Ornette, John Snyder & the Meaning of Production

An excerpt from Michael Jarrett’s "Pressed for All Time"

Ornette Coleman
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James "Blood" Ulmer at the Detroit Jazz Festival, September 2015
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Dedicated jazz fans are no doubt aware of the names of the music’s finest producers, but they’re probably far less knowledgeable as to what jazz recording production actually entails. A new book by author and academic Michael Jarrett, Pressed for All Time: Producing the Great Jazz Albums From Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday to Miles Davis and Diana Krall (The University of North Carolina Press), attempts to address that question through a vast, chronologically arranged collection of interviews. The answer, as explained by studio icons like George Avakian, Creed Taylor, Teo Macero, Bob Thiele and Bill Laswell, among others, is that a producer does everything. Throughout the course of a single LP, he or she can act as a financier, arranger, psychologist, surrogate spouse or sibling, yes-man, rehearsal musician or, most likely, some combination of all of the above. To illustrate this point, and for the sake of continuity, we’ve excerpted a few of the interviews with producer John Snyder, the force behind A&M’s Horizon imprint and his own Artists House label.

FREDDIE HUBBARD
RED CLAY
(1970, CTI)

I didn’t see [CTI founder] Creed [Taylor] much in the studio, but I saw him a lot as he dealt with artists. He was the quintessential auteur. He controlled everything. Musicians were hired for a particular purpose, and they were respected. Many times, when I was sitting in my office, George Benson, [Eumir] Deodato, Freddie or somebody would come in and complain. “Creed doesn’t give me enough attention. Creed makes me play songs I don’t know, don’t like. Creed won’t let me choose musicians.”

On Creed’s behalf, I’ll say that all those records sold well. He made a gigantic success of that label. The reasons it failed were not musical. They were strictly business reasons, bad choices. Musically, Creed created a very homogeneous approach. It was not so much about the essence of jazz. It was an idea about taking some of the characteristics of jazz and polishing them-really perfecting them. Having a production that provides consistency and accessibility doesn’t really stretch your mental capacity too far, but it is done by all experts.

He developed his point of view over time. Also, when you’re working on staff for a record company, you play the cards you’re dealt. I’m sure those cards were dealt to him. I’m not sure, but I assume it.

I don’t know exactly what role he played in the studio, but he was, generally, a calming influence because he didn’t get rattled easily. He didn’t raise his voice, and he had great taste of a specific sort. There are people who will argue with CTI forever, but, for example, that first record Freddie made, Red Clay, became an essential jazz record. It was, therefore, not that much different from the record Freddie made on Blue Note probably six months or a year before that. He saw the Blue Note record sell 15,000 units; on CTI he could sell 150,000. So that’s not all Freddie. That’s packaging, that’s attitude, and it’s respect. It’s also part of a bigger picture, and Creed was the one painting that canvas.

CHARLIE HADEN
CLOSENESS
(1976, HORIZON)

[Jazz producer] Ed Michel introduced me to Charlie. I got the job to run Horizon, to create the label. Ed was up for that job, but he had long hair, thick glasses and a very determined point of view. He’d been through all the political bullshit at ABC [Impulse!], and he didn’t have much tolerance for it. I was younger and blonder and Southern. I looked different, so they hired me for the job.

But I didn’t know what I was doing, and I knew that. So the second day, I called Ed and said, “Come on in. Let’s talk about what we can do.” He taught me a lot, and he got me into a lot of trouble, too, introducing me to Charlie Haden. I’m just kidding. Charlie was a fulltime job. I got involved in Charlie’s life, and that led me to Ornette, which led me to five years down the road where I managed Ornette for a long time. My whole life changed as a result of that one meeting.

But also, as a result of that meeting, we made that duet record. Charlie came in. He sat on the couch. I was using Herb Alpert’s office at the time. Charlie says, “You’ve got to do this, man. I have this great idea. Man, this is really going to be great. I’ll get Ornette Coleman. I’ll get Keith Jarrett. I’ll get … [Alice Coltrane and Paul Motian].”

“Charlie,” I said, “if you can do all that, you’ve got no problem. We’ll do it.”

He asked, “How much money?” And I told him. “Man,” he said, “I’ve got to have more than that.” So I gave him the money he asked for.

We made the record. I worked with Ed on it, but I forget how we split it up. I think I did two tracks, and he did two. It wasn’t all done on the same day. Keith Jarrett came in. Charlie and Keith played. Alice came in, and Charlie and Alice played. I picked up Ornette at the airport. He came in from Paris, wearing a full-length mink coat.

He’s quite the clotheshorse.

Ornette hates to perform. He thinks of himself as a composer, and that’s why he doesn’t move. When you go hear him play, he is not going to move, and he’s purposely doing that. He doesn’t want to do anything to draw attention to himself. On the other hand, he’ll wear a suit that the only human being in the world who could wear it is him. He has specially made suits for concerts, truly beautiful silk suits with patterns all over them. He’s like most of us; he’s contradictory sometimes. But as far as his heart goes, there is none bigger.

On those records at Horizon I called myself “creative director.” That was because I saw myself having an overall view, but I was in the studio and very much involved. Also, I was going to take that record out of the studio, going to play it for the people who could sell it, going to package it and going to see that it got marketed. That was my job, and, gradually, by working with Ed and watching and taking some projects on myself, I got better and more interested.

ORNETTE COLEMAN
DANCING IN YOUR HEAD
(1977, HORIZON)

Ornette changed my life. I spent a lot of time with Ornette. I lost my job at A&M because of Ornette. I started my record company [Artists House] because of Ornette, and I lost my record company-not because of Ornette, for sure-but because we were all working on Ornette. It was Ornette, Ornette. I had 12 people working for me at one time, and we all had some segment of Ornette’s life on our desks. It was a big job.

Ornette was the only musician I ever worked with who made me play trumpet with him. He made me organize a band, which he would give music to and rehearse. He called us the White House Band because we were all white. “If I can teach you guys how to play this music,” he said, “I can teach anybody how to play it.”

“Well, thanks, Ornette. We’re glad to be of some service.” But it was cool. He’d put us in a circle and hand out music. Then he’d tell us to play. It was pretty chaotic, but it certainly was fun. He’d stop us once in a while, tell us what we were doing wrong, or he’d tell each individual. He said things to me that made great sense.

The first time I played with Ornette, I was down there talking about some problems. I spent a lot of time at his loft on Prince Street [in Manhattan], trying to keep him from getting evicted. I was ultimately unsuccessful, but I came in at a very late stage. I was able to get him some money out of it, but he had to leave.

I was down there talking, it was late, and he handed me his trumpet. He said, “Play this line that I wrote for [Don] Cherry.”

“Ornette,” I said, “I haven’t played for five years. I can’t play this.”

“Play it.”

I played it, got through it. It was not a big deal. “Now,” he said, “play it with me.” He picked up his alto, and I swear it was the most amazing musical experience. It was like he pulled this line right out of me. I had no place to go but right with him.

All of a sudden, it hit me: “This is how Cherry and Ornette are able to do all that stuff that doesn’t seem possible, exactly together. They aren’t playing metrically consistent, and yet they’re playing hard, fast lines like they’re one person.” It made perfect sense to me. He has some kind of power that allows him to have that effect on you as a musician. You lock into it, and you’re on the track because you go right with him. It truly was amazing.

I had to admit that Ornette was not only concerned about the money, selling records and all the other business things, he was concerned about my musical, spiritual well being. He was certainly the most generous and kind person I have ever met. He was the only person I have ever known to actually pick up a drunk off the street, take him home, clean him up and take care of him, help get him back on his feet. He doesn’t give money to the United Way; he picks the guy up off the street. That’s a real fundamental thing about Ornette. He is very direct. That’s why the world is so mysterious to him.

Time had passed, and he needed to be more cognizant of how fucked up things are. I am sure he is, but he was always surprised that the world could be a certain way and that he was somehow different. He never understood why he was treated in certain ways.

I needed to catch a cab late at night. He was there, and I had my hands full or something, and he was trying to hail the cab. And cabs are flying by. They had their lights on, but nobody was stopping. I put out my hand, thinking maybe they didn’t see Ornette, and a cab stops. He said, “You see that, right?”

“Oh yeah, I see it now.”

“I deal with that shit every day,” he said. Ornette is a great man. There is no question about it.

How’d you lose your job at Horizon?

As I said, I originally got involved with Ornette because I asked him to record with Charlie on Closeness. Through that we got to know each other. I told him, “I’d like to make a record with you.”

He said he’d just finished a tape that he felt very proud of, but he really didn’t want to let it go. He’d been working on it for three or four years. Eventually, we got together on it. We [A&M] bought that master tape from him: Dancing in Your Head. It was different, definitely a big change in his style; it was considered something of a breakthrough, like it or not. That was a good thing we did. We paid a lot of money for it, but a couple of months later, he sent me back for more money. I went and got it. When [A&M cofounder] Jerry Moss fired me, he said, “You know, toward the end there, John, I think you were working more for Ornette than you were working for us.” It was true. I was. I was spending all my time down at his place. I was focusing on his loft problems and his business problems. I never realized that things could be so screwed up in somebody’s life. He just lived a certain way, no lampshades around Ornette. It was all bare light bulbs.

ORNETTE COLEMAN
SOAPSUDS, SOAPSUDS
(1977, ARTISTS HOUSE)

I didn’t own those tapes. In those days, I was motivated by the fact that Norman Granz had sold Verve for seven million dollars or something. It always bothered me. He got rich, and Charlie Parker didn’t. I said, “I’m not going to be that way.” So I leased the tapes from the musicians. I didn’t have any rights to them.

With Ornette it was all preproduction. That’s one thing that set him apart. Dare I say he was like Gerry Mulligan, where everything is also preproduction. Creed Taylor, too, was all preproduction. We [at CTI] knew exactly what we were going to do before we went in the studio, but I’ve made a lot of records with jazz musicians where we don’t know.

The first thing out of Ornette’s mouth was that he wanted to do “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” [the theme to a popular television show]. “You’ve got to be kidding,” I said. “Why?”

“Look,” he said, “that is the most popular show on television. Everybody knows it. This is what people are listening to now. I want to be in with them. It’s the way to get the people to buy the record.”

I didn’t believe that for a minute, but I thought it would be funny and interesting. I also thought his idea of how to be commercial was really interesting: how to be accessible and how to comment on the society, how to make his own statement about what was going on. I thought it was a typically insightful idea. Most jazz guys wouldn’t think that way. They’re not going to think politically or culturally in that sense. Ornette was always into that.

Ornette would talk your ass off. It took me a year or so just to understand his syntax. He has a different language. When he would try to solve a legal problem, that’s the first way I got personally involved with him, I’d say, “Ornette, I don’t understand what you are saying. We’re talking about specific, factual matters. Can I tape it?” Then I’d set my little cassette recorder down and listen to what he’d just spoken, trying to figure out what he said. Consequently, on cassette I have 100 hours of Ornette talking.

In any event, he used to do that to his band, too. He’d talk at them, talk at them and talk at them. While we were on tour, they were all sitting in one of the train compartments. I went in to hang out, and I said, “Do you all have any idea what Ornette is talking about?”

Every one of them said, “No. We just play. When he says change it, we change it.” Talking to Ornette later on, I said, “You know those guys don’t know what you’re talking about.”

He said, “They may not understand everything that I say, but by the time I get through with them, they are going to be sharp as tacks.” That’s what he did. By the time he got through with them, they could do anything he wanted. During that tour of Europe, we drove more people out of halls than you would believe. It was too loud and too inaccessible. People would stream out of those concerts. I said something to Ornette about it. He didn’t seem to be concerned about it at all.

CHET BAKER
YOU CAN’T GO HOME AGAIN
(1977, HORIZON)

When I asked Jerry Moss if I could make a Chet Baker record, he said, “Yeah, but try to make it something that’s a little more contemporary. I don’t really want another jazz quartet.” So that’s more of an arranged record. There was a good deal of unreleased material that came out later; it featured Paul Desmond on his last jazz record [his official final recording session was for Art Garfunkel’s Watermark], Tony Williams, Kenny Barron, Ron Carter, John Scofield and Michael Brecker. It’s very different from the record that we released, which was more high-energy.

Chet was a sweet person, he really was. But it was sad. He’d call me every day for 50 or 60 dollars, which was kind of a refreshing change. Most of the guys would call for 1,000 or 3,000-something ridiculous. You could almost afford Chet.

I really loved Chet from the time I was 10 or 12 years old. I loved Miles, too. I used to compare their records, and I heard things that I thought were very similar: the solos they played on “But Not for Me.” So I loved Chet, and somebody sent me some tapes when I first got to CTI in ’73. They said Chet was out in New Jersey playing in a little club. “He can’t play, but he’s trying to get back. He’s struggling. Can you help him?”

“You came to the right place,” I said. I’d go see him, I’d listen to tapes and I’d go to Creed and say, “Please, let’s do Chet.”

He’d listen and say, “He can’t play anymore.”

“He’s coming back,” I’d say. “He’s getting stronger every day.”

One day Creed called me. “I was at a party last night and this beautiful woman came up to me and said, ‘What ever happened to Chet Baker?’ Why don’t you see if you can get him in here?”

So OK, whatever it takes. Chet came in, and we signed him. I gave him my flugelhorn, which was gilding a lily. He didn’t have his own horn. He got a Conn sometime around that same time.

I took him to A&M when I went there, and I took him to Artists House when I left A&M. I was very much involved in his life. I knew his wife, his girlfriend, his kids and his mother. I employed his son, and I used to write letters to his daughter, a beautiful 12-year-old, back then. She wrote the saddest poetry. It just brought tears to your eyes, because those kids were so neglected by Chet yet they were so needful and missed him. It was indescribably sad. But Chet couldn’t handle that; he wasn’t into it. He knew he was irresponsible, and that probably contributed to his self-abuse. Chet was always interested in one thing first.

JAMES BLOOD ULMER
TALES OF CAPTAIN BLACK
(1978, ARTISTS HOUSE)

When we made this record with James Blood for Artists House, Tales of Captain Black, Ornette rehearsed those guys-Blood, Denardo [Coleman] and Jamaaladeen [Tacuma]-every day for a month. We came to the studio and we made the record in three hours. It was just a question of putting it down.

When I convinced Ornette to record the old quartet-Cherry, Billy [Higgins] and Charlie-he brought them in, kept them up for weeks and rehearsed them every day.

He came to the studio and he said, “OK, we are going to go through it. We are going to play these songs”-eight songs, I think it was-“and we are going to play them straight through. We are going to stop a minute between every song, but we are not going to stop more than that, and we are going to play them straight down.”

He did that, took an hour. And he did them in the order they were going to be on the record. He came back into the control room, listened to the whole thing straight through one time, didn’t stop and said, “OK, fellows, let’s go do it again.” Right back out to the studio, did all eight songs again, one after the other, stopped one minute between each song, and the record date was over. And he made a great record that never came out.

Excerpted from Pressed for All Time: Producing the Great Jazz Albums From Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday to Miles Davis and Diana Krall. Copyright © 2016 by Michael Jarrett. Used by permission of the publisher. www.uncpress.unc.edu.