March 1, 2024

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This is the story of how Ornette Coleman set me up perfectly for a dirty joke: Video, Photos

If you are easily offended or just don’t like these kind of jokes, please avert your eyes and move along.

In his last years, Ornette’s door was open to all sorts of younger musicians of varied ability. I spent about three or four afternoons in his apartment, listening to him discourse about harmolodics and generally soaking up the atmosphere. He liked to play and played all the time. On one occasion he took out a beat-up alto out of a messed-up case. The old horn looked literally squished, like it belonged on a junk heap.

Ornette jammed a mouthpiece all the way on the neck of the junk alto and said he should tune up. “Play a B-flat,” he requested. I rang an electronic B-flat on his workhorse Yamaha keyboard. Ornette emitted a a wailing note that was higher in pitch, closer to B natural.

“That’s not right, is it?” Ornette asked.

At this point I started to feel a bit odd. I worshipped Ornette but no piano player ever said he played “in tune.” In my interview with Carla Bley, she talks about this very topic: “There wasn’t a piano in Ornette’s band, I think partly so no one could say, ‘You can’t do that with the pitch.’” https://ethaniverson.com/interview-with-carla-bley/

Objectively, his “B-flat” was much higher than the keyboard’s B-flat. What should I say to the genius? After a moment, I took the plunge. “No, I don’t think that’s quite right.”

Ornette Coleman: In His Own Language - JazzTimes

“Am I flat or sharp?”

“Uh. I think you are sharp…”

“OK, should I push in or pull out?”

My personality was starting to dissociate, but there was just enough equilibrium left to rummage around in the box of basic physics — where bigger and longer instruments are pitched lower than smaller and shorter instruments — before answering, “Pull out.”

Ornette pulled his mouthpiece out. WAY out. It was obvious that he went too far in the other direction. “Play B-flat.” I humbly sounded my B-flat, and, of course, his pitch was now too low, closer to an A.

“Is that better?”

Throughout our previous few hours together, I rarely spoke, I mostly listened. At that moment I was utterly unprepared to offer any kind of “schooling.” Who was I to school Ornette Coleman? It seemed unlikely that this old master in his seventies actually needed my advice, but, after all, this was not just any garden variety sax player, this was Ornette Coleman, a man whose revolutionary human cry on the horn never had much to do with “correct” pitch. Maybe he really didn’t know how to tune up, or even hear any kind of baseline pitch? Was that possible? Was I truly losing my mind? I took a deep breath. “Uh. I think that now you are flat.”

“So, Ethan, what do I do? Push in or pull out?”

With my last gasp of sanity, I said to Ornette, “Push in.”

Ornette adjusted the horn confidently, and looked over at me with a twinkle. “I keep pushing in and pulling out, but she still doesn’t come.”

After he set me up and knocked me down so perfectly, Ornette played wonderfully on that junk horn. Everything Ornette tou.

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