[JPL] Free radical Ornette Coleman by Andrew Purcell for The
Jazz Promo Services
jazzpromo at earthlink.net
Fri Jun 29 09:11:39 EDT 2007
Ornette Coleman didn't just move jazz on - he took it on a wild journey some
will never forgive him for. He talks to Andrew Purcell about liberating
sound, his theory of 'harmolodics', and being beaten up for playing his sax
out of tune
Friday June 29, 2007
Ornette Coleman is a 77-year-old saxophonist who plays below, between and
beyond the notes in search of pure feeling. He is Lou Reed's hero, and an
artist too avant-garde even for Miles Davis. The songwriter and critic David
Was calls him "the Samuel Beckett of jazz" - an apt description for a
misunderstood titan, maligned for his originality and daring. Coleman has
won the Pulitzer prize and influenced a generation of musicians. But some
people still say he just plays out of tune.
The morning before meeting Coleman for the first time, I interview the film
director Jonathan Demme, a renowned record collector. When we finish I tell
him where I'm headed. His face opens like a flower. "Ornette is an
inspirational artist and a beautiful man. Send him a hug from me. Tell him
'Jonathan Demme wants me to hug you.'"
Coleman lives on a noisy midtown Manhattan block not far from Penn Station.
Put on Sound Grammar, last year's Pulitzer prize-winning live album, and you
can hear New York in the dive-bombing bowed bass lines, the clattering drums
and the dark blue bursts of his saxophone. In 1959, after watching a couple
arguing, he wrote Lonely Woman - a beautiful, melancholy melody with a
spare, helter-skelter accompaniment. In 2007, he writes music like the
hubbub outside his window: urgent, big city exchanges, raised voices, mobile
conversations overlapping and following their own logic.
He never stops creating, never falls back on standards and seldom plays what
his audience wants to hear. His belief in improvisation is absolute. Most of
the songs he will perform at the Royal Festival Hall in London in July.
Coleman wears high-waisted trousers with braces, a leather pork pie hat, a
pinstriped shirt and a gold brooch in the shape of a treble clef. He's an
old man, and can be forgetful, but he remains an engaging conversationalist
who poses as many questions as he answers. "Do you need to know a note to
have an idea?" he asks. "Do you have to think before you make a mistake? Is
life a sound?" He is the antithesis of the soundbite-ready old pro.
It takes half an hour of earnest enquiry to get past the impenetrable
theoretical system that underpins Coleman's composition, something he calls
"harmolodics". Questions about his childhood in segregated 1930s Texas are
diverted into a discussion of how "the name of the note doesn't tell you how
to use the sound."
"B and C is a half step, right? But in the bass clef it's a whole step.
That's crazy," he exhales, with wonder, "and it doesn't change the sound
you're making. Do you understand what I'm saying?" I don't. The word
harmolodics is a synthesis of harmony, movement and melody. It relates to
the fixed tuning of piano, saxophone, French horn and clarinet, and no one
fully understands it except Coleman himself. He has been promising the
definitive textbook for decades.
Coleman can talk theory into the ground, but he is forever seeking to free
himself from its constraints. He knows form, style, knowledge and technique
are essential to mastering an instrument, but sees them as impediments to
true virtuosity. "Rid yourself of repeating and rid yourself of style," he
says. "Then you're free. I taught myself everything I know. I have written
symphonies and all kinds of music, and no one has taught me."
Coleman's first saxophone was bought with money he had earned shining shoes.
"I thought it was a toy and I played it the way I'm playing today," he says.
"I didn't know you had to learn to play. I didn't know music was a style and
that it had rules and stuff, I thought it was just sound. I thought you had
to play to play, and I still think that."
His early inspiration came from gutbucket blues and hillbilly music, as well
as Texan sax men Ben Martin and Red Connor, before, as a teenager, he joined
local R&B bands and discovered his belief that "human beings, emotionally,
have their own notes" was not shared by fellow musicians. When he hit notes
"sharp, but in tune, flat, but in tune" he was at best derided, at worst
physically attacked. In Baton Rouge, Louisiana, a group of men beat him up,
trashed his saxophone, and dumped him by the roadside. "I've had guys take
my horn away and say, 'You can't play like that,' and I said, 'Wait a
minute, what do you mean? I've already played it. I'm not trying, I'm
By the 1950s he was living in Los Angeles and could imitate Charlie Parker
note for note. But he found that bebop, itself a revolution in jazz, fell
short of the sound he was looking for. "They were playing changes," he says,
"they weren't playing movements. I was trying to play ideas, changes,
movements and non-transposed notes."
Fortunately, he was not the only musician feeling cramped in Parker's
shadow. Working at a department store by day, he gradually assembled a group
of jazz players who wanted to go further than their peers. Rehearsals were
intense, even though few clubs dared book the new band. With Don Cherry on
trumpet, Charlie Haden on double bass and Billy Higgins on drums, Coleman
set the template, or lack of it, for what would become free jazz.
Writing in Jazz Review, the critic Martin Williams argued that "what Ornette
Coleman is doing on alto will affect the whole character of jazz music
profoundly and pervasively." At the group's coming-out party, a residency at
the Five Spot in New York in November 1959, Coleman polarised the crowd.
George Hoefer described the audience reactions in Down Beat magazine: "Some
walked in and out before they could finish a drink, some sat mesmerised by
the sound, others talked constantly to their neighbours at the table or
argued with drink in hand at the bar."
Listening to the provocatively-titled albums Change of the Century and The
Shape of Jazz to Come, it's hard to imagine how the hard-swinging rhythm
section and Coleman and Cherry's lyrical, intertwined lines could be so
divisive. I ask Coleman if the criticism ever got to him. "How can something
hurt you, when someone doesn't know who you are? I am not that sensitive or
that weak to believe that because someone says I can't do something it means
that I haven't done it. The human being has only one master, and that's God,
"I wasn't thinking of insults, I was thinking of ideas. If you don't have
ideas, what are you gonna do? The idea is the most universal, it doesn't
have any age, it doesn't have any rules or superiors. An idea is an idea,
whether it's good or bad. The style cannot compete with the idea."
This is a theme Coleman returns to again and again. "The idea is the highest
quality of expression," he says. "It is immortal, it is without class and it
doesn't care anything about wealth ... The idea is above any race, any
value, any sadness, any pleasure ... The only thing that I'm trying to do
right now, honest to God, is to free myself to the supreme order of ideas -
not style, not colour, not notes, not rhythm. I could go and get my horn and
play for you, and believe me, I would play something. I don't know what it
is, but I do know I would never have played it."
What he means only becomes clear a couple of nights later, when I sit in on
Coleman rehearsing with his current band. The Sound Grammar quartet features
Tony Falanga on upright bass, Greg Cohen on electric bass and Coleman's son
Denardo on drums. Traditional roles of rhythm section, harmonic foundation
and soloist have been ditched, to "remove the caste system from sound".
Instead, the players riff off each other, transmitting ideas around the
group. Coleman rips a short, melodic phrase from his saxophone and the
others jump on it, propelling the music forward through variations on the
theme, never sacrificing inspiration for the sake of a neat resolution.
This approach demands intense concentration, from players and listeners
alike. It threatens to soar off into the incomprehensible, like an
untethered helium balloon. But each time the complexity becomes
overwhelming, Coleman drags it back down with a dramatic line, reminding us
with a stinging, singing cry of his roots in the blues.
Denardo Coleman made his recorded debut at 10 years old, on The Empty
Foxhole, and his instinctive, idiosyncratic beats were a key component of
Prime Time, his father's free funk group of the 1970s. "From the start, he
could play anything equivalent to what you were doing, without having to do
it the way you were doing it," Coleman says. "He wasn't following me. That's
what blew my mind. He plays like that to this very day and I have no idea
how he does it." In Coleman's vision, a lack of formal training is an asset.
He introduced violin and trumpet solos into his music long before he could
actually play them with any fluency, as a short cut to pure emotional
expression unfettered by habit. His influence extends far beyond jazz - the
Stooges, the MC5, Patti Smith and the Velvet Underground are all declared
fans. Ornette Coleman is punk rock in the truest sense.
His first gig outside the USA, at Croydon's Fairfield Halls in August 1965,
was a triumph over the restrictive labour laws that had prevented many
American jazz bands from booking shows in Britain. He entered the country as
a tourist, composed a wind quintet to qualify as a classical musician,
ignored union threats to blacklist anyone who performed with him, and after
a bizarre cameo by Yoko Ono, played a typically passionate, improvised set
that once again divided onlookers.
"Now play Cherokee," shouted a heckler, so he did, tearing through the
changes of the big band standard Charlie Parker had made his own,
reinterpreting and incorporating Bird's lines into something new. "I just
wanted to know that I knew Cherokee," he remembers, "not because of what he
thought it meant." He received a standing ovation.
Coleman's music is, if anything, more radical now than it was then, but he
was welcomed into the jazz establishment long ago, albeit not to universal
approval. This year he received a lifetime achievement Grammy in addition to
a Pulitzer prize and MacArthur Foundation "genius"' award. He's not much
interested in plaudits. "I don't want to be at the top. I just want to be
alive and useful," he says.
"I really do believe though that I've found a way to share what I do, to
inspire people to go further than what I know, to places I don't know yet.
There's nothing in my heart that I want to hide or think if I share someone
else is gonna do it better."
So, I ask, if someone comes along and says, "I've got this new way, much
better than Ornette Coleman. Ornette Coleman is old hat ..." "I would say
'more power to him'. There are gonna be some people born who, when they hear
this, they'll say: 'That's chicken feed, I'm somewhere else.' The idea!" He
thumps the table for emphasis.
And with that, the interview ends. "Jonathan Demme told me to hug you," I
say, as instructed, and Coleman's already smiling face creases still
further. "Oh, he's precious," he says, visibly touched. "Come here. That is
so precious." He hugs me, shakes my hand, and as I turn to leave offers one
last piece of advice: "The idea is all there is. Trust me." · The Ornette
Coleman Quartet plays at the Royal Festival Hall on July 9
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian News and Media Limited 2007
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