Mingus on Ornette: Organized Disorganization

Ornette Coleman

For today's diehard jazzer, Charles Mingus is always called Mingus and Ornette Coleman, Ornette. Who knows why? At any rate, I was reading a collection of historic Downbeat interviews and came across this assessment of Ornette, delivered by the fearsome Mingus in a May 26, 1960, "Blindfold Test" with Leonard Feather. Mingus could be brutal in his take-downs of other musicians, so it was with trepidation that I looked to see what he had to say about the notorious innovator of "free jazz." As it turns out, Mingus got to the essence, praising Ornette as both sui generis and someone you have to deal with. He touches on some bop conundrums, too. And he does so by commandeering the interview. Very Mingus.
You didn't play me anything by Ornette Coleman. I'll comment on him anyway. Now, I don't care if he doesn't like me, but anyway, one night Symphony [Sid] was playing a whole lot of stuff, and then he put on an Ornette Coleman record.

Now, he really is an old-fashioned alto player. He's not as modern as Bird. He plays in C and F and G and B-flat only; he does not play in all the keys. Basically you can hit a pedal-point C all the time, and it will have some relationship to what he's playing.

Now, aside from the fact that I doubt he can even play a C scale in whole tones -- tied whole notes, a couple bars apiece -- in tune, the fact remains that his notes and lines are so fresh. So when Symphony Sid played his record, it made everything else he was playing, even my own record that he played, sound terrible.

I'm not saying everybody's going to have to play like Coleman. But they're are going to have to stop copying Bird. Nobody can play Bird right yet but him. Now, what would Fats Navarro and J.J. have played like if they'd never heard Bird? Or even Dizzy? Would he still play like Roy Eldridge? Anyway, when they put Coleman's record on, the only record they could have put on behind it would have been Bird.

It doesn't matter about what key he's playing -- he's got a percussional sound, like a cat with a whole lot of bongos. He's brought a thing in -- it's not new. I won't say who started it, but whoever started it, people overlooked it. It's not like having anything to do with what's around you, and being right in your own world. You can't put your finger on what he's doing.

It's like organized disorganization or playing wrong right. And it gets you emotionally, like a drummer. That's what Coleman means to me.


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