A chat with rule-breaking jazzman Coleman
New York — Ever since Ornette Coleman burst on the jazz scene with his plastic sax and rule-breaking free-style blowing almost three decades ago, he has been the object of criticism -- from his colleagues, the press, and, with the exception of a small and faithful following, the jazz listeners themselves -- for his totally free approach to improvisation. Nevertheless, with a mind-set uncannily like that of his film biographer, Shirley Clarke, Mr. Coleman has stuck to his guns. He's developed musically strictly according to his own light, taking his oblique approach to tone-bending, and has never given in to pressures to conform.
Throughout the '60s he worked with small groups, and by the '70s had moved toward writing, expanding his concept to include a symphony orchestra. His symphonic work ``Skies of America'' (performed in Clarke's film with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra) was written according to a nontransposing theory of his own invention that he calls ``harmolodics.'' That work also includes sections written for the double quartet Prime Time, his current touring and recording group.
In a recent interview, the two-time recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship spoke on a variety of music-related subjects.
On creative life in America: ``In America you don't have the honor of just doing what you want and letting someone else discover what you do. You have to label what you do, and then you have to be in competition with whoever says they're doing the same thing.''
On improvisation: ``I now call it free-phrasing, but when I used to try to improvise I thought it was just that -- something you had never done before. I never thought about it as something you were trying to interpret, like if you have a hat on and you put a feather in it and suddenly it looks different. You can improvise and make a person think you have a hat on.''
``When I was growing up and I got my first horn, I played it as good as I play now, because I didn't know you had to know all this to play music. I thought music was something you did naturally. So from being that way, every time I'd get a job I'd get up and someone would give me a solo and I'd just play exactly what came to me that very moment regardless of what we were playing -- `Sweet Sue,' or whatever. They'd say, wait a minute! This doesn't match with this. You can't do this. I was always getting fired for doing this.''
Survival: ``I think survival is a personal thing. Everyone decides themselves how they want what they do to survive.
Success: ``I never really thought about having success. I always thought about getting something done -- and I'm still trying to do that.''