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Ornette Coleman: In His Own Language

Ornette Coleman
Ornette Coleman

“There are three styles to music: improvising, composing, and improvising.”

Ornette Coleman makes this statement a few minutes into our first conversation, and for a moment I’m not sure whether the famously inscrutable alto saxophonist is being coy. But then Coleman quickly corrects himself-“I should say, ‘improvising, composing and arranging'”-and reaches the turnaround: “But all those styles use the same intervals.”

Coleman is perched on a rectangular couch at his home, a loft in Manhattan’s midtown garment district. This voluminous apartment occupies the fourth floor of a nondescript commercial building; its main room, all polished floorboards and open space, calls to mind a contemporary art gallery, or perhaps the rehearsal studio of a modern dance company. It’s a far cry from, say, the Five Spot, the East Village haunt where Coleman set off a jazz revolution not quite half a century ago.

At 76, Coleman is inevitably a bit grayer than he was then, but he cuts almost the same wiry figure, and engages in some of the same polemics. The culture has changed around him: He’s an NEA Jazz Master now, and the recipient of a MacArthur “genius grant.” When he performs these days it’s on a concert stage, a fact that no one seems to find outrageous, regardless of the challenges still posed by his music.

Over the past several years, Coleman has been renewing those challenges with a kind of youthful vigor that many observers feared was behind him. At Carnegie Hall on a JVC Jazz Festival concert several years ago, he premiered a new ensemble with two upright bassists, Tony Falanga and Greg Cohen, and a drummer, his son Denardo Coleman. The quartet, unnamed at the time, seemed to sprout directly out of the terrain of Coleman’s musical history, while pushing toward whatever bright uncertainties lay ahead.

The group has since performed often enough to become an established entity, though Coleman has characteristically tinkered with its sound and approach. Last year it played a concert in Ludwigshafen, Germany that was recorded for posterity, and the resulting album-Sound Grammar, on a newly formed label of the same name-is nothing short of a landmark. It’s the first new Ornette Coleman album in 10 years, as mysterious and glorious as anyone might expect. Its release can only be considered a significant event.

For Coleman, of course, the album represents merely one moment in time, a single frame in a moving picture. This summer he returned to Carnegie Hall with a version of his Sound Grammar band that included a third bassist, Al MacDowell, on electric. The sound of the group had already strayed a bit from what was captured on the album, yet it was still quintessentially, almost classically, Ornette.

This makes perfect sense if you allow that Coleman is, more than most jazz artists, an auteur: His career can be understood, in reductive terms, as the product of a steadfast aesthetic pursuit. Sound Grammar crystallizes that fact as vividly as any title in his catalog, though it doesn’t go so far as to unravel it. Coleman can’t entirely explain it himself, though one clue lies in that runic yet reasonable statement of his: Music may involve a few different processes, but they all use the same intervals.


Ornette Coleman is one of a small handful of jazz musicians whose early career can deservedly be described as meteoric. Not in the sense of a “meteoric rise”-he wasn’t a prodigy, and besides, meteors do the opposite of rising-but in the manner of something otherworldly, dazzling and disruptive. He blazed onto the scene like some alien object hurtling into the atmosphere, and the force of his impact shook the ground.

If that impact can be traced to a precise moment, it would be Coleman’s appearance at the Five Spot in November of 1959, with his working quartet of Don Cherry on pocket trumpet, Charlie Haden on bass and Billy Higgins on drums. Not that there wasn’t fair warning. A cadre of critics, notably in the Jazz Review, had already heralded the sharp significance of Coleman’s first few albums, including Tomorrow is the Question!, on the Contemporary label, and The Shape of Jazz to Come, issued on Atlantic one month before the Five Spot gig.

Converts and dissenters alike flocked to that engagement; one musician was so offended by Coleman’s music that he hauled off and punched the saxophonist in the face. “In retrospect,” Robert Palmer wrote in the liner essay for Beauty Is a Rare Thing, an invaluable 1993 box set of Coleman’s Atlantic recordings, “the furor that swirled around the Coleman quartet was the sort of event that happens only once in the history of an art form: the Great Divide.” The analogous moment in classical lore, he added, would be the riotous premiere of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring.

As is the case with that Russian opus, Coleman’s output from the late ’50s and early ’60s no longer registers as incendiary, though it’s still capable of delivering a welcome jolt to the head and heart. Its formal innovations are easily identifiable: the plasticization of tempo; the explosion of established song structure; an improvisational blueprint based on melodic intuition rather than harmonic prescription. And at a time when modern jazz was palpably crossing a threshold from popular entertainment to intellectual art music, it embodied the promise of some brave and hopeful future. This of course was a general preoccupation of the era; it hardly seems coincidental that 1959 was also a banner year for Tomorrowland, the Disney theme park attraction.

Small wonder, then, that Martin Williams, one of Coleman’s most perceptive and influential champions, later criticized the progress-fetish titles of the early quartet albums as “a tactical error.” (Change of the Century, the most immodestly named of the bunch, appeared in 1960.) In his 1970 survey The Jazz Tradition, Williams made a point of connecting Coleman to a host of precursors stretching from the bluesman Sonny Terry to the tenor Lester Young, even as he opined that “his music represents the first fundamental reevaluation of basic materials and basic procedures for jazz since the innovations of Charlie Parker.” He felt compelled to add, in a footnote: “I have heard Coleman play an uncannily exact reproduction of Parker’s style, by the way.”

Coleman himself still requires no prodding to reminisce about Parker. “When I was coming up playing music, I used to go and listen to Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk,” he recalls. “They were my peers, and I really always wanted to play in the band, and I never did. Maybe I did play somewhere with Monk later, but it wasn’t on a level of what I would have chosen to do. But the style and the class of how we are as human beings got in the way of all of that. In my case I have never discriminated against good or bad, because everyone can get better.”


As a self-taught musician in Fort Worth, Texas in the 1940s, Coleman came up against his share of discrimination, both musical and social. He struggled to make it on the regional rhythm and blues circuit, frequently running afoul of bandleaders and abusive audiences for his flinty, pitch-imperfect style. But one of his early technical frustrations had a decisive impact on his philosophy of sound. The issue in question was transposition, a mental exercise that had reportedly also stymied Parker in his formative years.

Coleman was puzzled by the adjustment in key required by his E-flat alto, and in his autodidactic way, he decided to turn the concept on its ear. One of the fundamental tenets of Harmolodic Theory-the concept formally introduced with the premiere of Coleman’s 1972 symphony Skies of America, and exemplified throughout the ’80s by his free-funk band Prime Time-is the conviction that it shouldn’t matter what key an instrument plays in, if intervallic relationships are preserved. (Or even, in many cases, if they aren’t; for an aesthetic code, Harmolodics is stubbornly resistant to absolutes.)

In conversation, Coleman is fantastically and sometimes frustratingly discursive, but on the topic of transposition he gets both animated and specific. “Say you have C natural,” he says, “and it’s on the third space in the treble clef. That same note is E natural [in the bass clef]. That same note for a saxophone is C sharp, and for the trumpet, it’s a D. The violin is getting away with murder!” Like many Coleman propositions, this one makes sense only with a bit of interpretative effort.

But he extends the idea, gesturing with his hand to indicate an imaginary piece of sheet music. “C natural, if you put it upside down, it’s an A. But it’s still the same sound. The only thing that can change sound is emotion. Other stuff just gets in the way and makes it sound like noise. But emotion actually changes sound. Which means that emotion is ten times more pure than sound.”

The idea of emotional inflection is not new to Coleman’s process, though it now seems to play an especially crucial role. “I just lately started using that phrase ‘Sound Grammar,'” he says, “but it’s been in my mind ever since I’ve been playing music. Although I do know that in the emotion of human beings, sound is growing: in revolutions, in purpose, and most of all, in freedom. A person can say a word that they know what it means without you knowing what it means, and speak to you in a way that you get a meaning from it.”

This reference to speaking prompts some further exploration of Coleman’s conceptual catchphrase. “Grammar articulates relationships,” I venture.

Coleman nods. “But it also works in the way that adjectives, pronouns and conjunctions do in language. The main thing is that the word ‘improvising’ is the only word that can be used by anyone in any form they want with different results. What I think improvising is, is adding to the quality of the melody and making a much more interesting idea out of it, collectively. That’s what I think improvising is. I don’t think it’s broken down further. Although the rhythm instruments are probably the truest form of improvising, because you don’t think of having whole steps, you don’t think of harmonies, you don’t think of movement; you think of pure rhythm. Like your heartbeat: Does it beat in 4/4 time? 8/4 time? It’s not even measured like that, right? It just beats.”

That analogy is classic Coleman; reminiscent of “rhythmic patterns should be as natural as breathing patterns,” a credo memorialized by Williams. From the start, the saxophonist’s most articulate supporters have drawn attention to the humanistic pulse and cadence of his music. Around the time of the Five Spot gig, Whitney Balliett weighed in with the observation that “Coleman’s most adventurous tonal flights appear to be attempts to reproduce on his horn the more passionate inflections of the human voice.” Coleman still encourages this idea. “Every note that has a title has so many frequencies to represent that note,” he says. “But that’s not true of your voice. We’re speaking, right? But we don’t have to tune up to talk.”

It’s worth noting that the human voice is a rather sophisticated thing to emulate. “There’s no other creature that has an intellectual relationship with rhythm, the way your emotion allows you to appreciate things,” muses Coleman. “The sad part about that is that when you think of races of color, you think of rhythm, and when you think of races of non-color, you think of class. But there’s nobody without rhythm; there are just people who don’t know how to make it fit, because of the quality of what it’s supposed to represent. But with sound, you don’t have that problem. And for some reason sound is beginning to be a very important emotional quality, in the voice, in the drums, in the instruments, and in the revolution of ideas.”


There’s a fundamental tension between the surge of progress and the onward march of time. Tomorrow may be the question, but as each one arrives, you add to a stockpile of yesterdays. Though never a backward-glancing type, Coleman has been revisiting certain themes in concert-“Lonely Woman,” his best-loved composition, has become a standard encore-and describing his own work in more holistic terms, as an oeuvre.

And during my first visit to his home, he riffs extensively on the topic of death, unprovoked. At one point, when I make a point about the practical application of Sound Grammar, he responds with a quip: “When you said ‘application,’ you know what I thought of? Life insurance.” We both laugh, but then he rolls with the idea. “Let’s face it: can’t nobody be responsible when you’re gonna live and when you’re gonna die.”

“I was in Central Park yesterday listening to some people,” he says moments later, referring to a SummerStage concert featuring Asha Puthli, the classically trained Indian vocalist who appeared on his 1971 Columbia album Science Fiction, and Dewey Redman, the tenor saxophonist who made for an exceptional improvisational foil on the same recording. “It was beautiful. It sounded good.” Three weeks later, Redman would be gone, felled by liver failure at age 75.

For a stretch of time, Redman was seemingly as visible a proponent of Coleman’s vision as the man himself. (He was well qualified for this task; born and raised in Fort Worth, he played alongside Coleman in their high school marching band.) In the ’70s, Redman was a member of two highly acclaimed ensembles: Keith Jarrett’s American Quartet, with Jarrett on piano and reeds, Haden on bass and Paul Motian on drums; and Old and New Dreams, with Haden, Don Cherry and drummer Ed Blackwell, all former members of the Ornette Coleman Quartet. Both ensembles were important elaborations on Coleman’s legacy, in an era when he was plugging in with Prime Time.

As an outlet and laboratory, Prime Time was a significant development, even a milestone, for Coleman. The group’s first album, Dancing in Your Head, was released on A&M in 1977, with one side devoted to an expansion of “The Good Life,” a theme from the sprawling and often sublime Skies of America. The other side of Dancing included a recorded meeting with the Master Musicians of Joujouka; Robert Palmer, the rock critic, plays clarinet. “Significantly,” notes Gary Giddins in Visions of Jazz, “the album was embraced by members of the rock press and reviled or ignored by the jazz commentators who had hailed the Atlantic-era quartets.” (One of the great mind-blowing clips on is a 1979 Prime Time performance on Saturday Night Live, complete with an introduction by Milton Berle.)

Coleman led multiple iterations of Prime Time up through the ’80s, enlisting a roll call of musicians including the guitarists Bern Nix and Charles Ellerbee; electric bassists Jamaaladeen Tacuma and Al MacDowell; and drummers Ronald Shannon Jackson and G. Calvin Weston. In 1985 he accepted the invitation of guitarist Pat Metheny to make a collaborative album: Song X, which Nonesuch reissued in a 20th-anniversary edition last year with six illuminating new tracks. There, too, a version of “The Good Life” appeared.

Before Sound Grammar, the most recent releases under Coleman’s name were issued a decade ago on his own Harmolodic imprint, distributed by Verve. The albums, Sound Museum: Three Women and Sound Museum: Hidden Man, marked a return to acoustic combo work, though the lessons of Prime Time were still pertinent. And “return” isn’t quite the word, since in addition to a rhythm section-Denardo Coleman plus bassist Charnett Moffett, whose father Charles Moffett was the drummer on Coleman’s Blue Note albums At the Golden Circle, Vols. 1 and 2-the band included a pianist, Geri Allen. Her work on both albums is remarkable, and not just because she manages to make her instrument defy its usual fixed tonalities. The Sound Museum albums have held up well over time; even better, it would seem, than the contemporaneous duo recording Coleman made with another pianist, Joachim Kühn. Certainly they feel connected to the new release; the melody of “P.P. (Picolo Pesos),” which appears on both Sound Museum albums, would later resurface as “Matador,” on Sound Grammar.

The difference between the two releases is that Sound Grammar documents a working band, something Coleman searched vainly for through the latter half of the ’90s. In 2000 he appeared on a Bell Atlantic Jazz Festival concert at Battery Park with three separate projects: Global Expression, a well-intentioned but mushy world-rhythm group; “Freedom Symbol,” an uneven chamber piece inspired by the Statue of Liberty, which was visible in the distance; and a tantalizing reunion with Haden and Higgins that was cut short by the City Parks Department.

At the start of the concert, Coleman walked onstage, one arm in a sling, and briefly philosophized about the universality of music. Among his pronouncements was one that now seems both prophetic and slightly problematic: “Sound is free of grammar.”

Coleman’s contemporary quartet premiered on June 25, 2003 at Carnegie Hall. They played an uninterrupted concert-length whorl: exhilarating, knotty and deliriously complex. Denardo Coleman’s drums and cymbals implied more pulse than time. Greg Cohen plucked his bass, conjuring a slippery groove; Tony Falanga mostly bowed his, in a plangent tone. Coleman wove his way through this fabric, owning the music completely, yet with a generous air.

The group already had some history. Months earlier, Coleman had asked his cousin and manager James Jordan to scout out a bassist with classical technique, and Falanga turned out to be their man: a Berklee-trained jazz bassist who had later earned both a classical degree (at Juilliard) and an assistant principal chair (with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s). “Ornette heard the way I play with the bow, especially in the higher register, and he was really taken with it,” Falanga recalls. “After about four or five concerts as a trio, he said: ‘I’m going to look for a second bass player so that you can just stay with the bow.'” That mandate led to Cohen, a bassist whose vast credits include membership in John Zorn’s Masada, a group partly patterned after Coleman’s early ’60s quartet. “It was a perfect fit right away,” reflected Cohen a few months after the first Carnegie concert.

There has been ample opportunity to chart the ensemble’s progress over the past few years, at least in the Northeast: two gripping follow-up concerts at Carnegie Hall, a breezy stand at Newport and a hit in Newark, N.J. with the Bad Plus. Not surprisingly, the group has evolved, though certain characteristics have endured, like the complex dialectic of those multiple bassists.

“The reason he has two bass players,” explains Falanga, “is because a bass note changes the character and the function of whatever note is being played against it. Ornette could play a B and if I play a G, it sounds like he’s playing the third; or I could play a C, and it sounds like he’s playing the seventh. So he goes, ‘Now I have two of you guys changing the meaning of my notes as I play them.’ It’s the opposite of most people, who rely on the bass to give them the root of the chord.”

“Then he finds notes that influence us to play a different note,” Falanga continues. “So he’ll play a note, and we’re in another tonality, which could be interpreted in a lot of different ways. It’s tough, but when it works it really works, and it’s totally unique. He did it a long time ago with the double quartet. And then he did it electric with Prime Time. Now he’s just taking the bass notes, which are the ones that change everything, and he’s getting rid of those other instruments which take up solo territory. Everybody’s changing everybody up constantly, so there’s new meanings to what’s happening all the time.”


This process, exquisitely expressed on Sound Grammar, is no less evident in rehearsal. So at Coleman’s invitation, I attend one at his loft, observing an hour and a half of a roughly three-hour session. Al MacDowell is filling the role originated by Cohen, whose schedule has presented a conflict. (The band’s bass section now includes Falanga with either MacDowell or Cohen, depending on availability; but Coleman stirred things up by featuring all three on his most recent Carnegie Hall concert.)

Coleman’s music studio is a cozy space with leopard-print carpeting and two opposing walls lined with books and music. On the top of one bookshelf sits a DVD set of Ken Burns’ The Civil War and a Charley Patton CD box set, both shrink-wrapped. Coleman, sitting in a chair with his white plastic alto, offers few comments as the band makes its way down a list of songs, running through most of them twice. Some of them, like “Those That Know Before It Happens,” sound deeply powerful the first time around.

On a brisk new tune, “Following the Sound,” MacDowell alternates between walking quarter notes and guitar-like chords, fingers flying over his fretboard. “What key are you at?” Coleman asks him, after the song has snapped to a finish. Without waiting for an answer, he turns the question into a pun: “The key is in your pocket, right?”

The highlight, among the pieces I heard, was “Sleep Talking,” which appears on Sound Grammar. As Ben Ratliff has pointed out in the New York Times, its melody suggests the first movement of the Rite of Spring; Coleman’s sly acknowledgment, perhaps, of the controversy his own music incited at the Five Spot all those years ago. In rehearsal, it begins with Falanga’s high arco bass and Denardo Coleman’s bass drum, thumping a heartbeat cadence. Then Coleman enters, his alto crying the blues. MacDowell starts a warped ostinato, vaguely Latin in tone; the effect is that of a DJ’s remix in real time. Then at no perceptible signal, the ensemble lunges into action, creating a churn both explosive and cohesive. After a few minutes, it ends as sharply as it begins.

But first there’s a moment during his solo when Coleman inserts a passing reference to “Beautiful Dreamer,” the Stephen Foster song. (It seems to be a favorite theme of his: the same quote appears on Sound Grammar, not quite two minutes into a reinterpretation of “Turnaround.”) Afterwards, he professes not to recall making the reference-“It must be because I like that idea. These things just come”-and describes his role during rehearsals as that of a provocateur. “What I do is prod them, to see where they can go. With the two basses it’s three of us. But it sounds like more.”

A few days after the rehearsal, Coleman and the quartet play a concert in Paris. In October they will travel to Italy for an exceedingly rare performance of Skies of America. Meanwhile, there will be many more rehearsals-“We’re always rehearsing, constantly,” says Denardo, making it clear that this is not a complaint-and many more attempts at articulating a vision.

“I think that there is something I know,” Coleman says, “but I think there’s something I could know better about. If I speak about it and no one understands it, it’s not helping me. But if I speak about the things that you do understand, then it helps me to do what I can explain, so you say ‘Oh, that’s what he was talking about.’ I’m going through that period right now, and it’s good and bad at the same time.”

One thing Coleman can communicate, with utmost clarity, is a sense of pride regarding a body of work now held in high esteem. Its acceptance, after all, was hardly assured. “I’ve had musicians come up to me and say, ‘You can’t play like that.’ They took my horn and threw it over a cliff. I mean, it’s been a long time; they’re not doing that now. But I didn’t understand: How would he know if he didn’t hear me play? I don’t want to play like I played last night! But that’s not what he meant.” He pauses, as if in reflection. “What’s really come to be true is that every race on the planet of life can play any way they want to play, without having to please someone else just to get an opportunity to be heard. And I’m so glad: whatever caused that to happen, I hope it gets better.” Originally Published

Nate Chinen

Nate Chinen

Nate Chinen is the director of editorial content for WBGO and a longtime contributor to JazzTimes, which published 125 installments of his column “The Gig” between 2004 and 2017. For 12 years, he was a critic for The New York Times; prior to that, he wrote about jazz for the Village Voice, the Philadelphia City Paper, and several other publications. He is the author of Playing Changes: Jazz for the New Century (2018) and the co-author of George Wein’s autobiography Myself Among Others: A Life in Music (2003).