Thoughts on Ornette Coleman


The first time I heard Ornette Coleman in person was at a New Year’s Eve concert in the Harlem State Office Building cafeteria. (He and his band Prime Time were topping a triple bill that opened with drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson  & the Decoding Society and found guitarist James “Blood” Ulmer’s band spanning the transition from 1980 to 1981; both leaders had spent crucial time as Ornette sidemen.) The thing I remember most about it was how closely Ornette’s sound on alto sax resembled that of Charlie Parker’s. I had never heard the resemblance on Coleman’s recordings, but on the nearly non-existent sound system in this low-ceilinged (with acoustic tile) room, the similarity was striking.

Over the years I read many articles, by Ornette or interviewing Ornette or theorizing independently, that tried to explain his concept of harmolodic music (so called because HARmony, MOtion AKA rhythm, and meLODy were supposedly equal in it). I never could understand them; they always seemed more metaphoric than like the solid facts I had fed to me in music theory classes. Finally, just recently, I realized that his gnomic pronouncements were exactly equivalent to the koans of Zen masters. The reason I couldn’t find a logical, consistent system in harmolodics was because it was designed to be alogical, and because music as Coleman thought of it was like Gödel’s First Incompleteness Theorem, which states that any theory capable of expressing elementary arithmetic cannot be both consistent and contain all truth. His statements were designed to provoke us to think outside the musical boxes (pun intended) that we were in. Some people stupidly took his statements to mean that he was faking it, speaking in mumbo-jumbo, putting on an act. That anybody could think that despite the brilliance of his music just shows the rigidity of the average human mind.

That said, I never especially enjoyed his forays on trumpet or, especially, violin, wherein he was apparently attempting to demonstrate that technique was unnecessary. I could appreciate them on some level; it just wasn’t a level I was interested in hanging around on. But I'm willing to admit that may be evidence that I have not yet become a truly enlightened being.

However, once when I was interviewing longtime Coleman collaborator Ulmer, I tried to broach the topic of the drumming of Coleman’s son Denardo, which always seemed clumsy to me. Ulmer laughed and just said, “Denardo’s harmolodic as hell.”

Once I ended up on a panel discussion I had no business being on. Prime Time guitarist Bern Nix was on it as well, along with saxophonist Roy Nathanson. I went into Frank Kofsky mode and quoted Charles Gayle on the anti-heirarchical bent of free jazz. Nathanson prompted Nix to relate an anecdote I will try to remember, though I invite correction if I've gotten it wrong. They were working on something, and Ornette stopped him and said, "Play what you really feel." They gave it another try, and then Ornette said, "No, this is what you really feel," and played Nix's line another way.

Ornette’s Zen-like teaching methods bore fruit reflecting his anti-didactic bent: the people who played in his bands -- Ulmer, Jackson, bassist Charlie Haden, trumpeter Don Cherry, Nix, electric bassist Jamaaladeen Tacuma -- on their own made music that did not sound like Ornette’s, though one could trace its DNA back to him. They all sounded original, though; that was what Ornette really taught: how to think for oneself. UPDATE: Check out multi-instrumentalist Matt Lavelle's description of Ornette's teaching.

Like Bach, like Ellington, Coleman found complexity in simplicity and simplicity in complexity. That may be why his music has aged so well and appealed to such a broad spectrum of musicians. - Steve Holtje


Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based composer, poet, and editor. His soundtrack for director Enrico Cullen's film A Man Full of Days was recently heard at the film's debut screening at Anthology Film Archives.