Independent Yet Empathic
Jazz Legend Ornette Coleman
illustration by Nathan Jensen
Ornette Coleman, whose work has influenced music as profoundly as anything by Beethoven, Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, or Chuck Berry, was born into a shotgun house in a poor neighborhood of Fort Worth, Texas in 1930, and found his initial position less than ideal. Poverty, racism, and segregation were rampant, and not only was music his calling, it was also his ticket out of town. Yet Coleman found himself an outsider from the start. Initially self-taught, he took voraciously to the saxophone, yearning to play bebop when Texas roadhouse R&B was the only real option. Years later, when he hit California, there had already been many run-ins with close-minded musicians. All the while, he was composing, studying music, and incubating the origins of his theories, which would come to be known as "Harmolodics," the catch-all, difficult-to-define label for all things Coleman.
Likened to a family all talking at the same time, the "Harmolodic" concept broke all the rules, abandoning chord-based structure for tonal and rhythmic expression, all players operating democratically, independent of the melody, yet empathic of each other. Empathy was not, however, something the music community at large had for Coleman's theories or practices, and many of the first bebop musicians the sax player encountered walked out on his performances in disbelief. Undaunted, all this isolation and rejection made its way into Coleman's music, whose democratic spirit and ideas of global unity served as a perfect counterpoint to the obstacles he encountered.
And soon, Coleman discovered he was not alone. Legendary drummer Ed Blackwell was the first of many soulmates the saxophonist would encounter -- like two, young, self-taught prodigies named Don Cherry and Charlie Haden. Though Coleman had already released two recordings with studio musicians for Contemporary Records, the quartet, trumpet player Cherry, bassist Haden, and drummer Billy Higgins, would prove to be the group that first captured Coleman's true vision. Pianist, educator, and leader of the Modern Jazz Quartet, John Lewis, heard the quartet and got them signed to Atlantic Records, and when their debut -- prophetically titled The Shape of Jazz to Come -- hit the streets in 1959, it set the world of music on its ear.
And it was only the beginning. The quartet, with various personnel changes, would record nine remarkable records in three years for Atlantic (compiled on Rhino's 6-CD box set, Beauty Is a Rare Thing), including the landmark, utterly improvised Free Jazz. Like any radical change, the music was met with acclaim, and for a time, much controversy and derision. "Are you cats serious?" an incredulous Dizzy Gillespie, the arbiter of cool, asked at one the quartet's early Five Spot shows. They were. Very serious.
In the decades that have followed the quartet's demise, Coleman has brought many fine musicians through his ranks (Charles Moffat, Dewey Redman, James Blood Ulmer, Ronald Shannon Jackson, son Denardo), and continued to push the envelope, delving into harder backbeats and electricity, collaborating with unlikely partners, and uncompromisingly pursuing his own muse. Many benchmarks have occurred along the way: the orchestral Skies of America ('72), Harmolodic hoe-down, Dancing in Your Head ('75), Of Human Feelings ('82), and the original quartet's reunion, In All Languages ('87), to name only a few.
After a seven-year layoff, the launch of Coleman's Harmolodic label (a Verve imprint) has reactivated his career, first with the release of last year's Tone Dialing, with his band Prime Time, and more recently with the scaled-down, riveting Sound Museum recordings, featuring Geri Allen, Charnett Moffat, and Dernado (see review). In addition, the label has rescued two important Coleman releases from obscurity: Body Meta, recorded during the same session that yielded Dancing in Your Head, features some furious Harmolodic funk stew, driven hard by drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson, while Soapsuds, Soapsuds is a beauty -- a quiet and intense duet session with bassist Charlie Haden. Both are on CD for the first time.
Obtaining an audience with Coleman took a sustained effort over a long period of time, yet even over the phone, you realize his unique language is not just confined to musical parameters. He plays with time, careening off course, often taking circuitous routes to make a point, but always making one. Trying to cover his amazing life and career in 40 minutes is like running through the Uffizi; the best you can hope for is a glimpse of what lies within.
Austin Chronicle: Describe your early days as an R&B musician around the juke joints of Texas.
Ornette Coleman: When I first got my saxophone, I went to different jam sessions, and finally put a band together. This was in the late Forties or early Fifties. Segregation was very strong then, so I would play for Mexicans, and whites and blacks... different jobs on different days. I was in the house band for a place where they had gambling, and whenever the Texas Rangers would come in, everyone would begin dancing so they wouldn't be taken to jail. For me, as a young man, it was just a form of surviving. Because where I grew up in Fort Worth, it was kinda... rugged. There weren't many jobs available for black people. I did get a chance to hear a lot of different musicians that came through the area. I remember Stan Kenton came through once and I played with his big band. Dizzy Gillespie, I idolized him, Lester Young, and man, T-Bone Walker. One of the first persons I backed up was Joe Turner. So It was a growing experience and also a survival experience.
AC: And occasionally some good music, it sounds like.
OC: Yeah, it was really good music. Since I was playing in different locations, I had to learn lots of different things. I would be playing "La Paloma" one night, "Stardust" the next and "Night Train" after that. So I got to understand how music works in different relationships.
But what happened was, I outgrew it very fast when I heard bebop music. I first got inspired to play when a band came to my elementary school. One of the guys stood up with his saxophone and played, and it was like magic to me. I was just bewildered by what it was. I asked my mother, could I have a saxophone, and she told me if I went out and worked and made some money, I could buy one. So I made a shinebox and got my first horn like that after about two and a half years. I soon learned that most of the music people were playing was written, and I was always thinking that they were just playing from the fact that the horn was like a toy -- it just seemed very easy to me to do.
In fact, when I picked up my horn for the first time, I played it as good as I'm playing now, [though] I didn't know as much about music as I do now. I decided there was more to music than just playing the saxophone. I learned how to read and write the things that I was playing myself. And from that, I started getting into what people call composition. When I was about 17, I discovered that most music was being dictated from the piano. I mean, everyone uses the piano to note the key, the chord. Yet, I found that instrumental music had other sounds besides the piano for their tonics. Such as string quartets, on the viola, C natural appears where the B natural is on the treble clef. These kind of things made me go deeper into understanding what written music -- compositional music -- takes. Then I discovered bebop.
Bebop music was the only music that I had really heard that had complicated lines, and I wanted to play that music. So I decided to leave Fort Worth. I told my mother I was going to Dallas, and I got on the bus with a minstrel band and went to Natchez, Mississippi. Then the guy fired me because he thought I was trying to modernize the band. I met this person called Clarence Samuels and he had a session set up. But after the session, the cops came in and told me to get out of town. I ended up going to New Orleans without ever knowing what happened to that recording. That was my first experience with taped music.
I stayed in New Orleans for about two and a half years, then I went back to Fort Worth. I met Peewee Crayton, who needed a saxophone player and asked me to join. I remember having a jam session with Crayton, and Bob Wills & the Texas Playboys were there. We were all playing bebop. They were playing country blues, Western music on their job, and bebop at night. It was a good, healthy environment. I was learning a lot about music, so I decided to go to California with them, and I ended up staying about 10 years and making my first records there.
AC: Around this time you met Ed Blackwell, who greatly influenced your thinking.
OC: I was actually writing and playing the music that I now call Harmolodics before I left Texas, but when I got to California, I tried to play with some very professional bebop musicians. I thought because I knew their repertoire, I would be able to play it. But when I got up on the bandstand and started playing, all of these professional guys put their instruments down and left me there. I was so devastated and disappointed, and from then on I decided not to integrate in that style of music anymore. I had already found something that I wanted to share with them, but the bebop music had a strict form -- it's like pop music.
AC: It must have been a relief to find people like Ed Blackwell, and later Charlie Haden and Don Cherry in California.
OC: Blackwell was the first person I met that was actually very open to playing. One of the things that was amazing is that he never worried about time, he only worried about content. From that, I met Billy [Higgins] and Charlie [Haden] and [Don] Cherry. The music I had made for Contemporary Records, I had written in Texas, but I didn't get my first recording contract from playing the saxophone; I got it from writing music. Les Koenig called and said, "No one knows what to do with the songs I bought from you. They can read them, but they don't know what to do with them. Do you know?" And I said, "Sure, let's put a band together." I used Walter Norris and Don Payne, it was sort of like studio musicians. But I really wanted to play the music that I was playing with Don [Cherry] and the rest. Although I had made two popular records in California, I was still working in Bullock's as an elevator driver. The record business was very strange, with instrumental music. I still find it very strange in some ways.
AC: Much has been made of the telepathy of the musicians you played with in this early quartet. It always reminded me of a trapeze act without a net. How do you rehearse something like that, how do you prepare to play Harmolodically?
OC: I've only had two real good Harmolodic bands... one was in '75, the other in '95. The one in '75 was teenagers and they had just really started on the instruments, so I had a first opportunity to assure Harmolodics with them, and the second Harmolodic band was made up of people who had been playing classical music. To answer your question, one of the things I do when I hire someone into my band is to hold classes about Harmolodics. I write out a lesson and teach it to them, then show them how it works and see if they can apply that to improvising. That's how I've always assured knowledge about Harmolodics, not only with people in my band but people who have studied with me.
AC: Back in the early Sixties, when you were releasing these groundbreaking records on Atlantic, it must have bothered you that you were receiving such harsh criticism, even from peers like Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie.
OC: Well... Miles, Diz, Coltrane... Coltrane studied with me for a while, Miles sat in with me, I played with Diz. You know, I really realized what exists when your survival is at stake, off of whatever it is, whether you are president of the United States or an executive or whatever... I never thought about the musicians being angry because of what I was playing. I thought it more about their survival in relationship to the value of what they were doing. To this very day, I don't find any difference between any music as far as that's concerned. I really believe that rock, jazz, classical, and the rest, are ethnic titles to keep people divided in relationship to their true art as a pure human expression. The human nervous system has no race, no color, no agenda.
If someone today was playing like a Dizzy Gillespie or Miles Davis, he wouldn't have the problem that Diz and Miles had. He might not play any better or worse, but he would receive more universal acceptance. In fact, I've found if you make something where you don't depend upon the love of an audience in order to know how valuable it is, you can probably become very successful in business. Business people seem to support each other, but artists are divided because of the business.
AC: There's a strong thread of democracy in your work, no extended solos, equal say from all your players.
OC: Yeah, I really believe in Harmolodics that the melody is not the lead -- it's the person that is performing the music that's the lead.
AC: Your goal seems to be a universal music that transcends language and perspective.
OC: You know, in America, there are endless forms of ethnical people. For instance, I heard a lady from the Cape Verde islands in New York who didn't perform one word of English, and the place was packed. They loved her. She sat down and started smoking. I mean, she was like, at home. She was the first person I've seen in America that, like say if you had brought an African person singing in all African, maybe the audience would have only been black. Or if you had brought an Irishman, maybe the only people there would have been Irish. That's not the case today. You don't have to change your language or change your style in order for someone to appreciate what you are doing artistically. The kids are going to be born -- and there are those that are as old as myself -- who will be able to enjoy the true human expression without any ethnical discrimination.
AC: You have two reissues out on your Harmolodic label, Body Meta and Soapsuds, Soapsuds. ...Meta is a propelled funk record, while Soapsuds... is just the opposite. It has an after-hours feel to it, like a jam session in a empty club. The playing from both you and Haden seems so remarkably matched. How did this session come about?
AC: It's a beautiful recording. There's a fairly exhaustive discography that came in the original vinyl issue of Soapsuds... mentioning many unreleased recordings from throughout your career. Now that you're running your own label, are there plans to release any of this material?
OC: We have a bit of material. Basically, since we started Harmolodic with Polygram, we decided on a concept and that started out with Tone Dialing and the two Sound Museums. Now, we have a record coming out with musicians from India and a Japanese singer with a beautiful voice, a rapper and two musicians from Bombay, and it's really very enjoyable. You know, for me, music is really true emotional medicine. It makes people feel better, it makes people happy, it makes people think. It just brings lots of joy and love to people. The thing that I realize more and more is there isn't any particular style or caste of music that really can do that better than any other music.
AC: I once read a story about you and your band sitting around listening to a Robert Johnson tune and wishing you could play like that as a full band, meaning the expressiveness and the freedom and....
OC: Did someone tell you that?
AC:I read it. It's not true?
OC: I don't remember saying that, but tell me, what was the punchline?
AC: None, really, the idea being that an individual can play with free meter, off-key guitar, flatted notes, getting away from the fixed 12-tone piano setting. I was pleasantly surprised to see a piano player, Geri Allen, on your new Sound Museum recordings. This is the first time in quite a while that you have worked with a pianist. Does this pose a problem for you?
OC: Not at all. To me, the piano is just an added sound. It's a basic instrument that had been invented for people to know how to play tempered music in unison. But in this form of playing non-tempered music.... for instance, did you ever hear the musicians from Jajouka?
AC: I've heard your work with them, yes.
OC: You know, they play unison, and they all play their own notes. That's a very advanced form of unison. The synthesizer has the same property concept. You can take the synthesizer and change the frequency of any sound. So, basically flat and sharp and natural are just time signatures -- they're not profound ways of getting to a musical idea. I mean, two saxophone players are playing the same note, you have to agree on the same frequency for the sound to be in tune. But if you're playing by yourself, if an emotion that comes to you or through you reminds you of some sound that you heard, then you can use that sound in an expression. You're not gonna be put in jail if you try it. When I hear Eastern music, any music, that doesn't have to conform to any given temper or unison, it usually sounds very ancient, and also very new. I think that's why when you hear the young kids that are playing bebop these days, it doesn't sound as pure and as interesting, because all they're doing is repeating the melody and trying to play solos based on the changes. The people who wrote the music of those days, they didn't have to think that way, it was all one.
AC: In a few decades, you've gone from being an outcast to a living legend. How do you view your place in musical history?
OC: Well, I don't think it's any different than anyone who's done anything for humanity. Imagine if everybody was lazy, nothing would ever get done.
[This interview will air in the near future one of Jeff McCord's "Overnight" shifts on KUT-FM.]