Paris -- In his home town of Fort Worth, Texas, before he had ever "even once" sat next to a white person, 20-year-old Ornette Coleman was playing the saxophone in a rhythm and blues club. He saw drunken women and men cut each other up, and women beat up their husbands for spending the family's money on booze and gambling. He told his mother: "Oh mother, I don't want to play this kind of music any more. There's all this violence. And the music is inspiring them to do it."
"What's wrong with you?" his mother replied: "What do you want? People to pay you for your soul?"
A light went on in his brain. Although he could not say it in so many words at the time, that was exactly what he wanted. It so happened that one of his friends could play anything Charlie Parker played note-for-note. The guy "would sit me down and I'd listen to bebop for hours. 'Oh yes!' I thought: 'This is the music that will take me away from sin and corruption.' Well, it turned out I never got to play that music."
Ornette @ 1994 San Francisco Jazz Festival
copyright © Stuart Brinan
Half a century later, now 71, Coleman was recalling his past in his suite in the ritzy Hotel Meurice across the street from the Tuilleries Gardens. He was here last week as this year's winner in the music category of the Praemium Imperiale awards from the Japan Art Association; a prize worth 15 million yen, 900, 000 French Francs, or about $140,000 (author Arthur Miller is another recipient). The prestigious award was given "under the high patronage of his Imperial Highness Prince Hitachi of Japan," and would be presented to Coleman by former French Prime Minister Raymond Barre, who is on the board of the Japan Art Association. A planned gala ceremony in the Galerie des Glaces du Chateau de Versailles was canceled after the disasters in New York and Washington. Past awards have been given to the likes of Pierre Boulez, Frank Gehry, Robert Rauschenberg, John Gielgud and Federico Fellini. Coleman has also, in 1994, won a MacArthur Fellowship "genius grant," also in six figures.
Arriving in Los Angeles in the early '50s brimming with soul-saving bebop, his condition was somewhat different: "I needed clothes and shoes and I probably needed a bath." When he went to hear Charlie Parker in the Tiffany Club, "They said, 'Get out of here.' So I stood on the sidewalk and listened."
He had learned the repertoire. For sure, he knew the difficult "Donna Lee." Knew it "backwards." Playing it while sitting-in with "some of the founders of bebop" - he prefers no names - "one by one they put their instruments down and left me up there playing by myself. Which destroyed me. My heart was broken. They thought I was crazy. I knew I could play with these guys, but they didn't want to play with me. I really knew 'Donna Lee' and I was playing it correctly, but I was playing it my way. I was really dedicated, I was trying to get away from playing music that made people beat each other up. And I got beat up for doing it. I felt like they were punching me in the face, kicking me in the butt. Eventually, I kind of found a way not to have this happen all the time."
During the following years, when it was only some of the time, Charles Mingus said: "Ornette just pushes the melody out of line here and there. Trouble is he can't play it straight." Coleman did not want to play anywhere near anything considered "straight." He was in the process of learning exactly how to push things "out of line." He would begin a tune by playing the melody in, say, the key of C, then go into various levels of abstract variations with improvised modulations and time changes in tandem with his rhythm section (most notably Charlie Haden, bass, and Billy Higgins, drums). They'd finish by playing the same line in the key of E-flat or upside-down or backwards.
This was called "free jazz," though Coleman insists, "I never said I was playing free anything." Like prior major movements in jazz, it was considered a threat to organized music (listen to Tomorrow Is The Question (Atlantic, 1959). Coleman's days as a threat to society officially ended in 1959 in The Five Spot Cafe on the Bowery in Manhattan when Leonard Bernstein hugged him on the bandstand. His "Skies Of America," performed with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, opened a multi-million dollar culture center in his home town. He wrote "Architecture in Motion," a harmolodic ballet.
Harmolodics is a system he describes thusly: "Music is not a style. Music is ideas. In any normal style, you have to play certain notes in certain places. You play in that style only and try to make people believe that style is more important than other styles. Which removes you from the idea. With harmolodics you go directly to the idea."
He created soundtracks for the films Naked Lunch (with composer Howard Shore) and Conrad Rooks's Chappaqua (it was scrapped, though, and replaced by a Ravi Shankar score), recorded Song X with Pat Metheny, Virgin Beauty with Jerry Garcia and the remarkable live trio album, At The 'Golden Circle' Stockholm (two volumes, on Blue Note). He wrote string and woodwind quartets. Shirley Clark shot a documentary called Ornette: Made In America. He learned to play the trumpet and the violin. Together with his son (and manager and drummer) Denardo, he has recently built a recording studio and rehearsal complex called Harmolodic on 125th Street, in Harlem.
Along the way, said the quiet and modest but decidedly assuming Coleman, he has "learned some things: "This woman singer from Iran was telling me the words of a song from her country. I said, 'Okay, now, sing it.' And she sang it and it was identical to the way she had spoken it. How many people are aware that there is a song form that is no different from the way people talk? That's got to be some advanced grammar. The grammar of a song keeps you grounded. If you could play free of grammar you wouldn't have that problem. If only you could find someone to play with.
"The problem we all suffer from as musicians is we use information we have been given and try to make music from it without questioning what our instrument is capable of.
"The good thing about music is that there's a lot of room to make your own mistakes. If you can find out what a mistake is."
He's been listening to "indigenous music," music from China, Iran, Africa, Turkey and Mongolia: "One day I'm going to get a group of indigenous musicians and put them together with harmolodics and let them play exactly what they are already playing. Yes, that's a logical step for me.
"The things you hear me say today," he told the public relations woman who was auditing his string of interviews, "you're going to hear me take them all back."
C o m m e n t s
Ornette Coleman 1 of 1 John Litweiler
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September 30, 01
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