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An Interview with Ornette Coleman

Ornette Coleman

One musician I’ve been thinking about, and listening to, a lot is Ornette Coleman, who died last week. That generation that formed bebop and then what I called the heroic decade of modern jazz, the decade of avantgardism roughly 1955-65, are passing – the only major figures left are Sonny Rollins and Lee Konitz (Cecil Taylor isn’t playing any more). Most revolutions also show a continuity with what went before (even, maybe October 1917, in continuing an authoritarian tradition). Ornette Coleman’s free jazz revolution was also a continuation of bebop - his phrases were often pure bebop. Maybe that's something that's more apparent with time. But what cannot be denied is his pure, intuitive genius. I don't mean that he was someone who didn't reflect on what he was doing - he clearly did - but rather that his work seemed to be a paradigm of spontaneous creation. That was fully apparent when I heard him for the last time in 2005. The interview I did with him, before the gig, appeared in The Wire.


Ornette Coleman was born in Fort Worth, Texas, in March 1930 – the precise date is disputed, but his recent UK tour is certainly a 75th birthday celebration. As he walked slowly onstage at The Sage Gateshead, he looked a little frail but resplendent in a shiny, powder-blue suit and something close to a pork-pie hat. But as the review in Wire 256 made clear, though he sometimes played sitting down, his playing hasn't lost its power and charge. His latest group returns to a two-bass format he's led occasionally since the late 60s, with Greg Cohen mostly pizzicato providing the groove, and Tony Falanga almost always arco and singing. Denardo Coleman, swinging and explosive on drums, may now be underrated – he's developed even since his work with Prime Time in the 80s. Ornette's vocalised alto sound is charismatic, and though his phrases were in some sense familiar, they're archetypes not licks; he also played a few rather brief and intriguing solos on trumpet and violin. Ornette made no announcements and I couldn't identify most of the compositions, but the encore was the classic "Lonely Woman", on which he played alto, then violin in a kind of string band treatment.

When I meet him backstage afterwards, the man who overturned modern music with his freedom principle is modest and quiet-spoken. But he warms to the discussion and is insistent on the validity of his ideas. This is someone who, though he's had lucky breaks, has faced scepticism throughout his long career and has needed all his determination and self-belief. The interview takes place in the company of James Jordan, Ornette's cousin and – it turns out - collaborator in harmolodic theory. We begin by discussing "Lonely Woman", which appeared on The Shape Of Jazz To Come, the first of the series on Atlantic records. These albums of the late 1950s and early 60s were radical in their "time no changes" approach – not free jazz in the accepted sense, but themes and variations, in which phrases follow their natural logic and not a standard four-bar format. Then we move on to the reception his work has received. Ornette has described elsewhere the sometimes violent reactions to his music in the early days – his reference to being beaten up could refer to what happened while on tour in the South in 1949 with blues-singer Clarence Samuel. In order to explain what his fellow musicians didn't understand – and often still don't, he maintains - Ornette turns to harmolodics, and shows he's still a man with a mission.

Andy Hamilton: How did you come up with that amazing melody for "Lonely Woman", which you played as an encore?

Ornette Coleman: That was in the 50s – 1959 or something. I had gotten to New York, and I was there a long time by myself. One night I was playing somewhere, and I saw a man arguing with a woman. She was so helpless about how the conversation was going. I didn't try to interfere or anything, I just saw she was very sad. And my son and his mother had come to New York, and she had told me that I can't raise Denardo out here, I'm going back to California. Then I made a connection between what this guy was doing and what I was involved with, so I sat down and wrote this song.

AH: Was it based on a phrase that you improvised?

OC: No, it just came to me at that time. I just hear it and write it – I just try to capture what I hear. I think music itself is an idea. It's not a style, it's not a race, it's just an idea. And everybody has ideas. That's why music is so free for people to cherish, and so open – because it's how the idea is affecting you, and how you express what it means to you, regardless of what the style is.

I have always wanted to write music. I didn't realise that writing music, you have to be very popular to make a living out of it. I was rehearsing my different bands, with Billy Higgins and those guys, but I had a tough time playing the music I was playing. I don't think people realised that I knew any music, [they thought] that I was just playing. But I never thought about trying to prove what I could do. I was always trying to have the experience of what I was doing. And so I wrote that song, and I think I recorded it on Atlantic.

AH: How did you get the idea of the drums playing double time [compared to the saxophone]?

OC: Playing fast? That's the tension that I see in all love conflicts. It's like time is running out, but you're standing still.

AH: It's so striking.

OC: It is. It's the cause and effect of emotion and distance. It's like having something in your head that's bothering you, and nobody knows it but you. It keeps occurring, but you can't do nothing about it. You can't satisfy it, you can't cure it, you can't punish it - you just know it's there. It wasn't a love story, it's just being a human being. I'm sure everybody sometime gets lonely, isn't that right? It happens.

AH: You said you had a struggle to get your music accepted.

OC: I would say that.

AH: Were you always confident it would be accepted?

OC: No, I never thought about it being accepted. I was thinking about writing music that the person that liked music would enjoy. I wasn't trying to write music to make money, I was trying to write music to have some meaning to people.

AH: But still you wanted it to get out, to be heard.

OC: Yes, I wanted it to be heard. But I was having musicians that time telling me, “Oh, you can't play like that”. I was being beaten up, my horn thrown away. I was saying “Oh my goodness me, that's just crazy”...I realised that whatever reasons the person had to make them treat me like that, it was what they had experienced [that made them do it] – that whatever they were doing, if they didn't succeed, why should I succeed?

I was only just playing the way I'm playing right now. I have never tried to be different. It's like I'm sharing what I'm sharing with you.

AH: Why do you think that so many of the bebop musicians didn't understand what you were doing?

OC: I wouldn't say it was just the bebop musicians, it was musicians period. Because I found out that in Western culture you have the Bb, the C, the Eb and the F instruments – those are the four dominant transpositions. And yet one instrument has to transpose those other three notes for it to sound like one idea more than four different harmonies – and that's the piano. So all of a sudden I started understanding the role of the piano. The sound of the piano is not the note of the piano. [He plays a note on the piano.] The note of the saxophone is different to the sound of the saxophone. The note that you hear is not the sound of the instrument. It's the idea of the notes that you hear being applied to the instrument.

To this very day, I've been working on a concept called harmolodics, which means that the four basic notes of Western culture are all the same sound on four different instruments. I call that harmolodics.

So when I found that out, I started analysing what people call melody for ideas. But melody and ideas are not confined to any instrument...It's going to happen, but no one has come to the conclusion that you don't have to transpose an idea. But if you want to play with the piano... if you want to play an idea you have to do it.

AH: Does this explain why you haven't played with many pianists?

OC: Not at all. I mean, I haven't played with pianists because I haven't had anyone come about that wanted to play with me.

AH: But Paul Bley could play with you.

OC: Well...When Paul was playing with me regularly he was playing songs. But as you know, this group that was playing tonight, not only did the sound have different notes, but the resolution had different purposes. And yet they were working. Two basses, but they were not [playing] the same. They were like night and day, because one is playing a melody, another is transposing the concept of where that melody came from, in the form of its own idea. That's not known yet, but it's coming.

Ornette's discussion of transposing instruments gets him deep into harmolodic theory. The term "harmolodics" first appeared in print in his sleevenotes to Skies Of America in 1972. It's a synthesis of "harmony", "movement" and "melody". Sceptics says that Ornette is a poet more than a theorist, and certainly when he began to play alto-sax, he didn't realise that it's a transposing instrument – a C on sheet music for alto-sax denotes a sounding Eb. On alto, like almost all woodwind instruments, we call the scale made by uncovering the holes one by one from the bottom up, the scale of C – even though in terms of sound, the scale begins on another note (Bb for clarinet, Eb for alto-sax, and so on). As all these instruments have the same arrangement of holes, it makes sense to transpose the music not the fingering. The "four dominant transpositions" Ornette refers to are typified by clarinet (Bb); flute, oboe, all string instruments (C); alto-sax (Eb); and French horn (F) respectively.

As we'll see, Ornette seems to derive almost mystical significance from the fact of transposition and the apparent unisons that result – when piano and alto, say, both play C on the sheet music. Many writers are convinced that this is a simple misunderstanding. But Coleman associate John Snyder, quoted in Peter Niklas Wilson's excellent Ornette Coleman: His Life And Music, argues that when he refers to "unison", he doesn't just mean "the same pitch": "His unison is any group of notes that suddenly come together and have a purity of sound". As Niklas Wilson writes, the standards of Western music theory hardly apply to Coleman's musical thinking. Maybe when Ornette says here that "It's going to happen, but no one has come to the conclusion that you don't have to transpose an idea. But if you want to play with the piano... if you want to play an idea you have to do it", he's attacking the Western concept of fixed tuning – whether equal temperament or some other system. Harmolodics, in contrast, embraces flexible intonation, and so playing with a piano will be a restriction. Clearly Ornette has extreme sensitivity to nuances of timbre, and this may explain why he insists on distinguishing the sound and the note.

AH: You particularly seem to like having two bassists, because [at one time in the 60s] you had Charlie Haden and David Izenzon.

OC: Well, that's what I'm saying. I never used the bass to back me up, I use it to open me up. I can get one movement from one [bass], and one resolution from the other, at the same time. It's amazing! You hear me doing it. I can actually be playing from what Greg's changes are, and Tony playing with the bow...

That's Tony Falanga – he played with the St Luke Symphony in New York.

AH: So he's a classical bassist originally... He does a beautiful arco.

OC: Yeah, he does. He came and said "I want to play with you". So he studies with me.

AH: I've not heard of him before – he hasn't played a lot in a jazz context?

OC: No, he strictly played with the St Luke Symphony [a highly-regarded New York chamber orchestra]

AH: But he sounds like a jazz player!

OC: I know - but isn't that a fantastic combination!

AH: It is an amazing combination.

OC: It is, it is, it is...Oh man! It allows me to not only modulate, but modulate inside of two different people, without it sounding like it's a modulation. It sounded like I'm resolving ideas, and not modulating.

AH: When you say you wanted a bassist that would open you up and not back you up, do you think the problem is that most pianists want to back you up?

OC: Well, that's the rule. They lay out the plans of what road you're supposed to go down. But that's only because of singers [that they accompany?]. Singers cannot hear the resolution of a person modulating because of the chord, they can only do it because of the words – singing the words. But music is free of fitting words...

If you play Cm7, Dbm7, Dm7 – it covers 12 tones but one is missing, F#. It only works like that because of chords. [Plays the chords on the piano.] You can't use [F#] as an extension, it just doesn't fit anyplace...If C and E is a major third, and D and F is a minor third, which one is highest?

AH: C and E is the biggest interval, but F is the highest note...

OC: So you think the D is higher than the C and the E? Only by name, not by sound.

The reason why you say D and F [are higher] is that you're looking at F as being the 4th of C, but it's the minor 3rd of D. It's a minor 3rd, it's not a 4th. It has nothing to do with theory, it just has something to do with the notation of unison. There are lots of things in music like that.

AH: You have been writing a book about this.

OC: Yes, believe me it's coming out soon. My cousin here, James Jordan, he's going to help me get this book on the market.

AH: I hope that's so, because a lot of people will be very interested.

OC: Yeah...One thing I don't believe is hiding any information that can advance anybody... They have never tried to use this [my approach] to see what's wrong with it. Believe me, the only sound that is wrong is one that doesn't fit. That's the only one that's wrong. It not right or wrong because of the theory. [plays more intervals on the piano]

AH: Do you think a lot of jazz players are too bound up by theory?

OC: I didn't say that, you said that.

AH: But you think they might be.

OC: I didn't say that either. But I tell you what I do think. I think that the interval-structure for a unison, according to the instrument that you play, let's say it's a piano... [plays flat 5th and major 3rd intervals, repeats question "which is higher?"]

How is anyone going to learn to play music if they know it by numbers? You can't.

AH: But a lot of jazz is taught by harmony.

OC: But harmony's numbers.

AH: You reject harmony then?

OC: It's not that I reject harmony, I reject having to be restricted because of ideas. This is C – what note is it in the bass clef? It's an E. [reading the treble clef as if it were a bass clef]

AH: That's right.

OC: This is E and G in the bass clef, and the treble clef it's C and E. And this goes to tell you that harmony, unison, and keys, are not based upon ideas, and they're not based upon mathematics – they're based upon sound.

AH: Could you summarise harmolodics by saying that? If somebody asks "In a sentence, what is harmolodics?"

OC: Harmolodics is where all ideas – all relationships and harmony - are equally in unison. Say you were talking somewhere, and someone came in and started a different conversation with you, and you started your conversation with whatever they were talking about – that doesn’t mean that whatever you were talking about before has left your mind. It only means that you've decided to answer this person. So therefore, to be more precise, how can you tell the meaning of something just because of the sound of your voice?

AH: You can't.

OC: Now we're talking, now we're talking! You can't do that.

A hundred years ago, someone created this [the piano keyboard] and they made some rules, and the rules haven't changed since.

Ornette's question "If C and E is a major third, and D and F is a minor third, which one is highest?" has me baffled. All I can say is that for him, the quality of a musical interval is more important than the relation of the interval to any possible key centre – as Charlie Haden put it (again quoted in Niklas Wilson's book), there's a "constant modulation in the improvising", with no fixed key centre. When he goes on to mock the suggestion that he bends notes, his objection is probably that "bending" implies a criticism made from the inappropriate standpoint of Western fixed tuning. From that standpoint, a saxophonist who bends notes is playing out of tune, and will clash with a fixed-tuned instrument like a piano. In fact, on reflection, the description "bending" isn't quite right anyway. It implies that the pitch shifts as the note is played, whereas Ornette's notes tend to be stable – it's just that they're often sharp or flat in relation to the standard pitch of the scale. As he's said, he plays "Sharp in tune, flat in tune". The point is brought out when he plays some blues phrases on the piano and says "that's fixed, that ain't no blues" – blue notes belong in the cracks between the piano keys, and so pianists can only offer an impression of them. Both bending and non-standard intonation are common jazz techniques.

AH: I know you said that it wasn't just bebop musicians that criticised you, but they were the ones that should have seen the connection with your playing.

OC: Yeah, exactly.

AH: So why didn't they see it?[he plays more minor 7th chords]

OC: What I mean is that the same way that I can sit down and find things that sound as different in relationship to an idea, that's how what I'm talking about got started too.

When you've decided to analyse something called harmolodics, and you find out that that note that's harmolodic is now another note that's giving a different idea, then that's what's going to happen. Because, let's face it, it's only 12 notes, and all the music we ever heard is played by the same 12 notes.

AH: But you bend your notes.

OC: What do you call "bend"?

AH: You play blue notes.

OC: No, no... [To James Jordan] Oh this is something - you hear what he's saying!

[James Jordan] That you bend them? [laughs]

AH: On the piano you can't, it's true.

OC: Sound has a grammar to it - believe me - that will cause that thing that you call bending to open up in a way you won't believe it.

AH: But to someone listening, it seems such a striking part of your playing, because it's so full of the blues.

OC: You say that, I don’t think that. Oh...So wait a minute. Is there a blues that doesn't have to have a sadness to it?

AH: Yeah – a lot of the blues Charlie Parker played.

OC: OK – but when you say blues, what do you mean?

AH: Well, I've got to think about it!

OC: Yeah, I know, I know...that's exactly right!

AH: I don't mean just 12-bars [form].

OC: But when something hurts you, or disappoints you - when you catch your woman with another man, any of this stuff that belittles your truth... that's just someone treating you bad. That hasn't anything to do with the blues. But in sound grammar, we can express any form of emotion, of the deepest depth or the highest... Grammar is higher than any figment that has to do with emotion.

AH: I wouldn't say that all blues is sad, but it's emotional.

OC: That's what I just said. In other words, the emotion, in some way, has no gender, it has no race, it has no goal, it has no purpose. It's only to let you know the state that's affecting you at the moment. It's true. You can go and be happy, and then hear something that makes you say "Oh my goodness, I understand that" – that's just how [sound] grammar affects you. The causes that people have sound-grammar is what you call the blues. But the blues.. [plays some blues phrases on the piano] that's fixed, that ain't no blues.

AH: But you can only approximate on the piano.

OC: Well, what you're saying is probably true. But you know it's only trying to imitate that [the vocal or instrumental blues].

There are various tricks on the piano that you can use.

Well yes, that's true...the flatted 5th and the minor 3rd, that's right.

But I know this - maybe what we call sound is so internal, that we're not using what it can do for us as human beings...

Classical music is related to the past more than it is related to the creative part of sound. Like those songs that I'm writing, you can hear any kind of structure, classical, blues and whatever... The music I'm writing is not in any style, it's not in the style of jazz, classical, nothing. But you get all of that coming through, because of memory and the past. But I gotta go...

Catching Ornette by his coat-tails, I asked for his thoughts about his near-contemporary Lee Konitz - in jazz they're the two great post-Parker stylists. Konitz had commented that "I didn't get the message at first...I was trying to learn the rules, and he came along and just changed that all up. I thought, 'Wait a minute, is that sporting?' But there was another message that he had. And years later I finally acknowledged him for what he could do, which is a very special kind of music." It turns out that the admiration is mutual.

OC: I tell you a story that breaks my heart [he means – finds very touching]. I had a job in Italy a few years ago. And I always loved Lee Konitz's work, so I called him up and said, "Lee, I'm playing in Perugia, and I'd like for you to be my guest". [Later] I started playing "All The Things You Are" – I don't think he ever heard me play a standard! After he heard me play, he said, "OK, maybe I'll come up and play with you".

So when we go to Perugia, I play my set, and I call him up. I said "Lee, why don't you come now and play, and you be the leader and I'll be the sideman". And he came up, and he played and I played with him, I really enjoyed it. And you know what, [afterwards] he wrote me the most beautiful letter. I always loved his playing. He played a fantastic solo on "Disc Jockey Jump" - I can't remember who he was with, I think that's what it was, 40 years or more ago. I didn't have a horn then, I was just listening to saxophone players.

AH: Were you influenced by him in any way, do you think?

OC: When I was a teenager, he was playing not like Charlie Parker, but like himself. His own ideas – that what I like. I always like ideas, more than styles.

AH: So that was an example for you, of someone who was independent.

OC: Yeah, that's right. I always thought that he wasn't getting the attention that he should have - I don't know why. And I just wanted to support him.

AH: He said to me that he admires you very much – but he didn't understand your playing at first, because you were upsetting all the rules that he'd learned, then later he understood.

OC: Believe me, we are very good friends, and whatever he says, that's fine.

With a piano at hand, Ornette has another try at explaining the harmolodic message. His final comment makes it seem that it's not just fixed tuning, but equal temperament is his target – the post-Bach system of major and minor keys, a little older than the "100 years" Ornette refers to, according to which blue notes would be deviations. When he concludes by saying "when you think of 88 keys, and it's only 12 notes, that should tell you something", he seems to be suggesting that the Western system is constricting. But the point shouldn't be overstated – Ornette uses the key-system as far as it suits him, it's just that he's flexible in his approach. For him, the 12 fixed notes are an approximation of the wealth of possibilities. First he plays an E on a piano...

OC: Is this "E", or the sound of the piano?

AH: I have to think about it.

OC: No, please don't think - it ain't going to happen.

What is the difference between the sound of the piano and the note of the piano?

AH: You mean the note's an idea and the sound's an experience?

OC: No, no, you're talking intellectually, I'm just talking about facts.

[Plays a note again]

It's a sound that has been applied to the piano, to represent a concept of other instruments playing in unison with the piano. The piano doesn't transpose. Believe me, the sound of the instrument is not the note of the instrument. 39 % ​

AH: Is this because of the Western classical tradition, that has messed this up?

OC: They are not responsible, this is just an invention that's happened in the last 100 years. But we all are victims of this – because when you think of 88 keys, and it's only 12 notes, that should tell you something. Right?

Thanks to Ros Rigby at The Sage Gateshead, Lewis Porter and Paul Bream.

First published in The Wire #257

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