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."

THE image on the screen is a village street in Nigeria. Brightly dressed people are clustered in a circle playing drums, giant calabashes, double-reed horns, and a sort of violin with horsehair strings. Ornette Coleman is standing in the middle of the circle, switching from alto saxophone to trumpet and back, laying alternations of skittery runs and long, expressive blue notes into the simmering stew of cross-rhythms and gutty, jagged melodies. The picture focuses and refocuses cyclically on the face of a woman, sad or blank or unknowable like the whitewashed walls of the village. Her ululating rises sharply above the music like the barking of dogs.

Behind the television set a collage covers a brick wall. There is an empty space helmet, a tube oozing green paste, the convolutions of a naked brain, an ARVN officer with a pistol shooting a suspected terrorist through the head. The victim is falling in multiple exposure, changing color from flesh tones to a washed-out gray. A corner is hung with the spirit images of Z. K. Oloruntoba, a Nigerian who paints ghosts and gods into rich, stylized color canvases full of disembodied eyes and mysterious protoplasmic movement. Z.K. is hanging his first New York show downstairs, in the storefront where Ornette often rehearses. Ornette is in another corner, sighting down a pool cue. "Take aim, then hit it," he says, dropping one of his stripes into a side pocket. "If you wait, you lose your aim." The cries of children in the SoHo street float in through the open third-floor window.

Ornette's sparkling green tunic creases and his brow knits as he arches over the pool table. He lives in a world of clear, endlessly permutating images, of global musics, folk and classical and jazz, that interpenetrate. Not so long ago he was dissuaded from putting out an early mix of his Columbia album Science Fiction that had on it an inordinate amount of echo in the horns. He liked it, he explained, because the echo "made the sound visual, like a mirror." He calls his orchestral piece Skies of America "a kinetic kaleidoscope composition." On the television, the Nigerian video tape has been replaced by the Ornette Coleman quartet performing in Milan. Ornette's trumpet and Dewey Redman's musette are playing a loose unison, both their voices distinct, like the unisons in the Nigerian music. On a table in the center of the large loft are a score for ninety-piece orchestra, notes for Coleman's as yet unpublished book on his Harmolodic Theory, and a box of specially painted postcards announcing the opening of Z.K.'s show. "Aren't his things beautiful?" Ornette asks as he makes another cushion shot. "I met him when I was in Nigeria, bought his work. And just having it in my possession I learned that, you know . . . it's harmless and it's there. Eight ball in the corner pocket."

Whack! "You know, most artists think they're above show business, but an artist is not a different person; he just has a different title. The fact that you're an artist doesn't mean that you're not supposed to learn to read and write and count. It just happens that if you're an artist, you haven't had any time to be doing lots of other things. I know that when I was going to school I was learning geometry, history, and science, and also I had an art class. So education must include all those things as having something to do with the concept of value in relation to intelligence. I never thought of myself as being a person that just dealt with music and everything else was irrelevant. I like the involvement of bringing things into existence that better the life of people. I love that concept. And whatever it's called, to me that's art. Do you want to rack up the balls for another game?"

Ornette's conversation is often like his painting The Circle with a Hole in the Middle, which graces the cover of his Atlantic album The Art of the Improvisers. His music manifests the same thought pattern, circling around the theme, moving far afield, returning to the starting point when you least expect it, and moving away again, progressing by variations of feelings and ideas, balanced like Humpty Dumpty on the edge of the void, the hole in the middle of space and time.

The Ornette Coleman quartet that debuted in New York at the old Five Spot, in the fall of 1959, approached the void and, at times, tumbled into it. The listeners that first night included Leonard Bernstein, Gunther Schuller, Nesuhi and Ahmet Ertegun, John Hammond, and almost every musician in town. Some heard formlessness and chaos, others a sound that would radically alter the course of jazz and inform the work of a generation of musicians to come. "In the music we play," Ornette said, "no one player has the lead. Anyone can come out with it at any time." This new approach to group playing looked ahead with its polyrhythms, geared to exploration rather than to predetermined patterns, and its melodies that proceeded through a complex of unstated modulations rather than riding on a cushion of traditional chord progressions. But the music looked back through the jazz tradition with its collective improvisations and its personal, speechlike approach to intonation and phrasing, so much like the ensemble and solo styles of the early Southern and Southwestern blues and jazz musicians. In the fall of 1971, Ornette reassembled his original quartet to record Science Fiction. In twelve years the style had become classic, distilled into the kind of unique, breathtaking perfection that characterized the work of Lester Young, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, and a handful of other black innovators.

By the beginning of 1972 twenty-one Ornette Coleman albums were listed in the Schwann catalogue. All but one were small group recordings, and all but two or three of the compositions were Coleman originals.

"I started writing before I started playing," he explains. "I didn't start playing until later, because nobody would hire me. But when I went to audition my tunes for Les Koenig [of Contemporary Records, Los Angeles] he liked me playing my own music, so I got the date. And yet it's been twelve years and they're still saying I haven't paid off the cost of the record." For a decade Ornette channeled his compositional ideas into providing frameworks for his combo to improvise on. Somehow he found time to write a string quartet and a piece for strings and woodwinds. Then he was awarded a Guggenheim, which allowed him to devote more time to writing, and last summer Skies of America, a full-length work for soloist and symphony orchestra, was given its premiere at the Newport-in-New York jazz festival.

In a sense, the composition is "about" the many things that have happened to Ornette Coleman since March 19, 1930, when he was born in Fort Worth, Texas, "under America's skies." More specifically, it is about being black, feeling exploited, working for recognition as an artist and a man in a society that has often been aloof, condescending, or hostile. He started on the alto saxophone at the age of fourteen, switched to tenor two years later, and played in numerous Texas rhythm-and-blues groups. He first left Fort Worth as a teen-ager, with a carnival band. He was dismissed from the tent show for playing bebop, stranded in New Orleans, threatened by racist sheriffs in Mississippi. In Baton Rouge a gang of roughnecks beat him up and threw his tenor off a hill, so he went back to the alto, which is still his principal horn.

He went to Los Angeles with Pee Wee Crayton's blues band and spent the better part of the fifties there, working at various odd jobs, studying music theory, practicing and composing whenever he could. He continued to develop his own expression, and gradually a few musicians began to understand, especially the trumpeter Don Cherry, bassist Charlie Haden, and drummers Ed Blackwell and Billy Higgins. Ornette, Cherry, Haden, and Higgins worked with pianist Paul Bley at Los Angeles' Hillcrest club in 1958, and struck out on their own later that year.

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.