Tone Dialing:
A Conversation on Friendship with Ornette Coleman

This interview was conducted by telephone from Paris to New York on 15 August 1997. The transcript was made by Pamala M. Terterian on 27 August. ©Clara Gibson Maxwell 15 August 1997. Originally published in slightly edited form in the jazz magazine Cadence (November 1999).


clara gibson maxwell: I'm interviewing you about friendship.

ornette coleman: Oh, that sounds right.

clara gibson maxwell: I thought it was sort of appropriate. [laughs] It's funny, I've been preparing for this like it was a rehearsal or a performance. I took a long bath. [laughs] So, tell me . . . well, let's start with us.

ornette coleman: Sure.

clara gibson maxwell: How do you see collaboration's interface with friendship?

ornette coleman: Well, I'll tell you the truth, I always thought it was one and the same. I mean, when you say "collaboration," that's a word that describes something you are doing, that you're trying to achieve and you're trying to help someone [else] to achieve--something you are going to do with someone. A quality, a quality of work that you want to share with another person. And I think that, as we talk, every time I see you we're always doing something like that anyway, as far as the tone dialing of it.

clara gibson maxwell: Oh yes.

ornette coleman: But--remember the man I met with you in Pittsburgh?

clara gibson maxwell: Yeah.

ornette coleman: Well, I saw him [David Stock, Artistic Director, Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble] at one of my Juilliard recordings--maybe there was someone there that he knew. And we were talking about you. I said to him that you are so well versed in the quality of what you believe that I never thought about doing anything with you lesser than the way you wanted to do it, and that you have been striving to achieve a certain perfection in what you believe, and that you were eventually going to do that. So he said, "Yeah, that's right." I was trying to say [this] to him because I knew that when we met him, there was some connection to what his relationship to those things was going to turn out to be.

clara gibson maxwell: Uh-huh.

ornette coleman: But I think he was . . . he's either a director of a performing arts society or something like that.

clara gibson maxwell: Yeah.

ornette coleman: Uh-huh. Well, he sounded like he was still interested in what your projects were.

clara gibson maxwell: Uh-huh.

ornette coleman: So when you just asked me about those kinds of things. . . . For instance, I had called several musicians in my age bracket that I wanted to share "harmolodics" with. . . . All of a sudden, some of them got sick, and some of their managers explained to me that they had other projects right now, they didn't have time to get involved with another one right now. None of them--well, they all said they were interested in working on the project with me. I haven't given it up, but I'm not pursuing it. It's too intense. I haven't gotten enough inspiration to do it. But [it's] one of the reasons why I think that particular word "collaboration" doesn't spell out the actual involvement or results of what people do that do get together--the quality of what one is trying to achieve. Like in my case, the only time I get to collaborate on something is when someone is hiring me to do something that I represent in the entertainment business, [something] that has to do with music. I've been trying to get in a position where I can be consistent, to do the things I do consistently, but the more I find the time--the more I get involved in trying to do those things--the more I realize it takes up so much time to get to present them. And in the last, oh say, the last ten years, maybe I've worked on three projects, and each one of those projects took maybe three years apiece--and [for] only four days or three days [of performance]. So . . . my sense of collaboration is not as fulfilling as how I would like to have it done, because I think it's something that, if you have success at it, it should seem to be easy to do. But in my case, it doesn't seem like that--it seems like the more success I have, the harder it is to do again. I don't know if I'm explaining--if I'm answering what you asked me about collaboration.

clara gibson maxwell: Yeah, I think you very much answered it. But, on some level, it seems to me, what we're doing--in a kind of educational way--is talking together about what we do and experience. And it seems to me that at a particular time in your life, when you were shunned by a whole lot of other musicians, you did have an opportunity to have Charlie Haden and Don Cherry around, and an opportunity--even though it had absolutely nothing to do with the profession--you had an opportunity to play and exchange ideas. So I was wondering if, on the business of being shut out, didn't that also give you an opportunity to find your voice with the people who could follow you? With what you were doing?

ornette coleman: Ah, well . . .

clara gibson maxwell: --Or am I idealizing something that I didn't live through? [laughs]

ornette coleman: I think you have your [finger on the] pulse, on the philosophy of the experience that I have been having since I left my hometown. In each case, all of those things that you've spoken about happened basically from the environment--being at a certain place at a certain time. And the other [thing was] finding people that were going through something that I was going through that made them interested in it. But my problem is that I have never been able to offer any consistency of performance.

When I came to New York [in 1959] with Charlie and Billy [Higgins], it was at The Five Spot. The Five Spot, as I knew it, was a class-C place, according to the fees that they have to pay you for playing in a class-C place (I think, at that time, $96 a week). And, you know, when you live in a hotel that's costing you $150 a week, it doesn't seem like you're making too big a profit. So the point I'm trying to make is that economics and art have never been good companions, and certainly haven't been good companions for me. All of the things that Denardo has helped me do since he's been my manager, basically . . . we've never made any money. We've always had to put the money into it. If we said we wanted to jump off a bridge without a parachute so long as somebody at the bottom was going to catch us, that person would say: "Okay, I'll make it safe so that when you jump, you won't hurt yourself." Whatever it costs you, that's what you're in for. It's more like what people do in, I guess, Communist countries (or Communist philosophy), where someone gives you an opportunity to do what you do, but the idea of making a profit from it . . . . And yet, I think that--I know that--your insight is right, but your insight is closer to what I'm speaking about, more than [to] the idea that it's happening because of opportunity, time, and value--it's not happening because of those things--

clara gibson maxwell: --Yeah--

ornette coleman: --It comes out of a condition that presents itself in a way where someone is there to support the philosophy of what you're doing in their way, but [moving] from what they do to your next experience has to be conjured up in another total way, and only what you find--only who you find to do that in the next event--is the only way it's going to happen. Doesn't matter, you know. . . . Whereas in the real consistency of arts entertainment, where someone, I mean like a conductor--you know, a conductor goes, and he's at the Philharmonic for one season, maybe he'll go to Chicago for another--but dance and performance are not like that.

clara gibson maxwell: Yeah. So it sounds like what you're saying is that having a career and having a vocation are not necessarily the same thing.

ornette coleman: Yeah, that's right. Neither are filling in lots of forms and opportunities for foundations. [They don't] respond that same way. It seems to me, in Western culture . . . I don't know if it's true of . . . I've been to Japan, haven't been to China. . . . But it seems to me, in Western culture, it's that what determines news is what everyone in the business of helping artists--see, they're moved by the image of their relationship [with you] in the press, and if what you're doing doesn't fit that image, they don't take too much of a chance with you, regardless of how good you are, you know? That has seemed to be my case lots of times. But, ah, one of the reasons why I got involved with trying to do more things on a multiple level is because of the very thing I'm speaking about--because I realized that, having your work and everyone else's work, there is something that someone can be doing that's on the same level [as] what you do. In fact, I was telling someone today that there are lots of people performing music that improvise what I'd call jazz, and so therefore if you are a certain race and you are playing a certain music and you fit that image, then they call what you do jazz. But there are lots of people playing music that improvise in the same way as people that're called jazz, but they're not called jazz. So all these things that you are mentioning--it's basically based on two elements: one of those is the creative element having to satisfy the over--ah, what's the word?--of having to offer the opportunity to creative people to find themselves in many different environments, but the quality of what they're finding is only making what they're capable of doing more perfected, you know? And I haven't been around in your environment to see how you're surviving what I'm speaking about, but when I do hear from you or talk to you, you sound like you're just as intense about what you're doing as [I am about] what I'm doing.

clara gibson maxwell: Yeah, yeah.

ornette coleman: Is that right?

clara gibson maxwell: Yeah, well, it sounds like--it's also the irony, you know, after you get over the superficial feelings of jealousy and sadness about oh, so-and-so has the gig, I don't, or, the project will never happen. I mean, in a way, the fact that our project hasn't gotten off the ground, in a funny kind of way it's been a blessing because it's had me have an opportunity to really, really experience the friendship part of it, and the collaboration is something that--it's the weirdest thing, it's like it gives me so much. I guess my question is, what is it about being able to experience something with another person in a collaboration such that you become so trustful of something that's bigger than yourself that it suddenly--there's something about having that mirror and that love that makes you believe in yourself all that much more? And I can't call it faith, because that would imply some kind of dogma, and there's nothing philosophical, or, there's no thought in this--it's really very, very primal--it's about being able to really love and trust.

ornette coleman: Well, you know, I hear that in your voice. I've always heard it in your philosophy of creative thinking. The thing that is amazing that I admire about the way in which you express yourself through the things that you believe is that the reality of quality doesn't have to be lessened because of something you can't do that others don't know about. But the idea that you do know about the quality that you are and that you want to represent--that that quality does exist because you exist. And because it exists, you have a clear idea of how you would like that quality to manifest, whether it's in your clothes or in philosophy or whatever. And you are not trying to put that quality in any kind of jeopardy whatsoever because of time or opportunity. It's like what you're saying about friendship--I know that, I know you're right, and I feel the same exact way. The only thing that I haven't done in relation to my friendship with you is that I haven't started out getting you involved in something other than what you have tried to do because--

clara gibson maxwell: --Well--

ornette coleman: --because I always thought it would be better to wait, to start with the thing that you would like to get me involved in. I knew it would happen--

clara gibson maxwell: --Yeah--

ornette coleman: --because, you know why? Because I really believe that the idea that you would like for me to participate in your work--it's that if that came about the way you wished it to, it would fulfill something that I could experience--that you are experiencing and that you already know about.

clara gibson maxwell: Yeah.

ornette coleman: And it seems to me that I am not in any way avoiding the moment for you to have that experience. Believe me, I'm not trying to get in your way or trying to guide you in any way about how we should do it to have it done as you wish. But I do know this: that it's got to get more and more clear in your mind about the results you want from it in relationship to the public expense. And to me--you know, I'm not you, so I don't know what that is, but I think you know it--to me, that's the only thing I really and truly understand about artists and creativity, and the Bible, and all of these things. Because there are lots of things that I have thought about that I would like to do with others, and I've tried it, but I haven't had as much success with that. I mean, when I call up Sonny Rollins or Keith Jarrett or someone--I like Keith Jarrett and I have called him, and I wanted to share it--but I've found that we can't speak about it--I can't speak to them the way I'm speaking to you. When you speak to me about something, you know, I'm a human being first and a musician second. . . . I really accept every person that is interested in something that I'm doing, something that they're doing that they want me to be involved with, for collaboration. Ah, I am never going to say, I don't do that anymore, I'm not interested, or whatever, because I find more and more that [when] creative people build monumental values around themselves, they no longer are as exciting as those values and trends are. I think it is really fantastic that you are dedicated to what you believe, to the quality of what you believe and not looking back. And that's very, very healthy.

The only other thing is that--once you showed me something on the [video]camera--maybe it's been two years now or more--one of your performances, and I remember you were telling me about other things that you have done, but the main thing that blows my mind is that your art seems to be more clairvoyant in a psychological--in a physical sense as well as a mental sense-- and one enhances the other without any time lapse in relationship to how true you can express it when the opportunity [arises] for you to have all the components that you wish to have to do it. It's in your voice. You express it all the time, you know. So, I would rather think that, as human beings, that's what--that when we are talking the way I'm speaking to you now--it's that that quality is still as alive, that it's still activated at this very minute. Then, how you conceive it to be, what it should be, the title of the movements, might have advanced, but the quality of what you are continuing to do is real at this very moment [when] I'm speaking to you. And, you know, the only thing that you have asked me to do is the piece you were showing me, Choros. Now, has that grown larger for you, or wider, or what?

clara gibson maxwell: Well, it's funny. It always stays in the back of my mind. In a way, it's sort of about what we're talking about now, insofar as it's about how one's love of oneself is so much about one's love of community and what community makes, the way in which you don't exist--at least, my own feeling for myself is that I don't exist except to the extent to which I can both give myself to myself and give myself to other people. This is a gift of the Athenians--this is the specific gift of the birth of democracy and the birth of philosophy in Athens: people for the first time imagined that they could make humanity in their own mind, but they also realized that if they were going to self-institute the rules, then they also had to change them [laughs] as they go along.

Ornette Coleman: Yeah, I see.

Clara Gibson Maxwell: In other words, it can't be one thing all along, but it has to be a continual questioning of that. And that's what improvisation is, in the sense that it is the capacity that when you--when a principle is good enough it's flexible.

ornette coleman: Uh-huh, yeah, that's right, that's right. You know, you sound so clear in how you present the qualities of life that you are as well as what you've experienced. Oh man, it's just fantastic the way you--I mean, it's almost a voice that creates images of what you're saying as you talk. It's really fantastic. You know what? I'm trying my best to find how to get close to those qualities, without thinking about my needs all the time, and it's very hard, very hard to do.

clara gibson maxwell: Yeah. Well, this is an odd question that comes out of this, though: How did you handle envy and jealousy? Because the problem is that when people have an experience of freedom, I mean, frankly, it freaks them out sometimes.

ornette coleman: Yeah, that's true. Well, the first thing that I realized in myself is that, you know, in the language of human beings there are lots of words that sound like what they sound like--I mean, there are a lot of words that defend what they sound like to people's ears, to make them get an image or an attitude. But there are also lots of words that sound like it's something that, if you allow it to have it, it has a certain meaning to using the contours like that. But in my case, I am often--I was just talking today to someone, and I was saying, "You know, there are lots of people now in America that are African American that had to have their names changed in order for them to become American, and yet there are lots of non-African Americans that changed their names for the same reason." You know? But yet that didn't make it even, that didn't make both of them equal. So, when I think of that, then I think of words having--or not having--the same equal thing to everybody else. I mean, when you speak of the word "jealousy," the jealousy between someone having something that someone [else] doesn't have--the jealousy of someone who doesn't have is one thing. Speaking of someone as jealous because there is something a person can do that another person cannot do, that is a form of life, you know--hatred with jealousy. So, to me, the basic things that I have always responded to have not been from jealousy or need or want, but from sharing. And, even in sharing, maybe there's someone that always wants more or less than someone that you are sharing with, but the main thing, as you've said before, is that love has no container--you can't have a cup of love, a barrel of love. So, let's assume that love is a word, that it's a code, for "eternity." Right? I mean, there is nobody that would not never like to be in love. So you would assume that, if love could exist, it could go into eternity. So, yes, I have not met anybody that has said the reason they are living is because they're living in eternity and that makes them love. But I do believe that if eternity could exist in the form of something that you could feel and believe, it would have to be in the form of love. And the thing that art and creative people do is to remind people of their history of those moments. The present is the only thing that can sum up the past and the present and the image of the future. But the problem with love is that whether you see it or feel it or touch it, it is not something that you can contain, it is always something that you have to share. And I have been trying to figure out how to do that without taxing other people. But, you know, to be intelligent or to be illiterate or something, sometimes I think love is seen to be as if it's being cloned. You know? And I don't think you can clone love.

clara gibson maxwell: No.

ornette coleman: No. So I think that's my answer for jealousy--that you can't clone love.


clara gibson maxwell: It was only after knowing Denardo for a long time, and meeting Jayne [Cortez[, performance poet and Ornette's former wife] when she was on tour [in Paris, performing with her son Denardo and their band, the Firespitters], that I realized, part of the reason I get along so well with Denardo is because in many respects we were brought up in a lot of the same ways. I mean, I can remember vividly, in the late sixties and the early seventies, my parents getting into all kinds of trouble with people in West Virginia because they took me to [artsy, X-rated] movies , and my sister was arrested. . . . I guess I've known Denardo for maybe, I don't know I've known you guys for seven or eight years now. So, much of what Denardo and I seem to have in common is, "Well, actually, we ended up turning out fine, we're really remarkable people. . . . All the beautiful things our parents gave us . . . and we're beautiful because of [laughing] all those beautiful things," [all those defining moments we've lived through].

It makes me think of the way that people idealize [or vilify] moments [like the sixties, for example] as being this or that but when you're actually living through them, it's so completely different than what it is that people talk about. So, in a way I'm really grateful that we have an opportunity to actually talk about our friendship, because we're talking about an experience [a reality rather than an ideality]. I hope very much that all of this comes through.

ornette coleman: I want to ask you. I don't have any knowledge of how politics work. Maybe I've--have I ever . . . ?--I've voted, but I haven't actually been involved in the everyday life of someone that's living to bring a certain political image to their community or to the world or whatever. But I find that there are lots of artists in America and in certain--I think maybe in Europe. . . . For instance, in Europe, if a person comes up and says something to you about how "I like your work" and starts talking to you, I mean, it's very common for someone to say, "You know, I'm Communist, but I like your work and I wish I could get you to come to my school." I have never had anyone in America walk up to me and say they're Communist and treat me in a way where they were interested in something I was doing. But I have seen a lot of people that didn't say that [but] that wanted me to respond to them as if they were. [Clara laughs]

It's always bothered me because, you know, you have these different categories in America--you have rock, you have country, you have jazz, and you have Western--but they're played by the same people. So, I mean, you never see a rock musician saying--I did see once where some young rock kid said, "I like John Coltrane" or someone--but you never see any successful people in different categories going in[to] an[other] environment--I mean, you never see anyone that's selling millions of records, like I think [a musician] once told me that he had some relationship to Kenny G, but it didn't have anything to do with Kenny G sharing his success or his audience with him, it was more that he was sharing his presence of being successful with him. The reason why I'm saying that is because I find that, every day, instead of running into people that you want to do things with and that you can do things with that are valuable to you and to them, you'll find that you're running into some sort of territory that represents a certain image or attitude--[you'll find] that this environment is trying to rise above the other environment. And if they can get you to join what they want to do, then it makes them stronger. And, ah, it doesn't matter what category it is. When you realize that, if that's true, why is it necessary if everybody is still doing the same thing?

clara gibson maxwell: Well, I don't know. It's really--I hope this doesn't sound like something that doesn't come off in an interview--but being yourself in the deepest way possible is connecting yourself to the community and is really being the political statement, if you can do it in a way that [works]. Because I've seen it in you, and I've seen it happen in other people, and, little by little, I've kind of seen it happening in my own world. But it's very hard to see it in yourself because nobody has that kind of perception about themselves. And if they do look at themselves that way, well, maybe they belong in a Calvin Klein ad anyway. [laughs]

ornette coleman: Yeah, the reason I was saying that is because as long as I've known you, I have not seen--I haven't been out with you and David [Ames Curtis] at a dinner, or seen people that are your friends or that you like to be around--or whatever you enjoy about living in relationship to your art, or what your environmental opportunities are, as far as the territory that you find yourself in. With me, unless I'm playing, I don't have that. So, finally I realized that maybe we are both in the same boat. But the thing is, I actually think that you are visually much more realistic than I am. Because when someone gives me a chance to exploit me--and what I mean by that is, they say, "Would you like to do this?" Or, "Do you want to do that?" And I say, "Fine, yeah, let's do that"--it's not that I can just call up and say, "I want to do this," and someone says, "Oh yeah, we know we are going to make money." Something interests you, why not? It took me a long time to [yawns] . . . . They've consented to do what they've done. And the jobs that I've had in Paris--I've been speaking [to people] for years or months to do those things.

But, you know, it's not just playing the saxophone or writing music that I'm interested in. What I'm trying to do is to involve any person that can express or wants to express something that is equivalent to what they believe in, in the environment that I'm in. I want to share that environment with them. But the thing that I can't do is, I can't have the kind of success that will make it consistent. It always seems to have a Communist or political attitude, or like, "Oh, we're giving you the money just to do this and get you out of the way."

clara gibson maxwell: [laughs] Oh yes, oh yes. . . .

ornette coleman: That's not right, because that's not the attitude that I'm--that's not the reason why I'm trying to do what I'm doing, you know? The reason why I am saying that is because I think that one of the biggest problems that follows your career is that not only do you know what you want to do and how good you could do it, but the moment you explain to someone what it is, that's the one thing they don't want to do for you. [Clara laughs] It's crazy, because in fact if someone asks you what you're doing and what you're interested in doing, and you express it, it's because you think they're interested in supporting what the quality of it could be if it could get done. But instead of that, they just want to know how to sabotage it so it makes sure it won't get done. [Clara laughs] And the thing about it is, it's not natural for that to be the conversation of the moment when that moment has a fulfillment to something that's alive and valuable. I haven't spent lots of time around you, but from the way that you express yourself, if you express yourself the way you express it when we're talking to someone else that's in the field of entertainment that would be interested in relating to you as a human being, they're probably too afraid to get involved with the depth of what you're wanting to do because they're not prepared for the results. You know? And so therefore they just pretend that you are from another planet or some other thing. But I think you should never give up what that is and [should] perceive any moment at any time [as the moment] to make it a reality. For instance, you know, the people at Lincoln Center, why couldn't you--I mean, whatever you would want I could do--I mean, they could do that there--they're having that festival every year. . . .

clara gibson maxwell: Sure, sure. Well, as I say, for as long as I have you as my friend, irrespective of whether you're the composer for the piece [Choros] or not, I'm sure I can do it. And, definitely, we'll look into it.

I think that this does it. So, this has been just beautiful!

ornette coleman: When you and David come to New York, I'm going to take you out to dinner.

clara gibson maxwell: Okay, all right. Well, I'll be back in touch about some other stuff. By the way, did Skip Gates ever get in touch with you and send you his journal [Transition] ? This is Henry Louis "Skip" Gates, Jr.?

ornette coleman: I've heard of him. Didn't he put a book out about Blacks and Jews? No, that's not the guy. . . .

clara gibson maxwell: I don't think so. He's done a whole bunch of stuff. The managing editor of his journal calls up and says, "Hello," and I said, "Hi," right? Then he says, "I want to talk to you [about] Ornette Coleman . . . I want him to review the new Sun Ra biography." And I laughed. There's some sort of backhanded compliment in it. It's that Ornette is now officially consecrated, so we can have him write a review of Sun Ra so that now Ornette can make Sun Ra respectable.

ornette coleman: Oh my goodness. Well, I don't think they have to do that to him.

[Both laugh]

©Clara Gibson Maxwell 15 August 1997