The Freedom Of A Bird In Flight – Ornette Coleman (1930-2015)
Jazz, rock, classical, and other man-made genres are steps away from pure musical and sound expression. The music business as we know it today dictates the limitations, and this is what Ornette drove home to me and my fellow band mates.
Without question, the total Ornette Coleman experience for me has been nothing short of mystical, mesmerizing, educational, and sensitive. Everyone that has crossed his path has their own story, and here’s mine.
I grew up in Philadelphia in an area called North Philly. There you had the birth of some of the most famous musical artist to contribute to the world’s music scene. John Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, Archie Shepp, and so many more that it would take this entire space to mention. My first professional music experience was with an organist named Charles Earland who, in the late ‘70s, switched from playing bass on his organ to hiring me as an electric bass guitarist. I had just graduated from high school and received a music scholarship to attend Berklee College of Music. Going to Berklee and sitting in those classes did not sit well with me, as I wished to become an on-the-road, touring jazz musician, performing at global jazz festivals, playing club dates, and performing with all of the creative musicians who were making musical statements. (Boy, I was a dreamer.) Be careful what you wish for, as I soon witnessed a chain of events that would change musical history and the small role I played in it. After a one-year stint with Charles Earland, I was called into the backstage room at a small club in Newark, New Jersey, called The Key Club and told by Charles that I was fired from the gig. I asked him the reason, and he said that my timing was off. That seemed strange to me. I always kept the groove and when I would solo, the audience would go wild. But I guess some band leaders just will not stand for that kind of sideman attention from the audience.
At any rate, I was devastated. I left New York and headed back to Philadelphia without a gig and without my scholarship to Berklee. But, as destiny would have it, exactly one week later I received a telephone call from guitarist Reggie Lucas and percussionist James Mtume, two gentlemen who knew me as a youngster in Philadelphia and who had kept their eyes on me from early on. These guys were Philadelphians themselves and had already been out there on the road playing with Miles Davis and his electric band. When I arrived in Philly they told me that the saxophonist/composer Ornette Coleman was planning a European tour and was looking for an electric bass player to join in. I didn’t know much about Ornette but, as destiny would have it, I had just been looking at a Downbeat article about Ornette featuring a photo of him playing saxophone and violin. It clicked; this was the same guy. I immediately said that I was interested in going back to New York for an audition for Ornette.
The day I arrived in New York, I went over to his famous Prince Street Loft in Soho where he resided and rehearsed his band. There was an elevator from the first floor that opened up directly into his loft space. I walked in and was greeted by works of visual art situated all over the room that would rival the collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. As a matter of fact, the first art piece that I laid my eyes on was the famous mirrored colored mask painting that was used on the cover of Dancing In Your Head. There was so much more, I couldn’t take it all in.
Immediately Ornette came out of one of the rooms and greeted me. I noticed that he was not a huge man, he was shorter than me and he spoke in a very quiet voice, almost a whisper. Bern Nix was there, and I remember seeing the legendary drummer/composer Ronald Shannon Jackson there. Denardo Coleman was there, walking around, and we introduced ourselves to each other. We took our seats and my audition began. There was a music stand in front of me, and Ornette handed me sheet music. My music reading at that time was not as good as it turned out to be by the time I left Prime Time. I noticed that it was just notes written in the bass with no chord progressions. Ornette proceeded to count this tune off in a very strange way that I was not used to. In retrospect he did that only for me because, as I found out, he never counts any tunes off. He relied only on the melody to dictate the beginning and ending of any composition.
So we started. I struggled to play this finger buster melody, and we stopped. In my mind I knew that I did not nail this melody as it should have been played, but something clicked with Ornette and, with that sly look that he sometimes had, he said to me, “I want you to come to Europe with me.” Right there on the spot I, Jamaaladeen Tacuma (then Rudy McDaniel), had become part of a musical adventure that for me would change the way that the bass guitar was performed and how it was listened to. I stayed at the loft and we worked for a few more weeks on the material until we were ready. It was really prime time. Ornette needed another guitar player, and I suggested a guitar player from Philly named Charlie Ellerbe. That completed the initial Prime Time band lineup with Bern Nix and Ellerbe on guitars, Ronald Shannon Jackson on drums, myself on bass guitar, and Ornette Coleman on alto sax, trumpet, and violin.
We rehearsed a series of compositions that Ornette had been writing to ultimately fit inside of the Paris premier of Skies of America. I was told beforehand that we were only going to Europe for a two-week tour, but again—as destiny would have it—we stayed in Europe for six months. We stayed at Ornette’s favorite Paris hotel, Hotel Le Prince on Rue Monsieur Le Prince, where he had known the owner for years, an older lady he simply called Madame. Isn’t it such a coincidence that the word Prince showed up in so many facets of Ornette’s life, his New York address, his Paris address, as well as the name of the Paris hotel? There in Paris, the beginnings of Prime Time and the education we all received under Ornette’s direction was absolutely priceless.
We rehearsed, rehearsed, and toured throughout Europe using our Paris hotel as our base of operation. In those long rehearsals, we were introduced to the concept and theory of harmolodics and its function, application, and overall approach to the music that we played. Ornette’s early musical statements were met with such question and controversy. He never coined the phrase or said that what he was aiming for and what we were doing was “Free Jazz.” The term that was most endearing to him was “compositional improvising.” In harmolodics—unlike Western music where the melody, harmony, rhythm, and arrangement are neatly tucked in their place—all components are moving in the same direction simultaneously. The melody, or the composition, is the most important factor because from the melody one could extract their own musical ideas that could and should bring about the emotion that the listener reacts to. In compositional improvising, the musical idea is more important than the notes.
Sometimes the instrument and the notes could get in the way. As he stated in the beginning of my recording, For The Love of Ornette, “Fellas, fellas, forget the note and get to the idea.” What Ornette stressed was that each individual set up their own musical ideas with their own bridges attached. If you found the place that would enhance the other band member’s ideas, that could be a good thing. Also, on the flip side, one could also find that musical idea that could erase the others. The idea of being tied down to a riff was not acceptable. When this was applied and working, it was clear that the result was “pure music” and, to take it a step further, “pure sound.” Jazz, rock, classical, and other man-made genres are steps away from pure musical and sound expression. The music business as we know it today dictates the limitations, and this is what Ornette drove home to me and my fellow band mates.
This freed us, this freed me of looking at my instrument as just that. An instrument. The instrument didn’t rule me, I ruled it. It was just a vehicle and a means to express our musical ideas. Being able to concentrate on musical ideas allowed me to capture any music style and also leave it whenever I wanted to. This was a blessing and we owe that to Ornette Coleman. As the band Prime Time, we recorded several records with Ornette and for my first solo album recording, Show Stopper on Gramavision records, Ornette was gracious enough to write an original composition entitled “Tacuma Song,” a solo piece that allowed me to exemplify the bass guitar in a completely harmolodic way, with the melody or composition being the basis for the improvisation. Since my first solo recording and leaving Prime Time, I have traveled the world, made many recordings, and in 2010, after long discussions and planning, I was able to reciprocate the wonderful gift that Ornette gave me in “Tacuma Song.” I organized a recording session where I wanted Ornette to do absolutely what he does best and that is to improvise in a beautiful compositional way. I was blessed with his appearance and returned the gift with an homage recording entitled For The Love of Ornette on my Jam All Productions artist-run label.
Ornette has meant more to me as a human being and musically than words can really express, and there is one more small gem of a story that would allow you once again to peek into the spirit of Ornette. There was one moment in my life as a young man when I was venturing on a spiritual path and decided that I did not want to play music anymore. Ornette heard of this and came to Philadelphia from New York, met with my mother, and pleaded with her to convince me to return to music again. I did and I thank God and I thank Ornette Coleman.
It’s clear that Ornette’s impact was not only rooted in preparing individuals to think outside of the box, but also to take very natural ways of doing something and bring them to the forefront. We often talked about certain places in the world where people did not know anything about Western concepts of playing. The idea of playing notes E to A or C to B. They don’t know anything about that in remote villages and they still create incredible music that brings about healing. Ornette’s idea and concept was to also bring certain emotions to the music and to have those emotions be felt by others. He wanted to make you cry. He wanted to make you dance. He wanted to make you think or just sit down in silence. So I think his legacy will exemplify that not only was he a good human being and a kind and soft-spoken gentleman, but musically he will continue to bring about a change in how folks think about music, how they will approach it, and how they will perform it. With the blessing of God, my thanks to Ornette Coleman for taking me in, allowing me to think as a human being, and to play music with the freedom of a bird in flight.