JACKSON TWP. When Kent State at Stark booked acts for its annual Black History Month events this year, the university had no need to look further than Cleveland to find an actual piece of blues music history.
Assistant Professor of Biology and Black History Month Committee member Robert Hamilton said blues and jazz music traditions have always been an integral piece of black culture in America.
"We have had Wallace Coleman here for Black History Month for a number of years; he is literally black history in the blues," Hamilton said during Coleman’s Feb. 23 appearance.
Tennessee native Coleman migrated to Cleveland in the mid-1950s and eventually found his way into the local blues scene after impressing a co-worker while playing harmonica on his breaks at work.
The relationship led to a year-long pairing with Cleveland’s Guitar Slim at the Cascade Lounge, where Coleman caught the ear of Robert Jr. Lockwood, a Cleveland-based blues guitarist who earned his nickname studying at the feet of the legendary Robert Johnson, whom Lockwood’s mother dated.
Retiring from his day job and joining Lockwood’s band full time, Coleman eventually branched out on his own, touring the world and releasing four critically acclaimed albums on his own Ella Mae Music label.
Coleman’s wife and business manager Jody Getz said the Kent Stark Black History Month performances have become one of their favorite appearances each year, with audiences that are more eager to listen to the music than use it as a backdrop for other nightclubbing activities.
Getz also noted, not without a small amount of pride, her husband’s strain of rugged individualism – actively stepping out from Lockwood’s shadow when he started his own group, to the point of turning down invitations from Lockwood to perform on Coleman’s recordings. Still, she expressed concern with how well this traditional form of the music resonates beyond its somewhat niche audience.
"And this is Black History Month, but when you look at the audience, you don’t see a lot of faces of color," Getz said.
She called Coleman’s form of traditional blues a "precious form of music," which, like many aspects of African American history and culture, must continue to be actively preserved.
"(Traditional American blues) is not lifted from other forms," Getz said. "I understand that it has grown and morphed and that’s okay I suppose, but when you bring something into a neighborhood and try to pass it off as something it’s not, there is sort of insincerity."
The how-to of any discipline, she added, can be taught and learned from the outside in.
"But with those like Wallace, it’s different – it comes from the inside out," Getz said.
Jody & John & George – featuring Getz and Wallace Coleman band members George Lee, on bass, and guitarist John Lucic - opened the show with an impressive set of cover songs that ran the gamut from Buddy Miller to Mose Allison.
Coleman himself, lanky and nondescript, casually took the stage behind his already revved up backing group – which also included guitarist Mike Modlin, drummer Vernon Jones and pianist Rockin’ Robin Montgomery, as Cleveland-based filmmakers Eddie Tomecko and Dave Velardo filmed the performance as part of an upcoming documentary on Coleman’s life as a bluesman.
"What are we doing here anyway?" Coleman deadpanned as he hit the mic, the relaxed epitome of stateliness and cool, delivering songs like Lockwood’s subtly salacious "Take a Little Walk With Me" with a restrained yet percolating professionalism forged in front of decades of audiences across the globe.
In short, 81-year-old Wallace Coleman is exactly what other singers want to be when they grow up.
Throughout the hour and a half performance, Coleman and his band swung and ground through their versions of songs from Little Walter, Jimmy Reed, and pop classics like "Corrina, Corrina," before closing with the gorgeous Wallace-penned ballad, "Way Back Home" and perhaps the most spirited version of "Got My Mojo Working" this side of Muddy Waters himself.
The audience ranged from students like Piper Koble and Regan Jones - on assignment for her "Music is a World Phenomenon" class – to longtime bluesphiles like Jerry Hammerton and retired Alliance school teacher Mark Blackstone, who have attended the last four or five Coleman concerts at Kent State at Stark.
"It is a great show and it’s too bad more people can’t see how tremendous he is," Hammerton said.
History meets the future
Cynthia Williams, who described herself as a "long-time fan and friend" of Coleman, was on hand with her daughter, Cianna.
"Wallace personifies black history that we can reach out and touch," Williams said.
For her part, Cianna said she most enjoyed the opportunity to dance with her mom. And it is within that juxtaposition of preserved history and a nascent fan’s excitement that a heritage artist like Wallace Coleman can continue to make a very contemporary cultural impact.
"We just got back from Spain in June," Coleman said following the show. "It was a good trip; we went from one end of the country to the other. And they are still stuck in the late-60s blues over there – people are hollering for us to do Little Walter and Lightnin’ Hopkins, and I’m going, ‘In the U.S., I can’t get anybody to do that."
Coleman has also done Black History Month performances in Europe, when it is celebrated in October. But his most memorable to date, he said, remains his appearance at Cleveland’s Severance Hall three years ago, on Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday.
"I was one of the lucky ones," he said of his exposure to southern racial inequality in the 1950s and 1960s. "I left in ’56, but I heard a lot of bad stuff about it. There has been a lot of progress, but we still have a ways to go."
Coleman also acknowledged some of the unintended consequences of the Civil Rights Movement and the impact it had on certain segments of the southern black community.
"For as much good as integration did, it caused a lot of black colleges to close down," he said. "In Arkansas and Tennessee and the Carolinas, there were probably 12 universities that closed because they couldn’t afford to stay open."
With the release of albums like his latest, "Blues in the Wind – Remembering Robert Junior Lockwood," Coleman said he is trying to do his part to keep one particular part of black history vital for future generations.
"You don’t find a lot of young blacks doing this (kind of music) – they’re not making any money at it," he said. "But we keep trying. It’s all we can do."