What Ornette Coleman teaches us about civic engagement
As I have come to better understand the music of Ornette Coleman, I teach it as an idealized model of the democratic process.
It’s really a civics lesson; in a way not all that different from the one we are taught in kindergarten: be yourself but simultaneously see yourself as part of the greater whole. This is the model of American democracy we learn throughout our school, however imperfect is its realization throughout our history.
As we grow, our task as individuals is to develop our own distinct voice. One thing I love about jazz is the value placed upon one’s individual sound. But this is a useless effort unless we acknowledge that we are interconnected with everyone around us. The notion that any one of us can create things in isolation from society is a folly. We all depend upon the traditions we inherit, the lessons we learn from our elders and peers, the infrastructure (be they paved roads or musical forms like The Blues or song forms) that has been bequeathed to us.
A comment I once heard from drummer Billy Hart continuously resounds within me: Jabali told me that every time he goes out, he hopes to learn something that can enable him to steadily improve. One might respond that Billy Hart already knows more than most of us, so what is there for him to learn. But what he meant is that every moment of playing is an opportunity to take in something we do not yet know – no matter who it is from – without which we operate in a vacuum. Playing within a collective is, to use Hart’s term, co-composing. While we grow from playing with others, so it is our responsibility to help shape the overall effort. Yet our ability to contribute more depends upon our willingness to connect dynamically and musically with our peers.
The best bands are the ones where people listen intently to one another. This is particularly true of bands not grounded in conventional cyclical chord structures such as those I’ve written about: Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi band, Miles Davis’s “Lost” Quintet (and his Quintet of the 1960s) the Revolutionary Ensemble, Circle, and others. Lacking internalized harmonic conventions upon which we can all depend, or to some degree anticipate, players must place a premium on listening, on collaboratively building something together. Without that level of empathetic regard, the whole structure collapses.
Some have claimed that Ornette Coleman’s concept of harmolodics is too complex or confusing to understand. But it really is quite simple. It’s the democratic principle in action. I’ll be fully me and I’ll be fully part of us. Both of these unfold at the very same time. The recorded composition “Free Jazz” was not the unstructured free-for-all that some held back in the day. Its conception was composed in advance and each musician must think structurally throughout. From the opening – which can be mistakenly heard as a cacophony – the close listener can notice that each player is actually articulating the same musical gesture/phrase. But each person is doing so in his (all eight players were men) own distinct way, at his own pace; the starting moment is set, the gesture has been prepared, the finishing moment awaits, but it is up to each individual to determine how each personal version will sound. Unison no longer means the group acting in lock step, nor does it imply individuals going their entirely separate ways. Rather, each member of the collective can play her or his own version of the same idea; a new light shines on concerted, unified behavior.
During the improvisational sections that follow, something quite remarkable unfolds: as individuals solo, their peers are periodically free to comment and intersect with the soloist individually and collectively; to imitate, craft variations, thicken textures – or to desist. Coleman’s conception allows for and encourages moments of intersection, where the individual ceases to operate as a soloist “just” with accompaniment, but expresses oneself in the context of interdependent peers. The individual becomes social. This is a high wire version of Henry Louis Gates’s term “signifying” The solo voice is joined in conversation. Sometimes polite but more often filled with interjections, redirection, additions, calls and response, “parody,” comments, disruption, elaboration, giving gifts and making contributions.
A useful term to describe “Free Jazz,” is “heterophony.” The heterophonic idea implies multiple voices, intertwined, simultaneously individual and collective. Each individual create his or her own version of the same or related ideas, but does so within an engaged, social context. Were each version thought of as being in isolation, its meaning would become diminished when extracted from the whole. This is because the individual voice emerges from within the collective, even as it reflects what the individual may think of as fully her own.
We musicians operate only to a limited degree in cognitive, atomized ways while playing with others; beyond that, our minds dig into the subconscious or we think too quickly to really detect individual thoughts. What we do is equally a reflection of the group mind and the product of unplanned events. This is why playing improvised music can feel so magical.
Collective improvisation shares something in common with the innocent parallel play of young children, where the growing sense of self seemingly emerges in isolation. This unfolding occurs not within individualized boxes but within a collective space. Collective improvisation among adults is far more conversational, like communication between intimate friends, where trust allows the unpredictable to happen. It is in that place where, to use Buckminster Fuller’s term “synergy,” the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. I no longer really know the origin of my personal expression because it roots draw – at least in part – upon the collective. At the same time, I learn to assert my own voice in the thicket of others who are equally assertive and self-searching.
During both the solo improvisational sections of “Free Jazz” – and the massed individualized statements of Coleman’s composed phrases – we can view history coming full circle. “Heterophony” brings us back to the earliest recorded jazz of Sidney Bechet, Louis Armstrong, Johnny Dodds, Lil Harden, and others, in which the individual and the collective were intertwined. Who exactly was playing the melody? Which version of the melody as it simultaneously unfolds –these are multiple – is the actual melody? There is no foreground vs. background as the development of jazz calls for in the following decades – solos and melodies accompanied by rhythm sections, each soloist taking her turn. Hints of the earlier freewheeling democratic spirit reassert itself periodically, most strongly during the late 1930s and early 1940s (“bebop,” even as the solo imagination increasingly takes flight), but most fully within the work of Ornette Coleman. Is Coleman a conservative or an “avant-gardist?” Well, the answer is yes to each.
There is surely a democratic element within all small group improvisatory jazz ensembles. But its fullest expression appears within the creative work of Ornette “and his children,” as I think of all who were influenced by Coleman (and I believe that to be a very expansive group of musicians; maybe everybody). Therein lies a civics lesson that this country sorely needs today. Our individual expressive voices deeply matter; we may even die to sustain them; yet they exist in dynamic tension with our civic engagement. During “Free Jazz,” members of the collective intersect with each soloist, alternating between actively contributing and desisting as they choose to play or not play. We are nothing without the collective, yet the collective is nothing without our distinct voices.
A thriving democracy depends upon the delicate balance between “us” and “me.” We give and we take. Our benefits are tied to our contributions. Our freedoms are connected to our obligations and responsibilities to one another. Truly this is a lesson for our time, as American democracy faces threats of xenophobia and the hegemony of the rich and powerful.