Ornette Coleman (1930-2015), undoubtedly a great musician and composer who freed jazz from nearly all constrictions, was also a homespun philosopher. In the times he spent talking and playing with Coleman, John Kruth came to that latter conclusion. He also discovered that Ornette Coleman was a damn good pool hustler. John shares the last conversation he had with the jazz master.
I loved going over to Ornette’s place and not just for the obvious reasons. He had a pool table in his Midtown Manhattan loft and before anything else could take place you had to oblige him and shoot a few rounds. Coleman was a tricky fellow, always a gentleman but a bit of a hustler too. He’d smile sweetly and nod his head gently as you take your shot. But sooner or later that congenial host façade would give way and at some point, he’d mop the floor with you – one game after the next, acting surprised the whole time, wondering where that “lucky shot” came from.
Ever see that old photo of him from the early Seventies shooting pool with his pal, Anthony Braxton, complete with muttonchops and pipe? He’d been at that game for a long time. In fact, Coleman was something of a pool shark years ago back in his hometown of Fort Worth, Texas.
Ornette, who ascended from the earth plane on June 11, 2015, was really just a big kid, a big, brilliant kid, but a kid just the same. He dug sweets – peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, with maybe a Stewart’s Root Beer to wash it down, and a mound of strawberry ice cream for dessert. And when he picked up his horn, it was always with a sense of mischievous wonder. The man played with every fiber of his being and it was a great honor to have jammed with him on numerous occasions. Sometimes it seemed he blew better in his practice room, whether alone or jamming with the long parade of musicians of whatever stripe or style that regularly stopped by, than in any of the prestigious concert halls I’ve seen him in, from Chicago to New York and London. Every time that mouthpiece touched his lips, it was for real.
As a side note: This interview took place on a spring afternoon at Coleman’s crib about a year before he passed away. At the time, I couldn’t find a magazine interested in publishing it. It wasn’t about “jazz” or “a new record.” There was nothing to buy… It was about life. I feel honored to have been there, asking the questions.
John Kruth: Your music is always so playful, Ornette. I think if people would let go, the preconceived notions they lug around and just listen, they’d probably find they enjoy it.
Ornette Coleman: How many different sounds are there? And how do they relate to what you feel and believe? All you can do is experience it in the moment.
JK: Most folks have a hard time with staying in the moment. Everybody’s always worried about what they’re gonna do next Tuesday at four o’clock.
Ornette Coleman: That’s okay, cause the real truth, the real church is coming to the human being. Ain’t nothing in this world gonna get in your way ‘cause you can’t see it or talk to it. All you can do is experience it. Eternity is not a word, it’s an existence.
JK: Wow you sound like William Blake. You know, his mother whipped him because he had visions of angels.
Ornette Coleman: You got to protect what makes you happy. You know what’s amazing is that a mother can grow another person inside of her.
JK: Talk about creativity… like what have you done lately?
Ornette Coleman: [Laughs] Yeah, right… If people could only conceive how close they are to being like God, not in words or meaning but in the concept of eternity. Can you imagine eternity without a mirror? I know my mother gave birth to me and all that, but what’s so amazing is that the life force does not have a goal. It’s eternal already.
JK: Don [Cherry] often spoke of the “eternal now.” I think Albert Ayler looked too deeply at eternity and got spooked by it.
Ornette Coleman: Yeah, yeah, he was… that’s true. Don was a fantastic person. He played so fantastic. I don’t know what caused his health to fail. When he got to New York he flew the coop. But life cannot be nothing but what it is, a vibration. I just want to say there’s something comin’ that’s eternal, but it’s not on the market yet. [Laughs]
Ramblin’-from Change of the Century album. (Don Cherry on trumpet).
JK: Hopefully, whatever it is, it’s not gonna be on the shelf for $19.95. What’s your connection with Geronimo? [Ornette Coleman had two large portraits of the Apache medicine man in his loft.]
Ornette Coleman: Oh lord…His eyes, the eyes speak in that photograph. You know vision is what causes the spirit to become whatever form it’s in. But can you imagine? You don’t have to know how to spell the word “life” to know what life is. The truth is, is that the whole concept of existence is not based upon what you want or what you need. In other words, there is no reason to need something, the thing is, is to be something. The worst thing you can do is “ape” it, to try and make someone else think you know what you’re doing. It don’t work that way. The only proof of eternity is your self. Eternity isn’t born, it doesn’t die, it doesn’t tell you who you are, or where you are, or what key you’re in… We both know the notes of a C scale and all the chords and everything, but it ain’t doin’ shit! It needs that same quality of whatever creation is, to make it happen. Everyone says the word ‘life,’ but they have no idea what it really is. Life is in everything. And life, whatever it is, is eternal. When you think of it, that’s all there is.
JK: Every time you pick up your horn, Ornette, you try to find out what it is! When you listen to Eric [Dolphy], he was always seeking.
Ornette Coleman: Oh, he was gone! [Whistles] He was trying to find the equivalent to eternity. [Coleman told me this about Dolphy in a previous interview:] I had known Eric back in the Fifties when I shared some music that I had been working on with him. He was very open to the things that I was doing. I think that he thought I was not in his class of perfection because I had just come to California from the South. But it didn’t bother me. There was an appreciation from one musician to another. I invited him to play on my FreeJazz record and he asked me, “Which instrument would you like for me to play?” I told him, “It doesn’t matter.” I wasn’t concerned about him being the worst or best or whatever. I was concerned about him expressing the things he wanted to.
Like Eric, I didn’t create anything. I’m just in this form, involved in a creative search that is human. I’m just trying to be more human. We’re all made from one life and it can’t be replaced. This morning I got up and started workin’ the sound in my horn and I realized that sound is not only invisible, but it doesn’t stand still and when it moves it picks up on other sounds. Now when I pick up an instrument I don’t even think about the instrument. I just think what is it that I could possibly bring out of it? It has nothing to do with if you can read or write or what key you like, or what’s your favorite song. All of that is good knowledge, but sound, sound is God-given that’s all that I can say.
JK: You’re like an antenna, Ornette, picking up sonic sparks from the universe and broadcasting them through your horn.
Ornette Coleman: For most people I think sound is emotional. Now [claps his hands] that’s a sound. But if you hit somebody like that [claps hands again] that’s an emotion!
JK: Well, now you’ve committed a sound with intent.
Ornette Coleman: Exactly! But sometimes when you play your instrument it doesn’t sound like a sound. It sounds human. But not human like what language you speak or how you look at where you come from. It’s not like that. The human is more alive from outside in than it is from inside out.
JK: Maybe that’s why the Buddhists say we need to meditate more, to get in touch with what’s happening on the inside.
Ornette Coleman: You know, a tone has more tonics in it than any other sound.
JK: Eric [Dolphy] said he could hear infinite harmonies, stacked one on top of the next, all the way to infinity.
Ornette Coleman: Ain’t nothin’ wrong with that! Maybe music should have another name.
JK: You’ve already come up with a few Ornette… “Free Jazz,” “Harmolodics…” Nobody seems to like that word jazz.
Ornette Coleman: That’s true. You see, sound doesn’t take the form of a note. It takes the form of a meaning. But imagine, the word “life” doesn’t really tell you what it is… We’re just in this form and can’t nobody touch the sky! I mean if there’s anything eternal, it’s got to be the sky. The sky don’t have no roof!
JK: You’ve always looked forward, Ornette. A lot of your titles like The Shape of Jazz to Come and Change of the Century, seemed to be designed to make people aware of new possibilities, instead of sticking with the same old familiar.
Ornette Coleman: That’s so true. But so much is still unknown. I don’t go around trying to explain it to people. You can’t prove anything to the world. But now I can see where it came from and where it’s going. It ain’t over and it can only get better. You can only think of where you’re going and why you’re going there. There’s so many different ways that people relate their love, if you wanna call it that. But can you imagine how old life is? How long life has been in existence? Everything that comes into existence, that has a form, is somehow tied to time. But I’m talking about what time cannot touch, and that’s eternity.
JK: Eternity doesn’t seem too concerned about how we define it. You can call it whatever you want… Rita or Henry… it doesn’t matter…
Ornette Coleman: The Buddhists knew what to call it. But if they did let you know you’d have to figure it out anyway. What you said is true. Life doesn’t change. What I’m trying to find out is where it comes from. I don’t know where it comes from. I don’t know what it is, but I’m glad it keeps coming… It’s comin’ from something that’s already created. Without it we’d be in bad shape.
JK: I’m worried that’s the day you’re gonna figure it out and that will be the day you leave us. The moment that you take off for destinations unknown, will probably be the moment you know!
Ornette Coleman: Yeah, That’s alright with me. I’m ready to be going. I’m in that karma already. But y’see the word life has no appearance that identifies if you are right or wrong. There’s a difference between knowin’ when something happens to you and yet it happened. It’s not like red beans and rice, or cornbread. But it’s so obvious that sound, that oooh… when you see something breathing it’s not just air.
JK: Like you can see the response from the wind, but you can’t see the wind itself.
Ornette Coleman: The human being is made up of the very thing that clouded the authority it’s trying to get around.
JK: You keep talking like that Ornette and somebody’s gonna make you a guru!