Zen Buddhism, Ornette Coleman, and the HARMOLODIC Path (禅 / 即興)


The night I met my saxophone teacher “Uncle” Ornette Coleman was at a Julliard post-concert soiree celebrating the culmination of his “?Civilization” concert series at Avery Fisher Hall during the 1997 Lincoln Center Festival. When I asked him what exactly the HARMOLODIC Theory is, he smiled, leaned in close, and said “If it will work for me, it will work for you…”


The single greatest privilege of my life has been the chance to be friends with and a student of jazz icon Ornette Coleman (1930 – 2015). And if you are not aware of his work, then click here to read more about him.

One of the most important concepts Ornette taught me was the process of “un-naming” pitches. Musical scales have note names, and he suggested I “remove” them from my mind while improvising. This means he insisted I set aside the idea of “notes” and/or note names to contemplate the various tones as “themselves”. During the first of our many sessions together, he asked me to improvise with pitch in a spirit of sonic contemplation as opposed to “composing,” improvising, or theorizing various relationships.  Seemingly a deconstructive act, this process in reality was rather refreshing, and I felt I was truly experiencing sound openly and creatively for the first time. Thinking “notes” led me to be concerned with modality and intervallic relationships – playing ‘C’ led to automatically thinking about the idea of something “being” ‘C’ and thus leading to ‘D’ – which unconsciously establishes habitual/theoretical thinking. This, of course, is fine in most situations, but for what I was trying to achieve it was becoming a hindrance.

Two major benefits of using this idea were immediately apparent. Pitch became a much more dynamic area of creativity, as I could play without worrying about intervallic relationships. Microtonal systems I had learnt from Persian and Arab music were now on the table as well, and I found that I was now able to utilize these systems much more creatively as sonic entities. The other benefit was that un-naming pitches and “following your emotions” rather than theory in most cases was much more musically productive. Not that this replaces other systems; but Uncle Ornette’s method was a very effective way of allowing that knowledge to be intuitive, rather than ‘studied’, and you play what you “feel like” playing rather than “what works”. “C is just a name,” he would say, “and the sound is the reality of the note. You could call it ‘Tokyo’, or ‘wisdom’, or ‘sandwich’, but that doesn’t signify the sound – rather its relationship with other notes”. We would play “un-naming” duets for hours, and it was in these sessions that I felt I was truly starting to move forward in my own idiom without merely imitating his playing.

Uncle Ornette taught me the Harmolodic system, but what he was really teaching me was the Harmolodic approach to the world itself. Transcending unconscious referents to see the world fresh, to see it un-named, to stop pre-conceiving the world before it had spoken to me. I could approach life Harmolodically, being open to all sonic possibilities, to explore all sonic territories…and a map was now not necessary anymore. This was not rules but freedom to explore all rules, both old, new, and as yet unwritten.


Uncle Ornette occasionally described the melodies he wrote as ‘territories’:  a kind of sound landscape in which various things were possible. One could also take part of a melody and use that as a territory in which to create variations or new directions into other territories related to the melody, as well as your own ideas as new territories to work in. Each territory can also work as a type of supplement or addition, what the Greeks called a ‘parergon’ (pl: parerga). Parergon can be defined as a permiable border, limit, supplement, or addition, and can have both positive and negative connotations depending on the usage. Philosopher Immanuel Kant, in his Critique of Judgment, thought that picture frames were parerga: separate and adding nothing to the work within. Literary theorist and philosopher Jacques Derrida, on the other hand, thought that picture frames were more affective if, for example, a masterpiece was set in one that was a badly made: the frame would take away from the beauty of the picture and thus change the reception of the work. This idea was the theme of Derrida’s book The Truth in Painting which, although very difficult to read at times, is a profound study of Kant, and proof that Derrida was not an intentional obfuscater as many of his critics argue.

In the case of Harmolodics, the idea of territories and parerga is actually closer to philosophers Deleuze and Guattari’s idea of agencement – territories being negotiated between each other: interrelated, interpenetrated, and possibly interdependent. In this case, the term does not imply an ‘arrangement’ of static territories but rather the process of arranging and assembling territories individually and collectively, an expression of ongoing relations as much if not more than the singular qualities of each territory itself: to paraphrase Deleuze and Guattari – impulses and circumstances combined. Thus, Harmolodics cannot be reduced to a hierarchy or ranked set of principles, which will produce a singular result, like a scientific method or deductive argument. Much like Paul Klee studied forming as form itself, Harmolodics are a ‘bringing into relationship’ of scales, melodies, chords, notes, the idea of pitch, and so on. This can also include emotional color and spontaneous contrast as well. Freedom to negotiate, explore, enjoy, share, all possibilities, in your personal life as well as your music. Harmolodics is as much a way of drinking a glass of water as it is a way of playing a C# arpeggio. It is freedom…it is freed jazz.

Uncle Ornette often uses multiple metaphors at once, and has a very pleasant, Zen-like manner of asking questions or making statements that challenge the student, much like a Zen koan.


Koan can be translated as “public record,” or “inquiry,” and is what can be best described as a seemingly illogical phrase/question designed to help the Zen practitioner move beyond conceptual thinking: eventually seeing into their own original nature. Questions such as “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” or the story of the original Buddha silently holding up a single flower as one of his sermons make up the bulk of the two most famous collections of Zen koans, the “Blue Cliff Record” (Mumonkan) and the “Gateless Gate” (Hekiganroku). Although Soto Zen Master Dogen rarely used koans in his faith system, he compiled a collection of three hundred koans in his early travels to China, which informed his collection of sermons entitled “The Treasury of the True Dharma Eye” (Shōbōgenzō). The earlier collection was rarely transcribed and was only revived in its complete form in 1934, eventually being translated into English with new commentaries and widely available by only as recently as 2005 (Loori 2005 edition). This collection is known either as the Mana Shōbōgenzō, the “Chinese Treasury,” or the Three Hundred Cases of the Treasury of the True Dharma Eye (Shōbōgenzō Sambyakusoku) of Dōgen. For the sake of convenience, I will refer to the various cases from the three collections with abbreviated titles followed by case numbers, e.g. the 5th koan or “case” in the Hekiganroku = “H Case 5.”

Many koans involve a monk asking a master some sort of ‘what’ question and getting what may at first seem like a meaningless answer. In Case 13 of the Hekiganroku (H-Case 13) a monk asks Master Haryo what the Daibe (Deva) sect of Buddhism is, to which he is given the response “snow in the silver bowl.” A common interpretation of this is that snow and the silver of the inside of the bowl illuminate each other, and it is hard to tell one from the other. This, to many scholars, illustrates the meaning of the scripture that emptiness and form are interpenetrated. This same sentiment is expressed in a description in SS-Case 132, “Sound Itself is No Sound,” where Master Boshui responds to the question “what is sound that is not sound?” By responding with the question “Can you call it ‘form’?” and vice versa, the monk is said to be pointing out that sound and form are contained within each other and that both are equal in precognitive awareness, that is, Boshui’s “place” where, as John Daido Loori explains, “expression without sound is already understood.” Another case set demonstrates the attempt of a teacher to reveal the non-duality of original enlightenment. In M-Case 30 Daibai asks Baso what the Buddha is and he replies “This very mind is Buddha.” Yet, in M-Case 33 he responds to the same inquiry from a different monk by saying “No mind, no Buddha” as if to say original enlightenment is beyond mind and no-mind. Both M-Case 18 and H-Case 12 concern Tozan’s “three pounds of flax.” In each case an unidentified monk asks Zen master Tozan, “What is Buddha?” to which Tozan replies “Masagin!” (three pounds of flax). According to Case 15, Tozan himself was enlightened when he heard Master Ummon call him a rice bag, and thus his response may be seen as part of his lineage as much as it is an answer per se. Some scholars consider Case 18 to be proof that people argue about such cases using conceptual understanding due to their not having direct experience of the true meaning being offered by Tozan. In commentary on the same case as presented twelfth in the H-Case series, Zen scholar Katsuki Sekida has argued that scholars give us erudite explanations of things but they cannot give us what we want— true peace and freedom of mind—since mere erudition cannot lead one to realize their own true nature. This way of thinking has been compared by Sekida to the classic Japanese or Chinese proverbial trope of monkeys trying to catch the reflection of the moon in a pond.

In a similar koan (M-Case 21) another unidentified monk asks Tozan’s master Ummon what the Buddha is and Ummon replies ‘Kanshiketsu!’ literally “dried shit stick.” In this instance, the question can be as revealing as the answer. The question “What is Buddha?” can be answered in context of a beginning Zen student’s simple inquiry, or the advanced student of Zen readying for a potential “dharma battle” over scriptural exegesis and such with his teacher, and is testing the Master for any weaknesses over which he can argue. With multiple strategies at hand, the Master instantly assesses both the question and the student, and responds with either a soft or violent interruption of the student’s thought process. Thus some students are physically beaten for seemingly no reason or are physically injured like Gutei losing his finger in M- Case 3, or they are given a much less direct reminder that all incorrect thought and speech is movement away from original Oneness, such as in M-Case 22, or M-Cases 6 and 7. M-Case No. 43 states that Shuzan Osho once held up a bamboo baton (shippei) before his disciples and said, “If you call it a shippei, you oppose its reality. If you do not call it a shippei, you ignore the fact. Tell me, you monks, what will you call it? Words are not available, and silence is not available, what is it? Call it what you like.”


Ornette stressed several times during our lessons that notes are sounds, that emotions are sound ideas, the sound ideas that dictate the real emotive gestures of our human condition. He also stressed that by rethinking, or rather unthinking, my accumulated knowledge of harmony, pitch, scale, and such, I would be allowing emotive sound logics to work, seemingly implying that, like Shuzan Oshō stated, it would be alright if I “truly realized” them. Ornette did seem sincere, and rather unmystical when stressing the naturalness of his ideas and intentions in his own Harmolodic expression.

Having been Uncle Ornette’s student, as well as a meditating member of the Tenryuji Zen Temple community in Arashiyama (Kyoto),  I am thoroughly convinced that the Harmolodic Theory is a sound Reality integrated with an open Life reality, that the Zen koan of Uncle Ornette is the Harmolodic Path, a path that is a Way, a Way that is a process…a process that is you.


On page 132 of John Litweiler’s book Ornette Coleman: The Harmolodic Life is a written example of the theoretical idea Ornette described to me in one of our later lessons. If you play C major 7, then Eminor 7, then D diminished triad with ‘A’ added on top to make it a four-note chord, you have played all the notes in the chromatic scale. In Litweiler’s book, though, there are a couple of what seem to be transcription errors, as Litweiler’s example doesn’t spell out all the notes of the chromatic scale the way it should, and it is not clear whether the fault lay with Litweiler, or with Art Lange from whom Litweiler borrowed the transcription. Both Lange and I received the advice from Ornette to play through it a few times and then we will know everything we need to know about Harmolodic Theory. I did what he said and played through it, but felt no special understanding or musical growth afterwards. But like the Zen koan, in which one must have faith in or trust in its promise of usefulness as a spiritual tool, maybe this set of intervals has something for you that I don’t understand or need…just yet.  In my own playing it has always been an extension of the aforementioned un-naming, and not a lick, “idea,” or a ‘system.’ But that’s the beauty of the Harmolodic Path, my way is not the way…and this just might be the very thing, for you.

   E    G   B  Eb   Gb   Bb    Db   D     Ab   A



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