A collection of stellar artists will gather this Friday night for the spirited premiere of Adegoke Steve Colson's jazz-flavored tribute, commissioned by NJPAC in honor of Newark's 350th anniversary.
Colson's piece Here Is the Place, Our City is dedicated to two of his closest friends who have passed, beloved historian and Rutgers University-Newark educator Dr. Clement Price and world-renowned poet Amiri Baraka.
The concert at NJPAC's Victoria Theater is set for 8pm on April 7th.
Colson sat down with WBGO's Doug Doyle to talk about the concert, the state of the arts and his career as a pianist, composer and educator. The musician, who was born in Newark and raised in East Orange, now lives in Montclair, New Jersey. He has performed internationally as a leader of ensembles ranging from trios to orchestras. Colson is a 27-year adjunct member of the Creative Arts & Technology Division at Bloomfield College.
Why does he give back?
"My teachers gave a lot to me and I really wouldn't be in the position that I am without help from a number of people, Clem Price and Amiri Baraka being among them."
Colson received his degree from Northwestern University School of Music and lived in Chicago for a decade before returning to the East Coast. While in Chicago he became an early member of The Association for Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) in the 70s, a Chicago based musicians’ collective that has influenced music internationally in the 20th and 21st Century.
"Our philosophy was that the music had to go outward, so we would have events let's say on a Sunday afternoon where you didn't have to serve alcohol in order to have an audience. I've been in education along time and it's gratifying to see a person that is trying to learn on a certain level or learn about a certain subject, if you can help them why not?"
Friday's concert at NJPAC will feature the North Jersey Philharmonic Glee Club, harpist Robbin Gordon-Cariter, pianist Philip Field and oboist Oscar Petty. Those artists are joining a brilliant jazz lineup: Nabate Isles (trumpet), Mark Helias (bass), Bradford Hayes (baritone sax), Pheeroan akLaff (drums) and Kelvyn Bell (guitar).
Colson has been very active in jazz education since the early 80's when he became involved with the Jazz Artists in the Schools Program, a project of the National Endowment for the Arts. The Montclair resident says he's well aware of how the Trump Administration is looking to cut arts funding.
"It's very disheartening. I actually did get a National Endowment grant when I was starting out. It helped me quite a bit. I don't know if people really appreciate what many artists go through because there is a certain amount of dedication you have to put in in order to get the expertise in your discipline, but there are not a lot of outlets for you to expose the art once you've gotten a product..or there's not necessarily a lot of expendable cash, like people are not in a position to support you in a way that would be helpful, so a lot of people have doing what they do in terms of art because you can't sustain yourself."
What would the GRAMMY nominee tell President Trump about arts funding?
"You've got to rethink everything.
Steve and his wife, Iqua, established their own record label in 1979. In November 2011, their earliest recording on their label, Triumph!, was included in the prestigious Freedom, Rhythm and Sound Book CD-LP compilation from Soul Jazz Records, London, UK with music icons such as Maurice White, John Coltrane, Sun Ra and Mary Lou Williams.
A few years after returning to the East Coast, Colson brought national attention to New Jersey when he premiered his multi-media work, Greens, Rice, and a Rope. The premiere was at Newark Symphony Hall during the national celebration of New Music America. The City of Newark proclaimed November 13, 1989 “Adegoke Steve Colson Day” in honor of the premiere.
His work has been recorded on labels that include Columbia/Sony, Evidence, and Black Saint. His Solo Piano recording Tones For, reflecting on the lives and work of Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass, was released November 2015 on his label, Silver Sphinx. Among the various accolades received internationally, the CD was picked as The Jazz Times Editor’s Choice for the March 2016 edition.
Colson explained why Tubman, Truth and Douglass are so special to him.
"They are really big heroes in terms of what I think people need to do now. You have resist certain things when they are not correct for you or when you understand they are not correct for anybody."
The pianist also received high praise for his prior recordings as leader including The Untarnished Dream - with Jazz Legends Andrew Cyrille and Reggie Workman, and wife Iqua Colson.
As headliner, Colson has shared billing and stage with the greatest artists from Dizzy Gillespie, Dr. Billy Taylor, and Ray Charles, to Art Blakey, Oscar Peterson, and Freddie Hubbard.
Colson remembers the first jazz tune he heard when he was five years old. It was Louis Armstrong's rendition of Bluberry Hill.
"Louis Armstrong, dynamite. The thing about Louis Armstrong, you know he's the one that really developed "the solo", so I'm not sure people really understand the level of significance, when Louis started, people didn't really take solos."
The one pianist Colson puts at the top of his list of favorite performers is Art Tatum.
In addition to his tenure at Bloomfield College, he currently works for NJPAC’s Jazz for Teens program and serves as an Artist in Residence.
Click above to hear the in-depth interview with Adegoke Steve Colson.