Ornette Coleman: Freedom of Expression

Freedom guides how Ornette Coleman has been making his music for over a half a century, and it’s also how he leads his life.

Written By

Frank J. Oteri

Frank J. Oteri is an ASCAP-award winning composer and music journalist. Among his compositions are Already Yesterday or Still Tomorrow for orchestra, the "performance oratorio" MACHUNAS, the 1/4-tone sax quartet Fair and Balanced?, and the 1/6-tone rock band suite Imagined Overtures. His compositions are represented by Black Tea Music. Oteri is the Vice President of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) and is Composer Advocate at New Music USA where he has been the Editor of its web magazine,, since its founding in 1999.

No One Controls Ideas

Frank J. Oteri: Everybody was so happy when Sound Grammar came out because it was your first recording in a decade. That’s a long time for no music.

Ornette Coleman: Yeah, this is true. I could probably write more music. I can probably make a record by myself. But I like to use different emotions, people that play different. When I hear someone, I say, “You know, I’m doing this record. Would you like that music?” It happens you know.

FJO: You are now using the term “sound grammar” to describe your process. For many, many years, you used the word “harmolodics” to describe this music.

OC: Yeah, that’s right.

FJO: And I have read so many different definitions and interpretations of that.

OC: Yeah, and I’m thinking of others myself. Only because the notes are the same, but the idea isn’t.

FJO: Well to explain it maybe succinctly to people, what is the sound grammar for your music?

OC: Well, the sound is made from the instrument. The ideas are made from your brain. The ideas and the sound actually meet. They don’t necessarily meet to make love. Sometimes they’re meeting to make war. What I mean by war is that I can take my horn and play something and if the note that I’m playing doesn’t match the other note, but I like the note that I didn’t play, I can’t go back and erase that.

FJO: Ultimately everything comes from something that came before it. So in terms of music theory, every note has another note before it that might influence the directionality of where that note goes in time and in space.

OC: Well, you’re speaking about the arrangement, not the idea. The idea doesn’t know the form it’s going to be placed in until it happens. But if you’re writing music, you can erase it and change it like that. I prefer the idea, although I’ve written lots of music. The idea’s much more interesting.

FJO: So the idea is to allow yourself in the moment for a note to go wherever you’re taken, wherever you are at that time, and not feel constricted by notions of where it should or shouldn’t go. It’s not about which chord or beat comes next.

OC: If I go and get my horn now and pick it up and play whatever idea comes to me at that moment, that’s what I mean when I say the idea. But what’s so amazing is that once you play it, it tells you how to play a better idea. And that one will tell you how to play a better idea, until you realize that it‘s better but it’s all falling in the same bed. That’s why the stars of music are so popular because people relate to things that their memory keeps the emotional image of what those things meant to them when they heard them. Well, imagine playing an instrument and trying to have that same experience every time you pick up your instrument, whatever it is that makes you feel, “Oh, I’m a musician; I have to live this way. I have to do a certain thing for people to appreciate what I’m doing.” It can be done, but it’s probably not something that if you didn’t do it, you wouldn’t be punished.

FJO: You once wrote about how unfortunate it is that many people are more interested in hearing a melody they’ve already heard before and liked than hearing a new melody.

OC: Yeah, this is very common. A love song is much more interesting to a man than something he cannot hum. Mostly human beings are only interested in each other. Imagine how many people exist at this moment while we’re speaking. If they were all standing here, you know what they would say? “I’m bored.” And you know why? Because they want their own freedom to be at the level of what it is that you’re taking up time to show them. That’s why I don’t want to ever believe that what I’m trying to do is get above everything and look down on someone and thinking, “Oh yeah, that’s the way it should be because these are my servants.”

FJO: You said you don’t have a record company and when people have an idea they just come to you with their idea. But when you were very young, you were signed by Atlantic Records, which is still one of the biggest record labels in the world. And Atlantic was putting out records that were very much in the mainstream of music at that time, so having your records released by them was very significant in terms of getting your ideas to a very wide audience. But you’ve never had a publisher, and now you also don’t have a record company. You do your own things. What would your advice be to younger musicians who are coming up now, who want to have a career, who want people to hear their music?

OC: Well, I think the best thing they can do is to get as good as they can and don’t look back. Music is perfect without it having any rules to make it perfect. The sound of music; no one controls it.

FJO: You’re largely self-taught as a musician. But you’ve obviously been influenced by the world around you. As you’ve said, everybody is created from somebody else. Do you feel that somebody can learn to play music on the highest level through apprenticeship or through schooling?

OC: I’ve seen it done by every person. Nobody owns the idea. And nobody can destroy it. But some can improve it much better than others, because of the quality of what their own relationship is to being, for [lack of] a better word, honest. Honesty seems to start with from six to twelve. And after twelve, you become a criminal. But it shouldn’t be that way because honesty is not age; it’s truth. That’s the one thing that’s really eternal, truth. But what does it do? Does it make you feel guilty? Does it make you feel sad? If you don’t do something right, they say, “Well, you didn’t do it right; you owe this.” You can make money from truth and all these kinds of things. How did human beings come into existence? Who decided there were going to be human beings? And if they did, did they do it right? I don’t know. I mean I’m a minority compared to what I’m seeing. But there’s only one life and everybody’s connected to it. The sad part is there’s something in your brain that says, “This guy doesn’t like you” and it doesn’t get any better because of your pride. So basically there’s something about class that gets in the way of every person’s honesty in some way.

FJO: I think this gets back to what you’ve said about people liking the melody they already know more than the new melody. Sometimes people are reluctant to deal with someone who is different, someone who doesn’t look like them, or even someone who speaks a different language or dresses differently. All of a sudden they think it’s bad. They’re scared of it. But I think what you do in your music—allowing in any idea—is a beautiful metaphor for how all people could live together.

OC: Believe me, I play music every day, but music cannot touch the things we are saying to each other. I could play my heart out and have you crying, but it’s never going to be as close to you.