Cora Coleman-Dunham: Dancing Queen
It’s the most important gig of your life performing with one of the greatest R&B artists of all time at the Super Bowl half-time show. Thousands of cheering fans in the stadium and millions more are watching you at home. Your palms are covered in sweat. Your heart is racing. “Don’t rush the groove,” you tell yourself. Pay attention to the track you and Prince cut the past week, and play it safe. Take a deep breath as the director cues you to count off the song. It’s the biggest moment of your life, after all, right?
Queen Cora Coleman (neé, Cora Coleman-Dunham) played the 2005 half-time show with Prince, but she doesn’t namedrop that as her most significant game-changing moment. Where most musicians would count performing with a true superstar in front of an audience numbering in the millions as the moment where they knew they had finally arrived and realized their dreams (she recorded four albums with the mighty R&B maistro: Te Amo Corazon, 3121, Planet Earth, and Lotus Flower), for Coleman, it was a smaller venue that made all the difference in her ever-evolving career.
“We were playing the Rio Hotel in Las Vegas at Prince’s 3121 room,” Coleman explains. “It really was a lot to process taking on the drum chair with Prince. We did a run of five months at the 3121 club, doing main shows and after shows. It was really cool and I got a chance to open up a lot. Prince and I got to know each other musically and I began to understand how he hears drums and rhythms. Prince is one for looks. He will give you a look, like ’Man!’ Or on the mike he will be very engaged with his audience, looking at me and saying to the audience, ’Do you all hear that?!’ That was really great.”
Currently working with James Brown alumnus and R&B sax master Maceo Parker and she-who-goes-by-one-name: Beyoncé, Quee Cora Coleman has earned her stripes through years helming one of the nation’s great university marching bands; jamming with fellow R&B drumming heavy weights on her DVD, Kick Snare Hat: The Superstars Of Hip-Hop And R&B Drumming; educating kids in the facts of life; and generally being a major badass, as exemplified during her 2002 win of the perennial Guitar Center Drum-Off. Though she didn’t take it lightly, the competition wasn’t even close. Queen Cora’s main motivation?
“I needed a car,” she laughs. “My musical approach went back to my classical training. I knew I would do an A-B-A form. I had a concept in mind. I didn’t think, ’After 16 measures I will do this or that specifically.’ I just knew I’d start with sticks then move to brushes then to mallets, then with mallets I played different tonal things with the snare off, then tuned the tom up and down for effects, then moved back to sticks and played different styles – all the things in my experience: funk and odd meters, rock stuff. I just remember bringing variety to my playing and making sure that I established consistency with my tempo.”
Coleman competed at five separate Drum-Offs, from Houston to L.A. All the while she prayed, “Lord, I need this car more than the other drummers do!” When your drumming speaks for itself you don’t sweat the small stuff.
“And sure enough,” she continues, “my name was called. Man! This is so cool! I got a 2003 Jeep Liberty, and I still have it. And a Yamaha kit, a V-Drums kit, a Pork Pie snare, and Pro-Mark sticks with my name on them.”
Pocketful Of Rhythms
Fast forward ten years and Queen Cora Coleman is working hard, playing hard, and hatching more plans and projects than your average movie mogul. Her accomplishments go beyond drumming, but let’s start there: a full tour schedule with Beyoncé and Maceo Parker (she appears on his latest album, Soul Classics); Kick Snare Hat, a DVD exemplifying groove dynamics with hip-hop heavy hitters Aaron Spears, Nisan Stewart, and Gerald Heyward; Who Am I? and G.A.G.U. Ultimate Life Guide For Youth, books guiding students through life’s ups and downs; and her status as the first woman to lead the powerful Howard University Thunder Machine marching section. In-the-works projects include a TV show (Real American Music Show); an instrument-manufacturing company with her bassist husband, Jeff Dunham (Dunham Custom Designs Basses); a production company (Dunham & Dunham Productions); a documentary film (as Creative Consultant for soul star Ledisi); and a yearly awards-show drumming gig (Black Girls Rock Awards). She’s a multitalented, multithreat superstar-in-the-making, but the groove still reigns supreme for Queen Cora.
“The pocket is my job. All the other stuff is extra. That’s definitely important for drummers to understand. Your job is to keep time. All the fun and tricks and throwing the sticks and the stage presence is what comes after you’ve done your job. Then everybody can have fun when we know what the groove is, including the audience.”
Coleman has played all manner of groove machinations, from hip-hop to rock to R&B to jazz to marching-band blowouts. How does she gauge where to place the beat within the groove amid the demands of the artist and the music at hand? And how does that groove placement differ within the various artists’ music?
“Maceo and Prince both definitely draw from James Brown as an influence and an inspiration,” she explains. “They both can be very spontaneous. The one thing that is really important in approaching the groove is to be settled in what the groove is. So wherever it goes, whether it stops on the 1 – boom! – you have to be settled in the groove so the time doesn’t shift and the groove doesn’t change and 1 is just always there. Even if you’re just playing around 1 and playing off it and coming back on the & or hitting the 2. With Prince, there are times where it definitely was about being on the beat and driving and pushing the band. Then, with Maceo, there are times where it’s really settled, like ’Funky Good Time’; that’s a shuffle but you can’t push it so hard to where it feels too fast. It all depends on the song.”