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Ron Miles: Jazz Gentleman

Florence Wetzel By

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Ron Miles copyright Bob DoranLessons with Ornette Coleman and Lee Konitz

AAJ: You also had a lesson with Ornette Coleman when you were in New York. Can you talk about that a bit, how that came about and what happened at the lesson?

RM: I'd come back to Colorado, and I think I was going out to New York occasionally to play with people. I can't remember why I was there that time—maybe to play with saxophonist John Gunther, even, who lives here in town. At that time, John was doing these records for producer Bob Rusch's label CIMP in upstate New York. Those were really wild sessions because when we did those records with Rusch, me and John were in New York, and we'd drive upstate, we'd stay in Rusch's house and record in the Spirit Room, we'd eat dinner and he'd tell us all these crazy stories, then we'd get in the car and drive all the way back. It was really crazy.

So I'm not sure just why I was in New York at that time, but Chris Rosenberg, who played guitar in Ornette's group Prime Time, he was also studying at Manhattan when I was there. I called Chris and asked him, "Is there any chance I can get a lesson with Ornette Coleman?" He said, "Oh, I think I can make that happen." He called and set it up, so I went to Ornette's place; his son, the drummer Denardo Coleman, opened the door, and that was great.

I walked in, and I was just incredibly nervous. Ornette was sitting there, and I was there with him for a couple hours. I remember he said he was going to charge me $50 an hour. Which was, you know, what an incredible price! I said, "I only have $50, so I can only stay an hour." And he was like, "Oh, don't worry about it. Actually, you don't really have to pay me." But I said, "I really want to pay you. I've gotta give you at least $50, please!" So he said he would take it.

I remember after I played for him a bit, the first thing he said was, "You can play really well, and I suspect that people tell you that you play well, but then they don't tell you anything. I'm acknowledging that you play well, and I'm still going to try and tell you something." So that was great.

But the big thing was that he did this thing—and I think he does it to lots of people—where he wrote a note on the staff in the first space and asked what note it was. I said, "It's an F."

He said, "Is it?"

I said, "I'm pretty sure it's an F."

Then he drew a different clef, and he said, "Is that an F?" Then he turned it upside down: "Is that an F?" Then he drew another clef, and he said, "What note is that?"

Finally I said, "I don't know."

He said, "Exactly. You don't know."

We went on from there; we talked about saxophonist Charlie Parker and how Charlie Parker wasn't able to hear Ornette's music, and Ornette said he felt like Charlie Parker would have gotten what he was doing, whereas other people didn't. But I kept coming back to that story about the F, and what I took from it was—and again, I don't know if this is what Ornette meant or not—but it was the sense that I had come through this system of education where they teach you these rules in the sense that you know exactly what's happening, you play this scale or this chord, you do this or that. But Ornette was saying that to really improvise, you can't know. Because nothing's happened yet; how can you know? How can you know what's going on? How can you know what you should play on that chord—nobody's played anything yet! So if you really want to be an improviser, you have to go in accepting the fact that you don't know.

That lesson really changed so much for me. Of course, when you hear Ornette, obviously he's a living embodiment of that, not to mention he just plays beautiful melodies.

I also took a lesson with the saxophonist Lee Konitz a little bit before Ornette. Lee's a little more gruff than Ornette Coleman, God bless him! I've played with Lee since then, but at that time when I asked him for a lesson, he said, "Only if it's absolutely necessary." And I said, "It's really, really necessary, Mr. Konitz."

So I went over for a lesson. At first I played some free music, and he said, "Stop, stop! Play a tune!" He seemed so frustrated with me! I played a tune, and then afterward he said, "Oh, you can play!" I said, "Yes." He said, "Let's just play." So we just played duets for two hours. After an hour, there was the same thing with the money; I said, "Mr. Konitz, I didn't ..." And he said, "Oh, no, no. Do you have someplace to go?" I said, "No." He said, "Well, just keep playing!"

So we played, and we eventually played "Cherokee." I'd worked out this stuff with "Cherokee," and we got to the bridge and I was going through my stuff! Like I'm going to impress Lee Konitz—so foolish! At the end he said, "You know, some of that sounded worked out to me. There's no real reason to do that. You should wait until you hear something and play that. And if you don't hear anything, just wait. You'll hear something eventually. But always try and play."

Then he talked about that thing we struggle with as improvisers: How much do we work out? Lee said that Charlie Parker actually had a lot of language worked out, but he was so masterful at putting it together that it was a whole other thing. But those of us who aren't Charlie Parker, maybe we can be spontaneous. And when I've played with Lee, he really is that spontaneous; he really tries to get in there and wait, he's so patient.

So those two lessons showed me a lot about how to approach this music in a real honest way, and to really be a part of the whole band, not just be the soloist in the front, but to be a part of everything.


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