I saw Ornette Coleman play several times in the 1990’s, first at the Umbria Jazz Fest and then in San Francisco, a few years later. I went to each show by myself, alone, yet feeling connected with something out there in the music, the ideas, the way of feeling a part of it all, the ideas, and feelings of the music. It was a period in my life when music helped open a way to be a full person. The music seemed to scream that there was something else there we could find in our minds and even the world.
I attribute a lot of this to a moment in college when we were all dancing in the dormitory, reveling in the funk jazz band throbbing, horns blowing our minds extending through our Southern California experience and experiment in living.
A friend was dancing with his eyes closed, shaking his long black hair over his eyes, seemingly oblivious to everyone else at the party.
At some point,we talked about the music and the feeling.
“Just getting in touch with my bad self,” he explained.
Somehow, all those sounds bouncing across the walls of the room, through the corridors, into our selves, while taking it apart, it pulled something together from deep in our minds, a yin and yang of everything in a moment of being.
I went to more and more jazz shows in those years, Art Blakey, the Mofessionals, moving to San Francisco after college, where the Church of John Coltane was up the street, Café Du Norde down the street. I used to run into Don Cherry, from Ornette’s old band, who played backup at world beat hip hop sets.
The funk jazz soul world hybrid was everywhere in the city, echoing from the streets through our selves.
With the whole world on stage, Ornette’s chorus seemed oblivious to conventional story lines about what jazz could and should be. His music seemed more attuned with magic realist narratives, emanating from the South and around the globe. The center no longer emanated from New York or Paris. It grew from all of us; from Coleman’s assertion that we could all rewrite our scripts. He recognized that all our notes counted, not just the rarefied tunes.
The world came together and fell apart in each show, with voices from everywhere, sounds from around the world, crashing together, in an ensemble of chaos and order, separation, and synchronization. A cocopheny of sound which would cascade louder and louder and then stop.
Reading about what I had heard of this conglomeration of sounds, I learned the term harmolodics.
Robert Palmer, described Ornette Coleman's harmolodic theory in his
liner notes to Ornette Coleman, Beauty is a Rare Thing: the Complete Atlantic Recordings:
“Ornette Coleman, the early advocate of a "free jazz" that some conservatives confused with chaos, has emerged as a theoretician and a structuralist, originator of the difficult-to-define but widely-discussed discipline he calls harmolodics....
Coleman is a painter as well as a musician, and sometimes one gets the impression that he is "seeing" melody or sound. His penchant for developing musical ideas doesn't always work in sequences of theme-and-variation. Sometimes it's more like he is visualizing a note or phrase as a three-dimensional construct, to be studied at close range and at arm's length, turned this way and that, examined from a variety of angles. This effect is intensified when the music involves a group of players improvising collectively. Each musician is relating to and drawing from a theme Coleman has written out in advance, but each individual hears it, and plays it, somewhat differently. And from Ornette's point of view, each contribution is equally essential to the whole. One tends to hear the horn player as a soloist, backed by a rhythm section, but this is not Coleman's perspective. "In the music we play," he said of the performances collected in this box, "no one player has the lead. . Anyone can come out with it at any time."
"This is a typical utopian ideal, but as a concept--as a goal--it is absolutely fundamental to the music herein. Every time Coleman apparently takes the lead, pulling the bassist and drummer along in his wake, you can be sure that a moment of synergy, an unequivocal dialogue of equals, is right around the corner. Even when Coleman and [trumpet player Don] Cherry are playing a written theme together, the same notes and phrases in the same register, they play it as individuals. The fine points of each player's phrasing and inflection are deliberately invoked to render each one's voice distinct.”
His music suggested that we all have a story to share, if only we listen to each other, as our stories intermingle in time.
Ben Raitliff wrote an obituary for the Times, explaining:
“In essence, Mr. Coleman believed that all people had their own tonal centers. He often used the word “unison” — though not always in its more common musical-theory sense — to describe a group of people playing together harmoniously, even if in different keys.
“I’ve learned that everyone has their own moveable C,” he said to the writer Michael Jarrett in an interview published in 1995; he identified this as “Do,” the start of anyone singing or playing a “do-re-mi” major-scale sequence. In the same conversation, he said he had always wanted musicians to play with him “on a multiple level.”
“I don’t want them to follow me,” he explained. “I want them to follow themselves, but to be with me.”
` Goodbye Ornette Coleman. Thanks for being there in some quiet moments of my life and for reminding us to follow ourselves while with each other, pointing us towards the shape of a new world. Thank you Ornette.
From left to right - Don Cherry, Charlie Haden, Ornette Coleman and Ed Blackwell.