Rising jazz stars: Montez Coleman and Bob DeBoo
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 11, 2012 - Tenor saxophonist Willie Akins is one of St. Louis’ musical treasures, and a recent Beacon article profiled his musical talent as well as his ability to bring out the best in younger players whom he has worked with over the years.
When asked to name two up-and-coming musicians on the metro area jazz scene that he thought were outstanding, Akins didn’t hesitate. He immediately named the drummer and the bassist in his regular quartet – Montez Coleman and Bob DeBoo respectively.
The Beacon met with each of them separately.
Although Bob DeBoo is not originally from the St. Louis area, it hasn’t taken him long at all to become a first-call bass player on the jazz scene.
In addition to working regularly with Willie Akins, DeBoo plays with saxophonist Dave Stone’s Trio as well as in the trio of pianist Ptah Williams. He also has his own quartet he’s trying to establish, and frequently performs with other musicians here in St. Louis as well as outside the area.
Recently I caught up with DeBoo, 31, for an interview, and we discussed how the Texas native ended up here – as well as his musical development in a journey that also featured a lengthy stint in the highly competitive New York City jazz scene.
I grew up in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and started out playing drums when I was about 10,” says DeBoo as we sit outside a Maplewood coffee shop. “But I really liked electric bass – especially after hearing musicians like Jaco Pastorius, Stanley Clarke and Marcus Miller. But then when I heard Charlie Haden on upright bass, I wanted to move to playing acoustically.”
Although he continued to play snare drum in his high school marching band, upright bass became DeBoo’s obsession. By the time he graduated, he had decided to attend North Texas State University, renowned for its famed jazz program.
North Texas State, was only about an hour away,” explains DeBoo, “and it was a very good program. But what was important for me was meeting other young musicians – especially Frank LoCrasto, an amazing keyboard player who really became a big influence on me.”
LoCrasto - who later released his own debut recording, “When You’re There”, on the MAXJAZZ label – transferred to the New School in New York. And that’s where DeBoo ended up as well.
Frank decided to go to the New School in Manhattan, and I was lucky enough to get a scholarship there, so I ended up in New York as well. Being in New York and experiencing the jazz scene there, you definitely got a glimpse of what you needed to do to really make it as a musician. It was quite an experience!”
DeBoo’s talent on bass earned him gigs with the likes of well-known sax players such as& Wes Anderson, John Handy, Frank Lacy and St. Louisan Greg Osby, trumpeter Jeremy Pelt and other musicians.
But when DeBoo and his wife decided to start a family, a move away from New York City became a prime consideration. And the eventual destination for DeBoo and his wife was St. Louis.
My wife and I decided to move to St. Louis to raise our family,” says DeBoo. “I’ve known her since I was 13 and we were both in the Dallas area. But her family is from St. Louis, so it was a logical decision from that perspective. And it’s turned out to be a good decision musically as well.”
When DeBoo arrived and started to explore possibilities on the St. Louis music scene for himself, he made some immediate - and lasting - connections.
I started going to see Dave Stone play saxophone, and then I went to hear Ptah Williams on piano. And those turned out to be my first two regular gigs here in town. So it just seemed that things really clicked from the beginning.”
DeBoo impressive playing with Stone and Williams soon led to other musical possibilities as word began to spread about his talent. He soon got a call from Willie Akins to sub for his regular bassist, but as he recalls, his debut performance with Akins was definitely not what DeBoo had hoped it to be.
Willie hired me as a sub, so I was really excited about the chance to play with him,” says DeBoo. “But when I showed up, Willem vom Hombracht, who was Willie’s regular bassist at the time, was there too. So I gave the gig to Willem. But I stuck around, and Willie asked me to come up on the bandstand to play a couple tunes. So it all turned out, because later on, Willie called me up to play with him on another job. And now I’m part of his band. “
In addition to working with Akins, Stone and Williams, DeBoo has his own group he’s trying to establish – and also is becoming increasingly interested in teaching music.
I’m working to get my own quartet going and get more things bookings for that group,” says DeBoo. “And I do a lot of teaching as well. A big focus for me in terms of that is intonation – teaching students how to play notes exactly where they’re supposed to lie. So right now, I’m feeling a good balance musically. And I’m really excited about the possibilities ahead.”
When Montez Coleman is on stage playing drums, he radiates an infectious enthusiasm for the music that’s impossible to miss. And when the band synchs into slinky, irresistible groove – usually featuring Coleman’s energetic, in-the-pocket drumming – that’s when he lets loose with a huge grin that inspires smiles in the audience as well as his fellow musicians.
That same beaming smile frequently punctuated a recent interview with Coleman at a South Grand restaurant, discussing his musical path from East St. Louis Lincoln High School to performing around the world and recording with the likes of trumpeter Roy Hargrove, pianist McCoy Tyner, guitarist Russell Malone.
"I started playing drums when I was 5 years old,” recalls Coleman, who is now 38. “And by the time I was ready to go to high school, I was focused on being part of the East St. Louis Lincoln jazz band under Ron Carter. Every kid who played drums in the five junior highs in the district wanted to get into that band – but they only had two drummers.
Coleman made the cut and joined the Lincoln High band in 1988 when it was at a high point. The band toured Europe in 1989, performing at both the prestigious North Sea and Montreux Jazz festivals.
After graduation from Lincoln in 1991, Coleman earned a scholarship to Shaw University in Raleigh, N.C., where he led his own trio and eventually joined the band of R&B singer Alyson Williams. He toured with her for a year-and-a-half before deciding to return home to East St. Louis and get back into the jazz scene.
I was trying to make a living as a musician,” says Coleman, “and I ended up playing a lot of R&B and reggae. But I knew I really needed to get some jazz gigs to keep my chops together. And that’s when Willie called me up! He asked me if I could play with his group every Sunday at the Adam’s Mark Hotel. I ended up playing with him that first time for four years – from the mid-90s on.”
After joining Akins’ band, Coleman began getting requests to perform with a variety of other performers in the St. Louis area, and was soon working with Jeanne Trevor, Denise Thimes, Reggie and Mardra Thomas - and even Kansas City-based musicians such as Ahmad Aladeen and Luqman Hamza.
When you play with Willie, you get discovered by other jazz musicians,” says Coleman. “So I was getting a lot of calls to play with other people, and guess I got a little bit of a big head. I subbed out someone to play drums with Willie three times in a row when I got other offers. So I remember it was a Valentine’s Day weekend and I showed up at the Adam’s Mark carrying my drums, and there was someone else setting up their drums to play with him.”
Coleman stuck around to listen to Akins play with the drummer who had replaced him and came to a realization that has served him well ever since in his career as a professional musician.
I was really humbled by that experience, but I knew I had to stay and listen to Willie and the band that day,” explains Coleman. “It was something that really taught me I had to communicate; that I had to act like a professional not just in my playing, but in how I interacted with other musicians as well. It turned out to be an incredibly valuable lesion that Willie taught me – especially later when I went to New York.”
Coleman made the move to New York in 2000, using connections he had built through backing touring musicians at Jazz at the Bistro - especially Rene Marie, Carla Cook and Bruce Barth, who recorded for the Webster groves-based MAXJAZZ record label.
After working and touring with Barth and guitarist Russell Malone, Coleman’s big break came when he had the chance to record with saxophonist Bobby Watson in 2002 on “Live and Learn.” That led to other recording and touring opportunities for Coleman – and eventually to the position of drummer in famed trumpeter Roy Hargrove’s band.
I first met Roy at the Zinc Bar in New York at jam sessions. I ended up playing with him a lot. One time, after we got off stage, he asked me, ‘Do you want to join my band?’ I told him I did, but didn’t really get my hopes up. But two months later in late 2006, I was part of Roy’s band, and I ended up playing with him until just recently. It was great because he and the band worked all the time and toured all over the world.”
Although Coleman was playing with Hargrove, he decided to return to East St. Louis to live and make a home there with his wife and children. That allows him to balance home life and playing with area musicians like Akins – with tours and performances across the country and around the world.
This past May I played at a festival in Brazil with McCoy Tyner,” says Coleman. “And then I played some European festivals with him this past summer. I’ll be going to Japan for two weeks with Tony Suggs (Pianist Suggs is also a graduate of East St. Louis Lincoln’s jazz program, and played with the Count Basie Band for several years.) Then I’ll be going over to Kansas City in November to play at the Blue Room, and in December I go to Dubai to play with Sherman Irby – doing a tribute to the music of Art Blakey.”
Despite his growing national reputation, it’s clear that Coleman regards the chance to play with Willie Akins on a continuing basis as an important and valuable part of his musical life. He was excited to discuss an upcoming recording session with Akins here in St. Louis.
We’re going into Sherpa Studios in Brentwood next week to record with Willie,” states Coleman. “It’s myself, Bob DeBoo on bass, Eric Slaughter on guitar and Peter Schlamb on vibes backing him. I know we’re all really looking forward to this recording. Willie really wants to capture this band on a recording – and so do I!”