Ornette 1: Forms and Sounds

Before he invented Harmolodics, Ornette Coleman was comparatively direct in conversation. Gunther Schuller’s probing questions make the following interview an especially important document. George Schuller has given the precise date and source: February 7, 1960, part of a weekly one hour jazz show Gunther and Nat Hentoff hosted from January 1958 to roughly March 1960 called “The Scope of Jazz” on WBAI.


There’s a lot of sage advice that can be taken quite literally. (Quarter notes are played differently depending on whether you tap your foot or not.) Ornette is also forthright about his difficulty relating to conventionally notated music.

Schuller says in our interview that he was never able to teach Ornette how to read or write easily. Of course this was in the early 1960s, so things might have changed later. However, I have seen many lovely handwritten scores from decades ago to recent (some are even included in the records, like “Sex Spy” on Soapsuds, Soapsuds) and none were interpretable until I heard Ornette himself play them.

My impression is that those around Ornette protected him from possible criticism by suggesting he notates music smoothly. He created music smoothly, certainly, and I’ve seen his vast array of notebooks crammed with pages and pages of melody. But none of those notated scores were decipherable by anybody else without his guidance. The rhythms are too simple and the accidentals are reversed in non-standard ways. I believe Ornette always had assistants to help create formal scores when given commissions for classical musicians.

(A fascinating footnote in Fred Kaplan’s 1959:  The Year Everything Changed (296-297) has Sy Johnson claiming that Ornette brought in a full, correctly notated and transposed big band chart of “Lover Come Back to Me” to Johnson’s rehearsal band at the Hillcrest Club. I’m a profound doubter of that story myself, but would love to see that chart if it was found!)

If you don’t learn it as a kid, quickly reading or writing musical notes in the European system is a real bother to learn as an adult.  All sorts of great music made elsewhere around the globe has nothing to do with Western notation. Much of the best American music has only a casual relationship to sheet music, a relationship summed up by how we call a book of simplified scores a “fake book.”

Thelonious Monk had no problem reading or writing music but hardly ever gave his sidemen charts. They had to learn his music by ear. Monk thought it made for better art, and of course he was right. The Thelonious Monk Quartet never used sheet music.

Dewey Redman told me that Ed Blackwell once recommended him to Monk. But when Dewey called Monk and asked to get together to go over the tunes, Monk merely said, “Do you know my music or don’t you?” If Dewey had said yes, he could have had the gig: In other words, show up and play the book perfectly from memory, done and done. However, Dewey was used to a situation like Ornette Coleman, where you rehearsed everything over and over in advance. Therefore, unfortunately, Dewey never played with Monk.

It’s extraordinary how little paper seems to exist from small group jazz of the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s.  There are bits and pieces around, but really very little compared to how many songs and records there were.

The best music of Ornette Coleman needs to be considered in that tradition. Like the music of Monk, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, and so many other jazz masters, it never really existed on the page in the first place.

In the George Schuller commentary there are two Coleman charts that Don Cherry probably prepared. (I can easily believe that Cherry penned them, since they don’t have Coleman’s unmistakable accidentals.) I’m especially fascinated by “Bird Food.” This Cherry scribble has almost nothing to do with what is on the record!

The Schuller transcription right below it is closer, but still not that accurate. Since Schuller’s “Bird Food” was published in a folio in the 60’s and much later (probably) copped by one of the Chuck Sher fakebooks, it has become pretty common currency. But I assure you: There is simply no way to learn “Bird Food” except by playing along with Ornette and Don’s recording. Schuller’s transcription is almost an act of misdirection.

The fact that Schuller missed the mark in his Ornette transcriptions isn’t surprising. (I teased him about the absurd 15/8 of “Una Muy Bonita,” a mistake that enabled Martin Williams to make supposedly learned remarks about Ornette writing in mixed meters.) None of the transcriptions in the Schuller books Early Jazz and The Swing Era reflect the manner in which the musicians themselves would have thought about the music.

I have mellowed on this topic! In high school, I thought that Early Jazz was a scam. Now I see the big picture better, and can even appreciate some of Schuller’s insights as a jazz critic.

But Schuller’s transcriptions will always bother me, mainly because so many people have taken them at face value. Schuller fiercely believed in the notated page, and of course that worked for him in his wonderful classical music. But jazz is far closer to a rigorous folk music than the European academy. You can’t write it all down, and maybe by trying to do so, you lose something significant.

Tapes made at the Lenox Jazz Workshop have Ornette playing parts on four non-Ornette tunes. Schuller says that he learned them by ear, which of course is harder than just reading them. At any rate, it’s a real eyebrow raiser to hear his sonority peek out from the Herb Pomeroy big band. I’m not sure if he is playing in all the thick fast parts, but he unquestionably leads the section on the melody to “Paul’s Pal,” and even lets out a signature squall during the coda. On the small group “Inn Tune” (by future cult songstress Margo Guryan) he’s a total pro, delivering a long tricky melody perfectly and contributing a comparatively tame improvisation in E-flat minor.

I’m speculating here, but I wonder if Ornette, faced with people like Schuller and everybody else at Lenox who could read and notate the most complicated music as easily as Ornette could create it, felt compelled to come up with his own alternative system that he could teach and talk about.

For many years all of Ornette’s missives and interviews have referenced Harmolodics.

There are are a few elements of Harmolodics that I’m fairly certain I understand. (Ornette himself, of course, might have disagreed with my interpretation!)

Ornette freely admits in the above interview with Schuller that he made a big mistake when learning to read. He didn’t understand that an alto saxophone’s A is a concert C.

Only a genius could then turn that mistake, which must be somewhat commonplace for beginners, into a system.

According to Ornette, every instrument has its own pitches. You can get a special kind of sound if you train yourself, as he did in his early days, to think your notes are not just your concert or transposed notes but also true to the written (untransposed) page.

He also believed that a line of music written on the page (or taught by rote) should mean something different to every musician. When Ornette realized that the same note on a music staff meant different notes on different instruments, he found a way to give everybody the same basic melody but have every musician be heard with their own emotion.

On “All My Life” and “What Reason Can I Give” from Science Fiction, the mass of horns seem to mostly read off of one line without transposing, creating a puffy pillow of harmony. Charlie Haden figures out the correct, totally independent bass line to go with the horns, and Asha Puthli passionately embroiders the tune.

Harmolodics require each individual in the ensemble to participate and create. Not every note needs to be 100% parallel, it is up to the performers to edit according to taste. (Sometimes it sounds better to play a given pitch as a sharp or as a flat.) On “What Reason Could I Give” there is one tiny glorious moment of counterpoint, when Don Cherry moves from G to Ab, while the rest of the horns hold F and C. It happens both times through the tune. The use of Harmolodics can access a kind of emotion that is breathtakingly pure, as long as everyone makes the right decisions to serve the music and performs with an open heart.

What Reason Could I Give

The most thorough documentation of the transposition logic is Skies of America, where a whole orchestra apparently reads off of one line for the complete record. (Very occasional counterpoint is generated somehow, probably not by Ornette.) It is sort of ridiculous to have all those London Symphony players doing this, of course. They regarded it as undignified.

(In general, Ornette’s transposition logic makes experienced musicians scream in exasperation.)

But then again, I have heard hours and hours of orchestral music in my life, and most of it hasn’t stayed with me. Skies of America — that scorched-earth, post-apocalyptic mayhem — I’ll never forget that sound.

The successful application of Harmolodic theory almost certainly requires Ornette’s own participation as performer. An improvising drummer also seems essential. Skies of America simply wouldn’t work without the unidentified percussionists providing rambunctious rhythmic counterpoint.

According to Ornette’s biographer John Litweiler, the liner notes of Skies of America were the first time the word “Harmolodic” showed up in print. That makes sense, because Coleman classical music before Skies of America doesn’t have the same sound.

Indeed, based on aural evidence, Ornette had more to do with what his classical musicians played after he found Harmolodics — which is one reason to argue that Harmolodics is a legit system! (For his earlier Town Hall string quartet “Dedication to Poets and Writers,” the London wind quintet “Forms and Sounds” and a whole LP of chamber music with players from the Philadelphia Orchestra, Ornette must have had help notating basic atonal counterpoint. Gunther said it was his secretary for the Philadelphia session! At any rate, that version of “Forms and Sounds” is different than the London one.)

In the end, Harmolodics was part of a search for something spiritually different than the average professionally notated score. When Ornette told me about studying some scores of European music, such as Beethoven, he said it was pretty good music. But he could hardly believe that the players in the orchestra couldn’t change their notes to go with they way they felt.

Again, the above is mostly educated guesses. If someone shows up and tells me I’m wrong accompanied with some kind of definitive evidence I would immediately defer to their wisdom.

However, I would stake all my money on a simple precept: Harmolodics honors melody above all.

Melody is Ornette’s greatest gift.

Read on.