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Second Time Around Just as Good as First for Bassist Coleman

February 22, 1988|THOMAS K. ARNOLD

SAN DIEGO — To five of the six members of the vintage jazz band Tobacco Road, the musical memories they've been stirring up in local nightclubs for the past six years are someone else's.

After all, most of the syncopated "hot jazz," festive boogie-woogie and smooth swing numbers that the band members play date back to the 1930s and '40s--when they were mere twinkles in somebody's eye.

But to 70-year-old Preston Coleman, who has been singing and playing stand-up bass with Tobacco Road since its inception in 1982, many of those memories are his own.

Indeed, some of the songs in the San Diego group's repertoire, like Clarence Williams' "Bonus in Love," were contemporary favorites when Coleman first played them with his Chicago high school jazz ensemble in the 1930s. And still other oldies resurrected by Tobacco Road--like "Swingin' All Day"--Coleman himself helped popularize while touring in the early 1940s with Cats and the Fiddle, a 14-piece big band that frequently headlined the legendary Apollo Theater in Harlem.

"It's the second time around for me, it certainly is," Coleman said with a laugh after a recent performance at the Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach, where Tobacco Road plays each Wednesday night. The group also appears Sundays at Winston's Beach Club in Ocean Beach.

"I was playing most of these songs when they first came out, and now I'm playing them again," he said. "And what inspires me so much is that the young musicians in this band have just as good a feeling for this kind of music as the older ones had, even though they don't play as much."

Moreover, Coleman noted, his fellow band members deserve special praise for their dedication to music in an era of abundant distractions.

"In the old days, we didn't have many choices," he recalled. "It was either washing dishes or playing music. . . . But young people today can do anything they want, so it's inspiring to find musicians who do this so well, especially since there are so many other things competing for their time."

The veteran bassist's colleagues, meanwhile, insist dedication comes easy when you're sharing the stage with Preston Coleman. As Tobacco Road pianist Sue Palmer put it, band members couldn't pass the chance to work with a man who is a part of the musical era they're trying to revive.

"You don't get opportunities like this very often, because most of the old guys are dead," said Palmer, 40. "All of us have learned tons of things from Preston, particularly since he writes a lot of our arrangements. And I'm always amazed by the fact that he has more energy and enthusiasm, and gets more excited about our music, than most people my age."

A bespectacled, slightly stooped man with close-cropped graying hair, Coleman was born in Indianapolis and moved to Chicago when he was 6. Three years later, he took up the violin under the tutelage of "Professor" Johnson, an old black jazz teacher whose star pupil at the time was 10-year-old Milt Hinton. (By the late 1930s, Hinton had switched to bass and was playing in singer Cab Calloway's band, alongside legendary trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie.)

When Coleman was 15, he and several other teen-age musicians formed a "tin-pan drum band," so named because the drum set was fashioned out of a washtub. The group spent an entire summer playing Chicago street corners, collecting tips in a hat they passed around after each performance.

In the fall of that year, Coleman began playing stand-up bass and put together a new band, the Joy Boys. At the same time, he joined his high school jazz ensemble, which included such other budding musicians as singer Joe Williams, who later toured and recorded with the Lionel Hampton and Count Basie orchestras, and a young pianist named Nathaniel Coles, who went on to achieve stardom as pop singer Nat (King) Cole.

"Joe was my neighbor, and we had been friends since we were kids," Coleman recalled. "And Nathaniel was an excellent pianist--this was before he took up singing--even though he didn't come to school much. I still remember calling his name at roll, and getting no response."

After graduating from high school in 1936, Coleman decided to pursue a career in music. He spent three years paying his dues in Chicago nightclubs and three more years touring the Midwest with the King Perry Orchestra.

In 1942, Coleman hooked up with pianist Mary Lou Williams, who today is regarded as "the first lady of jazz," according to The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Jazz. "That was one of the best bands I've ever been in," he said. "Art Blakey was our drummer, and Joe Williams, our emcee." A year later, Coleman was touring the country with yet another big band, the Cats and the Fiddle.

But by the end of World War II, the Big Band Era was over and Coleman was forced to take a day job with General Electric. Playing music became merely a hobby.

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