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Ornette Coleman Interview

This interview first appeared in Cadence magazine, October, 1995. It was recorded, however, in 1987. At that time Will Kinnally, my friend and the Jazz Program Director of WUFT, took several technicians and student interns to Atlanta to record the Ornette Coleman Quartet and other groups, part of a tribute to Ed Blackwell that Rob Gibson had organized. I went along as "the journalist." My job was to interview as many musicians as I could. I'll spare you a list, but I will say that, while most of the musicians I spoke with were eager to share their thoughts and time, Ornette Coleman proved elusive. Finally, though, I arranged a meeting in the lobby of our hotel, and Coleman--to my ears, the greatest living jazz innovator--proved to be a model of cordiality.

Jarrett: You've said that you have rapport with Ed Blackwell and Denardo, your son, like no other drummers.

Ornette Coleman: Yeah, that's true. I've been playing with Blackwell over 20 years. We used to play when I first went to Los Angeles. Blackwell plays the drums as if he's playing a wind instrument. Actually, he sounds more like a talking drum. He's speaking a certain language that I find is very valid in rhythm instruments.

Very seldom in rhythm instruments do you hear rhythm sounding like a language. I think that's a very old tradition, because the drums, in the beginning, used to be like the telephone--to carry the message. For some reason, Blackwell, Billy, and Denardo, they have all--as long as they've played with me--they've always played like that. I never really relied upon them to keep time or rhythm for me. In fact, I always prefer musicians that play with me to play independent of myself but with me.

Jarrett: Now, when you first met Blackwell in L.A., I assume you were working on certain musical problems. What were they?

Coleman: In music you have something called sound, you have speed, you have timbre, you have harmonics, and you have, more or less, the resolutions. In most music, people that play what I call mostly standard music, they only use one dimension, which means the note and the time. Whereas like say I'm having this conversation with you now. I'm talking, but I'm thinking, feeling, smelling, and moving. Yet I'm concentrating on what you're saying. So that means there's more things going on in the body than just the present thing that the person's got you doing. Like you're interviewing me, although I'm doing more than just talking to you. And the same with you.

To me, human existence exists on a multiple level, not just on a two-dimensional level, not just having to be identified with what you do and what you say. Those things are the results of what people see and hear that you do. But the human beings themselves are living on a multiple level. That's how I have always wanted musicians to play with me: on a multiple level. I don't want them to follow me. I want them to follow themself, but to be with me. Denardo and Billy and Blackwell has done that better than anyone I have met.

Jarrett: If music is like a telephone, then you are envisioning it as a network--a party line.

Coleman: Yeah, I would think that sound and light is probably the only elements that--regardless of what race you are or what your intellect is or what your handicap--those two things, you can use equally as good as anyone else. I mean, if you decided to go out today and get you an instrument and do whatever it is that you do, no one can tell you how you're going to do it but when you do it. So I think that those elements--light and sound--are beyond democratic. They're into the creative part of life.

Jarrett: When I was in the eighth grade, I did get an instrument--a clarinet. Let's say that, when I was a few years older, I had gone to New York, and sought you out for lessons. What would you have told me?

Coleman: Usually, when someone asks me for a lesson, I usually ask them, "What is it that they want to know--philosophically?" In other words, I think that there are lots of people that play music, but, basically, they have other things that are motivating them to play music. So, for instance, if you came to me, [I'd ask,] "Do you want to write? Do you want to improvise? Why do you want to play this instrument? What do you want to do?"

Instead of me giving them lots of beginners's lessons, I could show them the thing they want to do. Then I take them back to the rudiments of what it is to do to do that: "I want to solo. I want to read." Whatever it is. Most teachers start a person in the first grade. Then you go to second grade. I never think that way. I think that the best way is to get the information immediately. If you say, "I want to play like you," I say, "O.k., do this." That's what I do.

Jarrett: When you first started playing, what were you after?

Coleman: Actually, when I was in elementary school, I saw a saxophone. A band came to my school, and I saw this guy get up and play this solo. And I said, "Oh man, what is that! That must be fantastic!" And I asked my mother could I have an instrument. She said, "Well if you go out and save your money." So I went and got--I made me a shine box. I went out and started shining shoes, and I'd bring whatever I made. About three years later, my mother told me to look under the bed. I looked under the bed, and I took the horn and I played it as good as I played it last night--for the first time. That's the honest-to-gosh truth.

But I didn't know that you had to know music. I thought that everybody just played music.

Jarrett: You played the music that was in your head.

Coleman: Exactly. And that's why I am pro-sound. No one has to learn to spell to talk, right? You see a little kid holding a conversation with an adult. He probably doesn't know the words he's saying, but he knows where to fit them to make what he's thinking logical to what you're saying. Music is the say way. If you desire to play it or write it, then you have to get more information. But the end result is that you play music. Even when you write it, someone's got to play it. So if you can play it and bypass all the rest of the things, you're still doing as great as someone that has spent forty years trying to find out how to do that. I'm really pro-human beings, pro-expression of everything.

Jarrett: Instead of having someone play out of a pregiven key signature, you recommend playing out of one's own signature.

Coleman: I've written a theory book called Harmolodics. I found out that I could translate the clefs into one sound. For instance, if you were behind a closed door and I heard your voice, I would know it was you without seeing your face. But can you imagine if sound is that identifiable--more than your face--that's fantastic, right?

I found out that every person has their own movable C--do. When you put your sound or your idea into an arena mixed with other things--if what you're saying has a valid place--it's going to find its position in that total thing, and it's going to make that thing much better. You don't have to worry about being a number one, number two, or number three. Numbers don't have anything to do with placement. Numbers only have something to do with repetition.

That's what I was trying to say when we were talking about sound. I think that every person, whether they play music or don't play music, has a sound--their own sound, that thing that you're talking about. You can't destroy that. It's like energy. Your sound, your voice, means more to everyone that knows you than how you look tomorrow. You might grow a beard or shave your hair. They say, "I can't recognize you." But as soon as you talk, "Oh yeah, it is you!" It's the same thing. If it's that distinctive, then there must be something there. It's amazing that everyone has their own sound. Only actors are the one that try to cover--when they imitate somebody--but then they're imitating that sound.

Jarrett: When you started playing, you weren't trying to imitate.

Coleman: After I found out that I was playing music and that I'd have to learn how to read and write music, I started doing that about two years later. Finally, I said, "Oh, that means what I really want to do is to be a composer." But when I was coming up in Texas, there was segregation. There was no schools to go to. I taught myself how to read and how to start writing.

After I left Texas and went to California, I had a hard time getting anyone to play anything that I was writing, so I had to end up playing them myself. And that's how I ended up just being a saxophone player. Originally, I wanted to be a composer. I always tell people, "I think of myself as a composer."

Jarrett: You've gone through a lot of hardships. Still, it's amazing that your original quartet has played together off and on for over thirty years.

Coleman: Yeah, that's a miracle. Actually, I have another record I made with them in 1976, but I've had such a bad experience with record companies, because I keep my head so much in music and not in business. The reason why I'm playing more now is Denardo's taking care of my business. I feel safer coming out. You know, I'm very inquisitive. It's not that I don't trust human beings. I don't know what they're thinking about. Just because someone says, "I like what you do" or something: They might like it today and tomorrow they might not. I've had that experience with record companies.

I've never had a relationship with a record executive. I always went to the record company by someone that liked my playing. Then they would get fired, and I'd be left with the record company. And then--because they got fired--the record company wouldn't do anything for me. Most of my relationships have been like that--with record companies. I've never had a legitimate business relationship with a company. I've always had a personal relationship with someone in the company. When they left, everything that they were doing had to be changed. And I'd be a part of that system. But Denardo has been really helpful by solving that for me.

Jarrett: Describe your relationship with Denardo.

Coleman: Denardo made his first record with me when he was nine. It's called The Empty Foxhole [Blue Note], and he played beautifully. Denardo has never once taken on the image of being a drummer. I remember once, we got an interview, and he said, "Dad, these people are writing about me like I'm an adult. Don't they know I'm a kid?" I have never tried to encourage him to get a music image like other musicians have. We get along really well because of that probably. I made a tour when him and Pat [Metheny] that was unbelievable.

Jarrett: What other projects are in the works?

Coleman: I've written a theory book. Lots of guys always ask me about harmolodics. They don't know, and some don't believe that I know. The end result of music is, you just play it. That's why I haven't been so anxious. But now, lots of people write and say, "I want to find out what you're doing." So I know that this book will enlighten them.

And Denardo, since he's been managing me, I've taken lots of his time from his own drums. But I recorded a piece that he wrote with Don and I about ten years ago.

Jarrett: When again did you go to New Orleans?

Coleman: In the forties, '47, '49. I stayed down there with Melvin Lastie. I had a really good time in New Orleans, although I had some very tragic times in Baton Rouge. Some guys beat me up and threw my horn away. 'Cause I had a beard, then, and long hair like the Beatles. I didn't want to be bothered with people that were unkind. I thought that if I grew a beard they would leave me alone. Instead of leaving me alone, they thought I was gay or a freak or something. I guess, they didn't like my appearance.

Jarrett: And you didn't meet Blackwell in New Orleans.

Coleman: No, I met Melvin Lastie, a fantastic trumpet player. I met Blackwell in California.

Jarrett: Did he look you up?

Coleman: We ran into each other from some mutual relationship with other musicians. But from the day I met him, we've always had a good rapport.

Jarrett: So many of the problems you faced have been manifestations of racism.

Coleman: I think that's true of everybody, black or white or whatever.

Jarrett: You've always had great white bassists. Is that a coincidence?

Coleman: I never thought about colors or ethnical people. I've always thought about human beings. I remember when David Izenzon came in my house, played for me, and, the next day, he called me and said, "Ornette, I have a great idea. Let's start a David Izenzon/Ornette Coleman Trio." And I just met him one day. I said, "If you feel this way, come on over. I'll put you in my band. He stayed with me for a long time." And Scotty LaFaro. I've always thought about human beings. The graveyard has no color.

Jarrett: What are you most excited about now?

Coleman: I've written lots of music that some people call "classical music." I call it "music that guys read." For the last three years, I've had those people very interested in my writing. Since I think of myself as a composer, I feel really good. I've had lots of guys call me up. I've gotten two or three commissions to write things. I've written lots of movie scores.

I don't really live like a musician myself. I think music is just something that I do, but I'd like to be doing lots of other things.

Jarrett: Such as?

Coleman: I like to cure all kinds of illness. I think that there is something in life . . . No, let me put it better. I think that there are human beings that have never died. Whoever Adam and Eve was, Eve didn't come out of her mother's womb, and she certainly didn't give birth to Adam. Something caused them to exist. I think that that image is still in existence on earth.

All the things that human beings suffer from are how their environment treats them, and how the elements of their planet affects their mind and body--like radiation, cancer, and all. I think those things that are in food are all chemically disastrous when they are placed in the wrong contents where human beings are exposed to it.

I remember once I read a book on mental illness and there was a nurse that had gotten sick. Do you know what she died from? From worrying about the mental patients not being able to get their food. She became a mental patient. I really believe that we as human beings . . . the way we treat others is the only way the world is going to become perfect. If you decide you want to be treated good, and you treat someone else good, or you want to learn something, it's information. It's getting the right, good information.

Jarrett: Your music is beautiful, but you also dress beautifully. Explain your interest in clothes.

Coleman: It seems to me that in the western world, culture has something to do with appearance. A person that's out creating good stuff has got to appreciate someone when they take the time to have an appearance that goes with what they're doing. It just makes that person feel that what his work is is going to be more valid. But who wants to see a guy standing in front, looking like a bum, doing something that a bums don't do? This don't make sense.

It's not that I think that everything has to be uniform, but I think that having an appearance that someone can appreciate without you being bourgeois or a snob has got to make a person feel good in your company, especially if you are a nice person. I basically like to have an appearance, first, that is harmless, and, secondly, that is interesting to see. It makes people more comfortable, or it makes people more sensitive about themself in relationship to what it is they want to ask you.

Jarrett: I meant to ask you earlier, when you write symphonic music do you approach it . . .

Coleman: Same way as I play. You've got to realize. In the western world, regardless of what color you are, what title the music is, it's all played by the same notes. When you see Horowitz sit down at the piano, he's still punching C. When you see Willie Nelson get his guitar, he's punching C. Me, I'm punching C. We're all playing the same notes.

It's just someone has labelled us as having a different label to do what you do. I find that labels are the worst thing in the world for artistic expression. It should be like, whatever your name is--you doing what you do--and not labels. It's not nice to put people in categories.

November 8, 1987, Atlanta, GA