Montez Coleman and Tony Suggs reunite at the Bistro
This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Beacon. - Drummer Montez Coleman and pianist Tony Suggs first met in fall, 1988, when both were members of the East St. Louis Lincoln High School Jazz Band.
Twenty-five years later, Coleman and Suggs have carved out successful careers as professional jazz musicians. And even though Suggs makes his home half a world away in Japan, the two remain close friends – and continue to pursue opportunities to play jazz together.
This Sunday, Nov. 24, Coleman and Suggs – in the company of Eric Slaughter on guitar and Jahmal Nichols on bass – will play sets at 7 and 9 p.m. Jazz at the Bistro.
As I learned during a recent conversation with Coleman and Suggs over lunch at a South Grand restaurant, music was the foundation for their early friendship and has been a constant that has connected them ever since.
The musical and life lessons they learned in Lincoln High’s jazz program under Director Ron Carter have also stayed with them – serving them well over the years.
“Tony and I had a year together at Lincoln in the band,” Coleman said. That was in the 1988-89 school year, He was senior, and I was coming in as a sophomore. Tony actually gave me my first jazz record!”
“It was a Tommy Flanagan record, with him playing piano in a trio, I think,” Suggs said. “I had heard him and his trio that summer when I was in Chicago for a contest.”
When Coleman and Suggs were members of the East St. Louis Lincoln High jazz program in 1988 and ’89, the program was at the height of its success under Ron Carter, who essentially built the program from scratch starting in the mid-1970s. Under Carter’s direction, the Lincoln High Jazz Band became one of the top high school bands in the country. The band travelled to Europe to perform at the Montreux and North Sea Jazz festivals, appeared at the Chicago Jazz Festival, and in the 1980s:
“I remember we won every contest we entered the three years I was there,” recalls Suggs.
“When I came into the band as a sophomore,” says Coleman. “I was told that Lincoln High finished first in every competition we were in from 1978 on. And then in my senior year, we happened to finish second in one. That was something. We had cats that had been in the band before coming home from college to talk to us. ‘You got second? What’s going on?’ they said!”
Coleman and Suggs agree that the lessons they learned from their time with the Lincoln High band under Carter’s tutoring proved invaluable as they moved on to college and then to professional careers in music.
“We learned discipline,” Coleman said. “We learned to be on time. To commit to practicing. And to make sure you always prepared yourself for every single performance.”
“That was essential stuff, and I learned that it was the only way to do things if you were serious about your approach to music – or to anything in life. Even after you graduated, if he found out you were late for a gig, you would get a phone call from him. ‘What you doin’, son?,’ he’d say.”
“Still today, if I’m having a problem, I know he’s still the guy I can call and talk to,” Suggs said. “And if the word gets to him, he calls you first. He also holds us all responsible to talk to other musicians from Lincoln. It’s really all one big family with everyone who was in the Lincoln band under Mr. Carter.”
“We were so blessed to have him, man!,” Coleman said.
Cruising to NYC
After Suggs graduated from Lincoln in 1989, he attended Jackson State University in Mississippi on a music scholarship along with other Lincoln High band alumni such as trumpet player Russell Gunn.
Colman graduated in 1991 and attended Shaw University in Raleigh, N.C., on a music scholarship.
But the two friends stayed in touch, and their musical paths came together again – first on cruise ships in the Caribbean, then on the New York City jazz scene.
“I was about to come home for summer after my first year at Jackson State,” Suggs said. “And a friend who was a saxophone player asked me if I wanted a summer job playing music and gave me a number to call at Carnival Cruise Lines. I played for 13 weeks that summer, and eventually began doing it full-time.
“Then in 1995, I found out they needed a drummer on the ship I was going to be on. I told them, ‘I know a cat!’ I knew Montez could handle it, and he started playing on the cruises, too.”
“That’s when we really had a chance to hang out and jell musically, when we were both on the cruise lines,” Coleman said. “And after the cruise thing was over, I came back to St. Louis. But Tony and I both ended up in New York in 2000.”
At the end of 1999, Suggs was hired to become the pianist in the Count Basie Orchestra – a position he had wanted ever since sitting in with the band at Jackson State in 1991. After joining the Basie band, Suggs decided to relocate to New York. And soon Coleman was there as well – sharing an apartment with Suggs in Brooklyn.
“I was blessed to be in association with Rich McDonnell, who has started the MAXJAZZ label in St. Louis,” Coleman said. “I was working as sideman for a lot of MAXJAZZ artists, and I was doing some recording sessions in New York with Bruce Barth, who was producing a lot of those recordings at his studio there.
“I ended up moving to New York in June 2000. And we were both there sharing a place until 2004. It turned out to be a great way to make other connections.”
Those connections led to tours with Barth, then Coleman had the chance to record with saxophonist Bobby Watson in 2002, which eventually led to a long-term position of drummer in famed trumpeter Roy Hargrove’s band.
Coleman recently left Hargrove’s group, and now plays regularly with legendary pianist McCoy Tyner.
He also decided to return to East St. Louis to live, where he balances touring and area performances with home life with his wife and children.
Suggs left his position as pianist for the Basie Orchestra in late 2011 and had moved to Japan in 2008 after getting married. He works regularly at the Blue Note club in Tokyo, and recently released two CDs; “Black Potatoes,” a group recording, and “Black Liqueur,” a solo project. Suggs first CD in his “Black” series, “Blackberries,” also features Coleman.
Suggs returns from Japan to visit friends and family in St. Louis at least once a year. And his current visit inspired Coleman to try and set up a concert featuring both he and his longtime friend.
“I knew that Tony was going to be in town, so I tried to find venues where we could play, but nothing happened,” explains Coleman. “Finally, I called Mitch at the Bistro in Grand Center (home of the Jazz at the Bistro concert series) and found out that they had Sunday, Nov. 24 open. So we decided to rent the Bistro and do a show.”
Although putting up the funds to rent the Bistro, provide sound and instruments for their own concert and sell tickets on their own was a leap of faith for Coleman and Suggs, they appear to have made the right choice.
“It’s turned out to be great,” says Coleman. “We have officially sold out the 7 p.m. concert, so as we’re adding a second concert Sunday at 9 p.m. It’s going to be a fun night of music, and I hope we can get people to come out for the second show to hear us play with Eric and Jahmal. Those guys are both great musicians!”