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Ornette

August 11, 2015

Here is a text describing our (Ingrid Sertso and mine) connection to Ornette Coleman. He has been our guiding light since the sixties. But first:

I was invited by Denardo Coleman to give a talk at the funeral service for Ornette at the Riverside Church in New York.

I used most of the content of the following statement and added quotes by Ornette that John Rogers, an eminent jazz photographer, who became a close friend of Ornette’s, had published in a blog of his. Little did I know that even quotes are not public domain. So I want to use this opportunity, and others, to apologize to John for using the quotes, which he rightly considers his domain.

So here’s my text:

Our way to Ornette Coleman and the Creative Music Studio

It is hard to find words about Ornette Coleman. He is, ultimately, the reason why we are here, in New York, and doing what we are doing. In 1971, Ornette helped me and Ingrid Sertso, vocalist/poet and my life-long partner, form the Creative Music Foundation as a non-profit organization. At the time, Ornette said, “That’s fine; you do the non-profit and I’ll do the profit.”

Ornette’s words were always powerful, as convincing and thought-provoking as his music was. The soft-spoken intensity and spontaneity was just mind-blowing. No one talked like Ornette; he talked the way he played, often starting with a perfectly “regular statement” (melody), only to pivot into a completely different direction in the middle of the sentence or the next sentence (like changing the key, for example). When you insisted on an in-depth discussion, he would say that too much thinking gets in the way of your emotions.

But first things first: In the early 60’s Ingrid and I heard Ornette’s “This is Our Music” (Atlantic Records). Our spontaneous reaction: ‘This is OUR music, too! It was so crystal clear. But how to go about it? At the time we divided our time between my hometown in Heidelberg, Germany, where we played regularly at the legendary “Cave 54” (We met Carlos Ward, Don Ellis, Lex Humphreys and others there) and in Paris, where a thriving jazz-club scene had developed (we met Eric Dolphy there among many others). In April 1965 we took one of those five-hour trips to Paris and saw Don Cherry play on the first afternoon in the Buttercup Café. I was so magnetized by his energy that I simply walked up to him and introduced myself, saying, “I want to play with you.”  He smiled, gave me an address, and said “rehearsal is at 4 pm tomorrow. ” From that day on we played together for years, and pretty much every day, in European cities, eventually coming to New York for the “Symphony for Improvisers” (Blue Note) recording session. I soon realized that Don always acted on a highly intuitive stage, and that our spontaneous form of coming together was not unusual at all for him.

Suddenly I was in the middle of a veritable storm of “harmolodic” music. Don shared with me (and the other members of the quintet – Gato Barbieri, J.F. Jenny-Clark and Aldo Romano) the full scopes of Ornette’s approach, which he started to translate into world-musical dimensions. In addition to original themes by Ornette and himself, Don would bring melodies from all over the world to the daily rehearsals and performances. Ornette later told me that called Don ‘the man with the elephant memory’ because Don could hear the most intricate melodies, or any sounds for that matter, and perfectly memorize and reproduce them. Ingrid and Don became close friends, like brother and sister. He loved her voice would frequently invite her to participate in special events and recordings.

We first met Ornette at the Paris-Club “Le Chat Qui Peche,” which was our steady club engagement for more than a year. Ornette was in town for a concert with his trio (with Charles Moffett and David Izenzon). It would be the first of many meetings, which became more frequent from 1970 on, when Ornette had established a loft space on Prince Street in the SOHO district (where he later opened his performance space “Artist House”). It was there that the idea of the Creative Music Foundation was born and where we signed the founding papers with Ornette, Ingrid, myself and two lawyers, establishing the organizational framework for the legendary Creative Music Studio. CMS would conduct workshops, seminars, concerts and recordings, which support the communication and learning of principles common to all musical styles, encourage personal expression in any form it might take and provide the stage for meetings of music minds from very different backgrounds, as well as for experiments and productions of new music       (see “Wire” coverage 2014)

Ornette made the Creative Music Foundation interesting from the start by proposing an Advisory Board consisting of John Cage, Buckminster Fuller, Willem de Kooning, Gil Evans, Gunther Schuller and others.. John Cage said: “I don’t like jazz, but I like Ornette” and subsequently became a Guiding Artist at CMS Sessions in the 70s in Woodstock NY, when CMS had grown into a year-round institution.

Essentially, many of CMS’s philosophical directions are the same ones that take on a highly personal form in Ornette’s music and words. But Ornette was always quick to deflect attention from himself. He always emphasized that sound had a different meaning to everyone, thus completely taking all individual judgment out of the equation.

When Ornette formed “Prime Time” he described the music he envisioned in words that perfectly describe a central philosophy at CMS: “It allows every musician to participate in any form of musical environment without them changing their own personality, their own tone or their way of phrasing.” He also always referred to another central CMS point, that Ingrid opens her workshops with: that everyone and everything is musical in essence and capacity.

Once Ornette, Ingrid and I were driving a car in the streets of New York and we saw a taxi cab that had a bumper sticker that read: “I won’t blow my horn if you don’t blow yours.:” Without missing a beat, Ornette said: “That could be the title of my next album.”

Karl Berger

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