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LAist Interview: Ornette Coleman

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Photo by Volume 12 via flickr.
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It is almost impossible to overstate the effect that Ornette Coleman had on the world of American music in the late 1950s. Coleman’s early records for Atlantic - using a band formed in LA, with Don Cherry, Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins, trading the drum seat with Ed Blackwell - declared complete freedom from jazz convention, including the restrictions of tonality itself, while remaining rooted in the blues at its deepest level. In doing so, he and a handful of like-minded revolutionaries wrenched the conceptual possibilities offered by the avant-garde out of the hands of white intellectuals and took it to the clubs, where its presence remains strongly felt. Response to the New Thing that Coleman called "harmolodics" was swift and intense, and the greats attacked and praised with equal vigor; no less a figure than John Coltrane hired Ornette’s band and covered three of his songs when he recorded The Avant-Garde in 1960. In short, it’s impossible to imagine that jazz in the sixties, or the entire trajectory of outsider musicians in a multitude of genres that have spawned since, could have happened the same way without him. Coleman is one the last of the jazz pioneers we have left, not only still living but still vital after eighty years on the planet, composing and performing at a remarkably high level. (Check out 2005’s Pulitzer-winning Sound Grammar for confirmation.) He brings his current group, including his son Denardo Coleman on drums, and both Tony Falanga and Al McDowell on bass, to UCLA Live at Royce Hall this Wednesday, and having heard the radio broadcast of his appearance at this year’s North Sea Jazz Festival, I advise you to expect miracles.

Ornette Coleman spoke to LAist last week, via phone from his home in New York City.

A word about the length and format of this piece: Most of my interviews over the phone tend to run about fifteen minutes, during which I ask and receive answers to anywhere from five to ten questions. Ornette and I spoke for nearly an hour, during which I managed to ask two of the questions on my list, and I’m not sure if he directly addressed either one of them. Instead, he started interviewing me at several points, and I’m horrified to say I ducked several of his questions. (Though to be fair, how would you respond in the moment to something like, ”I don’t have no idea of how much the human race controls the value of life. Do you?”) For the first fifteen minutes I kept waiting for him to say something that might naturally provide a segue into any of my other questions, written out on a sheet of paper, which I kept glancing at while trying to follow his stream of consciousness. But around the fifth time he started to make a point by talking about the mathematical distance from C to F sharp, I looked down at the list, thought, “this too is improvising, keep your eye on the ball”, and pushed it away. And after that, things improved noticeably.