After several decades of playing them, you’d think Coleman Woodson Jr. might have worn out some of his saxophones, flutes and other instruments. But it turns out they’re a lot like people. Give them care and kindness, and they can make brilliant contributions for many years to come.
“I haven’t gone through a lot of instruments,” the Floyd Middle Magnet School music teacher said with a smile. “I have several horns because I bought them for kids to use. However, my personal horns, I’ve still got the ones that I grew up with.”
A Selma native and Montgomery resident, Woodson Jr. has been a source of love and support to those around him — as a husband and father, a teacher, a musician and musical activist, a veteran, and even a civil rights foot soldier. It’s for all of those reasons that he is being honored by the Advertiser as September’s Community Hero.
“If we had more people like that in the world, it would be a better place for everyone,” said Bernard McKenzie, a friend who’s a native of Miami, Fla. He’s thought of Woodson as a brother since they met at Alabama State University in the ’70s. McKenzie is also a musician, a trombone player, and the two of them played for decades in the Oasis II band.
“He loves what he does, as far as helping the kids and being able to teach them music,” McKenzie said. “That’s been his life.”
Floyd Middle Magnet is a place where Woodson captures students’ imaginations and offers life lessons they’ll carry forward, whether or not they chose to become musicians.
“He’s very adamant about passing it on and keeping the spirit of music alive,” said Woodson’s son, Coleman Woodson III, who is also a musician. “He’s really molding this young generation into some great, great, great people.”
Floyd Middle Magnet’s principal Courtney Giles agrees.
“He goes beyond what is asked during the school day,” she said. “He has student rehearsals on the weekend. He actually teaches students how to play a variety of instruments. He incorporates other subjects into his activities with students. Lots of discipline.
“The students, it’s almost like they have a different level of respect for him. He actually exemplifies the way young men are to behave. He re-enforces the importance of being poised, being punctual, being neat in appearance. And even when they’re speaking, knowing what you’re going to say and how to say it.”
Woodson has been a music teacher for 25 years, long enough that several of his early students have become professional musicians themselves. Some have even played with him at gigs.
His classes are so popular that Giles said Floyd Middle Magnet had to change its school schedule a little so students can also participate in other activities.
“If you give them a choice, they’re not going to move from band,” Giles said.
At 150 to 200 students per school year, Giles said Woodson’s students from throughout his career would number into thousands.
“He’s been a silent legend here in Montgomery,” said Montgomery Downtown Business Association president Jonathan Avant, a fellow jazz musician. “He’s been not only educating generations and generations of musicians, but he’s also been very active on the jazz scene here.”
Avant was a teenager when he met Woodson Jr. “He was one of the cats out there,” Avant said. “I saw him play before I knew he was even a band director.”
Avant said said you can hear education flowing out of Woodson’s horn during performances. “It’s almost like he’s teaching while he’s still playing,” Avant said.
Longtime friend and occasional bandmate Tom Sellers has known Woodson Jr. since the late ‘70s. They’d bump into each other while playing the same venues.
“He lives and breathes (music), not only for him but for other folks around him,” Sellers said.
Woodson Jr. and wife, Deloris, have been married for 55 years and raised two children in music — Woodson III of Montgomery and his older sister Kimberly, who lives in Atlanta. Seeing Kimberly take piano lessons is what inspired her brother to want to learn when he was just a toddler.
“From my earliest memories, I watched (my dad) pour his heart and soul into every note he played, and that dedication soon became a part of me,” Kimberly said, adding that she credits her father with instilling in her a deep appreciation for the arts.
“My father is not just a community leader and teacher to many, but he has also been my greatest source of wisdom about life,” Kimberly said. “Through his actions and guidance, he has shown me the true essence of servant leadership and the importance of giving back to one’s community. His dedication to helping others and his commitment to making a positive impact on the lives of those around him have left an indelible mark on me.”
After 37 years of teaching at several schools, Deloris retired from E.D. Nixon Elementary in Montgomery. She’s got music talent also — Deloris used to play the xylophone.
Deloris has a special tale of musical healing. You know all those horns Woodson cares for? It turns out they may have helped him recover from a life-threatening illness.
“Coleman had a heart attack back 20 years ago,” she said. “He didn’t need the respirator after he got out of intensive care. He was telling them no. He wanted me to bring his saxophone… He’d use the saxophone to breathe.”
To see Woodson today, it’s hard to imagine that he had a tough time breaking into the world of education. He worked 27 years at Gayfers Department Store before landing a music teacher position, since school band directors of the day would stick around for decades.
From peaceful music life to arrests in the name of equality
Woodson was born and raised in pre-civil rights era Selma, but said the area was kind of insulated and supportive for a young Black kid.
“The Black neighborhood had everything we needed — stores, restaurants, everything,” he said.
Woodson had a big family, three brothers and a sister — all of whom played music. “I’m the oldest of all of us. My sister is the youngest,” he said.
In the 7th grade, Woodson started trying music as a challenge. He’d developed an interest after listening to his parents, and their music collection, which included jazz and pop from artists like Nancy Wilson, Louis Armstrong, and Miles Davis.
“I used to see my dad sit down at the piano and play boogie woogie and blues,” Woodson said. “That was quite unusual for my father. He wasn’t trained in music. He was an auto mechanic by trade. We owned our own business.”
While you’re likely to see Woodson with a saxophone these days, that was an instrument he picked up in college. Early on in grade school, it was the trumpet that called him.
“I can remember walking to school with my trumpet, my lunch and my books every day,” Woodson said.
By 15, he’d started playing with bands, which were plentiful in Selma. “For some reason, Selma really was a mecca for musicians,” Woodson said.
In the following years, that community bubble that kept the Black community safe seemed to pop.
Coleman Woodson Jr.
“The civil rights movement came along and made us aware of particulars, like the voting rights situation that we were lacking in, and the integration of schools,” he said. “We all believed that there was equal but separate stuff. We found out later that separate was there, but equal wasn’t. We had to do something about that and make that change.”
In the 11th grade, Woodson and others would leave school to play a part in the demonstrations and marches. He joined the Dallas County Youth League of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
“My role was transportation. I moved a lot of people from different spots,” he said. “When people came to town, I would take them from one church to the next, or whatever event that they needed to do. I did have the opportunity to drive Dr. Martin Luther King to different locations.”
Yes, there were quite a few times when Woodson was arrested for his efforts.
“I went to jail several times for marching,” he said. “A lot of times, they would march us right into the jail. I was in jail two or three days, and they’d let us out. We’d go back to the church where the center of activities were, rewind and go back and do whatever mission they sent us on.”
During the 1965 voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery, he’d start off marching and then help transport journalists to one city or the other.
“Then I’d go back and rejoin the march and walk a little bit farther,” Woodson Jr. said.
College and Army life
In college, Woodson majored in music with a goal of becoming a middle school music teacher. He wanted to give other kids a more solid background in music fundamentals than he had at their age.
“I always vowed that I would teach middle school students, so I could give them a great beginning in music,” he said.
While attending Selma University, he met his future wife, Deloris.
“I was kind of a rowdy guy, and she really calmed me down and gave me a chance,” he said. “I had to prove to her that I could be a calm person. Then she allowed me to talk with her, which was really, really special to me. We were meant to be.”
Future plans took a detour that could have led him to deployment. At 24, he was drafted into the Army, and was at risk of being sent to the Vietnam War. He trained as a Cobra helicopter mechanic, but really wanted to get into the Army band.
“I had talked with majors and colonels, and all of them denied me,” he said.
While his unit was sent to Vietnam, Woodson didn’t get orders to go. He remained in Virginia, before being transferred to Fort Louis, Wash. That’s where an E5 sergeant arranged for him to meet the band and its director, who auditioned him.
“(The director) said, ‘Don’t go anywhere. I’m going to send for your stuff,’” Woodson Jr. said.
He stayed in the Army for three years. “When I got out, my wife wanted the more traditional life,” Woodson said. “She was a teacher at the time. I got out of the band, but I found out that Montgomery had the Alabama National Guard Band. The 151st Army Band was stationed right here.”
The band’s director was from Selma, and so were several of the band members. Of course, Woodson joined them in the Alabama National Guard and would remain in the band for 28 years until he retired.
Like his father, Woodson III joined the Army National Guard Band, and they played together.
“We were one of the top-notch bands in the military, reserve or regular,” he said.
Where you can see Woodson play
Along with Woodson’s private gigs these days, he, his son and Benjamin F. Weldon have a trio for Wednesday night jazz shows in Montgomery at Wishbone Café, 6-9 p.m. The trio also plays at KimberLia’s in Prattville on the first Sunday of each month, 11 a.m.-2 p.m.
Sundays at St. Jude Catholic Church, where his family are members, are also special.
“That’s a real joy. I get to play with the St. Jude Choir and the pianist there, and I get to do several solos,” he said. “It’s just a lot of fun serving the Lord musically.”
Woodson is president of the Alabama Jazz and Blues Federation, which has been mostly inactive since the pandemic. He and others still gather occasionally to perform under the group’s name.
“I wish that I was one of the kids in his band, so that I could learn from him during the week and then go see him play at night or during the weekend,” Avant said.
Do you know a Community Hero?
To nominate someone for Community Heroes Montgomery, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Please specify which category you are nominating for and your contact information.
Montgomery Advertiser reporter Shannon Heupel covers things to do in the River Region. Contact him at email@example.com.