Ornette Coleman: Metaphysician, Philosopher, and Futurist

By , Contributor

Ornette Coleman is one of the true immortals. As much revolutionary musician as he is metaphysician, philosopher, and futurist, he set melody free from its shackles, offering a different set of compass points for jazz that had nothing to do with chords and structure — all rather serendipitously when he misread a song book at the age of 14.

He talks to The Morton Report about love, humanity, the importance of good clothes, and how he put the "free" in free jazz.

Has there ever been anything else that you wanted or could do other than music?

Every day.

And you made clothes, too. Where did that come from? Because you couldn’t find the clothes you wanted? What was the creative impulse behind making clothes?

Well, I haven’t actually made clothes but I’ve actually tried to make someone aware of what it was that I would like. But that’s just like everything that has to do with the emotional feeling and the brain, intelligence, and emotion. They go together, right? And do you think one is dominating the other?

Well, tell me some things that you do, or think about.

Well, I, for one, I would like to know what kills you.

What kills you?

Yeah. I don’t mean like a knife, you know, and a bullet. You know.

But tell me what other things that you could do; tell me what your other great talents are. Besides thinking, because you’re so much a philosopher as well.

Well, it’s not what I can do, it’s what I believe that could exist that would allow everyone to do. Which is, the life is not just responding to needs and wants and pleasures, but it exists because there’s nothing else that could replace it. And because of that, every person that has enough intelligence to find a way to, you know, build a car or to use their mind, to make the things available to other human beings, is a plus. But the one thing that no one can do, you can’t make a person fall in love if they don’t like you.

And that’s very, very important, how someone appreciates your existence. Do you realize that 99 percent of emotional feelings, when it comes to transforming someone, usually the man is seeking a woman to have that experience? Now I don’t know if it’s reversed. I don’t know, because I’m not a woman. But the reason why men are attracted to women, it is something they feel that they can’t feel by themselves.

Wow, that seems funny, because I always think that men are so self-contained and they really don’t need women that much. I’ve read so many of your interviews and it always seems like you go this deep. Are there people that you don’t go deep with?

Well, see, what you’re calling deep, I’m just calling a conversation.

You’re just being.

Ornette_Coleman-with-Sax.jpgAnd now you got it. But it’s very seldom that you can—I don’t know how to say it. It’s very seldom that you can speak about happiness as something that you have created, and it belongs to you.

What makes you happy?

I wish I could answer it, but right now, I would like for it to be something that has an eternal desire and a pleasurable feeling to accept. In the human genome, the male and female, I don’t know how to describe it but it seems that those two forces have more to do with what happiness is and what it isn’t.

Is love more important than music? Where does your music fit into your whole personal philosophy?

Oh, that’s a very good question. Is love important when I’m planning music? Well, I think the only thing that’s important is don’t try to destroy eternity, because it doesn’t know that you don’t know it.

So does that make love and music the same thing?

Well, from speaking to you, love and music, both of them are invisible. So yes.

They’re both invisible but they don’t call upon each other for the same reason. One is something that you already can be, the other one is something that you enjoy, that you are trying to achieve. And yet at the same time, the quality of what you can’t do about something that you care about is always going to take time to make sure that none of those things that you care about is going to make you sad. And all I know is that the only way to avoid doing that is be alone as long as you can be a complete person without a need.

I hear what you’re saying. But I was just saying in relationship to... the conversation we’re having is about being alive in the form that we’re in. Well, that is not a feeling. That’s a creation.

But if you go back to music and you go back to love, both of them are creations because you are creating something. Again, is it to fill a need?

Well, well, well. Now, see, you said it, that’s a creation. Well, if it’s a creation do you think it’s God? I doubt it.

No. If it’s God, it’s the God within. You know, the God that we all—

And now, that’s right.

When you think of music, when you’re playing, do you think of that as a creation? What do you think about when you’re playing? When you’re on a stage, what’s going through your head?

Well, the first thing that’s going through my head is, how can I get these notes to stay out of the way of repetition? And the second one is, how can I conjure up enough emotion for it to mean something? And the last is, how can I remove all moments of speed to direct when it has done what it’s supposed to do and when it’s done what it shouldn’t have done? And then the last is, how can I turn it all into little bits of rhythm where everyone starts doing the same motion?

Right. Without repetition though, again.

You got it. Now, I said how, right? But the true word is when.

Right. Because you’ve done this for so long and you know what you want to do, so you know you can reproduce these results. So could you always say when? When you first started out, was when part of it?

No, no, no. But I can say, the one thing I can say now, I find that when is the same thing that, when it’s raining, you put on a raincoat. When something is above you, you get out, try to—it’s always something that you have to change something that you’re doing in order to be at peace with it.


Is change the most important thing in the equation for you?

Well, I must say the word change to me mostly comes in the form of money. And the other change comes in the form of opinion. And the third change comes in the form of, what are you going to do? But the results, it’s not the change, it’s the future of the present.

Yes, it is. But you’ve always been about the future. I mean you’ve always put that in your album titles. You’ve always been a forward thinker. Even think about the whole concept of free jazz which will always be associated with you. Is that about the future, or was that just about the now? Like you realized that that was supposed to be done. Where did that idea come from? That’s such a revolutionary idea. What was going on in your brain that day?

Yeah, well, the same thing that’s going on in my brain as I speak to you — living.

So you knew that living would be better if you made sure you didn’t repeat things and you just decided to make what was inside you be outside you?

No, I know that living is better with everyone if that same thing was in everyone at the same time. And there’s no reason why it can’t or shouldn’t be.

Did you come to that concept when you were very young?

I want to say that I lived with my mother all the time and never saw her in a slip, panties, nekkid. I mean my mother, something else. And she never tried to make me do anything but she’s constantly reminding me of what I couldn’t do. You know. Which was very healthy.

Because it forced you to prove that you could do more things?

Kinda like that. Yeah, but the main ingredient of it is that, I don’t know how to describe it, but being in the male form only requires you to respond if you are spoken to because of that. But being in the human form, anything someone says to you, you’re supposed to be able to analyze it for what your condition is at the moment.

What are you considered an expert on? If people were going to call you, what could they call you about? What are you the most expert in?

If I knew that, I could make you appear in this room.

That’s great. So that means you’re a magician, not a musician, right?

That’s why I said it.

You know, I really believe you.

That’s why I said it. I mean really, I would like to meet all the requirements that God have given human beings. And nobody knows what they are because no one has ever reached the full conclusion, what they are.

Yeah. And you believe in God, right?

No, I hope God believes in me.


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Jaan Uhelszki was one of the founding editors at Detroit’s legendary Creem magazine. Since that time, her work has appeared in USA Today, Uncut, Rolling Stone, Spin, NME, Relix, and Guitar World. She is the only journalist to have ever performed in full makeup with Kiss. Luckily she only had to put…

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