Fresh Air Remembers Jazz Innovator Ornette Coleman

Jun 12, 2015
Originally published on June 12, 2015 3:10 pm

Ornette Coleman died Thursday, at the age of 85. Listen to a pair of conversations with the saxophonist and composer, as well as interviews with members of his quartet — Don Cherry and Charlie Haden — and his son, Denardo Coleman.

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies sitting in for Terry Gross. Today, we note the passing of one of the most original voices in the history of jazz and a founding member of the jazz avant-garde, saxophonist and composer Ornette Coleman.


DAVIES: Coleman died yesterday in Manhattan at the age of 85. Today, his standing as an innovator is unassailable. He's been awarded a MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant, won a Pulitzer and was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters and was the subject of a retrospective series at Lincoln Center. But as a newcomer in the late 1950s, Coleman was a controversial figure in the music world. His music was so rhythmically and harmonically radical, it provoked an uproar among musicians, critics and listeners who all jumped into the fray to attack or defend this new music.


DAVIES: That's from the 1959 Ornette Coleman Quartet recording "The Shape Of Jazz To Come." Ornette Coleman was the last living member of this quartet, which also included Don Cherry on trumpet, Charlie Haden on bass and Billy Higgins on drums. In a few minutes, we'll listen to excerpts of interviews with Don Cherry and Charlie Haden, but let's start with an interview Terry recorded with Ornette. In 1987, she asked him about the early days of the quartet, which he formed in LA.



What did you tell them at early rehearsals when you were first starting to play together and you were playing a music unlike any music that had been played before?

ORNETTE COLEMAN: I had - originally, I had told them, I said, you know, the bass - the basics of music is first learning how to play music on the instrument that you choose to play. Secondly, to eliminate the problems of having a style that get in the way that you think or feel. And third is to not get so hung up in the technique of your instrument that you cannot play music anymore. So - and I demonstrated those kind of things to them. And since I first started, I was using just the trumpet, the bass and the drums, which was not lots of musicians at that time, so it was very simple for me to give them the information that I had figured out.

GROSS: In 1959, you and the quartet moved to New York, and you opened at a club called the Five Spot. And that was maybe the most controversial engagement in all of jazz history. Jazz listeners, jazz musicians and music critics really formed into two camps over your music and seemed to be constantly debating its merits. Who were some of the musicians who you remember coming into the Five

Spot to check you out?

O. COLEMAN: Well, there was Leonard Bernstein, Gunther Schuller, Miles Davis, Coltrane, Sonny Rollins and people like that all came by.

GROSS: Could you share with us one of your most vivid memories from that period at the Five Spot?

O. COLEMAN: Well, I remember Mr. Bernstein coming up one night we were playing. And when we got through, he jumped to the bandstand and started hugging everyone and me and saying, you know, what a great sound it was. And then I remember one night, one musician kicked in the door with his feet and tried to hit me. And he was very disturbed about calling me an avant-garde four letter word, you know, so it was really hot and cold at the same time.

GROSS: In the mid-'70s, you formed a new kind of group, a group you called Prime Time. And the group has two bassists, two drummers and two guitarists. You frequently play in different keys and in contrasting rhythms. Did you hear that music in your head before you actually formed the group to play it?

O. COLEMAN: All the time.


GROSS: Your new record is a double album. One album features you playing in the setting of the original quartet. And the other album is you and Prime Time. What was the experience like of playing again with the original quartet?

O. COLEMAN: Well, I really think that it came off very, very well because I went in the studio and had written about 16 compositions. And we recorded - all those compositions was under four minutes. And then Charlie Haden, which is a real purist-type person, thought, well, you must be doing this to get more airplay to get more popular. But I said, Charlie, you know, you've been playing with me for 25 years and you really don't have to play a 10-minute solo, a 20-minute solo to play something that you've been enjoying for 20 years. So why not try to find something that is meaningful to you because you can do it instantly?


GROSS: Your son, Denardo Coleman, is one of the drummers in your band. He also manages the band and has produced the new album. I believe you're divorced from his mother. Were you close when Denardo started playing drums? Were you close with him?

O. COLEMAN: Well, I tell you, when I first came to New York, he and his mother came with me, and we checked into a hotel. And I was opening, I think, on the 17 of November, 1959, and it was very cold and uncomfortable. And she said, you know, I really don't think this is a good environment to raise Denardo, and I don't want to raise him in this environment, so I'm going to go back to California. So I said, OK, that sounds fine with me if that's what you want to do, but we kept contact. And when he became about - I think it was three years later - I called him up and asked him what did he want for his 6-year-old birthday. And he told me something about some instrument toy or something on the TV that he saw. I said, well, Denardo, you know, I don't know if I can find that instrument, but what about a set of drums? He said, I tell you what, Dad. He said, forget the toy and send the drums special delivery.

GROSS: When did you first play together?

O. COLEMAN: When he was about 8, and then we made a record when he was 9. When he has time to do his own music, which I feel that I have neglected to give him time to do that, that music that he - that is his own music, I think, is just as popular as any other music, including my own.

GROSS: Do you feel really lucky to have a son that you can play music with?

O. COLEMAN: Well, I think luck is a very inadequate word. You know, I think gift is a better word.

GROSS: Yeah.

DAVIES: Ornette Coleman, recorded in 1987. He died yesterday in Manhattan at the age of 85. We'll hear another conversation Terry recorded with Ornette Coleman and his son Denardo a little later in the show. The late Charlie Haden played bass in Coleman's groundbreaking quartet. In 1985, he told Terry Gross about his first encounter with Coleman's music.


CHARLIE HADEN: I was 19 years old, and we played all day long. And he had a room full of music strewn all over the floor, the walls, the ceiling; he was constantly writing music. And he told me before we started to play, he said, Charlie, I've written these pieces now and here's the chord changes. Now, these are the chord changes that I heard inside myself when I was writing the melody, but these are just a guide for you. I want you to be inspired from them and create your own chord structure from the inspiration or from the feeling of what I've written. And that way, constantly a new chord structure will be evolving and we will be constantly modulating, and we'll be listening to each other, and we will make some exciting music. And that's exactly what happened.

GROSS: Were you surprised at how controversial the music was when you started playing it? You know, a lot of people couldn't handle it at all - musicians, listeners.

HADEN: I was very involved in learning about the playing. We were all involved because it was a brand-new language. And we were constantly learning about what it was we were doing. Things were being born every day out of what we were doing. There was a lot of controversy around us. When we opened up at the Five Spot in New York, fights used to break out right in the club. People would be putting us down. People would be praising us. The club was packed every night with everybody from different parts of the art world - painters, famous writers, filmmakers, dancers, musicians. I would look out and standing at the bar would be Paul Chambers, Percy Heath, Charlie Mingus. And they would be looking dead in my eye, you know, and saying OK, what are you going to do? And I would be playing and have my eyes closed.

And one night, I opened my eyes and there was Leonard Bernstein with his ear glued to the front of my instrument. And I looked over at Ornette and said, what is this? He says, I'll tell you later. And then we were invited to Leonard Bernstein's table. He invited us to the Philharmonic rehearsals. And he couldn't believe that I was self-taught, and he wanted to try and get me to study music. And he was very helpful in me getting a Guggenheim Fellowship 10 years later in composition. But it was like that every night. It was very exciting. The violence wasn't exciting. I mean, people - one guy set somebody's car on fire. One night, I remember somebody came back in the kitchen. We were standing, talking with Ornette - and I won't say who it was - and hit Ornette in the face, you know? I mean, it was really a very strong excitation time. New things were happening, not only in music, but in people's minds every night from that music, you know?

DAVIES: Charlie Haden, recorded in 1985. He died last year at the age of 76. Trumpeter Don Cherry, who died in 1995, was another member of the original Ornette Coleman Quartet. He later played Coleman's compositions in the Coleman alumni band Old and New Dreams. Terry interviewed him in 1990.


GROSS: When you played with the Ornette Coleman Quartet at the Five Spot in 1959, the music you were playing was considered very revolutionary and some people really loved it and other people thought it was - well, you couldn't even call it jazz. Would you share one of your memories of what it was like then to be in the middle of all this controversy?

DON CHERRY: Like you say, some people loved it and some people hated it, didn't like it. And there would be arguments and fights and a lot of different scenes have happened. And I remember one night, Charlie Mingus bringing Phineas Newborn. And Phineas Newborn has perfect pitch. See, you know, you can have relative pitch or perfect pitch, and he had perfect pitch. And Charlie Mingus wanted him to play with us. And there was a piano there, so Charlie Mingus had brought Phineas Newborn the set end list. And we started the set. And Charlie Mingus set Phineas Newborn in front of the piano. And the host said we had played four or five tunes - an hour set. And Phineas just stood up there and looked at the piano while we were playing and didn't play a note. And at the end of the set, Mingus came up on the bandstand while Phineas was sitting there, and he took all his elbows and hands and put all the notes on the piano.

GROSS: (Laughter).

CHERRY: (Playing piano) Like that and he said, that's where it is. It's all there (laughter).

GROSS: Is one of the reasons why Ornette Coleman didn't use a piano in the quartet of the '60s - because everybody was playing slightly off-key intentionally, you know, slightly sharp or whatever, and a piano was tuned and you couldn't get between notes on a piano?

CHERRY: You're saying - yeah, the temperate. It's the temperate instrument.

GROSS: Temperate, yeah, exactly. Thanks.

CHERRY: And actually, pitch is one particular reason of not using the piano because of us working with tones and not just notes and the different ways of tuning. If there is a piano player that has the ear enough to know the voicings and can be able to voice it in a way where that you could hit those in-between tones or voices that would - which I know Thelonious could and Abdullah Ibrahim Dollar Brand can.

DAVIES: Don Cherry speaking with Terry Gross in 1990. We'll continue our tribute to saxophonist and composer Ornette Coleman after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. We're remembering jazz saxophonist and composer Ornette Coleman who died yesterday at the age of 85. In 1995, Terry recorded a second interview with Coleman, who was joined by his son, drummer Denardo Coleman. The occasion was the release of the CD "Tone Dialing" on their label Harmolodic named after what Ornette Coleman calls his harmolodic theory of music. Denardo produced the recording. Here's the opening track.


GROSS: Denardo, what did free jazz mean to you when you were young, you know, when you were a child?

DENARDO COLEMAN: It didn't mean anything to me.

GROSS: It just meant more music.

D. COLEMAN: No, I didn't - wasn't even aware of it. I was not even aware of free jazz or any categories. You know, like I said, to me it was just a natural sort of experience, just, you know, playing music with my father and the other guys that were playing with him. And, yeah, I made some records and I would actually go and play in some performances and that was it for me.

O. COLEMAN: You know, when you say free jazz, I feel the same way. I never told anyone I was playing free. In fact, I went to a promoter that hired me to play in Cincinnati and he had posted around their city free jazz concert - Ornette Coleman. And the night of the concert, about 5,000 people showed up and not one had bought a ticket.

GROSS: (Laughter) They thought it was free jazz, right.


GROSS: No admission (laughter). Ornette, remember you said earlier that you sometimes feel bad that - you feel like you've maybe limited Denardo's options because you've needed him to work with you and the band and managing you and all that. In what sense do you feel like you need Denardo, that he's doing something that someone else isn't going to be able to do for you?

O. COLEMAN: I love your questions...


O. COLEMAN: ...Because it sounds - those questions sound to me are psychological, social and racial and everything else. But basically, what I was referring to is the fact that I read in the paper the other day where a brain specialist - a guy went into the hospital and say this leg is going - this is the leg I want you to take off. Do you know the right leg? And when he woke, it was the other leg that was taken off. So for me, I would rather work with someone that know what I'm trying to achieve.

GROSS: Right, right, you feel like with a lot of people they misunderstand you.

O. COLEMAN: No, no. I said to know what I'm trying to - for instance, I had an interview with a very good critic in Europe last week. And he said oh, you know, this music, you - I really love what you're doing, but I don't understand it. I said, well, let me ask you a question. If you did understand it, would you love the music better?

GROSS: (Laughter).

O. COLEMAN: You know?

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you both very much for talking with us.

O. COLEMAN: Thank you very much.

D. COLEMAN: Thank you.

O. COLEMAN: Terry, do you play music or sing?

GROSS: Oh, I've played a bunch of things badly (laughter).

O. COLEMAN: Oh, that's what I thought.

GROSS: Yeah.

O. COLEMAN: I mean, I didn't think...


O. COLEMAN: I didn't think you played them badly but I thought you must be connected to music.

GROSS: Yeah, no, but yeah - I have played piano badly and French horn badly and clarinet badly and even a little guitar badly.

O. COLEMAN: Well, next time we play, bring either one of your instruments to our rehearsals. Maybe we could find something good.

GROSS: Say I did that.


GROSS: What would you - what would the first thing be? What would we do?

O. COLEMAN: Well, we would first - I'd ask you to do something that you enjoy, that you feel you do well. Then we would play with you.

GROSS: Oh, that's interesting. So you just kind of play around me.

O. COLEMAN: Well, actually, you know, I was going to ask you if you were a composer. I could give you an example of just how musicians that I ask to do what I'm asking you to do would feel more comfortable doing that because, for instance, you know, maybe you have a favorite key or a favorite - for instance, the Bach piece on the record. When I was looking for a classical guitarist, I had asked Chris Rosenberg which piece did he like. And he'd said, oh, I like this piece by Bach. I said, well, play it. Then after he played it, I said, you know, I'm going to take my horn and interpret what you are doing harmolodically (ph). And when I got through, he said I want to join your band. So I said, well, that's just the reason why I did this, so you could see why I'm interested in hiring a classical player because if you listen to that piece on there - on the CD, you would see that he's playing it twice. And the second time he plays it, he sounds like he's playing changes for us to play to resolve harmolodic ideas. And when he's playing it as a solo piece, it sounds like a melody.

D. COLEMAN: Although he hasn't changed...

O. COLEMAN: He hasn't changed - nothing changed, not at all.

D. COLEMAN: ...The way he played it both ways. He's playing the same thing both ways.

O. COLEMAN: So you could do that with us very easy, even with what you call bad.

DAVIES: Jazz saxophonist and composer Ornette Coleman and his son, Denardo, speaking with Terry Gross in 1995. Ornette Coleman died yesterday in Manhattan. He was 85. After a break, we'll listen to Terry's interview recorded in 1990 with actor Christopher Lee who died Sunday in London. Lee was famous for his portrayals of Count Dracula, but appeared in more than 250 film and TV roles. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.