Coffee with Kwami Coleman

[Interview conducted + written in May 2019]

Kwami Coleman is inseparable from his sunshine yellow beanie.

When he comes into the coffee shop close to New York University’s campus, he’s loping to the rhythm of the invisible metronome in his head. His beanie is easily the brightest thing in a ten-mile radius, making him stand out amongst the grayscale of a rainy Greenwich Village.

He’s late. He approaches the cafeteria-style bench I’m sitting at and looks at my iced coffee abashedly while other shop-goers turn their heads to look at him. My professor sets his notebook down, apologizes for being late, and heads deeper into the shop. He returns with two glasses of water and the smallest coffee cup I’ve ever seen. He squeezes himself onto the stool and balances the cup in between his large brown fingers, like he’s at a child’s tea party. I giggle at the charming absurdity of it all, and he looks up at me in confusion. “What? It’s a macchiato.”

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Photo by Argenis Apolinario

In March of 2019, Coleman led a travel scholars group to the Dominican Republic. It was my senior year, and I had applied to be in the scholars group because Professor Coleman was one of the instructors that every student buzzed about but had eluded me over the course of my college career. His classes either never fit my schedule or had a double digit waiting list by the time I tried to register. This travel scholars group housed within my alma mater, NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study, changed travel destination, professor, and course theme each year. This year’s theme was called “Borders and Flows of Musical Tradition,” taught by Coleman, who is an Assistant Professor at Gallatin. We studied the intersections of race, politics, and music within the context of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, and hit seven Dominican cities in 10 days.

A week into the trip, I went down for the count with a merciless bout of appendicitis. I had to get an emergency appendectomy, in a country where I did not speak the native language and the doctors did not speak mine. Coleman, along with the three other faculty chaperones on the trip, rotated in shifts to look after me while in the hospital and also doubled as a translator. He calmly asked the nurses questions while I writhed in pain, the inverse of calm.

The night I had surgery, before the symptoms began, I started to ask Coleman about his life over Haitian food in Santo Domingo. In the final quarter of my senior year, I began to realize just how many professors I hadn’t been able to get to know outside of the classroom. Spending time with Coleman on an airplane, in a hospital, and in hotel bars talking about border policy, trap music, and astrology only made me more interested in his journey (epiphany: professors are people, too!). Something about almost dying in another country and having my professor stand in as my family gave us a bond that manifested itself in little check-ins once back in New York.

Coleman is one of the only professors I’ve had that will call my jokes corny and advocate for me within the same breath. He’s grounded and approachable in a way that other professors only perform to be. Part of it may be his cool factor — he’s a composer-musician-professor-all-around-multi-hyphenate — or part of it could be what he claims is his favorite thing about himself.

“I’m still basically a big kid. I don’t take myself all that seriously. I mean, I have to, and I should for certain timings… but when I’m hanging with my niece? We get along so well. In addition to her being absolutely intelligent, sensitive, and amazing… I’m just a big ol’ kid.” His niece is four and a half, and like a proud uncle, he pulls out his phone to show me a few photos of her and her baby sister, who is just under a year old.

“Do you think being a ‘big kid’ helps you as a professor?” I ask.

“Absolutely! Part of learning is being vulnerable and playful. I would like to demonstrate to students that you can be silly. Maybe that’s a new way of getting at the information that could feel so daunting.” Yet, Coleman’s own education has been far from silly. He earned his Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees in Music and Musicology from CUNY Hunter College and earned his PhD in Musicology at Stanford University. He even attended the Fame school, Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts. Born to two educators, it’s only kismet that he’s an educator now himself.

“Education is so important to me, and I take my role as an educator very seriously. I want to make education and knowledge a position that isn’t necessarily formal, that only happens in certain hours of the day or something that only happens for a particular end, like a job or even a degree. Education is really setting you up for life — a life of question-asking, answer-seeking, curiosity, skepticism, all these things. I think especially students who come from underrepresented, otherwise marginalized backgrounds, coming from where I come from? I want to let them know, ‘Yeah, you can really do that.’ For students who may not come from musical backgrounds but feel passionate about music, I want them to know that you can think critically about music even though you may not have the theoretical language to parse certain things.”

Coleman says he doesn’t remember a time without music, or a musical education. He received his earliest training from his father, Earl R. Coleman, a pianist, composer, and educator from Williamsburg, Brooklyn. His grandfather was also a musician, making Coleman’s paternal roots generations steeped in song. The natural bond that comes with music was a saving grace in his relationship with his father.

“Music is the way in which my father and I were able to be intimate and affectionate towards each other,” he says. “He was a very stoic man. Music is a big part of how I understand my emotional life, and my spiritual life. It keeps me healthy.”

Though a man of many instruments, Coleman is primarily a pianist. I’ve had the privilege of seeing him perform a few times. These performances have ranged from LoFi hip-hop beats with jazz-infused piano accompaniment, to frenetic, determined, riotous jazz where his fingers fly over the keys as if they were hot coals. No matter the tempo, Coleman is in a state of acute focus when playing, deep within a well of his own chords, far, far away from the rest of us. It’s hard to imagine someone with such an intense bond to their craft ever considering a life without it. But he didn’t consider a life without the piano for long. He cites the moment he knew he wanted to play the instrument seriously was in his childhood home at age ten.

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Photo by Idris Solomon, Hope Boykin

“I was probably walking through the living room for juice or something like that. My father was playing a pianist called Ahmad Jamal. It was a very famous album called Live at the Pershing: But Not For Me, which was recorded in 1958. It’s a trio recording, so acoustic piano, acoustic bass, and a drum set. The Ahmad Jamal Trio, live at the Pershing, playing ‘Poinciana’ and man…”

He stops for a second, and I wonder whether it is for dramatic effect or to fish around for the rest of the memory. But then I realize there are tears in his eyes.

“I remember being 10 hearing Ahmad Jamal play this gorgeous, beautiful piece and he makes the piano just… it shimmers. It sings, it shimmers, it’s so brilliant. The way they work together, it’s like butter, man. Telepathic, supple, sweet, articulate. My father’s playing the LP and I remember standing in my living room and listening.” He nods, mimicking the actions miniature Kwami must have carried out all those years ago.“‘Ohhhhhh… I want to play like that.’ Ahmad Jamal made that piano sing in such a way that in my 10 year old mind, I was like, ‘Yeah. That’s it.’” 

Growing up in Harlem and the Bronx — he is sure to point out that he claims both neighborhoods — allowed Coleman to live in a rich, culturally diverse community that reflected his home life, the music he wanted to make, and the music he grew up on.

Coleman’s life is characterized by jazz. Improvisation, unexpected rhythms, and the diaspora. His father, who passed away when Coleman was 23, was an African-American man who lived through some of the most turbulent times in America for Black people. He was even a member of the Nation of Islam while Malcolm X was still a part of it.

“He lied about his age so he could join. If you were a young Black man in New York City in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, and you heard of this guy called Malcolm, you went to go see him. If you had any kind of political inclinations or any understanding that the world you live in is unjust and fucked up, the minister at Mosque No. 7 in Harlem called Malcolm X was someone you wanted to pay attention to.”

His father, surrounded by Afro-Caribbean ethnic enclaves in Brooklyn, had a robust understanding and appreciation for music that belonged to the diaspora. He met Coleman’s mother in early childhood education classes at City College. A young Puerto Rican-Dominican woman who grew up in a culture where no one talked about their African and indigenous roots was able to know a new side of herself thanks to a young African-American man’s radical education. In exchange, she and her big, close, traditional family gave him the support and nurturing he never received as the first-born of seven with a father who did not provide for and a mother with plenty of children to provide for.

“[My father] was basically raised out in the streets… the power dynamics [between my parents] weren’t equal, because he was still of that generation where the man was the head of the household, but at the same time he inspired my mother to pursue her education and supported her and pushed her to get her Master’s because a lot of women of her generation had this tacit understanding that ‘that wasn’t for them.’”

Coleman takes the time to pause and stress that his upbringing wasn’t utopian, but it was different, and perhaps even radical. Take his and his sister’s names, for example. His father named him after Kwame Nkrumah, the first Prime Minister and President of the post-colonial nation of Ghana, and his sister’s name is Taina, after the indigenous Taino people of the Caribbean. His family’s ties to the diaspora and his own deep gratitude and devotion to kinship are evident in the music he creates. This connection to heritage and community is tangible in his own trio’s debut jazz album, Local Music.

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Local Music album cover by Philippe Previl

Released in February of 2017, the record is a mixture of original work and field recordings captured in Harlem by Coleman himself over the course of two years. By incorporating field recordings of summertime basketball courts, children walking home from school, or evanescent stoop conversations, Coleman creates a soundscape that is both specific and universal to diverse urban city life. It is a love letter to his hometown — a love letter to Harlem.

The project was born out of a yearning to capture his community in a way that hadn’t been done before but most importantly, a way that was unique to himself. Immortalizing his home through music allowed him to take home with him everywhere, even if one day it ceased to exist. The impetus for creating Local Music was a painful experience that changed the way he thought about home.

“The landlord was basically trying to force us out of the apartment that I grew up in in Harlem. What landlords do for families that have rent-stabilized apartments, working-class families and people that may not have easy access to a lawyer, they try to tie you up. They send you an intimidating letter, a phone call, they hope that you give up… We worked out a settlement situation, but in the end, even though I could’ve remained in the apartment, I just found the whole situation to be so unpleasant. It kind of made me think twice. What is home in the first place? Is home a box? An apartment that is ultimately a series of boxes? Or is it something more ephemeral? Something… I don’t know.”

 

He pauses to think. Besides the first sip, he has ignored his tiny macchiato. He looks up at me over the rims of his glasses, the frames forged from vinyl records.

“[Home is] something that you create for yourself each day with memories, which are imperfect and appear fragmentary, relying on other types of things like recordings and photographs. If I wanted to preserve something of my own, I wanted to do it in a way that didn’t rely on this apartment, that if it burned down, I would lose it anyway.”

He reaches for his cup but his own thoughts distract him from drinking: “I wanted to create a music that didn’t live inside of the studio or only in my head. I was thinking about a music that was attached to a community, and a community experience. The sound of a community. I didn’t want to write a piece called ‘Harlem.’ It’s already been done! Duke Ellington’s “Harlem Air Shaft,” “Black, Brown & Beige” — I wanted to think about what that would mean for me. I wanted to document my local home without making it so obvious. So rather than Harlem music, it’s local music, and hopefully the tuned-in listeners that hear the field recordings will say, ‘Oh, that kind of sounds like New York. Maybe Uptown or something?’ I hope that the ambiguity will allow people to go on a journey.”

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Photo courtesy of Kwami Coleman

I ask him about what motivated his decision to create a neighborhood soundscape, and he refers back to his musicological training.

“Part of it involved ethnomusicological techniques, like ethnography. How else can you document a living, breathing culture? Yeah, you can notate it for yourself, with prose, but maybe you need a medium that’s more immediate and more mimetic in a way, like a recording. The sonic version of a photograph.”

Dense fields of study like musicology sound vague enough to be impressively intimidating, but still obscure. I admit my ignorance and ask him what the roles of musicologist and ethnomusicologist mean to the average person, to which he doesn’t laugh or cast a condescending look before delving into his definition, which is what one would expect from an academic, especially a PhD holder from Stanford. He is warm and excited, the approachable professor within peeking out from underneath the yellow beanie.

“That’s a great question! It’s not obvious,” he assures me. He goes on to teach me: Musicology as a discipline emerged in Germany in the early 19th century. Musicologists are often thought of as historians of music, performing the same practices historians do — relying on documents, archival materials, a complete devotion to artifacts.

Coleman describes musicology by likening it to archaeology. “[It is] piecing together information and pulling together a narrative… You have to dig for stuff, you have to date it, you have to contextualize it. It’s a history and archaeology of extant musical material. Musicologists have to be able to read notation and have a solid foundation of music theory, because we’re trying to get at how the music functions by going inside the music, analyzing the score, and then relating the information we drew to all of the historical material we gathered on it — ledgers, documents, letters, old books a composer has written about that you’re weighing against new material that you found in the archive. That’s musicology.”

He dives even deeper into the history for me, explaining that musicology of the ‘80s and ‘90s was not concerned with social theory, just music theory. Then over the 2000s and 2010s, musicology began to involve social theory like critical race theory, feminism, and gender and sexuality.

Ethnomusicology takes the incorporation of social theory a step further, acting as an anthropology of music. Ethnomusicology serves to understand a living music tradition as it’s being practiced, a way of understanding the culture itself.

Although he is a musicologist, Coleman has taught himself bits of ethnomusicology to inform his own work, like the field recordings of Local Music, and the book he’s working on about avant-garde jazz.

“The title as it stands now is Change: Modern Jazz and the ‘New Thing.’

What is “the new thing?”

“In the ‘60s, in this very neighborhood,” he motions to the narrow streets of Greenwich Village that we can see through the windows of the coffeeshop, “experimental improvised music, what we might otherwise call avant-garde jazz, was called ‘the new thing.’ At the time, there was a pretty concrete notion of what modern jazz was. The voice of the critic in the 1950s United States was strong after World War II. There were strong efforts made in the world of literature and music to get at some kind of common central mainstream American culture. Jazz fit the bill, because for some people, it was the epitome of what America could be. It was aspirational. Black music… spoke to an authentic American folklore. Jazz was a music that seemed to allow for racial integration, and as we all know, that’s what progressive — what we now call ‘liberal’ — white Americans valued in the ‘50s. It seemed to counteract exactly how backwards everything in the country was.”

He tells me that critics wrote about artists like Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie as the epitome of modern jazz. But when it came to musicians like Ornette Coleman or Cecil Taylor, who we now regard as “avant-gardists,” critics struggled to articulate their musical analysis, bucking up against their college training of musical theory.

“[Their analysis] doesn’t tell you anything to give the music chordal analysis. The musicians may not be using chords, and if they are using chords, they’re very untraditional and dissonant chords. They wrote about it like, ‘OK this is experimental work, and we don’t know how to analyze it. We give it the benefit of the doubt’ while there are people who say, ‘This shit is trash. It doesn’t make sense.’ What I’m interested in is exactly that discrepancy in the discourse and how the debates around the music’s value had everything to do with how far you could or couldn’t analyze it. I even draw upon the Martiniquan writer Édouard Glissant’s theory of opacity; opacity as a means by which marginalized people maintain their humanity. Opaque as empowering. I’m taking [opacity] very seriously in trying to understand the music, not trying to make it completely transparent. Allowing opacity to exist and push back against this Western notion of theory of making everything transparent, understandable, and legible. I use opacity to understand the identities of the music creators, allowing their identities to exist in this opaque space where their racial identity is not where everything ends. Avant-garde jazz is not only radical Black music — how do we allow it to be multiple things? How do we allow for a kind of multiplicity where some of the many things can’t be named?”

Coleman’s specialization is in improvised music, a practice he taught himself. He did it by ear, simply sitting at the piano listening to his father’s record collection and trying to play what he heard on the record note for note, then creating his own versions of it.

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Photo courtesy of Kwami Coleman

“That’s essentially improvisation — you’re given a framework or some kind of parameters and then it’s really up to you to be inventive and work maybe within or beyond the parameters. My father didn’t show me. He was of that school of thought, which is not unusual for his generation of musicians, where you don’t show someone something directly, because you want them to develop their own voice, their own perspective. If you hand someone everything… you have to think about what life was for African-Americans. There were no handouts. No one was given anything. You had to be inventive, you had to figure it out for yourself, you had to be very resourceful and creative.”

He talks now at a quicker pace, riling himself up.

“Improvisation for African-Americans and African-American music, Black music, comes from that reality of life where you have to be super resourceful, inventive, creative, do with what you had and go beyond with it as well.”

Coleman’s next music project, tentatively titled Poly, focuses on polyphony (multiple independent melodies, sounding simultaneously) and polyrhythm (multiple independent rhythms, sounding simultaneously). Artistically, he wants to explore how musical texture as a Western theoretical concept distinguishes class difference between the “uneducated and untrained” from the “educated auteur.” It will be mostly electric, experimental, and will straddle the line between avant-garde and accessible, in this case meaning popular.

He actually has multiple projects on the horizon, casually mentioning great strides in his career as if he were telling me tomorrow’s weather forecast. Over the summer, he’ll be working on scoring a ballet that will be commissioned by the New York City Ballet in the fall of 2020. Jamar Roberts, a longtime friend of Coleman’s and a principal dancer for the Alvin Ailey Company, asked him to do the score. This isn’t Coleman’s first scoring gig, but it is his first time scoring a multi-part work that is both orchestral and electronic for a live audience.

He will also be teaching a workshop called “4th Wave: The Gallatin Summer Music Intensive,” Monday through Friday for five hours a day.

“It will be kind of taxing on the time side, but having Gallatin student musicians workshop together and build music absolutely from the ground up… it’s really exciting.”

He also acted in and directed his first music video for an original track in April 2019. He wants to get into filmmaking, he wants to finish the manuscript of his book, he wants to complete Poly and let it loose out unto the world, all by 2020.

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Photo by Argenis Apolinario

“I’m following the goal and dream of having a very robust intellectual life and creative life, and making them talk to each other, more or less on my terms. I don’t feel like I’ve compromised myself. In fact, I feel probably the freest and the lightest I’ve ever felt in my life. I’m doing all the work I care about.”

“But do you feel pressure?”

“Yeah, there are pressures… responsibilities that are… life and all that stuff. But I really am doing exactly what I care about. I’m very grateful.” He finally takes another sip from his tiny cup.

“Very grateful.”

I sit back in my chair across from him and think about how at 35 years old, Kwami Coleman doesn’t seem to be feeling the same pressures my generation are facing prematurely, worries of peaking or not accomplishing our goals fast enough. I think about how I fret every day about not “making it” by Coleman’s age, as if the apocalypse will arrive if I am 35 without a bestselling book and a screenwriting gig. Yet, he seems to be in his prime. He doesn’t seem to be concerned with time at all, something I find, right now, unattainable. I’m part frustrated, part inspired. How did he get to this place, where he is a successful multi-hyphenate, teaching and lending himself to so many others, while still preserving his own voice and creativity?

I lean forward.

“Did you ever think you would achieve it?”

He thinks about it for a second. “I’ll put it to you the other way. I never thought that I wouldn’t, I just didn’t know how.”

I sit back again, satisfied with his answer. Coleman’s fiery devotion to his craft is still burning strong, even though he’s been betrothed to music since he could carry out the act of remembering.

“Music is the most important phenomenon in my life outside of food and air. There were many moments of doubt in grad school when I was like, ‘I’m a musician, what am I doing? Am I giving up on my art for academia? Am I just making a safe decision?’ And part of me answered, ‘No. I can do both. I can figure out how to do both, I just have to be patient and lucky. Tenacity is really important, but luck is always an element.”

I lean forward again, wondering about my own relationship to writing. I guess his answer before I ask, “Is there anything you would trade music for?”

Before I can even finish getting the last consonant out of my mouth, he replies.

“Nope. Nope.” He pauses and thinks again. Shakes his head. Quietly, “Nope nope nope nope.” Almost to himself, he says, “Every day.”

I guessed right. When a craft chooses you, you can’t deny it. Music and Kwami Coleman are inseparable. His yellow beanie can’t even compare.

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