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Getting Schooled: An Interview with Ornette Coleman, January 24, 2007. Coleman spoke by phone from his home in New York City. Lazaro Vega is Jazz Director at Blue Lake Public Radio, the broadcast service of Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp. The interview will air in edited form with music from Coleman’s new CD “Sound Grammar” on Blue Lake Public Radio Sunday evening February 11 from 7 to 10 p.m. est. over WBLV FM 90.3/WBLU FM 88.9, Grand Rapids, MI, and streaming live from www.bluelake.org.
Lazaro Vega: Hello, Mr. Coleman? This is Lazaro Vega from Blue Lake Public Radio.
Ornette Coleman: Oh yes. I was waiting for your call.
Vega: It really is a pleasure to be able to speak to you Mr. Coleman. I had a chance to see you in Ann Arbor at Hill Auditorium (http://tinyurl.com/yu3sf3 ) with the current band when you came through on your birthday, just after your birthday. Do you remember that concert?
Coleman: Faintly I do. Yeah, kinda. I do.
Vega: Oh, it was marvelous because I had seen and heard Prime Time in Chicago and in Ann Arbor at the Power Center and to hear the new band was a revelation, to hear you in a more acoustic setting with fewer instruments.
Coleman: Oh yeah, thank you very much. Do you play an instrument?
Vega: I have a cornet.
Coleman: Oh yeah you do. That’s good. Have you been playing it very long?
Vega: I’ve had it for about 10 years but I...
Coleman: Oh yeah, you’re way past time. That’s good.
Vega: ...(delighted) but I don’t read.
Coleman: Oh, that’s not important.
Vega: No, you don’t think so?
Coleman: Not until someone asks you to.
Vega: (Laughs). O.K. Well, see, I’m on the radio doing a jazz program 31 hours a week.
Coleman: Oh my goodness.
Vega: So while I’m listening to records I “play” along with them.
Coleman: Oh that’s good. You play the clarinet?
Vega: Yeah, the cornet.
Coleman: Cornet, yeah. Well, I want to share something with you and that’s the name of three changes that you might look into: C major 7; E flat minor 7; and D minor with a flatted fifth: D, F, A flat and A.
Vega: Those are the ones to work on?
Coleman: No, those are the ones that everyone has to work on if they want to do something about how they feel and think about sound.
Vega: Now is that in concert or in the cornet’s B flat?
Coleman: No, well, you can play it as your notes of ideas regardless what key you think it is. It’s only 12 notes, right?
Coleman: O.K. So, if you say C natural the only way C natural can represent 12 notes is to call it the major 7th, the third, the fourth and like that, but it doesn’t change sound. It’s just a title for sound, but the notes themselves -- there’s 12 different sounds, but the one note cannot be those 12 different sounds. It can be in 12 different positions, that same sound I mean.
Vega: The same sound CAN be in 12 different positions?
Coleman: Yeah, like you can have it as a major 3rd, a minor 3rd, a flatted 5th up until, I mean, if you start with one note. Basically, I guess, what I’m trying to say is that the concept of sound and the concept of intervals most have to do with the instrument and the way that you hear physically and mentally as far as the instrument you’re playing. Which instrument do you play?
Vega: The cornet.
Coleman: Uh huh, so that’s in B flat. O.K. now, for instance, let’s see? Let’s see, let me give you a good example. The major 3rd of F sharp is B flat, right? It’s called, F sharp to B flat, is a third, right? O.K., but from F sharp to C is a flatted fifth, right?
Coleman: Uh-huh, well, that makes the C higher than B flat doesn’t it?
Coleman: But one is called a fifth and one is called a third. But now if you take A flat and put the F sharp that’s called a second.
Vega: That’s a really sharp sound the second sound. Monk used to use that a lot didn’t he?
Coleman: Yes, but the point I’m trying to make is that the mathematical part of how we address sound is different than how the sound address what we call harmony, keys and modulation. Those things are done only because of the instrument you’re playing, not the note.
Vega: I see. Yeah, I noticed in the liner note to a recent Odean Pope Saxophone Choir record that you talk quite a bit about modulation in the liner note to that.
Coleman: Yeah, yeah, well it’s the only thing that will allow notes that are not in keys and chords to be a part of what’s causing the idea to sound the way it does.
Vega: Is the modulation.
Coleman: Yeah, because you know if you have C to F sharp that’s the flatted fifth, right? But C to G is a major fifth.
Vega: And that’s modulating.
Coleman: No, that’s not modulating, that’s just addressing the notes from what the tonic is. Modulation would be, for instance, F sharp, A flat and B flat doesn’t come in the key of C. Now that would be a modulation: the flatted fifth, the flatted sixth and the flatted seven of C.
Vega: I see. O.K. One thing that I noticed when I heard you in Ann Arbor there are a lot of these things going on, these theoretical aspects of the music, and I noticed when you switched from the alto sax to the trumpet that the trumpet had a more augmented sound.
Coleman: Um, yeah, what you’re describing is the idea changes that more than the note.
Vega: O.K. Another thing I noticed, too, was that your playing was very melodic and lyrical. In fact I heard you quote on “Turnaround,” I believe the encore in Ann Arbor was “Turnaround”?, I think you played “When the Saints Go Marching In” during that.
Coleman: Is that right? I can’t remember.
Vega: Yes, and you played “Beautiful Dreamer.” I heard all kinds of different melodies. In Prime Time you weren’t doing that as much (ED: Or I wasn’t catching it as often). It was more of a rhythmic approach to the alto and your part in the band was a little bit more rhythmic in my mind. But when I heard you in the current band it seemed you were completely involved in melody.
Coleman: Oh yeah, I think that, well, not that I think, but melody is the only thing that changes the idea into a structure that we call unison. But harmony is a communist title because the same note changes many different sounds when you put it in, so to speak, different keys. But the keys don’t know that.
Vega: (Laughs). That’s interesting.
Coleman: (Smiling laughter). The keys don’t know that.
Probably the hardest thing to do with sound is to free yourself of it in relationship to restriction to chords and keys. Like for instance all the C naturals. If you play the A flat major scale all the notes that C comes in covers the A flat major scale. Like A flat, B flat, C, D flat, E flat, F and G. Each one of those notes as a key, C appears in those keys. Which means that if that’s true for that key it’s got to be true for any other key.
Vega: So that gives you a great deal of possibilities.
Coleman: Not only do you get a great deal for possibilities but whatever you want to call the note you can establish that without worrying about how dissonant it is from one key to another.
Vega: That gives you a lot more freedom.
Coleman: Well, not a lot more freedom: it’s the only freedom that exists.
Vega: (Laughs). There’s only one freedom, right, and you’re either playing it or your not. O.K.
Coleman: (Smiling). You got it, you got it.
Vega: I got that. Well, that’s about what I’m at because I’m not a theoretical or trained musician. I’ve got my horn and I can make a few sounds. You know what my favorite song to try play on the horn is? “The Blessing.”
Coleman: Oh! (Sings the head). Is that the way it goes?
Vega: I love that song.
Coleman: Oh, uh-huh.
Vega: I do. Don Cherry played it so beautifully on your record. Actually he played that one with Coltrane, right?
Coleman: I think so. Well, that’s the one thing that human beings do. The brain and the emotion actually cause form to be developed -- in the form of meaning and what we call intelligence. Like for instance when you say “The Blessing,” the first, I think, four notes in the melody is the G flat major 7th (sings head). I think it’s a G flat major 7 chord. But the G flat major 7 chord doesn’t represent the key, it just represents the sound of those notes in the order that they’re played in. And that’s basically what we all do when we’re improvising.
Probably one of the hardest things about improvising -- the word doesn’t always mean that you’re doing that because of keys and chords. Sometimes you’re doing that only because of range.
Vega: Because of range?
Coleman: Yeah. Say the flatted fifth of C is F sharp, right? But the major seven of D flat is C. And from C to F sharp is a flatted fifth. Yet, the C to F sharp is a flatted fifth and the C to C sharp is a fifth. Basically...oh, how can I say it? C to F sharp is a flatted fifth, right? And C to C sharp is a fifth. But what’s amazing: C sharp to F sharp is a fourth. Now how can a fourth be higher than a fifth?
Vega: How did that happen?
Coleman: Well, it didn’t happen, someone just made it like that...
Coleman: (Laughing)...so you’d get off their back! (Both laugh). But I think you won’t be put in jail by doing that. You might be able to make better music, but maybe no one will actually agree that what you’re doing is the most advanced way to make the mistakes.
Vega: Well that’s the thing about jazz I think, so-called jazz, is that there is always this sense of pushing against the given, I mean, things that have already been established such as Western harmony and the “correct” way to play your instrument. It’s something that people since King Oliver have been pushing against. And Jelly Roll Morton. Even Baby Dodds when he invented the drum set, when he asked ‘Why do we need seven people to play this when I can sit down and figure out a way to do it all by myself?’
Coleman: Yeah, this is true. Yeah, yeah, yeah that’s, what you just described is humanity approaching humanism, which is good. Because what we do is to acknowledge what are parents appreciate by responding to them as our peers. But when it comes to ideas and feeling and all these other things that parents and money can’t do, you have to respect the people that are inspiring you to do it in a way that you can appreciate how that same quality applied to what you’re doing might change even something that that person isn’t doing.
Vega: You’re talking about being inspired by someone else and how you can take it and run with it?
Coleman: Well, I’m saying that, but the reason why I’m saying that is, for instance, you play the trumpet don’t you?
Vega: Cornet, so, yes.
Coleman: The trumpet is in B flat isn’t it?
Vega: Yes, so your C is B flat. It’s open: no buttons down just open.
Coleman: But, but, but, but look: from F sharp to B flat is a third, right?
Vega: That’s what you said, yes, um-hum.
Coleman: But from C sharp to F sharp is a flatted fifth.
Vega: So it’s going backwards, right?
Coleman: (Laughs) Yeah, right, right. So, the point I’m trying to make: the education of the natural life of knowledge is different than the position of sound. Like, for instance, the major third of F sharp is B flat. But the minor third of G is B flat. But G is higher than F sharp.
Vega: So, it’s a conundrum. You’re basically saying sound exists in its own world and it’s just like God. It’s like religion is trying to explain God like musical theory is trying to explain sound but sound exists on a higher level.
Coleman: Oh yeah you got it. What you just said then, you should go to the top of the class. Yeah! O.K. Top that.
Vega: (Laughs). Thank you Ornette. It’s because I’ve been listening to you for a long time, man, I love you.
Coleman: I appreciate that.
Vega: I think what you did with jazz, too, in a way it is not just about getting to that absolute sound but it’s also about getting to absolute emotion to determine the sound you play, right?
Coleman: Yeah, right, right, right. See what you’re describing is why human beings exist. Human beings exist before they had parents. Phew, that’s pretty good. (Laughs a lot). Imagine! It’s true!
Vega: (Laughs). That’s gotta be like you’re talking about the first people like Adam and Eve or something.
Coleman: Yeah, you said it, you said it, you said it. But what’s so amazing -- what about today? I mean, imagine: human is a good word; life is a good word; love is a good word; but when does it make us all better?
Vega: Wow. (Sighs). When it’s heard more. When people hear it more clearly and not just, “Yeah, o.k. ‘Love,’ I’ve gotta go fill my gas tank.” It’s got to be that’s the point of getting up in the morning.
Coleman: But isn’t there a sound -- a message in sound -- isn’t there something when you hear it, the frequency of it whatever it is, touches you in a way that you hadn’t thought before because of what it makes you aware of that it’s doing? Right? And for some reason when people say the flatted fifth they’re speaking about sound that’s not in a diatonic key but that’s not true. Because the major seventh of B flat is A, and the fourth of C sharp is F sharp, but from F sharp to C IS the flatted fifth. But in the key of A flat it’s the dominant seven and the third!
So what I’m trying to say is that, and I’m not an authority on knowledge because whatever knowledge is nobody controls it. But knowledge does exist, right?
Vega: It’s a sort of free force in the universe that you can tap into, yeah.
Coleman: But does it exist to limit others and free a few, or does it exist the same way regardless who you are or what you’re doing?
Vega: Right, it’s the second. It’s like air, right?
Coleman: Yeah well that’s what I’m saying. That’s what I’m saying. We as human beings have created lots of things because of the classification of how we have grown up to relate to it. But as far as the concept of what it is it doesn’t change the way it’s going to effect whoever is trying to find some information by the use of it.
For instance -- do you have a certain key that you play in your horn?
Vega: Well, you know, C, which is B flat, is easy for me. I like F but I don’t know what that is in concert. I don’t transpose.
Coleman: F is E flat. You’re playing the trumpet, right?
Vega: Um hum. It’s just the first valve, you know.
Coleman: Yeah well F, that’s the concert E flat.
Vega: And I really like the interval on the horn between C, G and A. [Editor’s note: In the category of a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing: few days before this interview a musician was teaching me “Blues Walk” on the trumpet spelled CC AG C. That sound grammar was imprinted, the C higher than G, to the exclusion of what Ornette asks later in the interview, which is why my answer to such a basic question is wrong]. That’s a great interval between the upper C, the lower G and the A in the middle of it. Or how you can go from E flat to A or E flat to E and sort of revolve around that.
Coleman: Well, you know A in the bass clef is C. And the G flat you say is B flat in the bass.
The reason why I’m saying that the twelve notes have twelve different titles for the same sound. Trust me, it’s true.
Vega: All right. That’s it in a nut shell right there. Hey Ornette, does your band, your current band, did they absorb these concepts readily? Were they able to understand where you were going with this and then just jump right in? Because you’re working with new guys now, in a sense. For so many years you had your band guys who had a chance to grow and absorb and be part of your musical universe and now with this new group, which is what? four or five years old, how did it go?
Coleman: Yeah, that’s true. Well, that’s what I’m about to try and explain. The chromatic scale, right? Which, it goes vertical, right? Well the four instruments which are the piano, the bass, the trumpet and the saxophone -- I mean it’s more than four instruments, but the piano, the bass, the B flat and E flat instruments; the piano’s in C, the bass in F, the trumpet in B flat and the sax in E flat. Those four instruments are built in fourths like C, F, B flat and E flat. But there is no melody that starts on the fourth.
Coleman: Do you know any?
Vega: Not off the top of my head.
Coleman: Right. Right. And why do you think it’s like that?
Vega: I don’t know.
Coleman: Because the fourth can only become the fourth when the third is right.
Vega: You have to have that first.
Coleman: No, the third is already always in front of the fourth because of mathematics. But at the same time C and F in the treble clef is a half step; in the bass clef they’re a whole step. You realize that?
Vega: No I didn’t, but I knew that when you get into the bass the sounds are further apart, I was aware of that, but I didn’t know specifically that example.
Coleman: Yeah, well, that’s very important, not because of the note but how you’re trying to achieve what you want to do with music. Right? The fingering the instrument doesn’t tell you how good you’re playing it’s only telling you what you’re fingering. The only way you know how good you’re playing is when you map out the results you want before you do it.
Vega: (Not comprehending) Yeah?
Coleman: Well what other way are you going to know how good it can get?
Vega: So, you mean you hit points that you were intending to hit?
Coleman: No! I mean, not intending. You make points that you know is going to change the things that you hear!
Like, for instance, E and F, o.k.? All right. Let’s say E and F and let’s pick a key, say C sharp. That’s the major third and the minor third of C sharp. But in the key of B flat it’s the flatted fifth and the fifth. The same two notes! Same sound!
But no, let’s put it another way. Say you have B flat to C. Then say you have A flat to B flat. Which one is the highest?
Vega: The C is going to be the highest of all of those, right?
Coleman: I don’t know. Wait just a minute. O.K. let’s go it again. B flat to C, right? It’s a whole step. A flat to B flat is a whole step. Isn’t it? O.K. which one is the highest?
Vega: I thought we were at C. C would be, wouldn’t it?
Coleman: Well C is called the second, and A flat for C is called the third. You understand what I mean? So the C would be, the C is higher when it’s in A flat than when B is one whole step above C, but that’s the second, right? But from A flat to C is a third. But from A flat to B flat is a second.
That’s what I’m saying, that for some reason the mathematical part of what we call musical intervals is not the same thing as the subtraction part, say A flat to B flat is a whole step. If you have A flat to B flat in the key of F sharp it’s the second and the third.
Vega: So, Ornette, what’s the conclusion?
Coleman: The conclusion is that sound has no parents.
Vega: (Explosive laughter).
Coleman: (Laughing). That’s the conclusion.
Vega: That’s the conclusion!
Vega: Yeah man!
Coleman: Go for it!
Vega: O.K. !
Vega: Very good: Sound Has No Parents!
Coleman: Yeah, this is true.
Vega: That’s it.
Coleman: I’m telling you.
Vega: That is it.
Coleman: Oh, tell me about it.
Vega: I mean people try to tell me Beethoven is sound’s parent but maybe not.
Coleman: No, no. It doesn’t work. Whoever it is. Sound doesn’t have to put on any clothes to represent what it is.
Vega: Well, that gives you a great deal of possibilities. That to me that’s freedom when you have multiple possibilities.
Coleman: But the most freedom is is your own. I mean, imagine: we were all born and when someone spanked us on the butt we started crying. And we ain’t know who it was! (Laughs).
Coleman: If your mother do that then you’d be saying, Oh Mommy don’t beat me, or something, you know. (Laughs). It’s true, it’s really true. It’s amazing. The only reason I’m saying that is that whatever we are or whatever we turn out to be, something designed something for us to respond to or not respond to but that no one on this planet can tell you how good or bad you can do something if you can’t do it. Somebody can teach you what it is, but you have to make what it is for you to exist. Right?
I mean, look, let’s face it. Look it, I’m just saying there’s men and women, right? O.K. Why do you need a woman?
Vega: Why do I need a woman?
Coleman: Yeah, why does anyone need a woman?
Vega: I need one for love. I have personal needs that a woman can take care of.
Coleman (Suppressing a laugh): Don’t tell nobody that! (Cracks up).
Vega: (Laughing) You asked me. That’s why I’m married. My wife and I take care of each other’s needs.
Coleman: Well then God bless you. I hope that’s working for you.
Vega: Oh yeah, so far so good: ten years on.
Coleman: Oh that’s so good. Because I imagine women don’t have that ability to choose that way.
Vega: Imagine that they don’t?
Coleman: It’s not that they don’t. A woman can’t see you and say, “You mine.” But you can go to one and say, “Come with me,” and she says, “Where? Where are we going?” (Laughs). You know? I mean, no, let’s face it if it wasn’t for women we wouldn’t be here.
There is something in life that is eternal and it’s not based on any negativism about what you want, how you want it, who you want it to be or what you don’t want it to be. Because no one has designed anything for anybody for them to be in that big problem. That’s a big problem for you to tell someone what you want and what you don’t and you don’t even know who you are.
Vega: Well, that’s the first thing. You have to find out who you are first, right?
Coleman: Well, it helps.
Vega: But it’s always changing. You might think you’re telling somebody who you are but it might change next week and then you’re back to square one.
Coleman: Um um, it’s true, and not only that but whatever it is that you tell someone it’s not going to last long enough for them to find out if it’s true or not. All I’m saying is that the reason why we exist -- something created the reason why we exist. And it’s not someone you have to get permission to know that you can exist. It’s true!
Vega: I understand, Ornette. I think that helps clarify your music to me, too. When you play, when I hear your music, I enter a different place, and I like that place a lot. I’ve really enjoyed it through the years.
We spoke in 1992 about “Naked Lunch” and I developed a half hour long radio program out of that. I also spoke to Howard Shore. And now here we are in 2007 and it’s such an honor to be able to talk to you again because, face it, there aren’t very many people like you on the planet who have this kind of insight about existence, and I like that your music keys into that. It’s not just about playing music, it’s about everything it is to be a human being.
Coleman: Yeah, well, that’s the most important. Everything is based upon the quality of the human being. Isn’t that right?
What I’m saying, whether you’re a child or whatever it is, when you grow into a human being you was a human being when you were a child. When you grow up you just learn more and you’re able to be responsible for what you do and what you don’t want to do. But the fact is is that nothing tells you what you’re going to end up being. No one can know that.
Vega: So, in terms of your current band do you think that the examples of David Izenzon and Charlie Haden inform what your guys are now doing in your ensemble?
Coleman: No. I don’t think -- it’s no relationship at all. You know why?
Vega: O.K. tell me.
Coleman: Because the idea doesn’t have a twin. The idea is always looking for the placement and not how it activates. Which is really unbelievable. I mean, imagine when you’re playing your ideas on your instrument you’re not placing them in a certain place for them to do something, they already are doing something that represents what you’re doing. If you play B to C and you get a certain revolution from it, which means it’s D and E in the bass clef, and it’s A flat and A in the tenor...imagine, every time you play a note there’s four different sounds waiting to take it’s place.
So that’s why it’s important for the human being to free us all. Whatever you do free somebody from something that they feel fearful of doing that only could help them to become better in what they’re doing. Really. It’s not about money, it’s not about race, it’s not about sex, it’s abut the quality of human beings living in an eternity because God don’t kill.
Vega: Like you said there’s something without negativity there, it’s all positive.
Coleman: For sure.
Vega: That’s beautiful Ornette. Now, your publicist told me you were going to have to go to a rehearsal here at 7 o’clock.
Coleman: Yes, yes, about almost. It’s 6:59.
Vega: Yeah. Where are you right now? Are you home in New York?
Coleman: Yes, I’m on 34th Street.
Vega: I think the last time we spoke you were on Broadway.
Coleman: Probably. Yeah, I guess so. That could be possible. I was.
Vega: So are you going to have a rehearsal right there at the house?
Coleman: Yes, I usually do. I’m waiting for the musicians when they get here. I rehearse here in my house.
Vega: So they’re not there yet?
Vega: You know I was reading Joachim Kuhn. He did a solo CD recently and he said there are about 150 of your compositions and he recorded two of them (never before recorded pieces). I’m wondering with this new group are you introducing new compositions to the public now?
Coleman: Well, no, I’m introducing them to the players. I mean because that’s the only way you can keep them on their feet.
Vega: I have to tell you I love the way that you did “Sleep Talking” on the new record because I heard it with Prime Time. I used to love that song with Prime Time, and when it came out so rubato and slow but the same melody on the new record I was just, ah, I just enjoy that about your melodies, that they’re so adaptable.
Coleman: Well, I know there must be a way that one day we will look in each others eyes and time tell us that we can’t do that right now. (Laughs).
Vega: One more quick question? Do you have to go now?
Coleman: Do I have to go now? I think the answer is, I’m on my way.
Vega: O.K. From “Carousel,” Rogers and Hammerstein’s “Carousel,” there’s “If I Loved You.” That seems to be part of the Sound Grammar recording of “Turnaround.”
Coleman: Is that right?
Vega: Did you intend to put that in there?
Coleman: Well you’re now telling me about something I hadn’t heard before but I’m glad you discovered what it was.
Vega: Actually I had help from the jazz writer Larry Kart out of Chicago, he noticed that.
Coleman: I didn’t have any idea that’s what I was playing, it just came to me as an idea.
Vega: I just wanted to mention that real quick.
Coleman: Well, I’m going to get off the phone because I do have this Turnaround rehearsal coming up.
Vega: Well have a wonderful time, sir, and thank you very much for this interview. I very much appreciate it.
Coleman: Yeah, call me anytime.
Vega: Thank you Mr. Coleman.
Coleman: All right, thank you.
Ornette Coleman...... the last of the specials .
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