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Ornette Coleman and Humanity: Parts 1 and 2


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Part One

When we sleep, we're often in commune with our soul. As you wake, you may receive some gentle messages for you to try and remember or use. A few years back as I was waking up I felt that everything in my life was about to change in a way I could never expect. A massive shift was imminent. Shortly after that photographer John Rogers introduced me to Ornette Coleman. I'll always be very grateful to him for that.

I was in such awe of meeting Ornette that I could barely speak, but a gentle message from within told me to press on, that this was perhaps one of the key moments of my life. I was on my way to play at the Downtown Music Gallery with my big brother Daniel Carter. I told Ornette that one of my favorite things about his music was the rhythm and that it inspired me to write a calypso melody. He asked me to play it for him. I played it on Bass Clarinet, nervous as hell but inspired. Ornette was into it and told me to come back anytime. What I didn't know, was that in only thirty seconds, he had completely figured me out. He knew what I did, and what I didn't do. He knew what I had to work on. He knew what my relationship with music was all about. I had been sized up for the process of harmolodics. As I left, Ornette said that I didn't need to call. If I came by and he was home, then it was meant to happen. If he wasn't there, then it wasn't supposed to happen. Such was evidence of his intrinsic relationship with nature.

After some soul searching I knew I had to return, and many of these times, John made it happen. The first time I went by myself. I became consumed with finding out why I had crossed paths with Ornette in this way. I was in a state of shock, awe, and disbelief. When I arrived, he said, "You got me!" I sat down in his kitchen area, and he poured me a glass of root beer with lemon juice and we got into some of the deepest conversation I have ever had in my entire life. His extremely personal way of talking forced me out of my head. I had to listen on a whole other level. He brought up super heavy subjects. I was determined above all to keep up. I decided I could just listen and try and learn, but I needed to keep up. I brought up astrology and musical metaphysics. We found common ground most often when we discussed problems that the human race has always had but has never been able to overcome. We also got real on the subject of male vs. female, and what was really going on. I offered to do his astrology chart, his numerology, and his Native American totem, animal spirit guides. We didn't get to music yet for some time. He laid out the groundwork for this giving me a few core concepts. Words were the notes of the human being. The idea is sacred, and lastly, that the greatest thing any two human beings can have is a unison.

The next time I entered what I called Harmolodics university, we went full blown meta-psychics. After we had gone through his astrology, numerology, and the totem, I asked him about John Coltrane. He told me that after Trane had passed, he received an envelope filled with money and a note that said thank you for teaching him. Ornette said that he cried for days after this happened. I asked him to talk about what they worked on together. What he told me was too personal, and not for online consumption. Some things are still sacred. I pressed on and asked him about Albert Ayler, which made him visibly upset. Ornette said with a great deal of emotion and seeming regret that if Albert had just come to him as they had discussed, that he would still be alive. Ornette said he would have straightened out everything. Pressing on further I asked if Ornette knew Giuseppi Logan.

"The saxophonist? You should bring him by."

Giuseppi was ready to do it, but sadly this was one meeting I just could not facilitate. I tried once, and it didn't work. Finding and getting G to OC when he may or may not be there proved daunting.

During this period, Greg Osby came by to do a pre-interview with Ornette as they were going to have a public interview at a big conference. I said I should leave, but Ornette told me to stay. There were a few folks there, and we sat down for a discussion with Ornette holding court. Right off that the bat, he said to Greg:

"The major is white, and the minor is black, don't you agree?"

I was flabbergasted by this question, and never forgot it.

Finally, it was music time. The rest of my encounters became 100% music. I've written about it extensively in other places, and other spaces. One of the first things he said shocked me to no end, but I got it.

"I can see you have a sexual relationship with your horn."

The absolute apex came soon afterwards in a session we were having with the great bassist Charnett Moffett. Determined to hang, I was playing all over the place. Ornette stopped the music.

"I know what you play like, and how you sound. Why would you play like it wasn't you?"

I tried to regroup and get back to me, but couldn't find my own music. Ornette stopped me from playing again and took me to task, in a gentle way, for not resolving my idea.

"Why would you stop speaking in the middle of a sentence?"

This was epic in my relationship with music. I felt like I was going explode and implode at the same time. I thought I might melt into the floor. He was so right. There it was, the one thing I had avoided my entire musical life. Ornette laid it bare before me. I had at some point decided that idea resolution was irrelevant in music. It was like an intervention! How could I refuse to grow past this point in person with Ornette Coleman? I knew deep inside that this was one of the main reasons we ended up in that room together.

School was far from over. I was playing in Ornette's music room with him and a great pianist named Casimir Liberski that seemingly knew every tune Ornette ever wrote. They tasked me with learning these mad fast lines note by note. If I was off by a half step, Ornette heard it right away and sent me back to the front gate. We took solos on these tunes. I was doing it on Bass Clarinet when Ornette stopped me from playing again. It still freaked me out when he did that. He said "Give me that," and took my bass clarinet and left the room with it, putting it on the couch. He picked up my trumpet and handed it to me.

"Here. Trumpet is your voice man."

I never recovered from this. He was right of course, but it took me years to accept that my crazy idea to double on Bass Clarinet was chasing the impossible dream. Fond memories though.

My relationship with the Alto Clarinet began here. Ornette kept asking me where my E-flat horn was. I brought my fledgling Bundy Alto into the fray. I arrived one day by myself to find him alone. We went into the music room for a double alto improv that lasted about forty minutes.

It was here that I had the deepest musical experience of my life as we started reaching unisons way up high in the upper registers of our horns. Flashing back to this experience brings tears to my eyes. I felt then that who was I to receive such an incredible gift as to share this musical moment with Ornette himself?

In the following sessions, I started to go all trumpet. I became very aggressive with alternate fingerings and going for microtones. I had crossed paths with Mat and Joe Maneri and was borderline confrontational with this stuff. What was I thinking? After a few hours of playing this way, Ornette got me once again:

"I'm telling you you've found a new way to play. Stop proving it, and start playing it."

Some point after this Ornette went all the way, and told me to move in, and quit all my other bands, a whole new level. I didn't know Bern Nix then, but I would learn later on that he crossed that line and lived with Ornette for a long time. After some soul searching, I decided that somewhere in all this was my own music and that I had to find it on my own to a degree. Ornette tasked me with writing and speaking my own musical language and gave me some tools to work on, with a few assignments. I hit the shed big time for the next several years and checked in with him periodically. During one of our last meetings, he said I was really on to something with the Alto and said I was getting closer to myself in general. I played him a record I made, and he said:

"One of the reasons you sound so good, is the high quality of your environment."

My intent tonight was to write about Ornette from a much wider perspective. I need to reach the core of not just his musical message, but his message to humanity. He is indeed one of the great human beings outside of being one of the pillars of jazz itself. First things first, however. There is a process now that all of us must go through in regards to Ornette's ascension. His mark is everlasting. I can see Trane and Roy Campbell smiling at his return.

Now that his mission to change the world is complete, Ornette has returned home to find out where he's needed next.

May God bless grandmaster Ornette Coleman.

Part Two

I walked in on Ornette composing one day. He was seated at a desk with a pencil and a piece of paper. He was dressed like he was going to a concert. There was no piano or horn nearby. He was leaning over the paper and suddenly looked up at me, surprised that I was standing there.

"Start on the flat five!," he declared.

Starting the session that day he called Bird's Donna Lee and proceeded to tear into the melody as only he could. He turned it into Ornette music varying it with extremely fast, but different tempos. All I could do was throw some pocket trumpet underneath.

"Before I created Harmolodics, I mastered his style."

When it was time to play, I was in awe that he was hitting it as hard as you have ever heard him play on records. There was no recording, no microphone, and no audience. He was going all out for new ideas, pushing even his language to the outer realms in search of ideas. I'll never forget how he closed this one session.

"Well fellas, there's only one thing we haven't done. It's time for the Blues."

His favorite piece of art was Jesus Clown. The picture on the album Dancing in Your Head. OC loved this piece and had it on his wall. It's two pieces in one and rotates. It's Jesus one way, and if you flip it over its a clown. The first time I saw it, he rotated it for me to get my reaction.

"What does it mean?"

I don't recall hearing him sounding so inspired by a question.

One day I ran into OC just walking on the street! I told him that I just found out that on January 5th, 1979, when Charles Mingus died at 56, 56 whales beached themselves and died the same day. We talked through it, but even Ornette was stunned by that one.

Ornette Coleman is someone who has been beaten for his beliefs. That didn't stop him though. He had to also face judgement from people he idolized. As he told me, he once had a double bill with Dizzy Gillespie. Ornette played first. Afterwards, James Moody from Dizzy's band approached Ornette for lessons, as he was fascinated by the music. Dizzy intervened and told Moody right in front of Ornette:

"That cat is full of shit. I forbid you to study with him."

This too did not stop Ornette.

When his music started to catch the ears of people, he stood his ground in a business sense, knowing the intrinsic value of his innovation. Today we've lost all sense of the value of what we do and give it away for free. Music has become more of a spiritual practice by default. I feel that the true spiritual aspects of what we do is being brushed aside these days. I must confront the higher meaning of who we are and what we do. Ornette and John Coltrane certainly weren't afraid to do this.

Ornette's passing is showing how his humanist philosophy has reached far beyond the confines of the Jazz category. Seeing Facebook overrun by posts about him is a sign of life in the Human race. I don't think there's a place in the world that his music has not reached. With Prime Time, he looked for a way to spread his message into the furthest corners of the globe.

Another Ornette riddle:

"What's the most powerful music in the world?"

Jazz, of course, is the wrong answer.

"Pop music, because that's what the whole world is engrossed with. What if the whole world listened to my music?"

For so many musicians, Ornette set us free to be ourselves. As part of that process, he sought out to understand just what lies at the core of the human experience. Ornette's life is a testament to the universal truths that we have discovered about ourselves thus far. His message was delivered at a very specific time in our history. The message is what we needed now to grow. The reaction to his passing shows that a great many people received the message.

At work yesterday, someone I work with was shocked that his death was on the front page of the New York Times. He said that only kings and queens make the front page.

"Iconic Human beings too," I added.

Ornette Coleman was one of the actual rare geniuses of our time. His legacy transcends category and country. He will remain a cultural icon until that day the Sun finally decides to rest.

His music will be changing lives for centuries to come.

Photo credit: Geert Vandepoele

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