures of the A section, which in Example
16 ends with touches of the blues scale. In the other instances where the melody is
sung, the last two bars of the A sections' melody always changes, seeming to vary
according to the embellishments Wilson adds to her theme.
Example 19: One Bright Morning, First Section Melody
EI>A

AI>A

One

bright

GIA

J k

l^^f

Some - one's

Hit
EI>A

^i
you

=te
be

gin

da

C-

=fe
seen

bright

my trou - bl

^rm
- ""

^s

morn - ing?
ElA

Gl>A

^ ^ ^
All

the

Al>A

re - volv - ing
Bl7

A1>A

E!>A

world
F7

words

morn - ing,

AtA

E1A

BI>7

fade

a - way. 7?

solos for a chorus. For the first time, Coleman keeps his solo very diatonic and uses a
singing melodic approach to match Cassandra Wilson's preceding vocals. After
Coleman's solo, Cassandra Wilson enters to sing the two final A sections of the piece.
After this, the rhythm section drops out except for the keyboard, and Weidman and

191
Wilson end the piece in a similar rubato fashion like that which began the piece to
present the A section melody for a final time.
Hormones
The final selection on the recording, "Hormones," is a composition by Steve
Coleman and Reggie Washington. As a finale, it sounds like a "jam session" in
which soloists explore the Eb minor tonality over a 4/4 rock beat. There are three
short melodic statements, each only a few bars, that separate the soloing. The first
melodic statement, played by the horns, is typical of the kind of melodic interplay
found in this piece (Example 20): superimposed harmonies implied by the pre
composed melodies and also by the soloists.
Example 20: Hormones, First Melody, mm. 1-3

"Hormones" introduces a new soloist to the recording, trumpeter Graham Haynes,


who trades ideas with both Steve Coleman and Greg Osby. After the extensive
trading between Haynes, Coleman and Osby, Jimmy Cozier solos for the second time
on the album. David Gilmore then takes a guitar solo following Cozier, which is
followed by a keyboard solo by James Weidman.
The piece introduces some other elements as it draws to a close. Vocalists
Cassandra Wilson and Mark Ledford sing a wordless melodic idea, as drummer
Smith and the rhythm section add a measure of 9/8 at the end of the phrase to
augment the 4/4 pulse. The entire band ends the composition on an emphatic unified
"hit" in which everyone lands on the same beat with a heavy and percussive accent.

192
This gives the album a strong sense of closure. The musical journey that the listener
has taken has had many different aural destinations, and "Hormones" signals the end
of a fifty five minute exploration of the M-Base aesthetic.
The M-Base Collective at a Glance
Anatomy of a Groove and "M-Base Jams at BAM" gave critics and fans the
opportunity to hear exactly what kind of music the M-Base collective had envisioned.
The collective's tightly constructed melodic and rhythmic patterns were offset by a
loose and relaxed persona in which the music reflected an embracing of both science
and the streets. M-Base's music presented an advanced approach to jazz, with the
emphasis being placed on rhythmic complexity and melodic virtuosity and
simultaneously a laid back sensibility. When all of their voices blended together to
create a harmonious synergy of individualism, the results were fantastic.
The M-Base collective's efforts were generally well received. Anatomy of a
Groove was reviewed in jazz magazines like Down Beat and Jazz Times, and while
the former magazine gave the recording three stars out of five (a "good" rating) the
latter criticized it for lacking warmth. Jon Andrews of Down Beat said that, "The MBase sound is distinctive, if increasingly reliant on formula,"76 whereas Willard
Jenkins of Jazz Times polemically stated that, "...this M-Base Collective entry could
well have been titled Anatomy of a Cold-fish Groove." Yet M-Base was often
considered to be a move towards esoteric yet visceral musical terrain. In Smithsonian
magazine, there was an extensive spread given to the M-Base collective after "M-

16

17

Jon Andrews, "Collective Migrations: Anatomy of a Groove," Down Beat, Vol. 60, May 1993, p. 43.

Willard Jenkins, "CD Reviews: Anatomy of a Groove," Jazz Times, Vol. 23, No. 6, July/August
1993, p. 68.

193
Base Jams at BAM" describing their aspirations and the creation of a new musical
sound.18 The strength of the M-Base collective came from the hearts and minds of
each member who contributed compositionally and through improvisation to establish
a formidable core of musical talent and ingenuity.
As is true with anything that evolves, M-Base's music grew and changed
through time. When asked ifAnatomy of a Groove was representative of what the MBase collective stood for as a whole, Steve Coleman replied with a chuckle, "No."19
Coleman explained that it was representative of that specific moment in time when
the album was recorded, but could not be expected to represent the entire
movement.20 Yet there is an unmistakable ebb and flow to their music, a discernable
approach and writing style, that allows Anatomy of a Groove to be a window into MBase's musical world. As much as anything can be expected to encapsulate the
accomplishments of years of hard work and refinement, this album and "M-Base
Jams at BAM" provide a comprehensive look at the inner workings of a fearless
musical collective.

Errol T. Louis, "Jazz Makes a New Sound with Soul, Pop and Computers," Smithsonian, Vol. 20,
No. 7, October 1989, pp. 176-198.
19

Coleman, "Interview with Author."

20

ibid.

Chapter 9
Conclusion
The musicians in M-Base sought to express something musically
groundbreaking, by making art that was inspired by the present and that also reached
into the future. M-Base was conceived as an intellectual approach to making music,
and, as has been seen in the various musical examples throughout chapters 3 through
6 and 8, this led to a variety of expressive musical results. The members of the MBase collective brought a new feeling and approach to jazz music, expanding their
musical vocabulary to encompass their own ideas along with longstanding principles
of the genre. Expanding upon the norms of jazz convention, including chord
changes, concise song forms, melodies followed by improvisations, and call and
response, to name a few, the M-Base collective broadened the definition of what it
meant to play jazz. The musicians borrowed heavily from the vernacular music of
their youth to synthesize a jazz and popular music hybrid that defied classification.
This mixture of old and new allowed the musicians in M-Base to build upon the
successes and innovations of their predecessors, while at the same time leading them
to branch out on their own with daring experimentations that they finessed into a new
sound.
Building on the Past
The M-Base collective added to the history of African American music in
general and jazz music in particular by engaging with many of the genres that black
musicians created. The musicians in M-Base took as their starting point the advanced
logic of jazz, paying attention to the importance of improvisation over song forms
that lent themselves to intricate musical narratives. With all of its members being

195
versed in the jazz tradition, it was natural for M-Base to be a jazz-based collective.
The remaining ingredients in their music came from the variety of popular musics
that the members of the group grew up listening to - funk, rock, soul, R&B - in
combination with the burgeoning 1980s hip-hop craze. The way in which the M-Base
collective recorded and performed reflected a synthesis of all of these different forms
of music. In the way that the AACM and BAG brought together collections of
musicians to express a unified group aesthetic, M-Base similarly stood as a testament
to the spirit of collaboration and togetherness.
The decision to bring electric guitars, electric basses and synthesizers to their
music aligned M-Base with the propensity to do so in the 1970s. Although Steve
Coleman, Greg Osby and Robin Eubanks do not like the term "jazz fusion" to
describe their music,1 the M-Base collective certainly benefited from earlier forays
into electric jazz, as was discussed in detail in chapter 7. With jazz fusion as a
model, M-Base had a precedent to validate their idea of what a jazz collective in the
1980s - one with electrified instruments - should include. Yet this choice in
instrumentation owed as much to electric jazz as it did to funk, rock and R&B. MBase was interested in incorporating as many elements of black vernacular music as
could be joined into one cohesive whole. This inclusion of electrified instruments
may have pushed the sound of the M-Base collective closer to fusion, but it did not
change the highly jazz derived content.
M-Base modeled itself after the pioneering efforts of black change agents in
music, such as Charlie Parker or Thelonious Monk. The notion that they could create

Steve Coleman, "Interview with Author," February 27, 2006; Greg Osby, "Interview with Author,"
January 3, 2006; Robin Eubanks, "Interview with Author," March 17, 2006.

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a sound and style in contrast to the status quo was something that the musicians in the
M-Base collective learned from their knowledge of how artists in the past had
changed their musical destiny. Perhaps the most deliberate break from the past in
jazz history was the advent of bebop, a time when musicians turned away from their
role as entertainers and made "art" their number one priority.2 Steve Coleman
references bebop musicians such as Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk as being
central to the conceptual development of M-Base.3 The centrality of bebop's
philosophical bent towards "music as art" was something that the M-Base collective
used as a platform for its music as well. This is not to say that earlier forms of jazz
were not art; they most certainly were. Such a point only highlights a more
conceptualized change amongst the artists who no longer wanted to be seen primarily
as sources of entertainment.4 This high art strain in jazz ran throughout the 1950s and
60s, with modal jazz and free jazz pushing the boundaries of both musicians and
listeners who found the music leading to further and further levels of abstraction. Yet
M-Base did not ignore the importance of black music for the masses, embracing the
music of James Brown and the sound of Motown, among others. These latter forms
of music were seen as equally important means of change that complemented the
evolutionary ebb and flow ofjazz.
The M-Base collective's attitude towards bringing about change was steeped
in the tradition of influential artists' sentiments in general. Although M-Base centers

LeRoi Jones, Blues People (New York: Perennial, 2002 (1963)), p. 190.

Liner Notes. M-Base Collective. Anatomy of a Groove, New York, 1992, Columbia CK 5341.

Jones, Blues People, p. 188.

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itself in a specifically African American ethos,5 it is common for many artists across
genres and cultures to feel that it is important to create music that is personal and
idiosyncratic. Some artists achieve this goal through deliberate attempts to
distinguish themselves, while others attain it as an unintentional byproduct of a
unique musical talent. M-Base came about as a combination of both of these musical
forces, and the musicians' success were in large part due to their persistence
regarding originality and ingenuity.
Rooted in the Present
The M-Base collective created music that was specifically relevant to its
historical moment in the 1980s. The sounds that the musicians chose for themselves
were based on the music that percolated in the hearts and minds of urban black youth
at that time. Most importantly, they made sure to stay true to themselves, manifesting
their vision of what a jazz group should sound like in their generation. With a solid
foundation in the history of their music, the members of the M-Base collective
wanted to reflect the influences of their contemporaries in addition to the masters of
jazz.
During the time that M-Base rose to critical acclaim, there was a media driven
rift between the so-called neoconservative jazz musicians and more experimental
artists like M-Base. The former group, led by Wynton Marsalis, held closely to the
sound of straight ahead jazz while M-Base chose to venture out into other styles of
music such as the current sound of black vernacular music. Yet, as Steve Coleman

Liner Notes. M-Base Collective. Anatomy of a Groove.

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summed it up, such a feud was just "hype."6 Greg Osby recalls that he was friendly
with Marsalis, as were many other members of M-Base.7 Marsalis' older brother and
saxophonist Branford Marsalis recorded with Steve Coleman, and they were
interviewed together by Down Beat to silence critics who pitted them against each
other.8 In the inner circle of musicians, the "Young Lions" (another name for
Marsalis' cohorts) and "M-Base" were just two circles of extremely talented
musicians who had different stylistic preferences.
One issue with M-Base's decision to embrace the popular music of the 1980s
was that they ran the risk of sounding "dated." The recording technology and the
choice of musical material tied them to their era, just like any musical artifact does.
M-Base's music sounds very "1980s" in its interaction with the current trends in pop,
R&B, and hip-hop. Yet this is not necessarily negative, in that M-Base documented a
specific time and sound with a particularly creative spin on popular source material.
The M-Base collective addressed the question of whether the legacy of great
music and musicians in jazz could live on through their music, music which did not
sound like the jazz of yesteryear. While its members remained cognizant of the
tradition they were contributing to, they were concerned with how to make the music
speak to their own generation. They looked to each other for inspiration and
guidance in the musical choices they made, and the formation of a collective, as was

Coleman, "Interview with Author."

Osby, "Interview with Author."

Bill Milkowski, "Branford Marsalis and Steve Coleman: Gang of Two," Down Beat, January 1992,
Volume 59, No. 1, pp. 16-20.

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discussed in chapter 2, fostered a means in which they could create a name for
themselves and establish a critical mass of musicians who shared their vision.
In creating something specifically relevant to their time and place, the
members of M-Base presented a singular representation of their musical
surroundings. Their approach was to create a variety of sounds and feels, as is
evident on Anatomy of a Groove. These different styles came from M-Base's
engagement with many genres. They found one musical solution to the question of
whether jazz music could remain fresh and current. This solution came out of their
shared desire for creating their own musical language. Succeeding in creating such a
language allowed M-Base to stand out as a new and prominent force in the jazz
world. The M-Base collective showed a strong tendency to absorb the music that
emerged concurrently and transform it into a theoretically complex and rhythmically
infectious blend of jazz, African rhythmic principles, and popular music.
Looking Towards the Future
M-Base made an impact on jazz that lasted beyond the end of the M-Base
collective (as it was originally conceived) in 1992. The strong individual voices of
Coleman, Osby, Wilson and others in the collective presented different perspectives as Robin Eubanks' first recording put it - on how to remain true to the calling within
oneself to establish a personal sound. When looked at in retrospect, M-Base stands
out as one of the most progressive and original groups of musicians in the 1980s.
They codified an approach that, as cryptic as it may have seemed to outsiders,9 could
potentially provide fertile ground for a whole new generation of musicians to come.

Steve Coleman, "M-Base, an explanation," www.m-base.com/mbase_explanation.html.

200

It is clear that the M-Base collective sought to be on the cutting edge of music
and hoped to have an influence well into the 21 st century. As the subtitle to Anatomy
of a Groove reveals, the musicians in M-Base were thinking about current structural
developments in 21 st century black music, even though they were eight years away
from the year 2000.10 Their preoccupation with innovation and breaking free of
cliches caused them to focus on ways of redefining musical standards to fit their
musical taste. M-Base became a network of likeminded musicians who wanted to
defy the norm and build something lasting and meaningful.
It remains to be seen whether the music of the M-Base collective will be
considered "timeless" by music historians. As my earlier discussion in this
conclusion of the "dated" sound of M-Base's music addresses, M-Base was an
attempt to interact with vernacular music in a sophisticated and nuanced fashion.
Whereas American popular music tends to glorify the decades from which certain
musics came, as is seen, for example, in "oldies" radio stations (such as the music of
the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s), jazz music embraces the idea of a more timeless art that
is marked by great figures in the development of the genre.11 The work of these
musicians becomes part of the canon, and it creates a jazz tradition and history by
which all aspiring musicians are judged.

As I discuss briefly at the end of chapter 2,

M-Base receives minimal coverage in canonical discussions of jazz, something that I


hope will change as a result of deeper consideration of what the collective added to
the music.
10

M-Base Collective. Anatomy of a Groove.

11

Ted Gioia, The History of Jazz (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), p. 364.

12

ibid., pp. 393-394.

201
In the end, the collision of individual careers caused the M-Base collective to
change from a joint initiative to a Steve Coleman driven entity. Anatomy of a Groove
was the culmination of six years of collaborating, and was their first and last
statement as a whole. Along the way, as is mentioned in chapter 3, critics began
heralding Steve Coleman as the leader of M-Base, and, despite his denying this role,
this caused friction amongst the equally leadership focused members of the group.13
Geri Allen, Greg Osby and Robin Eubanks were three of the most prominent names
to leave the ranks of M-Base in the early 1990s. However, Steve Coleman and his
various ensembles, especially Steve Coleman and Five Elements, still continue to
make music in the vein of M-Base's original sound.
The M-Base collective provides an example of how progress can be made
when artists work together to attain a unified vision. Regardless of what the critics
may have said, M-Base was originally a leaderless combination of change seeking
musicians who banded together for support and musical stimulation. There was an
intentional process of reaching new levels of musical inquiry and discovering how to
join together various voices into a coherent musical unit. As "M-Base Jams at BAM"
and concerts like it showed, M-Base was a platform on which strong musical
personalities could coexist and shine. The musicians' decision to name themselves
and deny critics the joy of coming up with some other inaccurate title for their efforts
showed how important taking control of its destiny was to the M-Base collective.
This once again ties M-Base with collectives like the AACM and BAG who similarly
defined themselves, something which is rare when considering that many movements
in jazz were not named by the musicians who created the music.
13

"An Interview with Steve Coleman conducted by Vijay Iyer," www.m-base.com/int_vijay.html.

202

M-Base launched the careers of its members and brought considerable fame to
a handful of them. Steve Coleman has become synonymous with M-Base, and his
work showcases his knack for rhythm based compositions. Greg Osby, once Steve
Coleman's alter ego, established himself as a powerful individualist whose choices as
a bandleader ranged from hip-hop in the early 1990's to evocative acoustic jazz for
the past twelve years. After M-Base, Robin Eubanks found his niche with Dave
Holland, becoming a premier trombonist in jazz. Geri Allen played swing era pianist
Mary Lou Williams in the 1994 Robert Airman film Kansas City, which featured the
second wave of "Young Lions" that included tenor saxophonists Joshua Redman and
James Carter, bassist Christian McBride, and clarinetist Don Byron. Cassandra
Wilson has become the most prominent jazz vocalist to emerge from the 1980s and
continues to have success with her studio recordings for the high profile Blue Note
label. Marvin "Smitty" Smith has been the drummer on The Tonight Show for the
past thirteen years, being the propelling force behind Kevin Eubanks and the Tonight
Show Band. All of these artists initially received critical acclaim due to their
association with the M-Base collective.
M-Base was as much a conceptual step forward as it was a means for its
members to establish themselves. Coleman's theory of Symmetry, discussed in detail
in chapter 3, and Osby's theory of Shifting Melodic Order, explained in chapter 5, are
two unique advances on the logic of music making in jazz. M-Base's use of drum
chants as the basis for many of its compositions - a process in which a recurring drum
pattern determines the melodic and rhythmic structure of a piece - was derived from
African music and was directly inspired by drummer Doug Hammond. In addition to

203

these theoretical advances, the M-Base collective provided an alternative to the


reemergence of hard bop in jazz in the 1980s. M-Base was a safe haven for
musicians seeking to express a different manner of playing in the jazz tradition.
By emphasizing the importance of original compositions and idiosyncratic
musical techniques, the M-Base collective introduced a new type of freedom in jazz.
This newfound musical liberation stemmed from the musicians' dedication to the
sound of M-Base. Their notion of freedom differed from the commonly held idea of
what it should sound like musically. As was seen in chapter 7, the 1960s introduced a
whole movement, "free jazz," that often left melody, rhythm and harmony to chance
during improvisation.14 Yet M-Base was strict in its formal allocation of melody,
rhythm and harmony and found freedom instead in the polytonal implications of its
cyclical harmonic patterns, bass ostinatos, and melodic riffs. The M-Base collective
harnessed the energy of improvisation and expanded upon the accepted model of
playing jazz, fusing the speed of bebop and the improvisational exploration of modal
jazz with elaborate funk grooves. M-Base's type of freedom came from its revelry in
theoretical concepts and focus on building colorful sounds within tightly conceived
frameworks.
With an eye towards the future, the M-Base collective established a niche for
those unsatisfied with repeating the past. Steve Coleman did not become lost in the
shadow of Charlie Parker, instead finding himself after a chance encounter with
nagging bees. Greg Osby was not confined by the joyous sound of Cannonball
Adderley, discovering a new way of playing by methodically shifting pitches around.
Cassandra Wilson built on the awestruck feeling she had when listening to Betty
14

Ekkehard Jost, Free Jazz (Graz: Universal Edition, 1975), pp. 16-17.

Carter, developing her own sultry and brooding tone. Robin Eubanks managed to
overcome his sense of wonder when first encountering J.J. Johnson, later crafting a
style of his own. These four artists are a microcosm of a larger assemblage of
musicians who all shared the desire to move beyond their influences and inspire
exciting new ways of expressing their art. M-Base succeeded in fostering a spirit of
change, and presented a gallant example of defying expectation and reinventing the
magical feeling of hearing jazz for the first time.