Steve Coleman grew up on the South Side of Chicago and began playing the alto sax at the age of fourteen. After two years at Illinois Wesleyan University, Coleman transferred to the Chicago Music College in downtown Chicago in order to concentrate on Chicago's musical nightlife, and work on his own sound.
In 1978, he moved to New York City, where he played on the street and in tiny clubs, honing his sound with a group that would evolve into Steve Coleman and Five Elements. Coleman played in the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis big band, Slide Hampton's big band, Sam Riversí Studio Rivbea Orchestra, and briefly in Cecil Taylor's big band.
From 1985 to 1989, he recorded his first album and spent most of his time touring in Europe, averaging about fifty concerts a year.
In 2000, he stopped performing and recording and traveled extensively, doing research as an associate Professor at Cal Berkeley. He considers himself a teacher, passing down his knowledge to a new generation of performers.