Ornette Coleman and the Circle With a Hole in the Middle

"He lives in a world of clear, endlessly permutating images, of global musics, folk and classical and jazz, that interpenetrate."

During the sixties he was the subject of numerous articles, which either idealized or vilified him, and a series of "misunderstandings" with record executives and club owners made him more and more distrustful of the white middlemen who still control the presentation and dissemination of jazz and popular music in America.

"America is a very good country for a Caucasian human being," he says, "because regardless of what his native tongue is, if he changes his name and speaks English he could be of any Caucasian descent. And believe me, that is a very successful form of freedom. If you're black you can change your name, you can do anything you want to, but the color of your skin defeats you from having the same privileges as what I just spoke about. This is the tragedy of America.

"John Lennon says women are the niggers of the world. Well, I guess the Jewish, the Italian, and the Irish people were the niggers of the white world. But you can take any Irish or Jewish or Italian person, and when they return from their job and go home they are returning to an original concept of who they are as a person. When they're on the street, selling their merchandise or doing anything to relate to the country in a land of the free, home of the brave situation, they speak English, take an English name, and that's it. When they get home, whatever their name is or whatever they are knowing in their ancestral background, they can live that. And I think that is very beautiful for a human being to have, where he can go out in the world and make a living for himself and then come home and have his ancestral roots still intact. That is one thing that black people here have never yet had. I'll tell you, man, I'm so tired of feeling that being black in America has something to do with not being white in America that I find I can no longer be involved in social functions that have to do with intellectualism or art or racial questions. Knowing the things I've just said to you, I find myself being totally . . . paranoid about some person trying to get ahead in life when I'm one of the many persons he can use to get ahead without feeling that he's doing anything wrong.

"I would like to have the same support for Skies of America as any artist that the public has heard and enjoyed. And everybody in their heritage and natural state of being wants success; no one is basing their involvement in anything on a negative attitude. I'm speaking about success humanly, intellectually, racially, financially, and religiously. I mean success in those senses of knowing that they have something to do with having less enemies and more friends, or less debts and more objects, less evil and more love, or less hatred and more happiness. And I don't want someone to pat me on the back and not truly listen or try to understand the piece of music. I get lots of lip service that has to do with the value of my work having to always be dictated to me by people who have no interest in my welfare at all. I've written lots of music, but not because I wanted to have someone say oh, isn't he a wonderful writer. I wrote the music because I could write the music, and then secondly I wrote it because if I hadn't written it down I wouldn't have had any way of keeping it and explaining it to others.

"One day I finally realized that all the music I had heard, someone had made it possible for me to learn or hear it by simply writing it down or repeating it. So since I became aware that it had something to do with writing, I decided that was what I wanted to be. That's the concept of Skies of America: to give people an insight into things that I've done and to show them that they could also participate with me in doing it.

"Anywhere you go," he says, "you're going to have some problems with people not getting into your music. And you're going to get lip service."

The modern black American composer-improviser is particularly subject to this lip service syndrome, and to what Ornette calls "a very New York cliche thing: people satisfying you mentally but never giving you anything that you want." One reason is that the music of an Ornette Coleman, a Cecil Taylor, an Anthony Braxton, or a Sun Ra draws on a much wider spectrum of influences than many listeners have been exposed to. In addition to past and present jazz, there are the repertoire of modern concert music, the amplification and pulselike beat of rhythm-and-blues and rock, and the infinitely diverse musical traditions of the emerging nonwhite nations. The black composer may use in a single piece elements from any number of these primary sources. Living as he does in Western urban centers, wired into the output of cultures he would never have come into contact with a few decades ago, he hears, and uses, any music that comes naturally to his particular sensibility.

The more he hears, the more connections he makes. The vocalized scream in Ornette's sound, for example, is a tone split into its harmonics or overtones. This practice was characteristic of blues musicians and singers as far back as the beginnings of "race recordings," and it can be heard in pure African music. Ngbaka (central African) soloists on the musical bow are able to draw a multitude of harmonics from the single "ground" tone of the bow's string, just as a saxophone virtuoso like Ornette runs harmonics over a root that is sounded simultaneously. But modern European and American "classical" composers are also interested in harmonics. Iannis Xenakis, for instance, often indicates in his scores which particular partials of a given tone are to be sounded. The complex African polyrhythms currently in favor with many jazz groups were finding their way into modern concert music as early as Varese's 1931 Ionization. And many of today's major jazzmen were playing "jazz/rock" long before its current vogue, often because the only jobs they could get were with rhythm-and-blues bands.

This unusual number of reference points has left much of the new black music in a commercial vacuum. The music is often too intricate and demanding for the traditional smoke-filled nightclub, but it has yet to attract the widespread private and foundation support that would make regular concert hall performances possible. While some of Coleman's contemporaries, such as Cecil Taylor and Ken MacIntyre, have accepted positions in the black studies programs of Eastern universities, others--Pharaoh Sanders, Sun Ra--continue to function in the nightclub milieu. Ornette, who continues to write for his quartet as well as for orchestra, and whose recently completed theory book is potentially a major shaping influence on the younger generation of black composer-instrumentalists, hopes to utilize all these outlets, provided, of course, that they become available to him. Since Skies of America's premiere he is beginning to feel that maybe he's on an upswing.

DOWNSTAIRS, Z.K.'s show is opening. Champagne is being served to a mixed crowd of musicians and artists. The Nigerian video tape is playing and Ornette Coleman, dressed in a neat, conservative suit, walks from circle to circle, greeting friends and making conversation. The scene in the gallery and the image on the screen merge into a continuum of circles, with Ornette in the middle of each one.

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