Frank J. Oteri: We’re been talking about language a lot. But your own music has rarely included language. There have only been a few times that you’ve worked with singers. Science Fiction has some singing, and it even has a track with a narrator. And Tone Dialing has some rapping on it, but those instances are pretty unusual in your work.
Ornette Coleman: I think what you’re explaining is that a few of those things happened different as accidents. I mean, it’s nothing that I prepare. Usually somebody comes by and says I want to do this or do that. And whatever it is, it ends up being something else. And since I don’t have a record company, I say O.K., let’s do this. I’m really a big believer in the idea that everybody has ideas that are valuable and important to themselves and to other people. When you hear music, you don’t hear the composer; you hear the music. And that stays in your mind regardless of who’d done it. Take the blues. I mean, the blues has had longevity in bringing sound to people in an emotional way, where they enjoy it. And sometimes, people singing the blues cry. Sometimes in religious music, it’s the same. People get sad and they cry, right? Yeah, sound is very powerful. I have no idea what it’s made of, but sound is sound.
FJO: Have you ever done any singing?
OC: I know how to imitate singing, but no, I couldn’t. It’s like having an argument and you don’t win. To make it work, everything is technical that you have to do. It’s human beings that make music, and the form of music is very limited. You have to either sing it with your throat or play it with an instrument. I remember, I was in California in the ’40s. And a young white kid came up to me and said, “Mr. Coleman, I’d like you to come to my house; I’d like to play you something.” So I went to his house, and he put on a record by a cantor, Yosef Rosenblatt. Oh man! He played that and I cried for days. I never heard anybody preach while they were crying. It was fantastic, and I said, “Oh my goodness, those are the notes I should be looking for.” When I think about it, I get tears. It’s really amazing. The human voice can get the most; nothing can touch it. All the person’s got to do is open his mouth and it comes. It’s much freer to hear an idea [from a voice] than a person on a horn, because a person’s got to push some buttons to see if it’s there. I’m trying to get closer to that as far as playing an instrument.
FJO: Now in terms of your beginnings as a musician and your first recordings, they were clearly coming out of this word we call jazz, for lack of a better term.
OC: That’s not a bad word. It’s not the only word in English. And probably for sound, when you say jazz, that’s a style. It doesn’t represent sound. It just represents style. And that’s the same for classical music. It represents a style. But sound itself doesn’t really have to have a title for it to have meaning. I’ve heard “it sounds good” and “it sounds bad.” You’ll know if it sounds good or sounds bad because of how it makes you feel emotionally. But the style of music probably comes from education.
FJO: Within the first ten years of your recording career, you went from these pioneering jazz albums to doing what most people would call classical music compositions: string quartets, the symphony Skies of America. That’s a very different world. How did that happen?
OC: I think it happened because I had tried everything but that, at that moment. When I pick up my horn, if I don’t have any ideas, I don’t play anything. But the idea of style is not the same thing as the idea of sound. I prefer the idea of sound more than the idea of style. Because if it’s in sound, then you’re going to be able to hear what the idea is. But if it’s a style, it doesn’t necessarily stay at that same level. I think that’s because of language and race and so many other things. How many different people do you think make up the human race?
FJO: Probably billions.
OC: Billions. And they’re speaking different languages. That’s pretty good. That’s not bad. But when you think of it as neighbors, neighbors are not as nice as strangers. Neighbors want to know your business and all this other stuff, but strangers just want to be accepted. Your neighbors want to get nosy and tell you what you should and shouldn’t do, or tell you what they don’t like. It doesn’t bother me because I think that everyone should express anything they want to. So if that’s the way some people want to respond to others, it’s fine as long as they don’t start fighting or trying to make each other feel inferior.
FJO: So to follow that train of thought, the term “free jazz” caused quite a bit of fighting originally. But, though Free Jazz was the title of one of your landmark records, most of your music is not exactly free. Your records all clearly state that the pieces of music on them are your compositions, which implies that they are fixed in some way. Saying something is free is almost the opposite of saying something is a composition.
OC: Are you asking me what the difference is between a composition and free? If you’re reading some music, you haven’t thought about it. But if you play an idea, well you’re not reading music; it comes very naturally and sometimes is much more advanced than what the reading is. I prefer playing from thought more than playing from reading. Cause all the reading is the same sequencing of the scale, the rhythm, whatever. There are composers that have written some very beautiful music, but the freest form of emotion is the idea, and it doesn’t belong to anybody.
FJO: Throughout your career you have very rarely played music by other people; it has almost always been your own compositions. But now, with 50 years of recordings and a catalog of 50 years of compositions, so many other people have recorded your music. There’s a jazz singer I heard named Mary LaRose who put words to one of your compositions and a fiddler named Richard Greene who turned “Ramblin’ ” into a bluegrass sort of thing.
OC: Is that right?
FJO: How do you feel about those different interpretations of your music?
OC: I think it’s good if anyone can make something better than what they heard. I think that’s real good. You can’t play an idea if it’s not there. Besides being born by your past, human beings have no other choice of getting here, right? But once they’re here, what do you do? And what is it you have to do and what is it you don’t do? One answer is you got to get a job, I guess, and then you’ve got to learn something to keep the job. It’s really amazing being born and then growing into an adult.
FJO: You’ve witnessed that whole process with your son Denardo, who has grown up and become a phenomenal drummer through your nurturing; he’s been playing with you since he was ten years old.
OC: Yeah, that’s right. I guess I could say I fathered him. You know, I’m not taking credit, but he turned out to be a pretty good musician. He plays real good. And very seldom does he ever come over and get in the way. He’s always very quiet. I like the way he plays because he doesn’t have any ideas that are already fixed. He usually plays the ideas that come to him at the moment. Drums are much freer than any other instrument. It’s not required to play this note sharp or flat; it’s just rhythm. But I don’t think the word rhythm describes the styles of music, what we call dance music or classical. Styles of music come from the brain. The notes are already there. I mean those 12 notes, although I must say that the 12 notes are not the superior notes because there are also Arabic and Chinese notes. There are as many different notes as there are races, and I wish I was playing with all of them.