191 Days: Reflections on Ornette Coleman


The depths of winter are beginning to sing their song… bringing with them the memory of lost summer heat, and bare skin against the wind… the lost smile of the sun’s freedom…

The picture above is my favorite picture of myself and my saxophone teacher, in his apartment in New York in the summer of 2009. It captures a very happy conclusion to my final saxophone lesson with him; post-duet bliss captured immediately after a lengthy improvisation. It is also the final time I saw him. 

12 years earlier in the summer of 1997, while living/working in New York City, I had the privilege of meeting and becoming a student of this great man… Ornette Coleman (1930 – 2015), jazz legend/icon and recipient of both a Grammy™ Lifetime Achievement Award and Pulitzer Prize among other honours. He was a huge influence on much of the world’s art and music after 1959, and his New York debut at the Five Spot Café is the stuff of legend. Ornette almost singlehandedly put freely improvised music (avant-garde jazz) on the world stage, and thus is considered the Father of “Free Jazz.” He also has an interesting (what you might call oblique) relationship with Zen Buddhism that I write about in another post.

He was a dear friend and wonderful teacher, and though he passed away 191 days ago, his passing still feels miserably fresh in the hearts of those who loved him.

Sometimes I am asked, “what was it like to study with him? To study with someone so revolutionary and influential; a “god” of modern music?”

He was not a god. And yet he was. He held no power other than curiosity, and yet the results of his curiosity were the seeds of innovation in any socially significant music after 1959. Punk goes back to him, Frank Zappa (to a certain degree), pitch experimentation, heavy metal… look hard enough and you will see/hear Coleman in the ether of musical consciousness.

So what did he teach me?  

First of all, he often described the melodies he wrote as territories: a kind of “mapped” mental soundscape in which various things were possible. One could also take part of a melody and use that as territory in which to create variations or new directions into other territories related to the melody, as well as your own ideas becoming new territories simultaneously. Each territory can also work as a type of supplement or addition to the other(s), musical cultures without borders. This process focuses on an ongoing process of forming, rather than some fixed perfected form, and is rather neatly summed up by the French word agencement: not arrangement or organization per se, but the overall time based processes of fitting, organizing, and unfolding, like a flower growing rather than a house being built; maps flowering into bouquets of maps!


This flowering, or budding of sound through territories of expression, representation, time, symmetry, asymmetry, and so on resembles what is known in Japanese literature as zuihitsu, stream of consciousness writings that “follows the brush:” not just random thoughts, but freely evolving motifs linked across sentences and paragraphs (like the poetry of Robert Okaji); in Ornette’s case, a pan-tonal series of scales and patterns. There is also a slight similarity to the traditional Arab music concept of modulation, in which modal modulations occur by altering the various defining flatted or sharpened notes in a mode to begin improvisation in a new mode/emotional flavor. This approach to sound as a kind of abstract science of sonic “topography” opens up new ways of conceptualizing/re-conceptualizing sound, for sometimes we need to inwardly redefine (then un-define) what we do before we can improve or perfect it in the outer world.

The second, and most significant, concept he taught me was the process of “un-naming” pitches. He insisted I set aside the idea of “notes” and note names to contemplate the various tones as “themselves.” During 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 between named pitches.  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.

Before, thinking “notes” had led me to be concerned with modality and intervallic relationships – playing ‘C’ led to automatically thinking about the idea of something “being” ‘C’ or being “in C,” thus leading to ‘D’ – which unconsciously establishes habitual theoretical thinking. This, of course, is fine in most standard jazz situations, but for what I was trying to achieve it was becoming a hindrance. Because theory training becomes unconscious and generally unquestioned, many university jazz students never leave the well-worn ruts of what they “know.” Certain scales “go with” certain chords, and there is a measurable scale of consonance to dissonance. This quantifiable jazz pedagogy ensures jazz professors have something they can grade, but it almost singlehandedly guarantees jazz becomes about playing what is “right,” as opposed to what is the most beautiful, profound, or artistic, which often involves playing dissonances or what is not measurable in terms of scales and chords. Jazz thus becomes cold, lifeless, pedantic… unattached from the profundities of life itself. You can’t measure heartbreak with C# minor as your ruler… and her final kiss goodbye does not come with a tempo marking. How do you grade “that Thursday night in Osaka, when she finally met you halfway…”?

Uncle Ornette taught me his system, but what he was really teaching me was an approach to the world itself. Seeing the world fresh, to approach it un-named, to stop pre-conceiving the world before it had spoken to me. Could I finally put down my horn and pick up my spirit? He thought I could. The world will never ever ever ever ever ever ever again see his equal.

We bobbed and weaved through each other’s sound like two gulls breaking into open ocean… the elder the compass… the younger joyously racing east… calling back, hearing silence… now alone. 

Yết đế, yết đế, Ba la yết đế, Ba la tăng yết đế, Bồ đề tát bà ha


20 thoughts on “191 Days: Reflections on Ornette Coleman

  1. Thanks for the plug, Daniel. Illuminating essay. As I mentioned elsewhere, our approaches bear similarities. I often work within a structure, arbitrary or traditional, but try to free the ideas and language from the confines of that structure, weaving in fragments from disparate sources, tidbits of information interspersed with (I hope) lyrical phrases, all with a goal of not informing but gently pushing the reader towards an understanding or realization of something beyond the words. Sometimes this works. Sometimes it doesn’t.

    1. It really works for me! 🙂

      Your writing has arrived in my Life at an interesting time. Recently I had been thinking to myself that I should get back to reading more fiction and poetry than I do usually, like back in my undergraduate days when I read anything/everything. Your work has gotten me excited about writing/reading again.

      1. Timing is everything! I’ve learned in recent years to take advantage of these interesting coincidences/acts of fate. I can’t tell you how much I’ve gained in knowledge and personal satisfaction by following them. So read! Write!

    1. Thank you very VERY much! He has been such a huge influence on me and the world, I just want to do my part to keep the flame of his generosity alive; remind people that such a person walked the Earth.

      What I also think is great is that artists in other media are getting to know about him, like yourself. Ornette’s connections to the worlds of art and poetry are significant, and this cross-fertilization is inspiring. So the fact that you now have knowledge of his life and work is really what he was all about: sharing ideas and finding new paths.

    1. Thanks for re-posting this. Uncle Ornette gave me/us brilliant music and great ideas… and the more we share this information with the world the better. If we can spread his wisdom/advice all over the world via the Internet we can honor his legacy, and inspire many generations to explore music and have fun through free improvisation.

      So thank you VERY much for your help! 🙂

  2. Reblogged this on O at the Edges and commented:
    I don’t reblog many posts, but I keep returning to Daniel Schnee’s essay on learning from Ornette Coleman. It rings so true for me, even (especially?) with regards to poetry, and how I approach it. Ah, to have had such a mentor!

  3. Strangely enough, un-named pitches can coincide in Japanese Noh Theater with named spaces (!).

    In Japanese aesthetics, the term “ura-byoushi” refer to the spaces between notes as distinct entities that can be consciously “played,” places where sound can potentially happen and how much you do or not play in that space reflect your abilities/taste s an artist

    The ura-byoushi is technically considered a part of a quarter note in Noh theater, so it is not really a space, but rather an empty moment that naturally occurs as part of the note. 🙂

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