A Conversation With Ornette Coleman
(On May 19th 1988, I interviewed Ornette Coleman, in part to help promote the release Virgin Beauty—his first recording for a major label in several years, and one that included the unexpected presence of Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia. While it was thoroughly an honor to speak to the man, I must admit it was one of the spaciest conversations I’d ever had with any artist. Thought it appropriate timing to post this now, as Coleman just won, incredibly, the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for music for his album Sound Grammar. Well-deserved and somewhat surreal, no? –dd)
Are you excited about linking up with a major label again? I’ve heard conflicting reports about you and your love for major labels.
Oh, no. Actually, this is probably the first time I’ve ever had a label that’s really working with me, and giving me the kind of system that I’ve always tried to achieve. But mostly, when I first came to New York, my musical relationships with musicians and everyone was just fresh and new–and no one knew how to package me, I guess you could say. But it’s been 20 years or more now since then, and things have gotten better and changed.
If you think this is the first company doing things right for you, what makes you think deep down inside things are going to be different this time?
Well, it’s just like you and I. I’ve never spoken to you before, right?
So, that’s the way things are. You just know that when you know. Like you ask me something you want to know, and I can only answer you by what I believe.
So basically, what I mean is, every person I’ve met with the company has been very, very open and very… shall I say…they like the record and the relationships that [Coleman’s musician son] Denardo has made with them and with me have been very good. I don’t want to sound different, or [as if I’m] trying to make an excuse or anything.
I know what you mean.
You know, I really believe that when you’re working with a professional person who’s responsible for what they are supposed to do, and you are responsible for what you do, and you work together, it’s bound to be better. But I never had that with a record company.
Did you make this new record knowing full well it was going to be distributed by a major?
I made it knowing that it was going to have the release specifically with the company. Basically, when Denardo told me he was negotiating with [the label], that’s when we decided to start–so that they would see my interest was just as [great] as theirs.
Have you really ever been told by any labels in the past to change your music by any capacity?
No, I haven’t. Actually, you know all the time that I was making music for labels? The first time I got a chance to make a record was when I had received a call from [Contemporary Records head] Les Koenig asking me about some song that I wrote. He was interested in some of the compositions I was writing. So basically I went out there and showed him seven of my compositions. About a month or two later, he called me up and said he couldn’t find anyone that knew what to do with them. Could I play them? And I told him, yeah, I could. So I went out there and played them on my horn. And he said, “Well, let’s put a band together.” Because basically, I always thought of myself as a composer—and, you know, composers really don’t make a living unless they are song composers…. I’ve always wanted to write music, and since I made my first record playing the saxophone and everything, I just got tagged a saxophone player. But since I made my last record, I’ve made all types of music…Let’s go back to your question about someone asking me to change my music. No one knew what I was going to write before they heard it. I mean, only since Denardo has been producing my records have I had someone working with me on the compositional part of my music.
And when he works with you, in what capacity is he working? Playing drums?
No, no. He’s a composer in his own right, and he plays the bass very much. When we decided [to record], we went to hear the Grateful Dead and [Denardo] said, “You know, Jerry [Garcia] has such a beautiful sound.” And sure, I’d like to do something pure, which you do with other people… Jerry was the first person that I used that I think participated in something I’ve written.
Besides Pat Metheny.
Was Jerry’s participation part of a process of perhaps making the new record sound more commercially accessible, if you know what I mean? Do you think it does?
I think I’ve always had commercially accessible records. For instance–I don’t know if you’ve heard my Dancing In Your Head record.
I sure have. It’s great.
You know, I’ve always said all my music has been very commercial, but I’ve never had any company that was trying to give me that relationship that they have with a commercial person. And so I was never bitter about it–I just assumed that if and when it happened, it would be right.
Your previous album In All Languages was superb. That you featured both your original Quartet and also Prime Time at times performing the same pieces was fascinating. Did you have a specific intent there, something you wanted to prove, say?
I don’t know if the word “proved” is a good word, but I would say that it allowed people to [see the] relationship in styles. For me, there’s only two kinds of music–music with words and music without words. And usually, what we do in the Western world, everyone sells their music under a certain style, because I guess it’s much easier to do it. Maybe styles have something to do with [the ethnicities of] people—rock ‘n’ roll came into existence in the last 30 years, I think. Before that, it was R&B. So I guess when we find a word that will make all styles equal to everyone, that will be the right word for the style.
In the course of your career, though you were known as a saxophonist, you began playing the trumpet and violin. And when Denardo was extremely young, just 10, he began recording with you. Some people saw the point of that as proving that in music, sometime feeling is just a significant a factor as actual technique.
To answer your question: Technical things can be learned with the person who has the ability to learn them, and non-technical things are the things that people just naturally feel emotionally. And since music is something that is equal in both feel and technique, there is not so much prejudice in my mind for the love of either one of those things. They are equal to me.
You’ve mentioned Pat Metheny. How do you look back at working with him?
I’ll tell you, I have all the admiration and respect and love that I can have for a fellow musician like Pat. Because he is very proper, and he is forever trying to improve his music and help other musicians improve upon what they’re doing. Besides myself, he plays with so many different other people. So I would think Pat is a role model for the American musician–in fact, I hope the day will come when there will be billions put up so that American music will have the same renaissance concept that European music has.
Do you feel that over the years you’ve been portrayed fairly to the public in the press? Do you even read your press?
I must say that I don’t feel that I have any enemies. And I’m sure that when some critic writes something that he’s figured out that I don’t know, that it’s unpleasant for people to read about me. I’m sure he must be doing that, because of his own profession–and as far as I’m concerned, every person has a right to express what they believe, and if it affects your position, then that’s how it is. But for me, I think music—well, I would say music, but maybe any form of expression that has to do with people enjoying or using or caring about how well you do, what you do, or how well you know it–there are some people that are always going to express the things that they think are needed, or things that you don’t know about. That I do believe–that is very hard for some critics to know, if they don’t know what you’re doing
Related to that, do you think that sometimes you’re so uniformly loved by the critics that maybe they overlook things that they shouldn’t?
I wouldn’t say that anyone overlooked [anything], I think. Because, you know, let’s face it–when you listen to music, you listen to sound, and sound means so many things to so many different people.
So for me, a person can write whatever they want to write, regardless of how bad or good it is–because if they try to find something, that makes them understand what you’re trying to do.
The members of Prime Time have also been out there playing with other musicians in recent times. Is this something that you encourage?
I encourage that. In fact, the band I have now, I have five new members of Prime Time that are going out on the road in the next 10 days. And I’m constantly trying to encourage the musicians to not only take the things I’m doing with them and turn it into something that’s useful for them whether they playing with me or not, but to try to share whatever they are learning from me with whoever they are going to play with, because it’s their own band.
In other words, I think of myself as a composer [who is] trained to a share the things I’ve learned and figured out about making sound into a musical meaning that has emotion and melody.
For me, that’s not a style–that’s an idea.
You mentioned going out on the road. What do you intend to do to promote this new record? Are you even in the business of promoting your own records, if you know what I mean?
I always thought that’s what I was doing every time I’ve gone out and played, whether there was a record or not. I am promoting music.
Back in the ’50s and ’60s, some black jazz artists went overseas when the political situation is the States became overwhelming. Do you see that as still happening?
I don’t think that was the issue in the beginning, myself. Because basically when you take the music that is called jazz, I mean, like–look at Chet Baker. I know there are some white jazz musicians who are suffering more than black jazz musicians, but the reason why I think the black population suffers is because [it’s] a very small minority compared to the large percentage of the American people. The way the country is makes the black population a minority itself…That’s why I think that any time an artist becomes successful in America, I think it’s a miracle–because there are so many things that have been learned way before the culture of America started [and we began] realizing that we all have to stand in line and wait for other things to pass. [Sometimes] opportunity presents itself for you, and I think that’s basically what you asked, about why black musicians go to Europe. One of the things that’s really true is that in Europe you can go, say, 30 minutes [and] you’re in Paris, another 30 minutes [and] you’re in London. And so many people speak so many different languages–so each time you go to a different country, [it] represents a different audience. Whereas in America, you’re speaking to the same English audience and the American public consumes things very fast. You know, you can be very big today, and tomorrow you can be forgotten.
It’s just because the consumer–the American public–consumes things so fast. In fact, to tell you the truth ,white rock ‘n’ roll musicians in Europe do the same thing that you said that [American] black musicians do when they come to America to do what you say black jazz musicians are going to Europe to do.
But it’s really not a matter of race, it’s a matter of people trying to find a way to keep what they are trying to achieve, [and get] a helping hand in life.
Last question? What’s your five-year plan?
Well, I would like to be able to get as much coverage as I can, musically, without having to be in any one place.