Steve Coleman is the most important jazz musician that many fans have never heard of. He’s been the leader on 30 albums in the last three decades and the mentor to a dozen younger artists now making headlines, yet he’s remained an underground figure, content to burrow his own pathways. Lately, though, his profile’s been rising. In the last two years, he’s won a trifecta of arts prizes: a Guggenheim fellowship, a Doris Duke performing artist award and a MacArthur genius grant.
On Tuesday, to celebrate his 60th birthday, he begins a monthlong residency at the Stone, in Manhattan’s East Village, playing almost every night with his longstanding quintet, Five Elements. It’s a throwback to a much earlier era, when the likes of John Coltrane or Thelonious Monk took over the stage at clubs like the Five Spot or the Half Note for a month or more to work out their next new things.
Mr. Coleman grew up on Chicago’s South Side, listening to a mix of funk, soul and his father’s Charlie Parker albums, and started playing the alto saxophone at age 14. His epiphany came one day, four years later, while practicing his horn in Jackson Park, a block from where he lived.
“I had a big Afro, I wore this Afro sheen that had a sweet smell, and bees were flying around my head,” he recalled. “After a while, I grew fascinated by the bees’ zigzagging flight path. I began to wonder what it would be like to play music the way bees fly.”
He started paying attention to all kinds of motion in nature — the way gnats flutter around a light bulb without bumping into one another, how clouds change forms as they drift across the sky, how water drips from a leaf — and translating these complex patterns into music: their rhythm, harmony, melody, form and texture. “It’s not intuitive,” he said. “You have to study how these things work. It’s like Einstein asking what he’d see if he rode on a beam of light.”
In 1978, at 22, he moved to New York, quickly got sideman gigs with some of the city’s most innovative musicians (Cecil Taylor, Sam Rivers, Dave Holland and David Murray), then fell in with a collective of young musicians creating new combinations of improvisation and structure. Some of its members — the pianist Geri Allen, the singer Cassandra Wilson, the saxophonist Greg Osby — became stars, at least in jazz terms. Mr. Coleman remained an outlier. The guitarist Lonnie Plaxico, his roommate for a while, told him that his music was too weird to catch on. Ms. Wilson complained that a vocal part he’d written for her was “unsingable.”
In 1991, he moved to Allentown, Pa., where he still lives, mainly to save money, but also to gain some quiet away from the frantic scene. He started studying the ancient cultures of Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece, India and China — including fragments of musical scores — to see how their people viewed the laws of nature and interpreted them as music.