This article first appeared in The Guardian, in June 2007.
Ornette Coleman is a saxophonist who plays below, between and beyond the notes in search of pure feeling. He is an iconoclast’s iconoclast, Lou Reed’s hero, a fearless harmonic terrorist too avant-garde even for Miles Davis. David Was calls him “the Samuel Beckett of jazz” – a misunderstood titan, maligned for his originality and daring. Miles famously remarked that he was “all screwed up inside,” but the word friends and acquaintances use to describe him is “lovely”.
The day we met, I spent the morning with Jonathan Demme, recording an interview for a BBC radio documentary. The director of Stop Making Sense and The Silence Of The Lambs is a renowned record collector, so when we finished I told him where I was headed. His face opened like a poppy at dawn. “Ornette is an inspirational artist and a beautiful man,” he said. “Send him a hug from me. Tell him ‘Jonathan Demme wants me to hug you.’” Coleman has this effect on people.
He 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.
Coleman 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 performs at London’s Royal Festival Hall next month will be brand new.
He 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 is seventy-seven-years-old, 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.”
His mother bought him his first saxophone with money he had saved shining shoes. He picked it up and began to express himself. “I thought it was a toy and I played it the way I’m playing today. 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.” Early inspiration came from gut-bucket blues and hillbilly music, as well as Texan sax men Ben Martin and Red Connor.
As a teenager, he joined local R’n’B bands and soon discovered that 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 playing.’”
By the turn of 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.” In hothouse improvisation sessions, where self-expression supposedly trumped technique, his determined pursuit of the sounds in his head still spelled alienation.
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 Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk. 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, 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 audience reactions in a rival jazz magazine, Down Beat: “Some walked in and out before they could finish a drink, some sat mesmerized by the sound, others talked constantly to their neighbours at the table or argued with drink in hand at the bar.”
Trumpeter Roy Eldridge dismissed Coleman as a charlatan. Miles questioned his sanity. Thomas Pynchon wrote an avant-garde saxophonist named McClintic Sphere into his debut novel, playing “all the notes Bird missed” every night at the V Note. 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. He replies: “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, trust me.
“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 when rehearsal begins. His current band features Tony Falanga on upright bass, Al McDowell 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 ten-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,” Ornette 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, challenged 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 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, re-interpreting 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 his 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.
“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.”