Ornette Coleman Establishes Contact With Life

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Ornette Coleman (1930–2015)

(Photo: DownBeat Archives/Verve)

Sun Ra expressed much the same set of concerns. He said death is an option, it’s not something that we have to do.

When you make things the way that you believe them, the one thing you cannot do is make all the decisions for yourself and not think about anyone else. Yet, the reverse of it is that someone will come along and hire you to do something that they want you to do, and if you do it to the point of satisfaction it becomes different, because knowledge works socially and financially.

Life is eternal. There don’t have to be people for it to be eternal. If we didn’t have what is called a “mother” and a “father,” our definition of life would be different. The sexual act has created a lot of people. The only thing it hasn’t done is that it hasn’t made them any better or worse. The human form is there to acknowledge life. If the human form didn’t have life, then life would need it.

One of the great joys in your music is that it presents a model of being together as musicians that is open-ended. It doesn’t say “I’m the leader,” it doesn’t say “I’m the sideman.” Not just in terms of who is at the top of the bill, but in the structure of the music.

Not only are you describing it to the “T,” but the main thing is that the idea cannot be killed. If you have an idea that the world has not experienced, it will come into existence.

You’ve offered us so many new ideas and new feelings.

Yeah and it’s not going away. It is the essence of what we call love. You don’t have to have a diploma to know that you love. It’s in you because without it, there’s no you. If you don’t care about yourself, how can you care about anything else?

The last time I heard you play I was shocked at how strong and fresh your playing was, even though it was definitely you.

What you’re speaking about lives in every human being, it’s called an idea. The idea is as new as being born. The only thing that’s different about it, nobody knows it’s an idea, they think it’s an emotion. They respond to it like that. As human beings we haven’t found a way to know how love and creativity can do without each other, but they’re equal when they get together.

John Cage said that we haven’t yet solved the problem of how to be together.

Uh-huh. That’s definite, that’s good. Do you realize the individual that’s responsible for you being there is your mother?

That’s true. I’m going to think a little differently about Mother’s Day this year. I’m going to say: “Ornette told me to think about it!”

And they’re not going to make it any worse, any better. It’s just the way it is. And it’s not going out of style any time soon.

Something called truth. I wish I was pure enough to explain how I experience what I believe it is. Truth is not light, darkness, high or low, sadness, happiness, good or bad. Truth means conviction about whatever it is; I’ll stand for the punishment. There is a truth that is not required to prove anything, but there is a truth that just has to do with one thing: Human.

Love does exist. Love doesn’t have any goals. It only has causes and effects, to be happy or to not be sad. The thing that is amazing, life doesn’t have enough truth in it to represent the quality of what everyone is going through because they’re alive. There is no way humans can exist without need and want. Not because it’s human, it’s because the quality of need and want causes so many things to change and you can’t replace it because of who you are or who you aren’t. You can only replace it if you have something greater or if you are able to help someone to bring them to the level of who they want to be. It’s hard to sleep, eat and do all these things and want to be happy because of just being human, but it’s hard to know how to approach something without using something as a reference. That is not a cure for any knowledge. Whatever knowledge is, it has only two purposes: to exist and to have a reason why it can change something or activate something.

There’s only one human being, and we’re all imitating that same person. That person who we’re imitating knows something that we don’t know. I don’t think that person is ever going to show. I guess what I’m trying to get to is that you don’t have to die. It’s not required.

No, but lately you know what I’ve been thinking? I’ve got high blood-pressure ...

You and me both.

... and I’ve been thinking about my heart, and the fact that I have a car, and my car’s motor is going to die. It’s running, and if you run it a lot, it’s going to stop, break down. I thought to myself, we don’t give our hearts a break. From when the minute you pop out, you don’t ever let it even cool down for a minute.

Oooh! That’s true! But think about who created it, what about that? How did they know that would do what it does? Not only that, but the heart and the brain, this is something that humanity has dissected, written about. I used to love chemistry. We as human beings, the life that’s in us becomes purer the more you understand the less you need, but the more you want to give. I don’t claim to be in control of anything. I would say I like science—and sound is like a science—but the one thing about sound that’s so amazing, it doesn’t have any goals. It doesn’t say: “I’m going, I’m leaving.” It’s just there.

One of the great contributions you’ve made is to get away from functional harmony, and functional harmony is about goals.

Yes. As you sit there, do you know what’s causing you to say what you say? The idea. The name of the idea is just that, but what is it? It’s everything that can be known can be found. I’m getting a chill. It makes me realize that the quality of God is close to the quality of idea. I’m trying to figure out how to put it in words without making it seem like I know what I’m saying. I can visualize it in my head, but I don’t know what it is. But the thing that causes me not to say it is that it changes things. It raises the status of life in a human way. Not only does it calm you and make you appreciate what you want to express yourself, but it makes you know that you are the person you think you are. Think of women. Not only are they more advanced, they can make their own people. Men can’t do that. I do wish to learn to know what I see as clear as I’m looking at this. [lifts up his notepad] But I haven’t. The only thing I see that clearly is sound. I see sound.

You see sound?

Uh-huh. What I mean is that sound is invisible, but the more invisible it gets, the clearer the sound is. All these qualities we have—our heart, knowledge, brain—I’m sure there’s a guy who can take out your brain and put it back in your head and you’ll never even know it. But life allows them to learn how to do that. Which goes to prove that life is not scared of anything you learn. The chances are that something will come along to date it. I’m a victim of that. I have tried my best to get as eternal as I could. But for what reason? I’m already there! Why would I be trying to get somewhere where I am already? The only thing that gets me is that I want to learn and know, but not to replace something, depress something or make something less to get there. I don’t want to do that.

In order to make a statement, you don’t have to deny somebody else’s statement. You once told me that harmolodics was the idea that people playing together could all have their own statements.

That’s true. I’m just human. We all have the same structure. There is an idea, that creation idea, but it’s not because of need or want. It’s because of what it does. I have tried to get more eternal by contemplating an idea that doesn’t need to be replaced, doesn’t have to be right or wrong, doesn’t have to be erased, doesn’t have to be an emotion, doesn’t have to be a thought, just what it is itself. It does exist, honest to God. I have experienced it. I’m trying to materialize it in the form of knowledge. I’m beginning to do it. Let me see if I can explain it the way it happens to me. [lengthy pause]

What bothers me is that this part [points to his heart] and this part [points to his head] are connected, but are not relating. That comes from my ability to remember that I have experienced things that are eternal, good and valuable, and I can’t find a way to call upon them when I need them.

That seems to be what people are looking for in enlightenment.

Take music. I know the structure of music, these 12 notes. The order of those notes will never change, but the idea will change in the twinkle of an eye. It’s a function that’s like imagination, whatever imagination is.

What you would like to do, make sure that it is not something that you need or want. If you find that in your heart, it will show you who you don’t have to ever become. I’m close to getting there. The only thing that I don’t know how to do is share it. I don’t know how to do that yet.

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