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Ornette Coleman: Music is a Verb

Warren Allen By

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"Some people think of music as being on some higher level," Ornette Coleman says by phone from his apartment in New York City. "But basically it's the human being that receives the pleasure from sound. Not from the argument over what it is."

There are a lot of questions about Ornette Coleman and the music he makes. Talking with him, trying to parse these questions, can be a learning experience in many ways. Simply put, Coleman isn't like most other people. He isn't even like most other jazz musicians. He has his own distinct philosophy, of music and of life—one being just an echo of the other—and hearing him explain it can be both exhilarating and confusing.

A lot about Coleman is a mystery, wrapped up in an enigma, and deep fried in a batter of impenetrable words. Born in 1930 in Fort Worth, Texas, his father died before he had a chance to know who he was. Coleman hesitates to say much about it, but concedes that never knowing his father was probably one of the things that led him to search for, and find, expression in music.

He essentially taught himself how to play the saxophone, and was gigging by the time he was a teenager. His admiration of the legends of bebop, especially Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk, led him to question some of the boundaries of the bands he was playing in.

"I started out in church bands," he says, and the influence shows. The Coleman sound has always been steeped in gospel and blues. He can cry with the brightest, most soul-piercing ecstasy, or chatter with the frenzy of tongues. He also played in the Texas R&B scene. He remembers, as a teenager playing those kinds of bars, that when he would play a flatted-fifth note of a scale, the resulting dissonance drove people wild.

"In America," he says, "I think the flatted-fifth is probably one of the freest sounds that can be used in any key. For me, other notes call in other keys, but it's sort of that same kind of purpose."

He also recollects the moment that he found what he was looking for in music as "when I realized that the key is more important than the notes." This approach allowed him to play any note at any time, matching the key with emotion, instead of matching notes to the traditional understanding of a chord. The resulting sound was unlike anything people had heard before.

Today, Coleman calls his music theory Harmolodics. The name is an amalgamation of harmony, movement, and melody. It's something that has been questioned left and right, and seems almost impossible for anyone other than Ornette to pin down and understand.

"It could be difficult," he admits, "but it's not difficult when you're doing it."

What people do grasp, whether they like it or not, is his sound. No matter what, Coleman's music still evokes a strong reaction from people of all listening backgrounds. Indeed, everything about him seems calculated to stand out. His trademark plastic alto saxophone, his taste in good clothes, the decidedly "out" titles of his albums—all this has only reinforced the legend behind his music.

When he came to LA to play, pianist Paul Bley heard him and helped him get a gig. The audiences weren't nearly as receptive. Undoubtedly his greatest impact came when he first came to New York City for what was originally supposed to be a two-week engagement at the Five Spot Café.

Ornette ColemanThose two weeks stretched into six months, and effectively redefined jazz. Coleman's piano-less quartet of himself on alto sax, Don Cherry on trumpet, Charlie Haden on bass, and Billy Higgins or Ed Blackwell on drums became one of the seminal groups in jazz history, and their records on Atlantic from 1959 through 1961, including 1959's The Shape of Jazz to Come and Change of the Century, became foundational albums of any jazz collection.

Though they met some resistance from the jazz establishment, they also inspired generations of jazz musicians in the 1960s and beyond to test the boundaries of free music. Even stalwart legends such as Miles Davis and John Coltrane followed Coleman in their own search for new things. Today, Coleman has recorded some 57 albums under his own name. Despite some absences from the scene, he insists that the musical life never became too much for him.

"I never lost any interest in knowing what a note is," he says.

His influence remains unquestionable. He's reached beyond the realm of jazz, playing with musicians as diverse as Jerry Garcia and The Grateful Dead, Lou Reed, and The Roots. Some music historians give him credit for helping start the punk revolution. And countless players working in today's jazz, rock, and avant- garde music, figures as diverse as Keith Jarrett, Joshua Redman, Sonic Youth, Patti Smith, and John Zorn all cite him as a major influence, both in composition and playing.

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