Happy birthday 83 — and 82 — Ornette Coleman

ornettecakeminiOrnette Coleman turns 83 today — and is celebrating it privately. That’s unusual, as he has thrown great parties, often full of live music (at his former Harlem Studio and one year at Joe’s Pub), always attended by fabulously interesting people — like the one last year for his 82nd birthday, Friday, March 9, 2012 held at his loft in Manhattan’s West 30s. I was pleased to be invited (I’ve blogged about OC’s birthday before), and wrote the following in afterglow.

Some 100 individuals, many involved with jazz and/or other highly creative, determinedly individualistic pursuits, came to eat, drink, hobnob and bask in the generous presence of America’s #1 advocate of free imagination at play. Coleman is the Texas-born, bluesy and worldly saxophonist-trumpeter-violinist, composer, improviser, bandleader, prophet of the unified field music theory harmolodics (which he now calls “sound grammar”), idealist and oracle.

Shortly past 8 p.m. a smartly dressed young woman, guest-list on clipboard, stands inside double glass doors of a non-descript office building, checking off attendees. A strapping lad, late-teens/early 20s, points to the elevator up – he’s Ornette’s grandson. His father Denardo, Ornette’s son, is 55 and has been a drummer for his father since he was 10. Denardo is the party’s host, welcoming us in as the door of the elevator opened directly into a loft designed for circular flow.

The loft has lots of open space, seating scattered throughout, all surrounding a kitchen area, behind which are closed off rooms. Coats go on metal rack in the hall alongside those private rooms, leading to the bathroom. There’s a pool table, its felt covered by plastic in protection against spills. Massive bold paintings line the walls, including one that was the cover for Coleman’s album Body MetaUnknown

Linda Goldstein, sometimes Ornette manager and always Bobby McFerrin‘s, is here. Percussionist and improv orchestra conductor Adam Rudolph – who I know from his ’80s Chicago band the Mandingo Griot Society and more recently his NYC improvising Organic Orchestra, is talking to a singer who introduces herself as Sherry Joy. Larry Blumenfeld, jazz journalist with his wife Erica Zelinksi, who has been general manager of the Lincoln Center Festival is getting a photo of Sam, their son who’s three or four, with Ornette himself.

Ornette, in a conservative business suit, gets on his knees to be at Sam’s level. His deeply etched, shy but open, kindly face catches the light; his eyes, which seem to see through everything and everyone, are shaded by angled brows and eyelid folds. He smiles weakly. He doesn’t much like being photographed, though he’s been subject of dozens of fascinating photos. He does like kids and people behaving with natural ease, so the photo is taken.

I show Ornette my Korg Monotron, a palm-sized ribbon synthesizer, capable of making any sound from a single sawtooth sound wave. But when I click it on what comes out isn’t loud enough, doesn’t project. Ornette says “That’s really something,” looks away. I adjust its controls, without improvement – nothing impressive coming out. Portrait photographer Carol Friedman asks how many sounds are loaded in the Monotron. None. It generates one wave and enables its frequency modulation and filtering.

Pianist JoAnne Brackeen, tall, thin, her streaked wave of grey curls a crown, admires my turquoise African batik shirt. I admire her waist-length jacket of long-haired fur. Chantal Phaire, artists manager, joshes with us. The loft is filling up. Bassist Tony Falanga, a classical player in Ornette’s most recent quartets. Keyboardist David Bryant, of Ornette’s ’90s band Prime Time (the second iteration) with Tom Hall, a saxophonist/professor at Brandeis and author of Free Improvisation: A Practical Guide — both down from Boston. Guitarist Kenny Wessel, also of Prime Time as well as Adam Rudolph’s orchestra and Karl Berger’s Creative Music Studio workshops at the Stone – is here with his wife Diane, anthropologist-turned-school teacher. Teaching school requires all her anthro chops, she says. I say hi to composer Carman Moore.

I get some spiked red punch. “It’s very spiked”, I’m told, “and hang onto the glass” — which is glass — “for refills.” Hello to Skotto – owner of a Chelsea gallery for contemporary African arts, his inaugural show 20 years ago was curated by Ornette. Dan Melnick, Absolutely Live concert and festival producer, stops in in on his way to Carnegie Hall, where he’s putting on a 10 p.m. show featuring vocalist Gretchen Parlato and guitarist Lionel Loueke.

Ornette Coleman 1 email

Ornette Coleman, photo by Michael Jackson

On a sofa in the corner, Muhal Richard Abrams, eminence of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), NEA Jazz Master and composer-pianist of distinction, sits with his wife Peggy, daughter Richarda and AACM pianist-organist-singer Amina Claudine Myers. James Jordan, Ornette’s cousin, producer-consultant and ex-music program director at the New York State Council on the Arts, who’s with his wife, turns to me: “This is the only place I get to see all the folks together.” Jayne Cortez, poet, bandleader and cultural activist — Ornette’s  ex-wife and Denardo’s mother – sits aside Muhal, too. Her husband, sculptor Melvin Edwards, is circulating.

Author Quincy Troupe – poet and Miles Davis co-writer, with his wife Margaret; they run a weekly Harlem literary salon. Other side of the room — Stanley Crouch, critic/author. My pal Ashley Kahn, author of books on Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, a history of Impulse Records, hanging with Jason King, artistic director of Clive Davis School of Recorded Music at NYU. Brent Hayes Edwards, prof from Columbia University’s Center for Jazz Studies joins their conversation. Arriving: guitarist Brandon Ross, turtablist and artists’ manager Velibor Pedevski (aka, DJ Hardedge), ethnomusicologist of Soundscape fame Verna Gillis with free jazz trombonist Roswell Rudd (see their Kickstarter campaign for Rudd’s upcoming Trombone for Lovers recording and Verna’s “tactile manifestation” Kick Butt  Ball.

Rudd tells me about a Tibetan store in the upstate town of Rosendale, and how it’s among several towns in the area that have regenerated themselves as arts communities, with theater for local productions, etc. I tell him whenever I’m feeling U.S. politics have become completely hopeless I listen to the Charlie Haden-Carley Bley Liberation Music Orchestra album of 1969, wherein Rudd takes a hearty ‘bone solo on a rendering of “We Shall Overcome” that emerges from a tone poem or the chaotic Democratic National Convention police riots of the year before. He says I ought to tell Haden, he’ll be thrilled.

liberation music

In comes vibist-pianist-educator Karl Berger with his wife Ingrid Sertso, a vocalist. Berger has said that when they first heard Ornette’s record The Shape of Jazz To Come in the early ’60s, the couple left their native Heidelberg to find him, and within a few weeks coincidentally ran into Ornette’s trumpeter Don Cherry at a café in Paris. Berger subsequently recorded with Cherry and emigrated, setting up the Coleman-inspired Creative Music Studio in Woodstock, NY. Later this month he and Ingrid revive their CMS Workshop Orchestra, which had an eight-month weekly run at the Stone. This time they’ll do every other Tuesday night, at the Jazz Gallery.

Guitarist Chris Rosenberg – Kenny Wessel’s partner in Prime Time, which usually had two guitarists, two electric bassists, tabla (hey, where’s Badal Roy?) and drums, maybe keyboards and Ornette — explains he’s now teaching at the Manhattan School of Music and has taken up painting, with watercolors and acrylics. Bern Nix, unique guitarist in Ornette’s first convening of Prime Time, is recovering from several months of poorly diagnosed health issues. He’s with videographer Susan Yung. Nix calls the party a meeting of “Harmolodics dancingAnonymous.” His joke is that once exposed and enlisted in Ornette’s point of view, musicians often find themselves commercial outcasts. It’s really that they’ve become so open to the basics of sound that they have little patience for conforming to state conventions. Harmolodics is a conflation of harmony, motion and melody into a mutually reinforcing system that justifies and resolves collective improvisation while upending traditional Western music precepts. Many well-educated musicians can’t get with harmolodics at all.

But Charnett Moffet, occasionally Ornette’s bassist and son of the late Charles Moffett, another of Ornette’s drummers, talks about his all-solo, short tracks project upcoming from Motema Records. Ornette’s frequent upright bassist Greg Cohen is here, too – he tends to be timekeeper while Tony Falanga solos, arco or pizzicato. And Mari Okubo, whose pure and silvery voice embodies Ornette’s lyrics and prevails within harmolodic arrangements on Cosmic Life, a 2004 album she gives to me to take home. Iranian saxophonist So Sa La (aka Sohrab Saadat Ladjevardi) also gives me his CD, Nu World Trash. It’s dedicated to The New Iran and has shout outs to Sato Hironobu Sensei, Salif Keita and Ornette.

Butch Morris, who has developed the spontaneous improvised ensemble art he calls “conduction,” shows up with his longtime friend saxophonist David Murray and Murray’s wife Valerie, plus guitarist-singer James “Blood” Ulmer. Ulmer, described by Ornette three decades ago as naturally harmolodic, just did a two-night stand with a big band convened by Murray at Iridium jazz club in midtown. Mingus Murray, David’s guitarist-son, early 20s, is here, too – he was in the big band, adding rhythm accompaniment a la ’70s funkateers, filling in after Blood’s quirky lead-and-wander lines. He wears silver shoes with pointy toes.

Photog Alan Nahigian, who I’d seen at Iridium and the next day told me I’d missed the better second set, points me back to Muhal, saying he’s talking about Blood and the blues. Muhal, South Side of Chicago born-and-bred, asserts, “Blood is the blues. He just is it. I told him that. The blues is like the neighborhood, you know, that we all grew up in. We grew up with the blues, everybody did, with it and in it. I wouldn’t know how to get home without it.” Jayne Cortez nods in emphatic confirmation.

Recently retired producer Robert Browning of the World Music Institute & his wife/partner Helene mention they’ve been going through the WMI’s mostly audio archives, looking for ways to make the music and in some cases video available. Symphony Space, where some of the WMI concerts occurred, has an app that can be the platform for some of the audio. Has Robert heard of Wolfgang’s Vault? Has he been in touch with Ornette’s former Artists House producer John Snyder, who is issuing musical master class videos from special performances of New York University’s jazz program?

The food: passed hors d’ouevres of garlicky vegetarian stuffed mushrooms and spicy turkey meatballs. A platter of complicated tuna (salmon?) salad. Deviled eggs. Hushpuppies.

Ornette’s sometimes electric bassist Albert McDowell says he’s been running a recording studio. Chris Walker, another ex-Ornette electric bassist, explains he’s been Al Jarreau’s music director for umpteen years. Drummer Warren Benbow, who’s lately stirred up a Facebook group discussion on East Coast Drummers, says hi, goes over his past (including his stint with Blood), and says he’s playing more r&b, less hard-core jazz now. Valerie, David Murray’s wife, mentions the project they’ve pushing for the summer isn’t the Ulmer big band, but his tour as music director with Macy Gray – one track of which has been released, but I miss the title. Maybe “Love Lockdown“?

Guitarist Vernon Reid of Living Colour, Defunkt and Ronald Shannon Jackson’s Decoding Society – all Ornette Prime Time spinoffs — has a camera with a wide-angle lens. He’s produced Blood Ulmer’s last several albums, playing second guitar in Ulmer’s blues combo, and has also delved into Tony Williams’ Lifetime material in a quartet called Spectrum Road with all-stars John Medeski (organ/keyboards), Cindy Blackman, drums and Jack Bruce, Lifetime’s original bassist/singer. Reid talks with producer Brian Bacchus about the power of the sheer truth in a lyric Donny Hathaway sang in “Someday We’ll All Be Free,” free of melodic embellishment or interpretation but full of Hathaway’s belief in the words.

A steam table is groaning with rice & red beans, greens, a clam-mussels & chicken stew; there are red velvet (chocolate) cupcakes and later a b-day cake white and chocolate layers interspersed. Is that sharp-nosed, dark-skinned older woman Ornette’s sister? Here’s Danny Kapillian, concert producer with his wife and seven-year-old son in an Indian brocade yarmulke. Saxophonist James Carter gives me a surprise backrub.

BassisMargaret  Davis Grimes are here. Guitarist Marc Ribot is talking about his upcoming gig at Village Vanguard, with Grimes and drummer Chad Taylor – “both are so intuitive.” Lidija Pedevska-Redman, widow of Dewey Redman, Ornette’s longtime co-saxophonist, asks about my daughter — she is  Velibor’s sister, and Velibor has a daughter Rosie’s age. Trumpeter Graham Haynes is standing nearby. I recall Graham played with Dewey, Charlie Haden and I think it was Jack DeJohnette at that Ornette birthday party at Joe’s Pub. Poet Amiri Baraka is in conference, laughing, with Jayne Cortez. Music reporter Vivian Goldman walks up,  with a plate of red velvet cake.


Steve Earle

I can only hear snatches of background music, mostly recognizing Ornette’s recordings with Prime Time. Antoine Roney and his wife attend with their young son — is he 10? I’m told by some of the musicians this boy is a drum prodigy. Radio show host Phil Schaap is here. And there’s a bearded, long-haired gent who looks familiar. I ask Ashley Kahn if he knows his name.

“I know I’m in a jazz party when everybody asks me who Steve Earle is,” Ashley replies.

It’s late. The punch was spiked. I’m going home. I’ve talked to almost everyone, and they all love Ornette. We’ve all had a happy Ornette birthday, hope he has, too, and hope he’ll have many more.



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