A conversation with
Frank J. Oteri
September 10, 2007—4:00-5:00 p.m.
Transcribed by Julia Lu
Video presentation by
Fifty years ago, a maverick composer and saxophonist named Ornette Coleman got an audience in Los Angeles with the A&R man for Contemporary Records, one of the most forward-looking jazz labels of the time. The result was his first commercially released LP, Something Else, an exciting collection of skewed riffs—all Coleman originals—recorded in February and March of 1958. This music for standard hard-bop mixed quintet of sax, trumpet, piano, bass, and drums might now seem somewhat conventional, but that’s undoubtedly the result of “hindhearing” with the knowledge of what was soon to come: Coleman’s controversial piano-less quartet consisting of his plastic saxophone and Don Cherry’s pocket trumpet unhampered by the seemingly independent rhythm section of bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Billy Higgins.
This pioneering quartet (which occasionally substituted bassist Scott LaFaro and drummer Ed Blackwell) introduced the world to Coleman’s still-radical concept of harmolodics—melodic-based improvisation untethered by chord changes. The quartet’s discography includes such now-venerated classic albums as The Shape of Jazz to Come, Change of the Century, and This Is Our Music, all released on the widely distributed Atlantic Records label. But the album that was to define this music as an independent subgenre was the controversial, 40-minute double-quartet session recorded on December 21, 1960, and released the following year by Atlantic as Free Jazz. This album divides the jazz community to this day.
But Coleman’s innovations soon took him further afield than the expectations of any one genre of music. By the late 1960s, he began improvising on trumpet and violin in addition to saxophone, and had composed three uncompromising string quartets, plus an unusual composition for woodwind quintet with trumpet interludes and the Ivesian Skies of America, scored for symphony orchestra. The 1970s and 1980s found him redefining jazz/rock fusion with his ensemble Prime Time as well as collaborating with Pat Metheny and Jerry Garcia. In the 1990s, he performed with Howard Shore on the soundtrack for David Cronenberg’s film Naked Lunch and performed as a guest soloist with The Grateful Dead. He even incorporated hip-hop and Indian drumming on his 1995 album Tone Dialing. Last year, after a decade-long hiatus, Coleman self-released the album Sound Grammar, which subsequently landed him the 2007 Pulitzer Prize in Music—the first time the prize had ever been awarded to a recording rather than a score-based composition.
I’ve been a fan of Coleman’s music since I first became aware of jazz and have been trying to talk with him for NewMusicBox since we first launched this web magazine. But getting the opportunity to have a one-on-one conversation with him proved to be an extraordinarily complex undertaking—it literally took more than eight years, even though I had been in the same room with him several times and even managed to get in a few words once or twice amidst throngs of admirers. Yet when our paths recently crossed—at an ASCAP luncheon in honor of his receipt of the Pulitzer—there seemed to be an instant connection. After a brief conversation in which I mentioned various works of his I treasured—his 1987 double-album In All Languages, his 1966 string quartet Saints and Soldiers—he said just show up anytime and we’ll talk. He even kissed my hand.
It all seemed way too easy after years of trying so hard; so I was afraid it wouldn’t actually happen. Filled with doubt, Randy and I arrived outside the building Ornette lives in, not sure what to expect. But after making our way up a back staircase and through an open door, we spent a wonderful afternoon with one of the most probing musical adventurers I’ve ever encountered. In conversation, Ornette’s mind runs spontaneously from one idea to the next, and it was very hard to keep up with him. His answers to questions are often enigmatic and sometimes seemingly contradictory. But he’s not interested in telling you what to think; he wants you to think. Ultimately, he’s as free as his music—the freedom that guides how he’s been making his music for over a half a century is also how he leads his life. His life and work are a remarkable testimony and an inspiration.
As we were setting up our video equipment, a young German photographer showed up: “I met Ornette last night and asked if I could photograph him, and he said just show up anytime.”