What Ornette Coleman Taught Me

I was out of the country yesterday when I learned that Ornette Coleman passed away at 85. Anything I could possibly say about his influence upon saxophonists, jazz musicians, composers, and the whole-of-music would be an understatement, but I want to share a brief story about the way in which an introduction to Mr. Coleman’s music changed my life and the odd way his art directed me to the path I chose.

After two years of boredom in a public school in Central New York, I attended an all-boys boarding school near Philadelphia for two years. I was 16 and had been playing guitar for a few years, and was pretty arrogant about it in a place where it really didn’t matter if you played guitar unless you also played squash or lacrosse. I didn’t do either of those things, so I could have been Eddie Van Halen and still no one would have been impressed because I was also not a virtuoso lacrosse player.

I wanted to join the Jazz Band, which was run by Anthony Branker, a new teacher, but upperclassmen with swanky instruments already comprised the rhythm section. The only musical fulfillment I could get was by joining an old-school Glee Club, run by an old-school Yalie called Mr. Tuttle, who was the school organist. We sang barbershop arrangements, Randall Thompson charts, politically incorrect songs from WWII, and Gilbert and Sullivan. We also led hymns at the daily Anglican Chapel services.

At the end of my first semester, I learned that the guitarist and bassist of the Jazz Band were expelled from school for some silly thing, so when I returned from Christmas/New Years break, I approached Mr. Branker about joining the Jazz Band, as their new guitarist. I could read music, but never really applied that to guitar in the same way that I did on piano, trombone and violin. He told me, though, that what the Band really needed was a bass player. The school had a cheap, short-scale electric bass that I took back to my dorm room along with parts for arrangements of Milestones, Freddie Hubbard’s Red Clay, and some of Mr. Branker’s original music.

I basically taught myself to play bass that semester by reading charts and playing with this group of inexperienced boys who, like me, never really listened to real jazz before. I was so worried about getting my fingers in the right places that I didn’t process much of what Mr. Branker tried to teach me about interacting with the drummer or the soloist. It was also great that he played with us; he was an amazing trumpet player, who graduated from Princeton in 1980. His senior project there was an actual record called For the Children, that consisted of Mr. Branker’s original music and featured Stanley Jordan on guitar.

Somehow, after only 3 months of playing bass, I landed a gig playing in the pit for the summer-stock season at the Merry-Go-Round Playhouse in Auburn, NY. This was a nightly gig and once again, I continued to learn to play by reading music.

I returned to boarding school the next year excited to study Jazz Composition with Teach. (That’s what I call Mr. Branker now.) I was one of only two students in this class. He taught us basics of jazz harmony and form through example, aural training and listening to recordings. I composed my first music for this class, and had access to the Jazz Band as sort of a lab.

Anyway, every recording he played for us was new – not necessarily new as in recent, but new as in new to me. We talked about music from blues to bop to fusion and then ONE AFTERNOON he pulled out Ornette Coleman’s landmark album Free Jazz, placed it on the spindle, dropped the needle and we listened.

I am not going to say that I liked it immediately, and I certainly didn’t get what was really happening, but I was open-minded enough at 16 to be curious. I immediately misunderstood that Free Jazz was just a bunch of people playing stuff near each other. Admittedly, my mistakenly over-simplified conceptual understanding did put me off not a little (Keep in mind, that my musical experience until that point in my life was basically limited to Neil Young and musical theatre.), but I was fascinated that this noise was on a record.

So I asked Tony, why anyone would record group free improvisation. Isn’t that contrary to the purpose? It seemed to me at the time that philosophically, this event is something that should only be experienced once. (Take that as you will: At the time, I certainly was not convinced that I needed to experience Free Jazz again.) He let me borrow the record, which I took back to my dorm and happily annoyed everyone in my hall. But I did listen repeatedly – and seriously – and I discovered that there was form, interaction, lyricism, and harmony. And structure. And Energy. And I discovered that IT WAS GOOD MUSIC. And more importantly, I discovered I didn’t have to experience immediate aesthetic euphoria to appreciate the value of good music – or any art for that matter.

I left boarding school that year (not by choice) and returned to public school in my hometown. I spent that summer playing another season at that theater again, and also looking up books and recordings of music – any music I hadn’t heard before. The name John Cage popped up a few times, and in my mind, I discovered a link between Ornette Coleman and Cage philosophically, but of course with a completely different aesthetic. I am not going to say that I liked Cage immediately, but I was open-minded enough at 17 to be curious, so I listened.

I later discovered that Cage studied with a guy called Arnold Schoenberg. So I listened to Schoenberg. To my ears at the time, some of Schoenberg’s music (and Webern’s music – he came along for the ride) shared an aesthetic quality with Coleman’s free jazz, yet with a completely different philosophical basis. It was this music, however, that spoke to me immediately!

I read that Schoenberg and Stravinsky hated each other, so I just had to listen to Stravinsky. (Wow!) But Schoenberg also wrote some interesting essays about Brahms and his music, so I just had to listen to Brahms. (Brahms had a thing with Robert Schumann’s wife, so I had to listen to them, too, but Clara’s music was fairly difficult to find in the 80’s.)

And so on, and so on. In my backwards world, Brahms begat Beethoven, who begat Mozart, who begat Haydn, who begat various Bachlets, who begat J.S. Bach, who begat Vivaldi, who begat (somehow) Monteverdi, yaddayaddayadda. I also continued to listen to various types of popular music and jazz.

In any case, I totally went backwards. I can’t imagine doing it any other way, but I found solace and patience in my own personal discovery of various musics. I decided to declare a composition major in college and continued listening.

Listening still turns me on. In fact, what I discovered when listening to Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz was the excitement in the spontaneity so inherent in the performance that so easily transferred to the recording. Even now, 28 years later, when I listen to Free Jazz (and other free jazz), I still sense that same spontaneity, no matter how many times I listen to it. Several other jazz and rock recordings (usually live recordings) do this for me as well. There are some excellent classical examples too, but they’re fewer and farther between.

My perpetual and perhaps unreasonable goal as a composer is to create music in which the spontaneous energy is so constructed within the score that it is easily communicated to the performers, who will then naturally unleash this energy upon listeners in a live setting. Of course, I want my music recorded too, and am lucky to have several commercial recordings of my music available, but nothing beats a live performance. Accuracy is important, but it is not a substitute for energy.

Capturing performance energy as an essential part of a composition is tricky, and when I am not working directly with performers, I focus on critical and comparative listening to see how this energy unfolds. A complete understanding of the circumstances surrounding a composition and the circumstances surrounding a specific performance is essential for the composer, performer and the listener.

Every time I listen to him, and even when I don’t, Ornette Coleman reminds me of this. And thanks, Teach, for playing me that record.

Buy Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz and listen to it often!

Also, visit Anthony Branker’s website. Listen to everything he has to say, musically and otherwise!

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