My Dinner With Ornette
“I’m interested in bringing instant enlightenment.”
I met Ornette Coleman for dinner on a late fall evening in a fashionable restaurant in downtown Boston. He was in town to meet the press a week before a December 15, 1984 concert at Berklee Performance Center with Prime Time, his “double” band featuring two guitarists, two bassists and two drummers. Ornette was relaxed and in a good mood. We were seated in a cozy spot on the upper level of the candle-lighted restaurant and all he had to do was put up with my questions while we ate and drank.
I was in a better than good mood. This was a dream come true situation for me. Ornette was one of my longtime jazz heroes. So much so that in 1970, when I became determined to learn how to play standup bass in addition to electric, I started out by taking lessons with one of Ornette’s former bassists, David Izenzon, whose playing had so impressed me on Ornette’s two live “At the ‘Golden Circle’ Stockholm” albums. By the time I’d finished filling Ornette in on our karmic connection, he was even further at ease.
Dinner and our conversation went on for 90 minutes or so. I did not transcribe the entire taped interview, knowing that I would have only 800 words to convey the gist of his thoughts to Boston Herald readers. Someday, in the not too distant future, I hope, a full transcription will be made. For now, here is what I have.
December 7, 1984
Cornucopia, 15 West Street, Boston
So who will you be playing with when you perform next week?
I’m bringing in the same group I’ve had for about the last 10 years. The youngest person in the band is the drummer, James Sabir [aka Sabir Kamal]. He’s been with me for about four years. And there are two bassists, two guitars, two drummers, and myself playing trumpet, violin and saxophone. Denardo [Coleman, Ornette’s son] is playing the drums, Jamaaladeen [Tacuma] and Albert MacDowell playing bass, Charles Ellerbee and Bern Nix playing guitar.[Note: Tacuma did not play in Boston; his spot was filled by Larry McRae.]
We just came back from a six week tour of Europe and two weeks in America. In fact, we were just down in Texas three days ago finishing a play called “Celestial Navigation,” a Greek mythology play about the beginning of plays and music, how it all started. I acted in the play too. In Ft. Worth [at the Caravan of Dreams]. Back home.
You know, I had my symphony [“Skies of America”] played there. If you would have heard it, you would not have believed it. The first one I had done, I didn’t have any rehearsals, I just had a reading. This time I revived it. I had about 20 hours of rehearsal and we recorded it. I’m not bragging, but it sounded unbelievable. They opened a placed called the Caravan of Dreams and it has a theater, a nightclub, an art gallery, a folk art gallery. It’ a complex. It looks like a palace. It’s fantastic.
The contents of the symphony now has changed drastically, ‘cause when I was in London, I couldn’t use Prime Time because it was against the law to mix classical music and jazz. They wouldn’t let me do it. That was how I wrote it. So all I did was record the unison themes, It’s coming out this February, ‘cause I got this movie coming out on me that Shirley Clarke [“The Connection,” “Portrait of Jason”] finished that she started in 1968 called “Made In America.” It’s a documentary and it also has a script. They get someone to play me when I was a little kid. I’m just a character that’s being used to tell a story about a person in America. William Burroughs is in it. There’s a string quartet that I wrote in honor of Buckminster Fuller that’s in it. They perform it in his home. There are lots of good people in it.
Above: Trailer for “Ornette: Made in America.”
[Ornette then launched into the story behind the recording of his first “classical” piece, “Forms and Sounds for Wind Quintet,” which appeared on one of his harder-to-find recordings, “An Evening with Ornette Coleman,” a double album also released as “The Great London Concert.” In 1965, he traveled to London as a tourist, but with every intention of performing. It was his first trip to Europe. He had no gigs lined up and, at that time, there was not much of an experimental jazz scene in Britain. He met “two radicals,” who put him up in a hotel and wanted him to play a concert, but he quickly encountered bureaucratic obstacles. According to Ministry of Labour regulations, Ornette could not perform as a jazz artist without a pre-arranged exchange of British musicians playing in the United States. He could play, however, if he could be classified as a “concert artist.” To prove his bonafides as a classical composer, Ornette got to work. He quickly wrote “Forms and Sounds” and “hired five English guys to play it.” A concert at Fairfield Hall was arranged, but according to governmental regulations it was not supposed to be a jazz performance. “So I called David [Izenzon] and [Charles] Moffett and got them to put on tuxedos. But I was depressed and took some LSD. We played the concert finally. That record came out of desperate (circumstances).” Postscript: While the recording of the concert – which starts with the wind quintet playing “Forms and Sounds” –would not appear until five years later, this single performance had such a profound impact on the British audience that Coleman was named Musician of the Year and Izenzon New Star of the Year in the 1965 Melody Maker Critics’ Poll.]
Above: David Izenzon, Charles Moffett and Ornette in 1966; 28 minutes of them talking and playing. (Wish I knew the origin of this footage!)
When you played in Fort Worth, did you have a special emotional feeling about playing your hometown?
I wish my mother had been alive to have experienced that because she had never heard me play in a context like that. [Ornette was happy that his sister, who still lived there, did get to attend the performance.] When I left Fort Worth, a black person could not have gone into a place like the Caravan of Dreams other than as a janitor or a waiter. Not sitting down and listening to music. And that was just back in the 1950s, so that was really a great change for me, to go there and have the symphony play a piece I had written. Oh, man. I can’t express the shock. And they really did enjoy it.
Would you say that that was something beyond your wildest imaginings growing up there?
Oh, yeah. I never even thought of it. It was a creative experience of the highest level. I’ve had four experiences like that. One was with the American Indians in Montana. One in Nigeria. One in Morocco [playing with the Master Musicians of Joujouka]. And with Buckminster Fuller.
What did you learn from working with Buckminster Fuller?
There is no such thing as up and down. If you think there is, you’re living in the dark ages. And he proved it. I loved that man. He was – not was, is – fantastic. I wrote this piece in his honor. [Ornette talked about how he regrets he did not get a chance to play it for Fuller before his death in 1983.] I was so surprised that that orchestra was so good, because most of it was made up of Europeans who were contracted to play there.
When you play violin, you don’t approach it like a trained classical player. How did you learn to play it?
I went out to a pawn show and I got me a violin. I said I’m not going to teach myself to read. I just wanted to play. Every time I’d make a sound I’d put a notch on the violin. I learned every sound that was possible to make. Then I taught myself to read on the violin. But I never could read the way I play because I play left-handed. So when I wrote for the violin, guys from the philharmonic would say, “Oh, you can’t play this. This is not for the violin.” So I took my violin out and played it for him and he got up and walked out on me. From then on I kept playing the violin and the trumpet because I figured if guys were going to laugh at me, I didn’t want them to laugh because they figure I don’t know what I’m doing. I want them to laugh at me because of how fucked up they think this music sounds. I wasn’t learning the violin and trumpet because I was trying to change my class category, I was learning because I wanted to see how much I could do musically. So finally they started realizing that I did know what I was doing. [And, he noted, his acceptance had reached the point that he said he got calls from people seeking to play his “classical” music.”]
I’m writing a piece now called “Oldest Language.” I’m going to try to get two people out of each state in America and about a half-dozen non-tempered players from all over the world and try to make the tempered and non-tempered make a different kind of unison. [Ornette then began to talk about the ideas of prolific English composer and author Cyril Scott, 1879-1970), who wrote many books on a dismayingly wide variety of topics (including one titled “Constipation and Common Sense”). Ornette was particularly intrigued by Scott’s thoughts on the ancient origins of middle C.]
When my mother first allowed me to buy my horn, I assembled it and when I first played it I fingered and played it as good technically as I play it today. I didn’t know you wasn’t supposed to do that. I thought that was what they meant by playing music – you just played. But when I did come out and make my [first] record, everybody started saying I was this country bumpkin that didn’t know my nose from my behind. When I started learning to read and write music, I always kept in mind my first experience of playing the horn musically, of not being influenced by knowing or not knowing. I know today that every human being has that quality in them, but they’re scared to approach it. That’s what I want to do, is to enlighten people to get to that part of themselves. Like bebop, rock, when you hear the open chord in one rock band you hear it in a thousand. Because most rock musicians started playing music like that and what happened is that they made a style out of it more than an idea. See, a style is not an idea, but an idea can create many styles. At one time bebop was not a style, but it became a style. When I first started playing it was an idea, not a style. I’ve always stayed with ideas. Adolph Sax invented the saxophone. I’m not trying to invent the saxophone. I’m trying to play music. I’m trying to improve upon the concept of what kind of ideas can be passed along through these instruments. Now I’ve gotten so I’d like to have a saxophone made of ebonite, because I like that clarinet sound.
Above: “The Blessing,” from Ornette’s debut LP “Something Else” (1958).
Whatever music is, it is not everybody putting on red or black and saying, “We doing it.” Music is an individual expression, the same way you have your own face, your own voice. The only reason we have decided to be in unison is because of the intellectual concept of making logic and a form of perfection at the moment. But you don’t have to read and write to play music, Look at Stevie Wonder. He makes good music. That defines something about music. The Western world has designed all the technical things to raise that level and lower the human level. What we need to do is raise the human level and let the technical level enhance the human level. But what we have now, the technical level has left the human way behind.
Human beings cannot be competitive and love each other at the same time. The thing we should think about as human beings is to encourage each other to reveal more of the natural qualities we have and take their intellectual qualities and make those work for the natural qualities, not the reverse. That’s why people are drawn to art and music, because they do see some sort of light at the end of the tunnel that’s saying, “Forget that and enjoy this.” I have never once put down a musician because he wasn’t making any money. I don’t care how much money a person makes, it ain’t gonna help me play any better to put him down. I always say I don’t have any enemies, because you don’t need enemies to die. There’s no use for me to play that kind of game just because I want to be successful.
[I asked Ornette about his use of the word “unison,” and he went into a lengthy rap about his concept of unison, which has nothing to do with the standard definition, musical or otherwise.]
Do you plan on playing much new music at the concert?
Much. But if I write all new tunes and the band doesn’t want to play them, I ask them what they want to play and we play that. I’m thinking of coming to Boston and playing a new set, a new program. What I’m interested in, because I know it’s unison, I don’t want to have something new that someone hasn’t heard and sound like that’s the way we’re playing it. I‘d rather have something old that sounds like you’re hearing it for the first time. I’d rather go for the idea than the style any day.
How often do you compose?
I write music every day. But I call it codes. I write codes every day.
I’m interested in bringing instant enlightenment. When a person comes to hear the music that I’m writing, that person brings something and I bring something. And when he releases what he’s bringing and I release what I’m bringing, the room just lights up. It just lights up. I’ve seen it. I’ve experienced it. I’ve been playing the saxophone since I’m fourteen years old. I cannot improve on the saxophone. But when I start playing music it ain’t like that. I’d rather find what caused me to play music than what song I’m playing. Being a teenager, the only thing I was aware of was that I thought it would make me more of an adult. Here was a way of getting free of my parents and stuff, get rid of that diaper service and get into the real world. But I found out it didn’t do that. It just challenged that. I started playing music for music’s sake. My mother started telling me I couldn’t do that, I had to have some motive, financial or something. But I’ve never done that.
There are only two categories that human beings have to acknowledge. One, that they are adults. And the other, people’s inventions. Once you become an adult, you can start using everything that everybody makes. Or you can start using what you make. You have to pay what is called a royalty to do this. It’s called a bill. That’s the adult world. I just want to have the same privileges as all adults. Some adults say they’re worth something and they get it. Other adults have to fight to get what they think they’re worth. So what is the true value of the adult?
You’ve been playing with an electric band for a while now. Would you ever want to go back to an acoustic format?
I think the music I’m playing now sounds very acoustic. It just happens to be played on instruments that require an amplifier. I do have a record coming out with my first band, Don Cherry, Charlie Haden, Billy Higgins and myself. But as a composer, I don’t think of acoustic and electric. I think of music. When you hear the band that I’m bringing, you have to understand that all I have is a drum and a bass and a guitar. Even if they were still playing acoustical, I’d need an amplifier. Charlie Haden always used an amplifier for his bass when he was playing with me so I guess you could say I’ve always been half electric.
What about categories? Is there a term that describes your music that works for you?
What I find works is to consider yourself first a human being. And then go for what it is that should be more than for what you want. And if you can get anywhere close to how it should be, it’s always better than getting what you want. Because lots of stuff you want is your environment telling you what you need. [Ornette than talked about growing up in Texas, where his nickname at home was Junior. This led to an anecdote about a white kid fiddle player without any chance to escape his Texas environment, which concluded with Ornette saying, “No one should ever think they need to approval of someone to fail.”]
What is your take on the state of jazz today?
It’s not in the state it was in when it was called bebop. It’s not in the state it was in when it was called free jazz. It’s not in the state it was when it was called Dixieland. Right now, the stage it’s in – which could be good – is the individual stage. That means that anyone has the chance now to bring in something that hasn’t existed and stimulating everybody. I do that every day, but because I’ve been doing it for 20 years, nobody realizes it. The same way I have something in my mind that’s so fresh and stimulating, I can’t wait to get my band to do it. But I know I’m not going to get the same interest because of what I’ve already done. And that’s a tragedy. But that’s the way the system is. It’s like a prostitute that marries a king. People will say, “Oh, you know the king’s wife. The prostitute!” [Laughs]