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Ornette Coleman • The Early Years
Part 1 of a 4 part series

Originally broadcast on Sunday, July 12th/2015
Hornby Island Radio – CHFR-FM – 96.5



Live At The Hillcrest Club
Extracted from a conversation with pianist Paul Bley and Bill Smith published in Coda Magazine, February 6th, 1979

Bill: You said that you didn’t really make a record that you felt was an important statement until about 1963. Yet by that time you had already had a band that was so controversial that it had nothing to do with those records. The band with Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry. There’s been so much talk about the Hillcrest Club.

Paul: The Hillcrest Club was a club on Washington Boulevard, which is in the black section of Los Angeles, right in the middle of it. That area had a tradition of live performance. Les McCann played our Monday night jam sessions. When I arrived in Los Angeles after a long college tour with a trio that I brought from New York we added the vibraphone player, Dave Pike, and went into the Hillcrest Club and stayed roughly close to two years; six nights a week. (This is the band that made the record Solemn Meditation – Gene Norman GNP 31). And over that period of time some of the players went back east and were replaced. Billy Higgins replaced Lennie McBrowne, Charlie Haden replaced Hal Gaylor, the Montreal bassist.

One night Billy Higgins said, “a friend of mine, Don Cherry, brought a saxophone player and wants to sit in”. I normally never let anybody sit in, we sent them all to Monday night and gave them to Les McCann, but because it was somebody in the band and they almost never made any recommendations for somebody to sit in we said “no problem”. After playing one set with them Charlie and I went out in the back yard and had a confrontation. We said. “Look, we have been working in this club for a long time and most probably could stay here as long as we wanted. If we fire Dave Pike and hire Don and Ornette we won’t last the week. We’ll be lucky to last the night. What shall we do?” And we looked at each other and said — “Fire Dave Pike!” (Laughter)

Tomorrow Is

Well a good relationship with the owner allowed us to stay another three or four weeks on that job. It was historically amazing. And socially, in the club it was hilarious. Look at the situation. A quartet that is a house band, very successful in a club, making money for the club, all of a sudden changes its policy and hires two horn players in place of a vibist. The music in 1957 was certainly a lot more dramatic and revolutionary than Albert Ayler when he first came out, and he created a tremendous stir. When you were driving down Washington Boulevard and you looked at the Hillcrest Club you always knew whether the band was on the bandstand or not. If the street was full of audience in front of the club, the band was playing.

Every set we’d go up and we’d play and the club would totally empty out, they’d leave their drinks on the bar and everything. Totally empty out, it’s socially possible in California, there’s warm weather and it’s very friendly there. So everyone would be out on the street. And as soon as the band stopped they would all come back in and drink, talk and shout and be happy and be merry and then we’d go back on and they would empty out and wait on the street. They really loved the place, loved the band. Loved what they thought the band used to be. That’s what the situation was.

Musically it was incredible. Ornette had a bag of compositions that was so deep that we rehearsed every day of the job for the three weeks or the month of the job. Every single afternoon all day. And every night we played an entire new book from the night before. So, I’d say ten or twenty new tunes were added to the band’s repertoire daily. That’s a rate of growth that’s stimulating to say the least.

I spent 3/4 of the time tuning Ornette up to see if I could get him to play A44O. He could play A44O, A444 or A436 or any A you wanted. Unfortunately I didn’t have the flexibility that he had when it came to hitting A. From a musical point of view it was extremely stimulating.

Up until the time that those two fellows had sat in with this group, there had been a great deal of thought as to how to break the bondage of chord structures over meter. Ornette was so early that Coltrane was an interim step which coexisted with Ornette, whereas historically it should have preceded Ornette.

Change Century

Bill: A friend of mine here told me once about visiting New York. He liked Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Roy Eldridge, that kind of music. While he was there he went to the Three Deuces and the shock of Bird and Gillespie, and I think people like Duke Jordan and Max Roach. I mean he was a real jazz fan, but the shock of Parker… he’d heard it on record but it was only 2-1/2 minutes long and in the club it was 22-1/2 minutes long. You know, chorus after chorus after chorus.

Paul: That was the normal length. An LP length was normal club time, and longer if there were more horn players. But I think the shock of Ornette was much more severe because bebop didn’t use microtonality. You were just talking about a new arrangement of well tempered notes. When Ornette introduced the idea of erasure phrases, where you’d have some phrases that were tonal and well tempered and then some phrases that were deliberately meant so that there was no way you could transcribe this onto paper easily. Then the music was suspect. That interfered with the enjoyment or the evaluation of the music. The technical ability was suspect. If Ornette had not been a composer, it would have taken him a great deal longer to get those erudite critics, who by the way performed a yeoman service in quickly identifying Ornette’s validity to the skeptics, the New York musicians who were skeptical. It was the critics who did more than their job of acquainting the public with the music. They acquainted the musicians with the music. They acted as liaisons between the avant garde and the musical community. Benny Golson was the band opposite Ornette at the Five Spot when he came in.

After the Hillcrest I formed another band with Scotty LaFaro and Bobby Hutcherson just down the street from the Hillcrest and we went in there and played for an open-ended contract. Ornette and Don had gone to Lennox School of Jazz and I’d done a couple of months at this club. I’d heard that they were at Lennox and that this was the final year of Lennox and I thought it was a very exciting idea. So one night around 9:30 I told the band that I was going to say goodbye to them right now, and that they could finish the year without me. I just walked out of the club, got in a car with Carla and we drove directly nonstop to Lennox. We realized that if we drove nonstop we would get there for the last day of Lennox and we thought that it was extremely important to do this.

After the Hillcrest job I was in the process of taking in this new information and playing with other musicians in Los Angeles. At the same time as working steadily I would go on my night off and sit in with everybody to see how I could relate what I’d learned with other players. After being offered every job in Los Angeles as well as having my own job, it was another case of having to leave. It was Montreal all over again. There was nothing left to accomplish.

We drove to Lennox. Got there at 10 or 11 o’clock at night. Got to the jam session of the final night. This was the last jam session of the last night of the final year of Lennox. Everything was the last. The last set and the last tune. The car was still sweating from the trip. We left everything in the car, came in and I tapped Ran Blake on the shoulder, introduced myself to him and said “May I sit in”. Ran is an extremely social, wonderful person, and said yes. I had a chance to play with whoever it was. Sort of an all-star lineup. Everybody was there. Jimmy Giuffre was there, Ornette, everybody was there. I had a chance once again to see if I could relate what I’d learned. Because I was playing a tempered instrument, you see, so that if anybody was to ask what was going on in free music I was in a perfect position to tell them something that they could relate to, because they could not relate to any information regarding microtonal music. But they could relate to everything involving the well tempered scale. I had one tune to play and I played like my life depended on it. I’ve only done that about four times in my life, where you play one song where your life depended on it. And in fact it did. That last tune on the last set led to my next four years employment in New York. I got the job with Jimmy Giuffre based on that set. I got the job with George Russell based on that set; the two piano album. There was a phone call directly from his being in the audience that night. For Jazz in the Space Age with Bill Evans and myself and the orchestra. I got reinvited to play with Mingus as a direct result of that set. Everything but the Sonny Rollins job was all out of that set. If a traffic light had been red instead of green at one intersection across the country it would have been too late. We slept under John Lewis’ piano that night and headed for New York the next morning.

Bill: I remember all that controversy around Ornette in that period. I mean all the quotes and stuff in the press, all these different critics. This camp saying, “It’s okay because Leonard Bernstein said it’s okay, John Lewis said it was okay” and on this side, this critic says, “This is rubbish”.

Paul: Right. The terms were really hostile. The groups that didn’t like the music just couldn’t face it, never mind discuss it. And the enthusiasts said it was the messiah. It was that extreme. Anyway, Ornette opened at the Five Spot and played there for months.

Bill: Did you play with that band?

Paul: No, never. That’s another story, involving Charlie Haden and myself. Ornette wasn’t sure whether he was going to continue with Charlie Haden. I said “You’ve got to be kidding!” Charlie had some personal problems. I said “I know a lot about rhythm sections. It’s been my life study”… I could get into that sometimes as to thin bassists and fat drummers or fat bassists and thin drummers. I mean, I made a study of time playing. I said “There’s no one on the globe who will be able to accompany you” and no one ever did. Scotty was playing atonally and certainly Ornette was not an atonal player. Jimmy Garrison was a tonal player. He wasn’t even polytonal or atonal. Most bass players could only play a fifth of the areas that Ornette could enter.

Bill: Charlie Haden heard it all the way through didn’t he?

Paul: All the way through. Played all the wrong notes and made everything sound right.

Bill: When I think about it now those early records, on Atlantic for example, they never sounded very strange to me at the time. We thought that they were very funky.

Paul: Because of the bassist! The Atlantic records, once again, were shortened performances, six or seven minutes, which involved a lot of writing.

Bill: And those wonderful tunes. That people actually whistled.

This Is Our Music: http://rantanddawdle.ca/2015/06/12/this-is-our-music/

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