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In Writing

Ornette Coleman 1930–2015: Barre Phillips

June 2015

The bass player recalls his encounters with Ornette across 30 years and three continents

I met Ornette, and Don, for the first time in 1958 in Sausalito, California, on a Sunday afternoon. It happened at Bill Lufborough's studio. The Modern Jazz Quartet were in town playing a stint in the Blackhawk. Their previous gig had been in LA, where John Lewis first heard Ornette play. He'd invited Ornette to come up to San Francisco to meet with him on their day off. Ornette and Don came up. My brother, Peter, who was in close contact with John Lewis, was also invited. And Peter invited me to tag along.

The mysteriousness of these two very friendly gentlemen was all prevailing, at least to me. Ornette already had developed his harmolodic theory and its potential application to instrumental improvisation. He tried, in his very soft, inherent manner, to communicate this to his audience (John Lewis and the members of The MJQ, plus Bill Lufborough, David Wheat, my brother Peter and myself). None of us seemed to get it. Ornette and Don played a bit in duo. Then they had a go with Percy Heath and Connie Kay. Percy and Connie had no idea of what to play with Ornette and Don.

Later, in July 1962, I met Ornette again, this time in Berkeley. He was in the Bay Area in the company of Yves. Yves was the cousin of Peter Engelhart. At that time Peter and I played together in a quartet, performing contemporary jazz repertoire: The Group (with George Kimball, vibraphone, and John Apperson, drums). We had a six nights a week gig in a Berkeley coffee house, the Tsubo. Ornette and Yves came by to say hello and all. Ornette had an alto saxophone with him; we invited him to sit in with us for a set. He did. And in the thank yous that followed the set Ornette said, “No, it's for me to thank you, but why do you play this school music?” The question was fully heard in the band and within a week The Group was history. Three weeks after that I left for New York for the first time – bass, suitcase and borrowed Volkswagen Beetle.

Through the years I would run into Ornette, sometimes with Don. In New York and in Europe. In 1975, at the Bologna festival in Italy one of the organisers found me backstage to tell me that Ornette wanted to see me. I was performing there with John Surman and Stu Martin. I followed the man to Ornette's dressing room where the band (Dewey Redman, Ed Blackwell) were hanging out with Ornette. We go into the room and Ornette says, “Barre, it's your dream come true, I want you to play with me tonight”. Charlie Haden was already on a plane heading for Los Angeles where his wife was giving birth to triplets. Rehearsal consisted of Ornette telling me, “We’re still playing the same old shit”. By that time in my playing adventures I already had enough accumulated experience to be able to hold my own in the group. Needless to say the energy level was right up there on the high end and the exposition and development of the musical ideas was dancing on a very sharp edge. Thank you – Thank You – Thank You –

The next time I heard from Ornette was in 1991. He was in London, recording the soundtrack for Naked Lunch. He asked me if I could come over to work with him for a few days? I was in Paris to celebrate the birth of my first grandchild. I had no bass, no bow, but I did have the itch to play anew with Ornette. In London I was able to borrow a bass from Ron Mathewson, to buy a bow at Foote's etc. The sessions went very smoothly. There are quite a few anecdotes that stand out in my memory of those days together but the most telling, to me, was during the recording of a shortish solo by Ornette playing on top of the orchestra, which was already recorded. Ornette was down in the studio and composer Howard Shore was up in the booth, as were Denardo, Ornette’s son and drummer, and I. Ornette would record his bit and Howard would answer that it was a bit sharp, would Ornette mind trying it again. After quite a few times of back and forth Ornette does a version that is right smack on tempered scale. Ornette says, "You mean like that?" Howard Shore says, "YES YES.” Ornette answers, "But that's not me. And it's not interesting."

The following year I traveled with them to Tokyo for a week of recording a multimedia piece based on Naked Lunch and other Burroughs materials. More stories – but they will have to wait for next time.


It's great to learn where your role models find their role models.

Beautiful piece, Barre.

Thanks for this Barre! Thats great about Pete Engelhart, I've been playing his bells :) my best to David

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