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Interviews

Ornette Coleman: Music is a Verb

By Published: September 21, 2009
"I've played in the key of X, Z, P, H!" he says. Just for the record, there are only twelve keys in traditional Western music, and none of them go so far down the alphabet as H.

Of course, Coleman is not playing traditional Western music. These keys he talks about seem to have less to do with a prearranged system of notes, than with an emotional reaction that he wants to share and express.

"It all comes from how you feel," he says, "and in X, it's how someone's treating you, so that you won't be irritated. You know, sometimes someone's just like, 'Oh I don't want to hear all that stuff you're playing, it sounds like S-H-I-T!'"

Some have (and continue to) dismiss Coleman, as an out-of-tune critics' darling who never had the real stuff of jazz legends, and it's been that way from the moment he burst on the scene. Certainly those gigs at the Five Spot sparked division in the jazz world. Guys like the Modern Jazz Quartet
Modern Jazz Quartet
Modern Jazz Quartet

band/orchestra
came out excited, and others like Dizzy Gillespie
Dizzy Gillespie
Dizzy Gillespie
1917 - 1993
trumpet
raised their eyebrows. Roy Eldridge
Roy Eldridge
Roy Eldridge
1911 - 1989
trumpet
famously said of him, "I've listened to him all kinds of ways. I listened to him high, and I listened to him cold sober. I even played with him. I think he's jiving, baby."

Whether he's been jiving or not, the criticism has not stopped Coleman. His last studio album, Sound Grammar (Sound Grammar, 2006), won a Pulitzer prize for Music. He was recently inducted into the Nesuhi Ertegun Jazz Hall of Fame, and in 2007 he received an honorary Grammy award for lifetime achievement. Nonetheless, he speaks very humbly about what he's done and what he plans to do.

"The only way that I think I'm staying true," he says, "is that I wasn't born being a millionaire, and I don't think I will leave the earth being a millionaire. So the thing I can be is the best human I try to attempt to be."

Does he think his life has been blessed in a way, that he's been able to make this music and move people with it?

"No, I don't think I'm blessed." He pauses in thought. "I'd like to be blessed, in the sense of what we call religion."

A scary moment occurred in 2007, when he collapsed during an appearance at the Bonnaroo music festival and had to be hospitalized for heat exhaustion. Though some may regard him as a guru, whether because of the allure that surrounds any pioneer, or because of the mystique that's grown up around the eccentricities of his character, he freely admits that there are some mysteries that he has no answers for. And he doesn't expect those answers from anyone else either.

"The word 'life' has all other qualities of knowledge in it, and I am not the one who created life. I think the closest we've come to the thing that created life is a word called 'God,' and that spells 'Dog' backwards. So that puts us in the dark."

At the time of this interview, the world had just lost three great musicians in George Russell
George Russell
George Russell
1923 - 2009
piano
, Rashied Ali
Rashied Ali
Rashied Ali
1935 - 2009
drums
, and Les Paul
Les Paul
Les Paul
1915 - 2009
guitar, electric
, all within a week of each other.

"I knew all three of those guys," he says. "But the thing about it is you can't become revengeable because of that. I try to get better at what I'm trying to do, spiritually as well as physically. And believe me, we have one of the greatest gifts in the world to change the emotion: your voice. The voice."

Ornette ColemanHe doesn't worry about his own music surviving, or about the crises that threaten to topple the music industry. He doesn't worry about the state of jazz today, or whether the people playing it pay tribute to him. The only things that worry him, he says, are what he sees and hears about other human beings doing to each other, the violence and killing that seem to carry across all cultures.

Today he's looking for the time to work on some new songs, or "ideas." He seems to be touring more, though he says that he doesn't know many people who are just hiring musicians to make music anymore. And he wonders about what it takes to teach a little child music, so that he or she will be able to have that as something for the rest of their life.

He speaks of music as an almost pre-determined thing. It may indeed be, not so much that Coleman has had the courage of his convictions over all these years, but that he has never had a choice, or never thought he did. Whatever sound comes out is what was always meant to come out.

"I am not interested in controlling or being the controller," he says. "I want to secede into the eternity of human beings. The most fun of life and pleasure comes from the human being, not destruction."

Whatever Harmolodics is, whether Coleman is deserving of the crown that he's been given, or whether he's just been jiving for a lifetime—all these questions ultimately matter little. What matters to Coleman, and what has always mattered, can only be found in the ears of his audiences, and within his own. That is the music.


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