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A 1972 talk with Ornette Coleman

I first met and interviewed Ornette Coleman in 1959 or 60, when his unorthodox approach to jazz was better known than the music itself. He was just coming out, as it were, and booked into The Showboat, one of Philadelphia's two main jazz venues at that time. I was then a dj at WHAT-FM, a pioneering 24/7 jazz station whose on-air guys knew jazz mainly from reading liner notes and were yet to catch up with Coltrane. They did not play Ornette's debut album on the air, nor were they at all interested in catching him live. 

Elmer Snowden, Duke Ellington's former boss, came from a musical era that preceded flappers and bathtub gin, but he had natural curiosity when it came to music and he had not been among those veterans who thought Bop was the cat's meow—literally. When I asked him to come with me to the Showboat, he said, "Ornette Coleman, that crazy guy? Yeah, have to hear him."
Don Cherry and Ornette Coleman. 1959 photo by Clemens Kalischer.

It was not a big room, but it could hold a decent-sized crowd and, on this night, they were standing in line on the sidewalk. However, nobody had to wait long that night, for this radical Texan reed player attracted an amazingly transient audience—it seemed that every jazz fan in the city wanted to hear him and his bizarre group, but most of them only wanted a taste.

At this point, I need not go into Ornette's unconventional approach to the music, but the untethered style in which he and pocket trumpeter Don Cherry played stood in odd contrast to the hard-driving, almost conventional rhythm of the bass and drums. When I say "almost conventional," it should be noted that I am talking about Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins. It took some adjustment on the part of the listener, so most didn't stick around. Elmer was busy counting measures, but nothing seemed to ass up, he said. I found it rather intriguing and secured from Ornette some time for an interview on the following day. 

I wish I had that tape, but it's long gone, What you will hear in the four audio links that follow is an interview I did about 12 years later. By this time, Ornette was well established, we had passed an "avant garde" phase in jazz trends, and the formerly outré sounded okay. The sound quality is not very good, but this interview was never meant to be heard as such—it was for a print piece, and it begins with reference to the Showboat gig and deals mostly with the ugly (i.e. business) side of the entertainment industry.


Ornette Coleman. Photo by Austin Trevett
Ornette Coleman. Photo by Austin Trevett

The interview continues with Ornette talking about his amazing self-produced/ self-financed Christmas Eve 1963 Town Hall concert. It was an ambitious project that featured Ornette in a variety of musical environments. He also recalls coming home to find all his belongings piled up curbside, which is what New York did to evicted tenants in those days. 


In part 3 of the interview, Ornette talks about record producer Bob Thiele and whites who see themselves as "rescuers" of black people, how record companies shuffle artists, and the unhealthy attitudes among club owners that make working for them unpleasant. Racism, sexism, and avarice are problems he quietly takes note of.


The concluding segment has Ornette talking about early jazz figures like Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith, among other things. Bad audio notwithstanding, I hope you found it interesting.


I took the photo on the left at Lincoln Center Jazz when Ornette became a 2008 inductee into Nesuhi Ertegun's Jazz Hall of Fame. Others inducted that year were Bessie Smith, Gil Evans and Mary Lou Williams.