Ornette Coleman Establishes Contact With Life

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Ornette Coleman (1930–2015)

(Photo: DownBeat Archives/Verve)

Ekkehard Jost’s description of Ornette Coleman’s music—despite being a little too academic for such a soulful and organic art form—seems to ring true: motivic chain association. Coleman strings together melodic clusters, eschewing an overarching harmonic framework but retaining the immediacy and clarity of a tonal center. His music moves in bursts of thought, changing abruptly, returning to an earlier motif, not culminating or cresting so much as staying in the moment.

Conversation with Coleman runs much the same way. Quick shifts in topic, frequent loops back to motifs-du-jour—in this case themes of death, birth and the primacy of the idea recurred, as did a childlike delight in the reversibility of “dog” and “God”—linked together in an exploratory, sometimes difficult-to-follow associative chain. Soft-spoken, but talking at an amazing clip, Coleman struggles to articulate his observations, reaching for a comprehensive cosmic analysis that centers on the human being and its main aspects—love and life. As the Sunday night headline act at the Chicago Jazz Festival in September, Coleman demonstrated the depth and fluency of his music, extending the new sound he first introduced 50 years ago. A day before the gig, wearing a colorful, slightly threadbare vest and doodling on a notepad filled with musical sketches, the 78-year-old saxophonist, composer and bandleader was concentrated and engaged over the course of two hours. At particular moments Coleman fingered invisible keys, as if he’d be better able to express himself on the horn than in words.

You paint, as well as make music.

I try. Music is something that is valid. It’s never something that can talk. You can only hear and feel it. So, you don’t need to have lots of conversations that are not equal to the results of what you are talking about. But when you hear it and feel it, you know what you are experiencing.

I’ve been playing music since I was a teenager. And I’ve gotten better, I’ve gotten clearer, but the timing is still the same. You still have to stay up, work, make mistakes and clear them up. That’s not gonna ever change, because the idea doesn’t have an agenda. The idea is just in you, the same thing that your brain is doing. You can’t cure it in a moment, you can’t change it. You have to deal with it as well as you can if it makes logic about something you believe. It’s not dangerous, it’s just human. The human being is the only form of life that has been fruitful to humanity. Regardless of how much knowledge you can learn, the human being is still more accessible and has more to enjoy. Like we’re sitting here talking. That’s gotta be much more real and important than something that you can’t see or talk to, or all you can do is express how it makes you respond. Whatever created human beings had a good idea. The human being has something built in their soul that makes them want to add to the quality of life more than destroying it.

That’s part of what makes following music and following the arts so enriching, that we get to see that.

And the fact that the human form, which also has a quality of knowledge built in their structure emotionally and physically, which we call the brain and the love, and, what is it called? The science. Humanhood, marriages, they just feed your brain. Sometimes a meal is not right; sometimes you have to start over. But the quality of life is conducive to what humans do with it. Imagine that life doesn’t have any description, form, shape or sound, but we know what it is when we’re speaking. Don’t we?

We do. We can imagine it even though we can’t exactly define it.

You can kill people, but you can’t kill life. That’s pretty good, isn’t it? That’s about as good as you can get it. The thing about life is that it comes in different forms. That has made the Earth the most advanced planet in the sky. Imagine that whatever decided there should be human, all they’ve done is expanded the eternity of what life can become. If you are trying to learn how to relate to how you got into existence, then you have to start with life. It doesn’t end there, it starts there. The only thing that ends is time. Time doesn’t end, the quality of time makes you know you have done this for so many years and this is what affects you since you’ve been doing that. Plus, the idea is all there is for human beings to make a decision about something that means something today, and in 20 years they’ll have even more value, if the quality keeps rising.

I’ve been playing music since I was a teenager, and now I call myself [someone who] composes music, which is putting it in a form where it makes other ideas beside itself. The notes themselves carry a form of what you’d call sound power. There are 12 notes, basically. Whole steps and half steps, but they have names. Sound, can you imagine? I was born in the ’30s. This stuff existed way before the ’30s. Humans have always been raising the ante of how life could be expressed in so many different forms. It’s never going to die, it will only get better. I’m sure that one day there will be a cure for all the things that kill humans, there will be an advanced knowledge for humans, taking more chances on going to other planets. Imagine how many human beings there are. And every one of them has the ability to be the way they wish they can be, seeking out the knowledge they want to bring to the surface, to be able to be judged because of that. The definition of life starts with human and it ends with human, as far as I’m concerned.

Is that because of consciousness?

No, it’s because there’s something in the human body that makes you think, feel and sometimes makes you sad. It acts in your nervous system for you to know that you’ve been affected by it. What is so eternal about human is the idea. The idea is to human what the sky is to life.

I like that.

That’s not too bad, is it? There’s no piece of paper anywhere that says one day there are going to be humans. They just are. The knowledge of human seemed to be so concerned with life and love. You can’t get any closer to what you enjoy. People are getting married because they love one another, or they enjoy life because they have grown to want to live longer to enjoy it. And you’re not required to prove why. Nobody says, “Why do you want to do this?”

That’s true, there’s no scientific proof for life or love.

There’s no formula that’s going to show you. What’s amazing about humans, even the word doesn’t describe it; it’s beyond that. We have legs, arms, head, a frame. Imagine how many races make up the human race. And we have the same exact reasons for being, which is to find a way to believe in something that has something to do with the way you are and the way you don’t want to be. So there’s the way you do want to be, but if everybody doesn’t agree with it, you’re not going to be so satisfied. But you don’t choose life, life chooses you.

Human is probably the most precious thing in existence as far as the word “life.” It has the most advanced form of love, knowledge, experience and even death. Everybody who dies, they don’t die because of death, they die because something kills them. Here we are on a piece of existence called life. We’re in the sky somewhere, and we’re not going anywhere, but where we are, we’re making progress about why we’re not going anywhere.

I’m just a simple human being. Two things I believe in: knowledge and truth. I wonder who created the word “human.” They got it pretty accurate. The only thing they missed is that it doesn’t have the same freedom of change and experience, because the conditions of what we call poverty and wealth, race and knowledge, science and illiteracy. These things are just titles. Every human being is affected by one or the other.

You mentioned the word “truth,” and I wanted to ask how that word is related to the word “music”—two abstract ideas that take a concrete form as we experience them.

That’s the same word. The name of what we call eternity that we can’t see or touch is “God.” But God spelled backwards is “dog.” So, God wouldn’t give himself that name. God would be dumb. That doesn’t sound right.

We all grew inside of someone else. Isn’t that something else? Woo! Can you imagine, it’s not something that you planned, not something that you heard about, it’s something that you brought about. It creates people. You can say that what we call race is different, but it doesn’t change you from having to go to the bathroom or eat.

You talk about “sound grammar,” a commonality between people, and your music seems to be oriented that way, trying to get away from the elements that are exclusive of one another and toward things people can share.

That’s amazing because what you are expressing is the thing that is the reason why we are sitting here. It’s called an idea—human being, but most of all it’s called the creation of what exists that represents what we call life. Life is not an object, it’s not a form, you can’t see it, you can’t talk to it or at least it can’t talk back. But it allows you to know that there is something eternal, and you didn’t create it. You can’t prove that you created life. Human beings don’t spend enough of their love for life to understand why the quality of life is so easy to be made into anger, disappointment. Whatever it is, someone can say something to you and you want to fight. But that’s not life doing that, that’s jealousy, envy, dishonesty. Those things come into being because of value and wealth. When someone says they love you, that’s like someone saying you’re worth all the money in the world and they ain’t got a penny.

We know that there is something that doesn’t die, can’t be killed. That’s life. And there’s nothing that says you’ve got to die. You die because you get sick. But nothing says you gotta die.

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