Spotlight Series: George Coleman


Legendary tenor saxophonist George Coleman returns to his hometown of Memphis this weekend and will grace the Levitt Shell Memphis stage with the Rhodes College Jazz Band. Coleman has toured and collaborated with music’s most celebrated players, including Miles Davis, BB King and Ray Charles. His decades-long career in music started just two years after picking up the alto saxophone at the age of 17, inspired by influential bebop saxophonist Charlie Parker. 

Early in his career, Coleman spent time in Memphis’ rich music scene playing local clubs, where he was noticed by BB King. The King of Blues invited the young saxophonist to join him on tour in 1952. After a hiatus from traveling, Coleman re-joined King’s band in 1955 and switched over to tenor saxophone, which remains his primary horn today. Listen to Coleman’s riveting sax solo on King’s 1956 song, “Woke Up This Morning.” 

After moving to the world’s jazz capital, New York City—where he still resides—Coleman got a call in 1963 from Miles Davis, who asked that he join his band, the Miles Davis Quintet. Coleman stayed with the band for just over a year but the group was so prolific that his saxophone sounds can be heard on four of the Quintet’s records, including the highly acclaimed live album My Funny Valentine (1965), recorded at their Lincoln Center concert.

After leaving Miles Davis’ band, Coleman played with other jazz greats—including former Quintet bandmate Herbie Hancock, Lionel Hampton and Charles Mingus—and released a dozen albums as bandleader. His latest record, A Master Speaks, was released earlier this year and features his son George Coleman, Jr. on drums.

Last year at the age of 80, Coleman was named a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master, America’s highest honor for jazz musicians. Such a well-deserved award for the saxophonist’s long career in music and untiring dedication to his art and instrument! Memphis-area Levitteers are sure to be grooving to Coleman’s legendary jazz sounds tomorrow. Get a taste of his genius with this video released by the NEA last year.


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