[JPL] Listening With Ornette Coleman

r durfee rdurfee2003 at yahoo.com
Fri Sep 22 17:42:03 EDT 2006

September 22, 2006
Listening With Ornette Coleman
Seeking the Mystical Inside the Music 
THE alto saxophonist and composer Ornette Coleman, one
of the last of the truly imposing figures from a
generation of jazz players that was full of them,
seldom talks about other people’s music. People
generally want to ask him about his own, and that
becomes the subject he addresses. Or half-addresses:
what he’s really focused on is a set of interrelated
questions about music, religion and the nature of
being. Sometimes he can seem indirect, or sentimental,
or thoroughly confusing. Other times he sounds like
one of the world’s killer aphorists.

In any case, other people’s music was what I wanted to
talk to him about. I asked what he would like to
listen to. “Anything you want,” he said in his fluty
Southern voice. “There is no bad music, only bad
performances.” He finally offered a few suggestions.
The music he likes is simply defined: anything that
can’t be summed up in a common term. Any music that is
not created as part of a style. “The state of
surviving in music is more like ‘what music are you
playing,’ ” he said. “But music isn’t a style, it’s an
idea. The idea of music, without it being a style — I
don’t hear that much anymore.”

Then he went up a level. “I would like to have the
same concept of ideas as how people believe in God,”
he said. “To me, an idea doesn’t have any master.” 

Mr. Coleman was born, in 1930, and raised in Fort
Worth, where he attained some skill at playing rhythm
and blues in bars, like any decent saxophonist, and
some more skill at playing bebop, which was rarer. He
arrived in New York in 1959, via Los Angeles, with an
original, logical sense of melody and an idea of
playing with no preconceived chord changes. Yet his
music bore a tight sense of knowing itself, of natural
form, and the records he made for Atlantic with his
various quartets, from 1959 to 1961, are almost
unreasonably beautiful.

Following that initial shock of the new came a short
period with a trio, then a two-year hiatus from
recording in 1963 and 1964, then the trio again, then
a fantastic quartet from 1968 to 1972 with the tenor
saxophonist Dewey Redman (who died three weeks ago),
then a period of funk-through-the-looking-glass with
his electric band, Prime Time. Mr. Coleman is still
moving, now with a band including two bassists, Greg
Cohen and Tony Falanga, and his son, Denardo Coleman,
on drums. 

He has a kind of high-end generosity; he said that he
wouldn’t think twice about letting me go home with a
piece of music he had just written, because he would
be interested in what I might make of it. But there is
a great pessimism in his talk, too. He said he
believes that most of human history has been wasted on
building increasingly complicated class structures.
“Life is already complete,” he said. “You can’t learn
what life is. And the only way you die is if something
kills you. So if life and death are already
understood, what are we doing?” 

A week later we met for several hours at his large,
minimal-modernist loft in Manhattan’s garment
district. Mr. Coleman is 76 and working often: he is
making music with his new quartet that, at heart, is
similar to what he made when he was 30. On “Sound
Grammar,” his new live album (on his new record label,
of the same name), it is a matter of lines traveling
together and pulling apart, following the curve of his
melodies, tangling and playing in a unison that allows
for discrepancies between individual sound and
intonation and, sometimes, key.

Unison is one of his key words: he puts an almost
mystical significance in it, and he uses it in many
ways. “Being a human, you’re required to be in unison:
upright,” he said. 

Mr. Coleman draws you into the chicken-and-egg
questions that he’s asking himself. These questions
can become sort of the dark side of Bible class. Many
of them are about what happens when you put a name on
something, or when you learn some codified knowledge. 

Though he is fascinated by music theory, he is
suspicious of any construct of thought. Standard
Western notation and harmony is a big problem for him,
particularly for the fact that the notation for many
instruments (including his three instruments — alto
saxophone, trumpet and violin) must be transposed to
fit the “concert key” of C in Western music. 

Mr. Coleman talks about “music” with care and
accuracy, but about “sound” with love. He doesn’t
understand, he says, how listeners will ever properly
understand the power of notes when they are bossed
around by the common Western system of harmony and

He’s not endorsing cacophony: he says making music is
a matter of finding euphonious resolutions between
different players. (And much of his music keeps
referring to, if not actually staying in, a major
key.) But the reason he appreciates Louis Armstrong,
for example, is that he sees Armstrong as someone who
improvised in a realm beyond his own knowledge. “I
never heard him play a straight chord in root position
for his idea,” he said. “And when he played a high
note, it was the finale. It wasn’t just because it was
high. In some way, he was telling stories more than

MR. COLEMAN’S first request was something by Josef
Rosenblatt, the Ukrainian-born cantor who moved to New
York in 1911 and became one of the city’s most popular
entertainers — as well as a symbol for not selling out
your convictions. (He turned down a position with a
Chicago opera company, but was persuaded to take a
small role in Al Jolson’s film “The Jazz Singer.”) I
brought some recordings from 1916 and we listened to
“Tikanto Shabbos,” a song from Sabbath services.
Rosenblatt’s voice came booming out, strong and clear
at the bottom, with miraculous coloratura runs at the

“I was once in Chicago, about 20-some years ago,” Mr.
Coleman said. “A young man said, ‘I’d like you to come
by so I can play something for you.’ I went down to
his basement and he put on Josef Rosenblatt, and I
started crying like a baby. The record he had was
crying, singing and praying, all in the same breath. I
said, wait a minute. You can’t find those notes. Those
are not ‘notes.’ They don’t exist.” 

He listened some more. Rosenblatt was working with
text, singing brilliant figures with it, then coming
down on a resolving note, which was confirmed and
stabilized by a pianist’s chord. “I want to ask
something,” he said. “Is the language he’s singing
making the resolution? Not the melody. I mean, he’s
resolving. He’s not singing a ‘melody.’ ”

It could be that he’s at least singing each little
section in relation to a mode, I said. 

“I think he’s singing pure spiritual,” he said. “He’s
making the sound of what he’s experiencing as a human
being, turning it into the quality of his voice, and
what he’s singing to is what he’s singing about. We
hear it as ‘how he’s singing.’ But he’s singing about
something. I don’t know what it is, but it’s bad.” 

I wonder how much of it is really improvised, I said.
Which up-and-down melodic shapes, and in which orders,
were well practiced, and which weren’t.

“Mm-hmm,” he said. “I understand what you’re saying.
But it doesn’t sound like it’s going up and down; it
sounds like it’s going out. Which means it’s coming
from his soul.”

MR. COLEMAN grew up loving Charlie Parker and bebop in
general. “It was the most advanced collective way of
playing a melody and at the same time improvising on
it,” he said. Certainly, he was highly influenced by
Parker’s phrasing. 

He saw Parker play in Los Angeles in the early 1950’s.
“Basically, he had picked up a local rhythm section,
and he was playing mostly standards. He didn’t play
any of the music that I liked that I’d heard on a
record. He looked at his watch and stopped in the
middle of what he was playing, put his horn in his
case and walked out the door. I said, ohh. I mean, I
was trying to figure out what that had to do with
music, you know? It taught me something.” 

What did it teach him? “He knew the quality of what he
could play, and he knew the audience, and he wasn’t
impressed enough by the audience to do something that
they didn’t know. He wasn’t going to spend any more
time trying to prove that.” 

We listened to “Cheryl,” a Parker quintet track from
1947. “I was drawn to the way Charlie Parker phrased
his ideas,” he said. “It sounded more like he was
composing, and I really loved that. Then, when I found
out that the minor seventh and the major seventh was
the structure of bebop music — well, it’s a sequence.
It’s the art of sequences. I kind of felt, like, I got
to get out of this.” 

He talks a lot about sequences. (John Coltrane, he
said, was a good saxophone player who was lost to
them.) With regard to his Parker worship, he kept the
phrasing but got rid of the sequences. “I first tried
to ban all chords,” he said, “and just make music an
idea, instead of a set pattern to know where you are.”

I SUGGESTED gospel music, and he was enthusiastic. I
brought something I felt he might like: sacred harp
music — white, rural, choral music, about 100 voices
in loose unison. We listened to “The Last Words of
Copernicus,” written in 1869 and recorded by Alan
Lomax in Fyffe, Ala., in 1959. 

“That’s breath music,” he said, as big groups of
singers harmonized in straight eighth-note patterns,
singing plainly but with character. “They’re changing
the sound with their emotions. Not because they’re
hearing something.” But then we were off on another
topic — whether a singer should seek a voicelike sound
for his voice. “Isn’t it amazing that sound causes the
idea to sound the way it is, more than the idea?” he

Finally the listening experiment broke down. It’s hard
to keep Mr. Coleman talking about anyone else’s music.
His mystical-logical puzzles are too interesting to

He is writing new pieces for each concert, and was
leaving for European shows. “Right now, I’m trying to
play the instrument,” he said, “and I’m trying to
write, without any restrictions of chord, keys, time,
melody and harmony, but to resolve the idea eternally,
where every person receives the same quality from it,
without relating it to some person.” 

He told a childhood story about his mother, who, he
kept reminding me, was born on Christmas Day. After he
received his first saxophone, he would go to her when
he learned to play something by ear. “I’d be saying:
‘Listen to this! Listen to this!’ ” he remembered.
“You know what she’d tell me? ‘Junior, I know who you
are. You don’t have to tell me.’ ” 


Roy Durfee
P.O. Box 40219
Albuquerque, New Mexico 87196-0219
rdurfee2003 at yahoo.com

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