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Remembering Ornette Coleman: "A Visionary" Jazz Legend

The pioneering jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman has died at the age of 85. In 2006 we spoke to one his closest musical associates, the bassist Charlie Haden, who died last year. "Ornette’s music was completely different than traditional jazz," Haden said. "It was free improvisation. It was his way of improvising. It was improvising and creating a new chord structure to the song that you were playing."


AMY GOODMAN: You’ve had a long relationship with Ornette Coleman right up until today, the time of this interview. You’ve just spent two evenings with him.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about how you met and the kind of work, the music that you’ve played together.
CHARLIE HADEN: I heard Ornette play the first time at a club called the Hague. I was on a night off. I was playing at the Hillcrest with Paul Bley, and Carla Bley was his wife. That’s how I met Carla. And I went to the Hague. Gerry Mulligan was playing there with his band, and this guy comes up to the stage and asks to sit in. They tell him to come up, and he got his alto. It was a plastic — white plastic alto saxophone. And he starts to play, and the whole room lit up for me. It was so brilliant. And as soon as he started to play, they asked him to stop. So he put the horn back in the case and started out the back door.
AMY GOODMAN: Why did they ask him to stop?
CHARLIE HADEN: Well, you know, Ornette’s music was completely different than traditional jazz. It was free improvisation. It was his way of improvising. It was improvising and creating a new chord structure to the song that you were playing. That’s the way he played, and a lot of musicians didn’t feel close to that, and it was new to them. And so, they asked him to stop playing. And so, I missed him. He would disappear into the night.
I found out the next night at the Hillcrest from my drummer, from Paul Bley’s drummer, Lennie McBrowne. I said, "I heard this guy play, who was brilliant, and played like the human voice." And he said, "Was he playing a plastic horn?" And I said, "Yeah." He said, "That was Ornette Coleman. I’ll introduce you to him." He brought him in.
We met, and I told him how great he played. And he said, "Thank you." He said, "Not many people tell me that." I mean, he said, "Let’s go play." And we went over to his house, and we played for three days. And then we started rehearsing with Don Cherry and Billy Higgins. And then a guy from Atlantic Records came to one of the rehearsals, Nesuhi Ertegun, and wanted us to make a record. And we made two albums: The Shape of Jazz to Come and Tomorrow Is the Question! and Change of the Century.
AMY GOODMAN: So all these very future-looking — The Shape of Jazz to Come.
CHARLIE HADEN: And Change of the Century.
AMY GOODMAN: What did you mean — The Shape of Jazz to Come?
CHARLIE HADEN: Well, that was Ornette’s title, and he always had this — you know, this vision. He’s a real visionary in his music. And he has these great titles to his songs and to his albums. And so, The Shape of Jazz to Come, that’s what it was. There were several revolutions, changes in the world of jazz, you know. Louis Armstrong and some other people started it out. And then there was the swing era with the big bands. And then Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie came along and created bebop on 52nd Street in the ’40s. That was a revolution in the language of jazz. And then, when Ornette and Don and I and Billy came to New York, that was the next one.

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