Forms and Sounds

1) Interview with Gunther Schuller (part one) -- the official interview commissioned by Jazz on 3, mostly about Third Stream

2) Interview with Gunther Schuller (part two) -- Gunther's classical compositions, his magic row, and listening to Contours

3) Commentary and more from George Schuller -- Including pictures and video of The Visitation

4) Forms and Sounds -- Gunther talks to Ornette Coleman in 1960, along with my own speculation about Harmolodics

5) This is Our Mystic --  Early Ornette Coleman


I mentioned the following radio broadcast to Gunther Schuller when interviewing him for the BBC.  Thanks to George Schuller for the following information:

This is from Feb. 7, 1960, part of a weekly one hour jazz show Gunther and Nat Hentoff hosted from January 1958 to roughly March 1960 called The Scope of Jazz on WBAI.   The opening theme to all Scope of Jazz radio broadcasts was Duke's "Clothed Woman" and the ending theme was Monk's solo version of "'Round Midnight."


This is an extraordinary document, for Ornette is quite direct in response to Gunther’s questions. Later on, after living in New York for a few years, Ornette’s style of talk changed, becoming more artful and mysterious. Much of what he has said or written since the mid-'60s requires inward meditation for enlightenment. In this early interview with Gunther, though, there’s a lot of sage advice that can be taken quite literally, like when he talks about quarter notes being played differently whether or not you tap your foot.

Ornette is also forthright about his difficulty relating to conventionally notated music. Schuller says in our interview that he was never able to teach him how to read or write easily. Of course that was many years ago, so things might have changed. However, I have seen many lovely handwritten scores of Ornette's music over the years, from decades ago to recent -- some are even included in the records, like “Sex Spy” on Soapsuds, Soapsuds -- and none were interpretable until hearing Ornette himself play them.

My impression is that those around him have protected him from possible criticism by suggesting he notates music smoothly. He creates music smoothy, certainly, and I've seen his vast array of notebooks crammed with pages and pages of melody. But none of those notated scores are dicipherable by anybody else without his guidance. The rhythms were too simple and the accidentals were reversed in non-standard ways. 

A fascinating footnote in Fred Kaplan's 1959:  The Year Everything Changed (page 296-297) has Sy Johnson claiming that Ornette brought in a full, correctly notated and transposed big band chart of "Lover Come Back to Me" to Johnson's rehearsal band at the Hillcrest Club. I'm a doubter of that story myself, but, of course, would love to see that chart if it was found! 

Just to be clear: As someone who reads music well, I think it's a skill of little intrinsic value. If you don't learn it as a kid, quickly reading or writing notes is a real bother to learn as an adult, just like any other moderately complicated math or language. The list of my favorite instrumentalists who couldn't read music well includes not just many jazz artists but apparently piano virtuoso Josef Hofmann. Traditionally many grand opera singers can't really read (although that has changed over the years) and most importantly, much of the great music made elsewhere on the globe has nothing to do with Western notation. Of course, many great American musics like blues, folk, rock, hip-hop, 

Indeed, I firmly believe that jazz today is overly committed to the printed page. I miss the days of musicians like Thelonious Monk. Monk had no problem reading or writing music but hardly ever gave his sidemen charts. They had to learn his music by ear.  Monk thought it made for better art, and of course he was right. The Thelonious Monk Quartet never used sheet music. 

Dewey Redman told me that Ed Blackwell once recommended him to Monk. But when Dewey called Monk and asked to get together to go over the tunes, Monk merely said, "Do you know my music or don't you?"  If Dewey had said yes, he could have had the gig:  in other words, show up and play the book perfectly from memory, done and done. However, Dewey was used to a situation like Ornette Coleman, where you rehearsed everything over and over in advance, and so therefore unfortunately never played with Monk.

It is extraordinary how little paper seems to exist from small group jazz of the 1940's, 1950's, and 1960's.  There are bits and pieces around but really very little compared to how many songs and records there were.

The best music of Ornette Coleman needs to be considered in that tradition. Like Monk, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, and so many other composers,  it never really existed on the page in the first place. 

In the George Schuller commentary there are two Coleman charts probably prepared by Don Cherry. (I can easily believe that Cherry penned them since they don't have Coleman's  unmistakable accidentals.) I'm especially fascinated by "Bird Food": this Cherry scribble has almost nothing to do with what is on the record!  

The Schuller transcription right below it is closer but also problematic, especially with the chord symbols. Since  Schuller's "Bird Food" was (probably) copped by one of those fastidious and omnipresent Chuck Sher fakebooks,  it has become pretty common currency. But I assure you: if you have a chart in front of you when playing "Bird Food" in public, you have already failed. I don't need to hear a note of your performance:  I know it is not good enough for Ornette Coleman. There is simply no way to learn "Bird Food" except by playing along with Ornette and Don's recording.

The fact that Schuller missed the mark in his Ornette transcriptions (I teased him about the absurd 15/8 of "Una Muy Bonita," a mistake that enabled Martin Williams to make supposedly learned remarks about Ornette writing in mixed meters) isn't surprising: None of the transcriptions in Early Jazz and The Swing Era reflect the manner in which the musicians themselves would have thought about the music.  

I have mellowed on this topic! In high school, I thought that Early Jazz was a scam. Now I see the big picture better, and can even appreciate Gunther's many insights as a jazz critic.

But some of his transcriptions will always bother me. Gunther fiercely believes in the notated page, and of course that works for him in his wonderful classical music. But jazz is far closer to a folk music than the academy. You can't write it all down -- and maybe by trying to do so, you lose something significant.


Tapes made at the Lenox Jazz Workshop have Ornette playing parts on four non-Ornette tunes. Schuller says that he learned them by ear, which of course is much harder than just reading them. At any rate, it’s a real eyebrow raiser to hear his sonority peek out sometimes from the Herb Pomeroy big band. I’m not sure if he is playing in all the thick fast parts, but he unquestionably leads the section on the melody to “Paul’s Pal,” and even lets out a signature squall during the coda. On the small group “Inn Tune” (by future cult songstress Margo Guryan) he’s a total pro, delivering a long tricky melody perfectly and contributing a tame improvisation in E-flat minor.

I’m speculating here, but I wonder if Ornette, faced with people like Schuller and everybody else at Lenox who could read and notate the most complicated music as easily as Ornette could create it, felt compelled to come up with his own alternative system that he could teach and talk about.

For many years all of Ornette’s missives and interviews have referenced Harmolodics. While shrouded in mystery, it’s a legit system. There are those that deride it but I say, deride Ornette Coleman at your peril.

There are are a few elements of Harmolodics that I’m fairly certain I understand. Ornette himself, of course, may disagree about my interpretation, and I certainly wouldn't say I understand everything about it, either.

Ornette freely admits in the above interview with Schuller that he made a big mistake when learning to read.  He didn’t understand that an alto saxophone’s A is a concert C.  

Only a genius could then turn that mistake - which must be somewhat commonplace for beginners -- into a system.

According to Ornette, every instrument has its own pitches. There is a special kind of sound that can be gotten if you, like him in early days, train yourself to think your notes are not just your concert or transposed note but also true to the written (untransposed) page. 

He also believes that a line of music written on the page (or taught by rote) should mean something different to every musician.  When Ornette realized that the same note on a music staff meant different notes on different instruments, he found a way to give everybody the same basic melody but have every musician be heard with their own emotion.

On “All My Life” and “What Reason Can I Give” from Science Fiction, the mass of horns read off of one line without transposing, creating a puffy pillow of harmony. Charlie Haden figures out the correct, totally independent bass line to go with the horns, and Asha Puthli passionately embroiders the tune.

Harmolodics require each individual in the ensemble to participate and create. On “What Reason Could I Give” there is one glorious moment in the song where Don Cherry moves from G to Ab when the rest of the horns are holding F and C.  It happens both times through the tune.  I don’t know for sure, of course, but probably Don did this in rehearsal by accident and they kept the mistake.  The use of Harmolodics can access a kind of emotion that is breathtakingly pure, as long as everyone makes the right decisions to serve the music.

The most thorough documentation of the transposition logic is Skies of America, where a whole orchestra reads off of one line for the complete record. (Very occasional counterpoint is generated somehow, probably not by Ornette.) It is sort of ridiculous to have all those London Symphony players doing this, of course. They regarded it as undignified.

(In general, Ornette’s transposition logic makes experienced musicians scream in exasperation.)

But then again, I have heard hours and hours of orchestral music in my life, and most of it hasn’t stayed with me. Skies of America -- that scorched-earth, post-apocalyptic mayhem -- I’ll never forget that sound.

The successful application of Harmolodic theory almost certainly requires Ornette’s own participation as performer and an improvising drummer besides: Skies of America simply wouldn’t work without the unidentifed percussionists providing rambunctious rhythmic counterpoint.

According to Ornette’s biographer John Litweiler, the liner notes of Skies of America were the first time the word “Harmolodic” showed up in print. That makes sense, because Coleman classical music before Skies of America doesn’t have the same sound.

Indeed, based on aural evidence, Ornette had more to do with what his classical musicans played after he found Harmolodics, which is one reason I think it is a legit system. For his Town Hall string quartet “Dedication to Poets and Writers,” the London wind quintet "Forms and Sounds" and a whole LP of chamber music with players from the Philadelphia Orchestra, Ornette must have had help notating basic atonal counterpoint. It doesn’t seem like he got the right people. (Gunther said it was his secretary for the Philadelphia session?!? At any rate that version of "Forms and Sounds" is different than the London one.) Perhaps the hymn-like sections of “Saints and Soldiers” could have been rescued if Ornette and Blackwell had played along. 

Ornette’s name will insure that this relatively banal, pre-Harmolodic Coleman "classical" music will always remain in some kind of circulation. I hope that the profound chamber music Gunther Schuller composed in the same era - like "Lines and Contrasts for 16 Horns" discussed previously - will also always have some currency among connoisseurs.

Of course, Ornette is after something spiritually different than anyone’s professionally-notated score can access. When Ornette told me about studying some scores of European music like Beethoven, he said it was pretty good music, but could hardly believe that the players in the orchestra couldn’t change their notes to go with they way they felt. Suppose Ornette could perform Skies of America again with an orchestra of talented creative players willing to take some harmolodic initiative instead of that lumpy London Symphony? Would some of the rain forest be saved or something?


The main point about Harmolodics is that it is melody-based. This makes sense, because melody is Ornette’s greatest gift, and it is a rare one indeed: Melody is perhaps the most elusive and intuitive of all the elements of music.  Read on.