The UK saxophonist first heard Ornette playing the music of tomorrow 55 years ago – but he remembers it just like yesterday
I had been listening to jazz music since the 1940s and 50s and been following its trends. I remember the moment distinctly when I first heard Ornette Coleman, in 1960. I was a member of the RAF band in Germany and billeted with both Paul Rutherford and John Stevens. I had a Grundig radio and tape recorder and used to tape lots of jazz programmes. Coming through the airwaves was the beautiful bitter sweet and very direct sound of Ornette’s saxophone. I loved it not only for that, but for the tunes and collective way of playing. I didn’t ‘understand’ it, but I loved it almost immediately, and played it time and time again. It was the recording “Tomorrow Is The Question!”. It deeply influenced all of us in our attempts to find another and more personal way through. Before then I’d studied Charlie Parker and other players who used chord sequences. But to play without one, that was the question, as it requires as much discipline as anything else?
Strangely enough I almost had the same experience a few days ago at the Bimhuis in Amsterdam, after pianist Veryan Weston and I had finished our concert there, which we had dedicated to Ornette. I went to the club bar, and as I walked in that same recording was playing, and it sounded just as fresh as the day I’d first heard it, and just as surprising in its own way.
In 1972 trumpeter Bobby Bradford had come over to the UK and was looking to play with people who understood that way of playing. He wanted to form a quartet to play his music which had all the same elements as Ornette’s music. After all, he was the very first trumpeter with Ornette, before Don Cherry. Richard Williams, the journalist, said to him, “You need to play with Trevor Watts and John Stevens”. And with Kent Carter on bass making up that quartet it gave us the chance to use some of the same techniques that we had studied from Ornette’s music.
I was also invited to a recording session at Air Studios. Ornette needed a bass player, as Charlie Haden had been detained in Portugal I think. So he phoned John Stevens and John suggested two players, Jeff Clyne and Darryl Runswick. Ornette made the suggestion for Jeff to play the pizzicato stuff and Darryl the arco. It was a session to put down music to film, and what impressed me was that even when the rest of the band took a well deserved break (Dewey Redman was also playing, and Eddie Blackwell I think) Ornette beavered away at his ideas, trying things, chewing his lip and thinking hard about the way forward with it all. Real dedication and hard work that you don’t see that often.
I had met Ornette a few times and he was always nice and encouraging. Don Cherry was the same and I got to play with Don too – he always came bounding over to say hello at some festival or other. They were all very warm human beings with integrity and humility.
The last time I heard Ornette live was with Prime Time in Camden Town in London quite a number of years ago, and it was a sheer joy to hear that sound and very personal phrasing cutting through with the confidence that years of development had brought to his style. He was a wonderful innovator, and like all great innovators he brought an indelible stamp to the music and changed it forever.