I used to live on Fifth Street between Bowery and Second Ave. Tons of musicians were on the block: Elvin Jones, Joe Farrell, John Hendricks, Ted Curson, Bobby Timmons, Lee Morgan... We used to go on the roof, get high, and have jam sessions. And around the corner on Bowery and Third was the original Five Spot, where Ornette would play every night for months. We’d walk around, smoke a couple of joints, and say, “Hey, let’s go listen to the Cold Man.” We called Coleman “the Cold Man.”
At the Five Spot, everybody in the place was high, and at first, the music seemed real out. But after awhile...Billy Higgins was the one who helped me begin to understand that: “Hey, man, these guys are actually playing together. I don’t know what it is, but they’re together.” I loved it. Ornette didn’t count off anything, didn’t tell anybody any changes, he would just do it like this: “Boom!” They’d start, and be in the song, together. I was amazed by Ornette.
I saw Sonny Rollins in there a lot, hiding in the phone booth, checking out the music but not wanting to be seen. Trane was down, Lewis from the MJQ. Everybody started coming down.
Percy was the one that kind of got me on Ornette. He brought me the record that he’s on with Ornette, saying, “This is some funny stuff these guys play!”
I loved some of the phrases Ornette played, they sounded like he was saying things, which he was, so I made up little sayings that went with the music. I know in that interview, Billy Hart said I made up words to whole songs, but that’s not really true, it was just some phrases.
But I did love Ornette, especially with Charlie Haden and Don Cherry. Blackwell and Higgins each had their special magic.
Higgins could play anybody’s drums and still sound like Higgins. It could be a huge bass drum and the wrong kind of snare, but he could sit down and start swinging right away. There was some happiness in his playing that related to his beat. He had a great ride cymbal beat that was consistent, that never stopped, no matter what else was going on.
Blackwell had the New Orleans street stuff that he could incorporate into swinging. He’d play swing for a while but then he would leave it, and with Ornette he could do that. He was a master of swinging, leaving it, and coming back to swing. One of his signature things was something that sounded Nigerian, too.
I called Blackwell alongside Cherry for that same record with Mtume. I had him on there with Don. I would have had Ornette too if I could have paid him enough!
A great reminiscence by Tootie Heath about Ornette Coleman. There are a number of great stories in this great interview with the master jazz drummer.