All Hail Queen Cora, Houston's Drummer to Pop Royalty

L-R: Nicholas Johnson (bass); Cora Coleman-Dunham (drums); Britney Bloom (keys); Jordan Donald (sax)
L-R: Nicholas Johnson (bass); Cora Coleman-Dunham (drums); Britney Bloom (keys); Jordan Donald (sax)
Photo courtesy of Jordan Donald

To call longtime Prince collaborator, current Beyonce drummer and Houston native Cora Coleman-Dunham exceptional is to make too little of the word. In less than 35 years, Coleman-Dunham, who is married to Prince bassist Josh Dunham, has already achieved more than most do in a lifetime.

Coleman-Dunham styles herself as Queen Cora these days -- see the crowns painted on her drum kit -- and will provide the backbeat for Wednesday night's funk/jazz performance by saxophonist Jordan "Chili Sauce" Donald at Under the Volcano just as she did in February when Donald, a former member of the Joe Sample Select Orchestra, made his debut at the Rice Village bar.

Coleman-Dunham took up percussion in ninth grade, found her way to the trap kit by her junior year, and was groomed under the tutelage of William Portis in the storied music program at Kashmere High School. As class valedictorian in 1998, she says she "could've gone anywhere" but chose Howard University in Washington, D. C.

"My mom passed a month before I graduated," she recalls. "My sister and I did a tour of colleges and looked at a bunch of schools, and I eventually decided I needed to get out of here to regroup and try to get over my mom's passing. Howard had such a great program and offered me several scholarships.

"They also offered private instruction by some highly respected drummers and that was a big part of my choosing Howard," adds Coleman-Dunham. "I also knew Chris Dave had gone to Howard, and look how he's turned out."

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Dave is currently the drummer for D'Angelo, and was part of the Grammy-winning Robert Glasper Experiment.

"Yeah, Chris had gone to Howard and went through basically the same musical performance program I got into," Coleman-Dunham explains. 'I got to study with Grady Tate as one of my private-lesson instructors. That was an education, having Grady and these widely recognized touring drummers showing me how. Grady was with Quincy Jones for years and in the Tonight Show Band for six years, that's the kind of experienced people I had the opportunity to learn the craft from."

She entered Howard as a computer science major, but switched at mid-term to music performance. She quickly began to land paying gigs with Washington Ballet, the Washington Symphony, and the American University Orchestra.

"You're expected to play a lot if you're in the program at Howard," she explains. "I started getting gigs and getting paid and I thought 'you know, I just might be able to have a career in this.' And I loved playing."

Meanwhile, she was catching gigs with jazz bands like Yusef Lateef, Donald Byrd and Larry Ridley.

"That was another great thing about Howard, we were pretty much taught to be musicians, not a certain kind of musician," she laughs. "Play the gig whatever it is."

After college, she relocated to Los Angeles and began playing with guitarist Phil Upchurch. She also won Guitar Center's annual drum-off competition in 2003 and continued gigging with a variety of L.A. jazz and blues players. In November 2004, Prince saw her play with keyboardist Frank McComb and was sufficiently impressed that he sent her a trap kit for Christmas.

In early 2005 she was invited to join a band Prince put together to play his famous "3121" house parties. The band was also formed with the idea of backing up His Royal Badness' protégé Tamar. Beginning in 2006, she became Prince's primary drummer, for both live shows and albums. She played on 3121, Planet Earth, Indigo Nights, and Lotusflow3r. Prince and the New Power Generation also performed one of her compositions, "Mind in 7."

So given all the craziness and drama that is purported to go on with Prince, how does Coleman-Dunham feel about her experience with him?

"Josh and I have had nothing but the greatest time being associated with Prince's organization," says the Queen. "He is so smart and so unbelievably talented. I think some of the people who maybe get let go for whatever reason tend to go negative about it, probably because of some problem that's their own, not his, like being late for gigs or rehearsals, some drama or other that's really their own rather than something he did."

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So how do you know if you're in the band or out?

"He's very good about planning, about making contact and saying what the plan is and can you commit to that," she explains. "He's also very good about telling you what he wants and he's always just been the kindest to me.

"No, they don't walk up and hand you a membership card or anything and say now you're in the band," she laughs. "But Josh and I played pretty constantly with him for 5 and a half years, and we settled in nicely and we had a very pleasant relationship. Prince figures out what he needs for a project and who he wants for a particular part of that and he just does it, makes it happen. He's just one of the smartest, most motivated people I've ever met."

Coleman-Dunham also credits Prince with instilling some business savvy in her.

"Josh and I are so much more professional than when we started with him," she observes. "After watching how he does it, we're both better at the business side of things now. He just knows so much, you get a deep education about music and the music business if you pay attention."

"Look at how he's handled the record labels or just refused to be told what to do by them, he's a real pioneer in showing us all how to be independent, to put the art ahead of the money," continues Coleman-Dunham.

"And then there's the technical side of him, he's so up on all that," she says. "We can be in the studio working, and he can go in the control room and slide the engineer over and it may take him a while, but eventually he will get exactly the sound that he wants because he has such a knowledge about frequencies and electronics. It's uncanny to watch him in the engineer or producer role.

"Then above and beyond all that, think about the education I've gotten that comes from just being there and watching the man create," she continues. "To be able to be in that room and collaborate, to fill a role he needs filled to make his musical vision come true, that's strong stuff."

"Then there's the gig side of the equation. You play some huge gigs with him, like the Super Bowl gig we did," she says. "Sometimes I walk out there and think, 'Look at all those people' or I have some doubt about something I need to do during the gig. But Prince is the one who first told me you have to try to see yourself outside of yourself, to try to see yourself the way the audience sees you.

"Jordan and I were just talking today about the need to command the space where you are, to command it," Coleman-Dunham explains. "That's something Prince taught me, get rid of your doubts and command your space."

So what is the thought process before walking out onstage at huge Prince or Beyonce gigs?

"For me, I just always tell myself to stay prayerful, to stay grateful, and to stay down to earth and keep things in perspective."

Note: this article has been altered after publication to correct the photo credit.

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