Thursday, June 18, 2015

Ornette And Self-Recognition

My parents were out at a museum opening. I hung over the side of the bed, watching the hall, waiting to hear the front door open. I wasn't a particularly needy kid but for some reason I couldn't get to sleep until they got home. It might have been a sort of silent protest against what I saw as an egregiously early bedtime. I was around 12 years old and not tired at all.

They eventually returned and there were all the usual noises of closets and coats before they headed down the hall to their room. They came in to check on me and were glad to find me awake as they had a little present: A postcard from MoMA featuring a great Roy Lichtenstein painting of military machinery. "Here," my father said, "we thought this would be something you would like."

The way he said it, I knew that they didn't think much of Lichtenstein but were happy to find something with which I would find affinity. And did I ever: it was art-love at first sight. I remember feeling a sense of recognition: here is something just for me, as if custom-made. My parents had found something for me that I didn't even know I was looking for - a tacit acknowledgment of something I didn't yet realize. I was different than them, and maybe from a lot of people. 

I pinned the postcard to the wall above my pillow, next to the autographed photo of Walter Koenig, and went to sleep. It was wonderful waking up in a world where I knew I could find art that would feed my soul and with a little more self-knowledge to help me find it. 

A few years later I was getting ready to leave a friend's house after an afternoon spent listening to music. "Here," he said, handing me an LP, " I think this is a bunch of noise but you might like it." It was Ornette Coleman's early masterpiece, Free Jazz. He was right on both counts - it was a bit noisy and I loved it. 

While there was a lot to absorb in the two side-long collective improvisations that made up the album, the thing that immediately grabbed me was Ornette's tone on alto, a sound as immediately recognizable as Jimi Hendrix's guitar, and filled with a feeling of complete exuberance. There was the sound of life itself coming out of that plastic sax and I had to hear more. 

Through a friend of a friend of a friend I found myself in a music critic's apartment (I thought it was Chip Stern, but he recently swore it was not him) where he was selling promo copies. Besides a white label copy of Remain In Light, I also scored Body Meta, Ornette's first album with his electric band, Prime Time, and Soapsuds, Soapsuds, a series of duets with bassist Charlie Haden. 

Body Meta was a revelation, from that first mind-blowing appropriation of the Bo Diddley beat, to the explosive tangles of sound when Ornette and his cohort achieved maximum liftoff. And it really felt like that, the room shifting around you as guitar lines shattered and reformed, the bass hovering just in front, then just behind, the beat, and Ornette's joyful squall slathered all over everything.

The first "new" Ornette album I bought was Of Human Feelings (still unconscionably out of print but at least available to stream), which was recorded in 1979 - recorded digitally, I might add - but not released until 1982. It was put out by Antilles, a subsidiary of Island records, and could sort of be seen as a pop bid by Ornette, like Star People by Miles Davis. While it has its catchy moments it was unlikely that smooth jazz radio was going to play this stuff, though. I loved it instantly and was by then a fan for life.

It was much later that I learned about his history of rejection, how he was denied entry into the academy, although he had a mind full of symphonies, then laughed out of L.A., and almost laughed out of NYC, his plastic sax and wild ideas magnets for derision. But he persevered, making a series of landmark albums and even getting the opportunity to record one of those symphonies, Skies Of America, for Columbia Records. But, unlike Miles Davis, who always managed to muscle into the center of the culture, Ornette remained an outsider and I can't deny that that's part of his appeal for me. 

When I first heard True Dat (Interlude) from OutKast's debut album, I nodded my head vigorously to Big Rube's words: 

"An OutKast is someone who is not considered to be part of the normal world

He is looked at differently
He is not accepted because of his clothes, his hair
His occupation, his beliefs or his skin color
Now look at yourself, are you an OutKast? I know I am
As a matter of fact, fuck being anything else
It's only so much time left in this crazy world."

I imagine Ornette might have felt the same way. But it's the music that helps us find each other, starting with the musician's self-recognition in the sounds that resonate with them. Never mind the pronouns, Lou Reed was talking about himself in Rock & Roll: "She started dancing to that fine fine music/You know her life was saved by rock & roll."

So I'm an Ornette person. I know this about myself as much as I know that he's not for everyone. The other album I bought from the music critic, Soapsuds, Soapsuds, featured a gorgeous fantasia on the theme to Norman Lear's mock-soap opera, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. As it happens, my family was obsessed with that show and it was in fact the catalyst to getting my bedtime officially changed so I could stay up and watch it. Hearing Ornette float those iconic notes alongside the ruminative bass of Charlie Haden was another startling moment of recognition. Sure I was an Ornette person but maybe - just maybe - Ornette was a Jeremy person, too.

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