Jazz experimenter Ornette Coleman finds the eternal

by John Kruth

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Ornette Coleman

I’d finally done it. Somehow I managed to scrape together the loot, eighty-some bucks to buy the Ornette Coleman box set Beauty Is a Rare Thing and was on my way home, gazing at the coveted object in my hands, clutching it possessively, like my dog with his rawhide chew, on the lookout for anyone who’d try to suddenly jerk it free from my grasp. So I strolled down the sidewalk, grateful to the universe, for, at that juncture in my life, eighty dollars was tantamount to approximately one quarter of my entire holdings in the world. There I was, cradling the box in my hands, like a true believer with the Bible. When I got home, I called my pals, not to make them jealous, but to share the wealth. But no one cared. A detached “Oh, cool” was about all their excitement could muster. So I listened to the whole thing—six hours—by myself.

 

Originally published as “Sound Advice” in Wax Poetics Issue 22, April 2007

 

Most of my girlfriends and many of my closest friends, musicians among them, could never relate to Ornette’s music. I usually go to his concerts alone (as has been the case with Ravi Shankar). I’ve considered getting new friends but have come to the realization that certain things are best pursued as solo interests. For most folks, Coleman’s concept of harmolodics is “a bit brisk,” as Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson once told me. So, these days, I simply enjoy the music, instead of proselytizing and annoying those in my orbit. It rarely converts those that can’t be bothered to listen, and, besides, I get paid for that sort of enlightenment work as a music professor.

The revolutionary intellectual theory of harmolodics is purely democratic in its truest sense. Every instrument is equal. There is no sonic hierarchy or caste system. No one is designated to playing support or the outfield. Its roots can be found in early New Orleans improvisational ensembles with the counterpoint of wailing cornets, tailgating trombones, and slippery licorice sticks. Coleman’s theory, which first appeared in print in the liner notes of 1972’s Skies of America, is comprised of one part harmony, one part motion, one part melody.

The great bassist/composer Charles Mingus once referred to Coleman as a “calypso player.” And although he might have meant it as a slight, he had a point. If the listener could locate that place inside themselves where playfulness once romped freely, and drop the overbearing process of discursive analysis that bricks up their windows and doors of perception (as William Blake put it), they’d hear his music for what it is—the crazy carnival of the soul. So just give it up and let Coleman’s joyful sound (from the original quartet to the jagged funk of Prime Time to the sonic marmalade of Tone Dialing) wash over you, and you’re bound to experience the full effect of his music, which is not only “brisk” but ultimately refreshing.

There was a feeling of cautious optimism in the air as I strolled down the sidewalk to Ornette’s midtown loft. It was November 8, 2006, the day after the Democrats swept the midterm election, and the day of the surprise resignation of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. We sat in a large open loft, sparsely decorated with a colorful African tapestry and the Dorothy Baer painting of the man with two faces that adorned the cover of Coleman’s 1977 release Dancing in Your Head. Also hard to miss are a pair of life-size portraits of Geronimo (an inspiration to him throughout his many years of struggle as a musician) as well as a wall-sized print of Eddie Adams’s disturbing photograph of a South Vietnamese police chief executing a member of the Vietcong. (“Look,” Ornette said gently, pointing at the image of Lt. Colonel Nguyen Ngoc Loan, “he smiled when he did it!”)

Coleman spoke thoughtfully, barely whispering at times as he occasionally tugged at his lower lip. He was at once gentle and warm-hearted but a bit heady. Between the metaphysics and the metaphors, I found the air getting a bit thin as we ascended the dizzying heights of harmolodic theory and unraveled the riddle of existence.

Joining us was baritone saxophonist James Jordan, Ornette’s jovial cousin from Fort Worth, who has played and collaborated with him since the early days.

King Curtis, David “Fathead” Newman, Prince Lasha, Dewey Redman, and yourself all came from Fort Worth, Texas. What is it about that place that produced so many great saxophonists? 

Well, first of all, I think their mothers did it. Like my mother did. But Fort Worth is where the West began. It was a really open city. Everyone traveling to California, or on their way to Mexico, all came through there—people of all different nationalities. Some people, when they reached Fort Worth, they don’t go nowhere. There were all kinds of musicians there. When I grew up, I really liked Charlie Parker, but there were guys from there like Red Connors who played like John Coltrane and Ben Martin that I liked better than Charlie Parker.

Fathead Newman says there were a lot of great musicians from the Dallas/Fort Worth area that no one’s ever heard of.

That’s true. Believe me, I know it from experience.

Did you ever see Bird play live? 

Yes, I saw Charlie Parker in L.A. in the ’40s. He was playing standards. But he played them fine. Then he just walked away. I think he and John Coltrane had the most influence on instrumental music in modern jazz. But me, I was always trying to find the idea, not the melody. I never believed that the idea was the melody. I believed the idea was only the idea. I still think that way. Coltrane studied with me for a while until one day he wrote me a note that said, “I found it.”

Ideas are frightening. Suddenly, Coltrane wasn’t playing those nice ballads anymore, and it scared a lot of people. Speaking of Coltrane, who had signed to Atlantic Records before you, how did your relationship with Atlantic begin?

[Pianist] John Lewis [of the Modern Jazz Quartet] had a mature relationship with Nesuhi [Ertegun]. Nesuhi never asked me about anything musically or directed me. He just recorded the music. I made about five or six records for them. I don’t like to bad-mouth anybody, but I didn’t make very much money there. In jazz, there’s not a lot of opportunity for success. The records were more like advertisements, to let people know what you were doing. It’s not really for making money.

Ornette Coleman

In recent years, you’ve recorded for independent labels. The new album, Sound Grammar, is on a new label that shares the same name. 

I’ve been trying to stay in business with sound, and I’ve discovered that if I give everything away I can stay in business forever. [laughs] But today there’s no reason, there’s nothing that can keep someone from materializing whatever they conceive of.

A lot of people don’t like the word “jazz.” They feel it’s derogatory or it doesn’t accurately describe their music or in some cases it’s even a way of segregating the music. Rahsaan Roland Kirk called the music “Black Classical Music.” Yusef Lateef prefers the term “Autophysiopsychic Music” and you developed “Harmolodics.”

In the ’60s and ’70s, the frequencies were changing, and musicians were trying to get away from different styles like rock, jazz, and funk. I never thought about styles. There’s no style in my head. I only think in terms of musical ideas. I’m still thinking about “Where’s the idea?” now, in 2006.

What inspires your ideas and concepts?

The brain doesn’t have imperfections. There’s always something that someone is thinking that jars the situation, but you can’t participate in it until you find out what his goal is or how it’s constructed to understand the form that it exists in, and obviously sound doesn’t have any beginning.

The band on your most recent album, Sound Grammar, features two bassists, Greg Cohen and Tony Falanga. Last June at Carnegie Hall, you added a third bass player, Al McDowell on electric bass guitar, to the group. Are you elaborating on earlier ideas that began with the trio of sax, bass, and drums at the Golden Circle concerts (recorded live in Stockholm in 1965 and released by Blue Note)?

No, no. I never hire any specific combination of instruments to play with me. When someone wants to study with me and asks to play with me, I always let them. That’s why I’ve had most of the experiences I’ve had. When Pharaoh Sanders started playing, he played more ideas on his horn than anything else. Improvising is really about playing ideas, and ideas don’t have any parents. What is an idea but an idea? The idea can inspire or challenge. Sound is eternal, but the name of the note is not the sound. It’s just a title, like my name doesn’t make me another race. It’s kind of like that. I guess every sound has a meaning.

In Indian music, each note of the scale is related to a sound in nature, whether it’s the wind or water or the sound of an elephant trumpeting. Do you relate to that system?

All systems, like rhythm and blues or bebop, still use all the same notes. You have different grammar in sound and different grammar in language. The amazing thing about grammar is that it’s a mental idea that has less questions and no answers. If you had to spell to talk, nobody would be talking! [laughs] Let’s face it, the English language is the most intelligent but the most fucked-up language at the same time. Since the races on the planet don’t respect any particular sound, you can curse in any language. [laughs] But improvised music doesn’t have any class or caste system. Most people use systems to expand their image and make some coinage doing it. They find a thing that hits, and they package it.

Yes, that’s what Yusef Lateef calls “the commodification of emotions.” All of your drummers, from Billy Higgins and Ed Blackwell to his son Denardo, have had an idiosyncratic approach towards rhythm.

I have always wanted to have more rhythm. Rhythm doesn’t have any parents and doesn’t have a style either. It just changes everything that touches it equally. You can’t dominate rhythm. Some call it the upbeat or the downbeat, but you either have to find a way to relate to it or let it pass.

While harmolodics allows musicians an incredible amount of freedom, it still has some boundaries, which are defined by your compositions. 

When I say harmolodic or sound grammar, I think about how many families speak a different language with the same meaning. They’re not saying anything different, but they use different sounds to relate with each other. Imagine, what is sound? It’s not air. It’s a sound! There’s no definition for it. It’s something that you bump into and then hear. Some force has got to stop it before it makes a sound. It’s the closest thing to what we believe in when we say God. It’s the closest evidence of God. You can’t see it. You can’t destroy it. It destroys itself when it leaves and becomes something else. Let’s put it this way, most people look for and try to relate to truth in their environment. So, the most true and advanced thing that I can think of is to open more eternity for humanity.

Yes, that’s what you do. 

I think religion plays a great role in all of that.

It’s not easy for some people to handle that level of intensity. Every time I’ve seen you play, part of the crowd gets up and walks out. It’s almost as if it wouldn’t be an Ornette Coleman concert if everyone understood the music. Years ago, Jean-Phillipe Allard of Polygram Records in France said he thought the world had finally caught up with you. Is that the case? Has the world caught up to you yet?

I’d like to know which world are you talking about. [laughs] No one really knows what the quality of being human actually is. Music has a quality to it that no other sound actually has. But it’s not always appreciated. For instance, I have seen tap dancers that had more of a horn player’s sound. The horn players couldn’t keep up with them. [taps his feet]

It’s a phenomenal art form that sadly has become lost. I wanted to ask you about your violin playing…

Oh Lord! [laughs]

Are you left-handed or was this a deliberate decision on your part to play the instrument differently from everyone else?

I’m left-handed, yes. In Western music, all the instruments have a tempered scale which they think is going to support everything in sound, which it’s not. The C is the violin, B-sharp is the trumpet, the bass is the F instrument and the reeds are in E-sharp. But the only reason you need a key is to lock your house when you go out. [laughs]

Have you heard any music lately that inspires you?

A cantor named Joseph Rosenblatt. You should listen to him.

[Leave it to Coleman to both surprise and educate with one answer. Researching Rosenblatt, I found he was born in the Ukraine in 1882 and was a celebrity by age nine, able to sing entire passages from the liturgy by heart. First appointed cantor at eighteen by a Hungarian synagogue, the Edison Record Company discovered and recorded him in 1905, releasing one of the first known records of cantorial singing. Caruso was so moved by his voice, he tracked Rosenblatt down to hear his stuff. He then moved to New York in 1912 and was the highest paid professional cantor of his day. The next year, Victor Records recorded him, followed by Columbia in 1914. During the 1920s, Rosenblatt performed on the vaudeville circuit and was featured in The Jazz Singer with Al Jolson, but suffered a fatal heart attack in 1933 while on a world tour. Admittedly, the Old Testament blues might not be your cup of borscht, but it’s deep stuff, so check out the wailin’ cantor].

Ornette Coleman

Is there any music out that you’re aware of but have never heard?

I never heard an American Indian pick up an instrument and really express themselves with it. That’s gonna be some note!

While popular Western music is built on a hierarchy of sound, particularly the symphonic orchestra, which has yet to acknowledge the saxophone, you treat all instruments as equal. There is no caste system in your music.

[The symphony orchestra is] a very intelligent discipline, but it’s like going to school and learning the same thing over and over again. If they’d allow symphony people to read and improvise, the music would be going somewhere. But they can’t do that, because all the people involved have to pay their bills. It’ll get better one day, I’m sure.

When you go to a concert and all those instruments are tuning up, there seems like so much potential for something new or different to happen, but then it’s the same old thing.

Yeah, you’d think something was really going to come down the pike. But then it doesn’t.

You’ve worked with so many great guitarists over the years, including James “Blood” Ulmer…

Oh, Blood Ulmer! He came and studied with me for a long time. He created his own theory, but nobody yet knows what it is. I’m tellin’ you, he scientifically broke down unison. He knows that shit backwards! When he plays the blues, he can make you think what you’re hearing disappear.

You’ve also played with Jerry Garcia and Pat Metheny, yet you’ve said the electric guitar is a “difficult instrument.”

That’s because they’re built in a certain key but are not confined to any resolution. When you write a melody and it’s played on an F instrument, it’s gonna sound like that instrument. Therefore, you can’t listen to those notes and be inspired by some new notes. You’ve got to deal with those notes. It’s like a woman putting on lipstick; it’s the same thing.

You mean that they can change the shade of their lipstick but in the end they still have the same face.

[laughs] Yeah. But what is a female sound? You can name it, but it’s only an identification. I’ve found that there is something eternal in sound.

Your onetime partner, trumpeter Don Cherry, called it “the eternal now.”

Don would call it that, yes… Don was a fantastic person and a fantastic player—really, really talented. There’s got to be a sound of the present. Not the future or the past, but the present, but I don’t know what it is. And I don’t know anyone who knows either. But really, sound has no parents. There’s got to be something in the present that we are all missing.

Well, the present is hard to nail down. It’s continually slipping through our fingers and our ears.

Whatever it is. I have no idea what it is—praying, going to work—those sounds are needed for your needed survival—“Kiss my ass” and “Hello, baby !” [laughs] It’s true, ain’t it? But there’s one thing you can count on, that’s death. Death hates God. It’s obvious that nobody walking around made themselves. Not even my mother. The simple thing about being alive is that everything dies, and the only way you die is if something kills you. So basically we are invisible/visible. Musicians might disappear, but music will never absolutely disappear. I can’t imagine death being in love with anything.

Nothing but itself.

But then it would probably reject that. But, you know, you don’t have to die to be born.

Eric Dolphy, Albert Ayler, and John Coltrane were all spiritual seekers who tried to commune with God with their horns. The saxophone seems to be a good tool to pray with. 

Yeah, yeah… Let’s face it. There’s some force, something that created human beings. Gotta be! And you can’t dial ’em up or send ’em a card and can’t talk to them. They don’t have any use for you in that sense. They made you visible while they stay invisible.

A lot of musicians, like Charles Lloyd, have called their musical path “a mission.” Would you say that’s the case with your work?

The thing that I’m trying to do is find the note that made the key. And the note that made the key doesn’t exist, because it’s sound.

Creativity does not need matter. But matter needs creativity. Now those are some pretty intellectual words. Whatever knowledge is, it is not something to discuss. It’s gotta be a concrete belief. Best thing to do is to be as human as you can.

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  1. John – What a great post! This should be required reading for anyone in music school. I posted an obit on Ornette on my blog “The Eclectic Ear” which cited a review I did last year on his classic work “The Shape of Jazz to Come”. Thanks for a great article.

    Tim Brosnan

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