Far Out, Man
Avant-garde legend Ornette Coleman talks about life, knowledge and even a little music
“Does life have to be knowledge, or is knowledge life?” The question flowed as nonchalantly from the mouth of its speaker as any sentiment in any normal conversation. But this particular conversation was hardly normal.
On the other end of the phone line was saxophonist Ornette Coleman, an inestimably influential musician from a dynamic and important era of jazz, and one of few greats from that era still living. He had agreed to speak with me — in theory — prior to his headlining performance for the Burlington Discover Jazz Festival this Saturday.
Coleman has been alternately revered and reviled for his pioneering approach to composition and performance. Emerging in the late 1950s on the heels of be-bop — a controversial and oft-misunderstood phase in the evolution of jazz — he is regarded as the godfather of the avant-garde, or “free jazz.” Coleman himself has frequently bemoaned the latter term as inadequate, noting the word “free” dismisses the painstaking work that goes into his compositions.
Coleman is the inventor of harmolodic theory, a groundbreaking approach to composition that ignores the constraints of chord structure and progression, rhythmic meter and virtually every other tenet at the foundation of popular American music. It’s not hard to understand why so many initially balked at Coleman’s revolutionary explorations. Even now, some 50 years later, his music can be frustrating and challenging to casual listeners and aficionados alike.
Although Coleman has had his share of detractors — most famously, Miles Davis and Roy Eldridge — time has revealed the genius at the heart of his work. And while accolades such as his 2006 Lifetime Achievement Grammy and the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Music acknowledged his accomplishments, the breadth and depth of Coleman’s impact can be seen and heard in virtually every facet of contemporary American pop culture.
Ornette Coleman exists on a far different plane than most (in more ways than one, I would discover). He is almost universally regarded in the same class with such certifiable legends as Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis. In fact, it could be argued that Coleman is a class unto himself. More than one person I spoke with prior to our interview pointed out: “Coleman was doing Miles Davis before Miles Davis.”
My knowledge of jazz history is merely functional, consisting largely of what I can remember from Ken Burns’ epic documentary, Jazz. I know the big names and the big events. My appreciation for the genre is similarly basic. I’m not an aficionado, but I’ve been known to go on the occasional jazz bender with reasonably accessible fare. And I knew that I would be well out of my depth with Ornette Coleman the Living Legend unless I did some serious homework. I decided to ask around. How did he influence local jazz heads? What questions might they have for him?
My search first led me to Bryan McNamara, a local twentysomething saxophonist who is currently studying for his Master’s degree in jazz composition at McGill University in Montréal. McNamara was introduced to Coleman via The Shape of Jazz to Come, his seminal 1959 Atlantic Records debut (Coleman had released three prior collections on smaller labels).
“He is one of the first people I ever heard who do what I try to embody when I play,” said McNamara. “Ornette was the first person I can cite who made sounds on the saxophone, as opposed to just playing notes.” He paused before adding, “He developed this whole new language of sound.”
That language, though originally called harmolodics, has evolved greatly over time and is now “Sound Grammar,” a more existential approach to the manipulation of sound.
That’s a concept familiar to Burlington’s Greg Davis. The internationally known experimental composer is reputed to challenge even his own preconceptions of how music can be made. Coleman’s work has played a key role in shaping Davis’ sonic explorations, he told me — in particular, Free Jazz, the 1960 album regarded as one of Coleman’s least accessible.
“Hearing that record was one of the first of many steps that sort of opened my ears and mind to what music could be and how it could be structured,” said Davis.
I found his sentiments echoed by an array of local musicians and jazz appreciators. “Ornette Coleman influenced me almost as much as Miles Davis and John Coltrane,” exclaimed trumpeter Arthur Brooks. He’s a former student of Coleman contemporary Bill Dixon, a noted avant-garde musician in his own right and a member of local jazz collective Ensemble V. “Just as influential was Ornette’s trumpet playing and that of Don Cherry,” Brooks continued, referring to Coleman’s longtime collaborative partner and Coleman’s own controversial forays into brass (he later tried out violin, too). “What Ornette’s trumpet playing does for me, is that he legitimizes deconstruction,” Brooks said.
Alex Toth, the leader of Boston-based Afro-funk outfit Rubblebucket Orchestra, concurred. “Ornette is a huge part of that tradition of improvisation,” said Toth — like Brooks, a trumpet player and composer. “People might cite Coltrane as more of an influence, but Ornette opened that world up for everybody,” he added. “That’s a huge thing, for that to happen in what was a popular music form.”
It gradually became clear to me that, while these musicians were technically speaking to Coleman’s musical influence, a strong philosophical undercurrent ran just beneath the surface. Without saying as much, each had been affected in ways far more profound than mere notes and scales.
That notion was driven home by Tanner McCuin, host of the wide-ranging psychedelic music program, “Aether Everywhere,” on Burlington’s 105.9 FM The Radiator. “When I was younger, I took a lot of inspiration from the sort of anarchic freedom in [Coleman’s] music,” he claimed. “Later, I saw it as more of a yin-yang, with ‘free-jazz’ playing inside of a conceptual rule set, both [aspects] working together to form a whole.”
McCuin added that, while talent, drive and creativity will always exist as prerequisites to great art, Coleman illustrated that “there are many ways to approach the canvas.”
As my interview loomed, I immersed myself in Coleman’s recordings and dozens of articles written over the course of his long career. And as I realized there was almost nothing about the man’s life and work that hadn’t been covered, I found myself thinking about McCuin’s last statement. If there are indeed “many ways to approach the canvas,” it followed that I just needed to find mine.
Of course, I hoped to divine some nugget of truth that a thousand music journalists before me had somehow overlooked. I would soon learn that “truth” — even a straight answer — was hard earned from this artistic enigma. My interview with Coleman was unique, just not in the way I had planned.
Roy Eldridge, when asked for his thoughts on Ornette Coleman’s music, once famously quipped, “I think he’s jiving, baby.” In speaking with the man, it’s hard not to entertain that same suspicion.
At six digits into Coleman’s phone number, I felt adolescent butterflies fluttering in my stomach. Pausing to look over my notes one last time, I took a deep breath and placed the call.
It seemed like an eternity before anyone picked up — though it was probably four rings. “Hello?” answered a reedy, high-pitched voice. “Hello,” I replied, trying my best to sound professional. But not too professional, lest he think me a telemarketer. “Is this Mr. Coleman?” I asked, knowing perfectly well it was. It seems like every journalist who has covered Coleman has made a point of describing the man’s distinctive voice. Add me to the list, I suppose.
“Yes, this is he,” he replied.
“Hi, Mr. Coleman. This is Dan Bolles from Seven Days newspaper in Burlington. How are you?”
“Oh, I’m fine, thank you,” he said.
I pressed on. “Do you have a few minutes for an interview?” I asked. I have no idea why I asked this question. The interview had been scheduled for weeks. Still, I found myself genuinely relieved when he answered “yes.”
“Great!” I exclaimed. “I guess I’d like to start with Sound Grammar, if that’s OK?”
“OK,” he replied. It was the last direct answer he would give me for close to an hour.
“I was wondering if you could just give me an idea of how you define Sound Grammar?”
“Oh,” he uttered, as if it was the first time he’d contemplated the question, which of course it wasn’t. “Well, it’s two simple words: One is the ability to hear, the other is the ability to use,” he explained. “To me, Sound Grammar is an intellectual concept of language that has to do with the culture of what we call art and knowledge.”
OK, I thought. A little cryptic, maybe, but I think I get it.
But then he continued.
“Basically, I would think that the human beings that we are . . . everything that speaks and walks upright is called ‘human being.’ Everything else is called the quality of what it represents. But the human being doesn’t necessarily seem like it represents anything, because it is what is.”
OK, you lost me.
“The reason why I’m saying this is the word ‘human being,’” Coleman continued, “is one thing and the quality that is the existence of human being is way beyond just the quality of form.
I think he’s jiving, baby. I strained to push Eldridge's words from my head.
I had read in several sources, most recently in a 2006 New York Times article written by Ben Ratliff, that Coleman rarely answers questions directly. That he speaks in vague, near mystical maxims and takes as much liberty with the English language as he does with the musical tongue he created. That he bends the literal meaning of words — like “quality,” for example — to his will until they fit his purpose. Exactly one minute and 57 seconds into our conversation, I was experiencing this phenomenon firsthand. The man actually speaks like he plays, I thought. It would not be the last time that notion crossed my mind.
“I personally don’t know how human beings came into existence as far as race or whatever knowledge is and whatever humans are,” Coleman was saying. “I guess it had to be done basically by intelligence and class. But in relation to life it’s just called ‘human,’ right?”
“Do you know why I’m saying that?” he asked.
“Uh, no, I don’t, actually,” I replied.
“I know you don’t,” he said, chuckling. “But it’s so obvious that the quality of life that’s called human is not equal to the lifestyle and what we call knowledge,” he continued, before asking the million-dollar question: “In other words, does life have to be knowledge, or is knowledge life?”
And that, my friends, is the definition of Sound Grammar. You still with us?
“Well?” Coleman intoned. “Which one would you say?” It was at this point that I discarded my painstakingly crafted pages of notes and questions. It appeared I should have been boning up on Kierke-gaard and Nietzsche.
I fumbled for roughly two minutes to come up with a suitable response — at one point I actually said “chicken or the egg.” To Ornette effing Coleman! When I finally felt like I’d talked myself in a circle, I stopped.
For a moment, silence. And then Coleman uttered five words that I’ll remember for the rest of my life: “I see what you’re saying.”
You do? I’m not sure I see what I’m saying! . . . he’s jiving, baby. Stop it, Roy.The conversation seemingly twisted — again, much like Coleman’s music — in several different directions at once. More often than not, the questions were redirected at me. I’d like to say I held my own — and I think I mostly did. Coleman asked me about my own musical inclinations and seemed genuinely interested in what I had to say about singing, drumming and playing guitar. We riffed for several beats on the “quality” — literal definition, I think — of the human voice. He asked if I had a specific key I preferred to sing in. When I replied I did not, he remarked, “Well, that’s good. That’s really progress!” I had never thought much about the matter, but this fact seemed important to Coleman.
“If you’re not concerned with what key you’re in, just the fact that you sing, then I must say, more power to you,” he said. Did Ornette Coleman just flatter me, or does he think I can’t match pitch? Does either one make me avant-garde?
Following a debate about whether the title of a thing has a bearing on its meaning — at some point I may have cleverly used the aphorism “a rose by any other name” — Coleman posed this question: “Do you think sex is love?”
Without hesitation I responded, “Not always.” As the words left my mouth I realized I was talking about sex with a man old enough to be my grandfather. He chuckled, either sensing my sudden modesty or genuinely amused. “That’s a good description,” he said, “but what about always?”
Emotion is fundamental to Coleman. During our conversation he referred to it often, with seemingly little or no provocation. When asked what it meant to him to profoundly inspire so many artists, he replied, “It says to me that we communicate in emotion. It’s the most incredible way of communicating. Not only does it spell out what the emotion represents, it also inspires you to express what that emotion can do. It can’t get any better than that. Sex can’t touch that. You probably think sex is everything, but sex can’t touch that.”
There were moments in our conversation when I felt guilty for trying to steer at least some of the discourse towards “music.” I almost felt like I was tricking him. And who the hell tricks a 78-year-old man? Especially one who repeatedly asks who I am, where I’m from and how I got his phone number? From his publicist, I swear.
Coleman’s answers to my music-related questions were at best courteous and at worst as uninteresting as the questions themselves: What was it like working with Pat Metheny/Lou Reed/Jerry Garcia? How did you teach yourself to sight-read? True to form, he used most of my sneak attacks as a springboard to discuss more pressing matters of the day, like ideas. Not any specific ideas, mind you. Just, well, the idea of ideas.
“I know two things in relation to what we’re talking about,” Coleman said. “One is the idea. The other is the execution. That [execution] isn’t controlled by anyone. At least not in the form of the idea. Maybe in the results.
“In the form of thinking of the idea, because of the tools that you use to execute, it comes more for the vision of that,” Coleman clarified. “I personally try to avoid that as much as possible. It should come just from you being human. And I’m sure it has come from that,” he finished.
I asked if there were music, besides his own, in which he finds the ideas come from being human.
“You find it in truth, you find it in emotion,” Coleman replied. “You find it in love and you find it in religion. But one of the things about all of that is that it comes complete. It doesn’t come in pieces.” Then he threw a curveball: “But the idea doesn’t have to be complete to be enacted.”
Thinking I had one in my wheelhouse, I asked if that’s really the core of improvisation — that ideas are only really complete when given room to expand and be fleshed out.
Coleman’s compositions, I’d learned, essentially serve as foundations for improvisation. They are rigidly and purposefully constructed, but the form they take beyond that foundation is something its players never really know until the song is finished. In fact, he writes entirely new music for every performance. It is not merely improvisation that makes each rendition unique, it is the very firmament on which those improvisations are created.
But Coleman seemed to balk at the suggestion. “I don’t think a blind person is improvising when he’s walking down the street,” he said. “So, therefore, there’s something in him that allows him to see his own emotions,” he explained. “I mean, imagine if you could make notes like that . . . you could really change something.”
But Coleman has really changed something. He fundamentally and profoundly shook the foundations of an entire genre and, perhaps, art itself. He’s jiving, baby.
I asked him again about his influence on art. “I’ve always shared whatever I could learn with whoever was interested,” he responded. Like me, I thought. He continued, “And I’m still that same way today. Although I’m beginning to realize that the idea is the supreme concept of all knowledge that has to do with something you haven’t done.”
He paused for a moment before adding, “But the quality of how that materializes doesn’t have the same components to represent. Say if you were speaking Chinese or Russian, there’s no idea to change that. There is only the quality of what it sounds like,” he said, and then brought the discussion back to the power of emotion.
“What I mean by that is the advancement of emotion is not a name. It’s a feeling, which is really something. You don’t have to hear sound to feel. But just the idea of sound having a certain effect upon you usually comes in the form of appreciation. Anything that has a title that has to do with sound, sound is going to win more than the title. So because of that, every human being that is interested in expression, their emotion in the form of . . . whatever it is.
“Whatever they’re exposed to, they have the ability of changing it instantly if they find the quality of where it came from,” he concluded. “And that’s pretty good.”
Yes, Mr. Coleman. Yes, it is.