Jun 192015

Nut graf: Ornette Coleman faced a lot of obstacles on the way to becoming a jazz giant.

"Ornette Coleman" by Geert Vandepoele - Ornette Coleman. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ornette_Cole"Ornette Coleman" by Geert Vandepoele - Ornette Coleman. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ornette_Coleman.jpg#/media/File:Ornette_Coleman.jpg

Ornette Coleman (photo by Geert Vandepoele. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

The first time I heard the late Ornette Coleman play, I knew it was the drugs. His, not mine.

I mean, just what is this guy thinking of?

In truth, the album I listened to was fairly tame by Coleman’s standards. These were some early recordings on a barely-legit reissue, and he had Don Cherry on trumpet and different folks on bass and drums. But this stuff was still a lot crazier than I was used to.

My interest piqued, I got his groundbreaking album Free Jazz and put it on. Might as well go in all the way, right?

My first listening to Free Jazz, it sounded like a completely disconnected skronkfest. Coleman on alto, Eric Dolphy on bass clarinet, Don Cherry and Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, Charlie Haden and Scott LeFaro on bass, Ed Blackwell and Billy Higgins on drums. All playing together, more or less. The whole thing sounded like a coal truck slamming into a circus train.

Facing opposition

But that was Coleman’s early career track. In the late 50s he was making a name for himself, but I will not relate some of these names in a family venue such as this. Word was that he couldn’t play. At the time Miles Davis said that “psychologically, the man is all screwed up inside,” Many other jazz players gave him similarly glowing reviews, but composer Leonard Bernstein really liked what he was doing.

He’d always run into resistance. The Associated Press related this story after Coleman’s recent death:

One incident remained deeply ingrained in his memory: The night circa 1950 when the saxophonist was playing with an R&B band at a Louisiana road house and his solo stopped the dancers in their tracks. Coleman was dragged outside the club, roughed up and his horn was thrown over a cliff.

“One guy kicked me in my stomach … and said, ‘You can’t play like that!’ He didn’t even know what I was doing. I decided to take my beatings until I can establish where people can say, ‘Oh don’t beat him, listen.'”

Just listen. Pay attention. Real art looks and sounds totally out there at first, but it might develop some clarity after a second or third viewing/listening.

Coleman saw the connection betwen Free Jazz and a Jackson Pollock painting.

Coleman saw the connection between Free Jazz and a Jackson Pollock painting.

So that’s what I did with Free Jazz. I put it on again, this time with headphones. Coleman, Cherry, LeFaro and Higgins were on one stereo channel while Dolphy, Hubbard, Haden and Blackwell were on the other. With the stereo effect I started to get the idea. Not just two musicians crossing swords or playing off one another, but two full bands. Yet aided by the stereo separation I noticed they were indeed playing together.

Influences and developing voice

When Coleman was first coming up he developed an ear for bebop.  “Charlie Parker was the main man,” he said in an interview, ‘Oh man, what kind of music is that?’ And I thought I’m going to play that.”

But when he got to where he could play Parker’s stuff backward and forward, it was time to move on. To develop his own voice. I’ll bet all creatives go through that phase. I know I did.

But even with our own voices we still have our influences. When I meet a new musician or writer my first question usually is “who do you love?” That’s Eric-ese for “what are your influences?”

As out there as Coleman got, you could still hear his early influences: Texas blues. But he didn’t stop there, and he didn’t stop after he found real success. He kept growing. Experimenting with new song forms. Trying different lineups (the London Symphony Orchestra for Skies Of America), even learning new instruments.

Coleman will be missed. He didn’t just leave a legacy of revolutionary music, but by example he left some real actionable truths of the creative process.


Dec 182013
I still don't get it, but it does meet Webster's criteria for art. This one is by Jackson Pollock.

I still don’t get it, but it does meet Webster’s criteria for art. This one is by Jackson Pollock.

I like the question posed by Joe Bunting who owns the Write Practice. Have I made art today?

Uhh, I make messes. Does that count?

Sometimes it’s hard to think of my work as art. Certainly my online freelance work isn’t in the same time zone. Even that novel I’m finishing is hard for me to consider art.

According to some folks, if it’s commercial, it isn’t art. If it’s something I do every day (as opposed to waiting for the Muse to show up), it’s not art.

Let’s go to that paperback Webster’s from my reference library, shall we?

Art (n) 1.a. Creative or imaginative activity, esp. the expressive arrangement of elements within a medium. b.
Works, as paintings that result from this creativity. 2. A field or category of artistic activity, as literature, music or ballet. 3. A nonscientific branch of learning, esp. one of the humanities. 4.  Trade or craft and the methods employed in it. 5. A practical skill : knack. 6. The quality of being cunning : artfulness.

Cunning? You’d have to dip into Elizabethan English for that one. King David was described as “cunning” on harp. The Hebrew word used here (yada) carries a lot of meanings, including skilful, learned, having knowledge and understanding. So that applies.

In my desktop dictionary, “art” follows “arson” — which is something really tempting when an artist feels his work stinks.

Back in my taxi-driving days, I hauled a group of seamen from the port and went downtown near rhe college. All my passengers were staring at this young, seriously callipygian woman, and of course I had to look. After a moment I offered my comment:

“Yes, but is it art?”

Broke my passengers up.

Enough rabbit trails, even if they were fun.

But art. Even though I sometimes doubt whether my stuff qualifies, it does under the definitions.

I consider my work to be more of a craft than an art. I use tools — words — to come up with something. In that sense I’m just like a guy toiling in his garage with his hammers and wrenches. But look again at Definition #4 and tell me that doesn’t qualify.

So what’s art?

Writing, definitely. Oils and pencil sketches, sure. Music, no doubt. Starting a business qualifies, too. The guy working with his Craftsman set in the garage. Basically you’re nailing together two things that were never nailed together before. Expressive elements within a medium, that works for me.

Even a guy like Jackson Pollock. He was one of the first to dump buckets of paint on a canvas in a random fashion. I don’t understand it. I look at it and see … well, the same stuff most other people would see. But under the definition it’s still art, though it probably takes an artist to recognize it.

Pollock’s painting “White Light” adorns the cover to Ornette Coleman’s “Free Jazz” album. Kind of related, those two. Most people would listen to that album and decide it’s nothing but a drug-induced skronkfest. I know jazz, and I still had to listen to it a few times to even come close to understanding it. But now it’s one of my most-played albums.

Okay. I’ve had days where I’m overcome with brain fuzz and I can only spew out 250 words of pure first-draft vomit. It’s ugly. It’s unusable. It smells so bad even the flies stay away.

But it’s art. Really. Webster told me so.

If you’re stuck for how to go about it, check out Bunting’s advice. It’s good stuff. Basically it goes like this:

  • Schedule time.
  • Shut off the Internet.
  • Make a goal.
  • Add a deadline.
  • Create art.

Made any today?

Well, why not?

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Sep 162013

These are the notes I used to plan an entire blog. Plotter or pantser?

Are you a plotter or a pantser?

What kind of question is that? It just fills the mind up with all sorts of imagery.

When you’re my age, you can remember what a “pantser” was. That’s the big guy in junior high school who, usually with some cohorts, would steal your pants in school (while you’re wearing them) and leave you in the boy’s room. You’ll get your pants back, eventually, but until then you either wait it out or take the chance at public ridicule. A pantser may mean something else to the GenXers and Millennials, but that’s a pantser.

But among writers, a pantser means something else. That’s the person who throws together a draft without a real plan. Stream of consciousness stuff. Flying by the seat of your pants, hence the name.

A plotter, on the other hand, has a plan. Everything’s outlined. All the details are mapped out, every jot and tittle figured out beforehand.

I recently had an online conversation with another writer. He told me about some ebook that helps you to plan your novel to the nth degree. It’s all there, very structured. All you have to do is write your way from station to station. He likes to use this method, therefore he’s a plotter/planner.

The pantser, well, it’s different. He’ll create his characters on the fly, and they’ll drive the plot wherever they take it. If he has a general idea of where he wants to take this narrative, his characters can overrule it any time they want.

Man, those are some strong characters. I wish I could create my fictional characters with so much depth that they can hijack the story line like that.

The musician who works strictly from charts is a planner. I understand Paul Simon was the ultimate planner. When he and Art Garfunkel recorded their album Bridge Over Troubled Water, harmonica great Charlie McCoy helped out on some of the songs. He said Simon was really hard to work with. He spent something like eight hours to record a four-bar passage.. Constantly fiddling around. No wonder Simon and Garfunkel broke up.

Jazz saxophonist Eric Dolphy went the other way. Every time he recorded a song, it sounded different. It’s interesting listening to the two takes of Ornette Coleman’s collective improvisation Free Jazz. Some of the guys — trumpeters Freddie Hubbard and Don Cherry — stuck pretty much with the same ideas in both takes. Dolphy? Complete differences in tempo, complete differences in everything.

At the end of his album Last Date (recorded shortly before he died so suddenly in Berlin) he got off the line that expressed his whole philosophy. When you hear music, he said, it’s gone in the air. You can never recapture it.

Definitely a pantser.

To use a musical stereotype, plotters play classical. Pantsers play jazz. Or putting it another way, plotters do best work in the studio. Pantsers prefer a live setting.


Striking a balance

It’s that whole left brain/right brain continuum, explained in a different way. Plotters use the left side, so it follows pantsers are the ones in their right minds.

OK, bad joke, right?

So which one’s right?


Am I a plotter or a pantser?


I probably land in that same gray area that most of us do. Somewhere in between the two poles, though it’s hard to tell exactly where I lean.

I’ve said before that I’m a planner. Everything’s outlined. I’ll mind-map a whole project, build my lists but free-associate my way through it. I have a starting point, a finishing point and specific steps in between.

Then I’ll just ignore the whole thing. I’ll end up at my predetermined ending point, I think, but I might just take a whole different route to get there. Rip my GPS off the dash, pitch it out the window and go.

Mapping out my day I’ll write down every step, all the things I want to do. Plan out the whole enchilada with a series of @next-actions as prescribed in David Allen’s Getting Things Done. Then again, I’ll take this plan and totally ignore it.


Planning vs. doing

For me, planning is an exercise in futility. Really a nice way to avoid getting something done. But that’s just me; your mileage may vary depending on your personality type. I find I do better if I just set out maybe three goals for the day and just toward those.

An occupational hazard of being a pantser.

I joke that my pantser part is from having a bad short-term memory. In music I’ll play a song and literally can not remember what I did in rehearsal. In a way that’s freeing — all I need is the chord structure and an ending point — but if I record something I’ll remember it and keep doing it roughly that same way. I really find that kind of restrictive.

I got the planning part honestly. Dad’s an engineer, where everything is put down on a blueprint and field-tested. He once mapped out the layout for part of the back yard — roses on one side, cactus on the other. Different kinds of soil for the two sections. Everything drawn out on a scratch pad. I can’t swear to it, but I think he had an environmental impact report in there somewhere.

Funny thing, it took him several years to do the actual work. I think Mom — who is more of a pantser — gave him the push he needed to get going.

I’m really interested in Steven Pressfield’s Foolscap method of plotting. He plans the whole novel out on a single sheet of legal paper, on one side. Later with the character profiles. Just the briefest of outlines, no real character studies. That single page serves as his notes. Now, Pressfield is a real do-the-work kind of guy, interested in just starting and finishing, hang all the preliminary stuff that prevents you from starting.

When writing this 1,000-ish-word post, I have notes. Given the size of the piece, all these notes are on one side of an index card. A condensed, heavily-altered version of the Foolscap method.

On my current fiction project I have an outline, but it’s not cast in stone. I’ll write a section, notice the narrative takes me someplace else, and veer off that way. As long as I end where I want to, I’m happy.

There are some downsides to both. A pure plotter won’t see the opportunities that come up in midstream, and even if he did he won’t go there. The project sometime ends up sterile, with little life to it.

A pure pantser takes you ’round the mountain, down a few rabbit trails and stops every once in a while to … squirrel!

There’s room for both, but it’s safe to say everyone leans one way or another.


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What say you? Are you a plotter or a pantser? Have you ever pantsed someone or been pantsed in junior high school? Share your thoughts in the comments.