“Elmer Coles playin’ here t’night?”
by J. Gabrielle
‘Mac Daddy’ and I are seated outside Blues BBQ in downtown Roanoke, and many others arrive, mostly in pairs. The lyrical question of the moment on the sidewalk is, “Elmer Coles playin’ here t’night?”
Mr. Coles is warmly approachable. For this I am grateful. Impressed with his wild trumpeting as well as his genuine smile, he’s been on my “radar”.
Elmer Coles was ten when he caught music fever at the Christmas Parade in Roanoke. Band director/educator Joe Finley led the renowned 101-piece Addison High School Marching Band. A move called “The Freeze” inspired Coles. Roanoke Times columnist Robert Samuels wrote in 1994, “When Finley signaled his band, the students’ quick movements would stop immediately, staying in the same position for however long he wanted.” Imagine that! Winter. Christmas. The outrageously good, loud, dancing, performing, ‘ahead-of-their-time’ marching band STOPS…..and downtown falls silent…frozen in a moment. 10….20…..30 seconds… and BAM the band is back in motion and sound! I’ve got the ‘fever’ now too, and I think I understand a little more about jazz and playing SPACES in music.
By thirteen, he was performing professionally with regional legends. Jimmy Lewis, Sonny Womack, Reverend Woodrow Walker, Harvey Lee Jones: Coles performed with The Chevys, The Divots, and The Premiers. “They schooled me to the age of sixteen”, says Coles. “Then I got married at seventeen and had a baby. I have a 44 year-old daughter and a 10 year-old grandson”.
It was off to Cleveland in 1968 to perform with keyboardist Cedric Lawson, who went on to play with Miles Davis. Lawson is the son of famed Roanoke Civil Rights lawyer Reuben Lawson (who helped integrate the school systems in Southwest Virginia). Coles says that he and Cedric “still trade secrets”. Next, to Boston and ‘hangin’ out with Harvey Mason. New England Conservatory launched a jazz program and Coles received a scholarship. Then, he hit the road.
The Stylistics were one of the best-known Philadelphia soul groups of the 70’s. They are known for R&B hits “You Are Everything”, “I’m Stone in Love with You”, and more. Coles toured with them for three years, working with songwriter Thom Bell. Taking a hiatus from the band, he entered the jazz scene working with Charles Earland from the Mingus band, recording “Live at the Lighthouse”. “But”, Cole murmurs, “there was a little too much drama with the jazz behind the scenes.” He returned to the Stylistics for a bit, then moved to D.C. Elmer earned a certificate for electronics and ran a consulting company for fifteen years. He got studio hits the whole time. “The phone just never stopped ringing!” he smiles.
About ’97, his mother’s illness had him transitioning back to Roanoke. He quickly got back to work with Ronnie Law, William Penn, James Pace, and The Domino Band. More recently, he has worked with The Elderly Brothers and now, The Elmer Coles Funktet! The latter has been a staple at Blues BBQ on Wednesdays for a couple of years. Coles calls this creation, “very satisfying. A little loud, a little fiery.” On this night, Cameron McLaughlin sits in on bass for vacationing Bernard Hairston. McLaughlin calls Coles “the greatest trumpet player on earth!” It’s guitarist Charlie Hughs’ first band, but performing with Coles has “completely changed my playing,” he says.
It’s the middle of the first set, and Coles announces to the young cats, “It’s time for some rock-n-roll!” Carlos Aranguren sets the groove on drums. Guitarist Greg Ayers mouths to Elmer, “I LIKE THAT!” Elmer just nods, “Yeah!” and the Funktet is playing The Stones’ “Miss You”. Carlos is pretty sure Coles has played with Miles Davis and James Brown. What he appreciates is the way “in the jazz tradition, he grabs the young cats and guides them to find their own sound.”
Keyboardist Dave Ferguson is on keys now. Elmer Coles stands on the bar floor facing the namesake band he’s built. Like a proud, hard-working man in front of a finely-worked garden, Elmer Coles smiles the smile of a satisfied man. Indeed, “Elmer Coles’ playin’ here t’night!”
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