Free Jazz and Democratic Communication

Posted by nicholaspelafas on June 29, 2011

I lifted this conversation between Jacques Derrida (philosopher) and Ornette Coleman (Jazz musician) from a post over at  The Liberator Blog. (

The entire conversation is fascinating for a variety of reasons, but Coleman makes some very interesting points that relate to literacy.  In the same vein as Sun Ra and John Coltrane, Ornette looks at music as a language and the ability to relate to music as a form of literacy or way to create meaning.  He says:

“I’m trying to express a concept according to which you can translate on thing into another.  I think that sound has a much more democratic relationship to information, because you don’t need an alphabet to understand music.”

This incredibly deep statement is important in that it reminds us that music and art represent some of the most core multiliteracy skills that humans have, and perhaps it would be possible to imagine alternate configurations of new literacies outside of speech and the written word.

At its core, literacy is about constructing meanings that relate information and deepen the complexity of one’s understanding of a given topic or subject.  By stating that music can be a more democratic conduit for information exchange, we can be more open to the idea that the way we create meaning is related to the project of creating a more equitable society.  It also suggests that words, and traditional forms of literacy (particularly considering when this dialogue took place) are tied to a power structure that can limit the ways people are able to construct meaning.  The question then becomes, do new literacies sufficiently liberate us from the power structures that plague the old literacies?  And, in what ways does moving away from music and art in schools hinder students’ capacity to adapt and develop new literacies?

more excerpts from the discussion after the jump and the .pdf of the original conversation can be found here……

The Other’s Language: Jacques Derrida Interviews Ornette Coleman, 23 June 1997
(SOURCE: Jazz Studies Online)
On improvisation
Jacques Derrida: “The very concept of improvisation verges upon reading, since what we often understand by improvisation is the creation of something new, yet something which doesn’t exclude the pre-written framework that makes it possible.”
Ornette Coleman: “…the idea is that two or three people can have a conversation with sounds, without trying to dominate it or lead it. What I mean is that you have to be .. . intelligent, I suppose that’s the word. In improvised music I think the musicians are trying to reassemble an emotional or intellectual puzzle, in any case a puzzle in which the instruments give the tone. It’s primarily the piano that has served at all times as the framework in music, but it’s no longer indispensable and, in fact, the commercial aspect of music is very uncertain. Commercial music is not necessarily more accessible, but it is limited.”On composing

Ornette Coleman: “If you’re playing music that you’ve already recorded, most musicians think that you’re hiring them to keep that music alive. And most musicians don’t have as much enthusiasm when they have to play the same things every time. So I prefer to write music that they’ve never played before…”

“I want to stimulate them instead of asking them simply to accompany me in front of the public. But I find that it’s very difficult to do, because the jazz musician is probably the only person for whom the composer is not a very interesting individual, in the sense that he prefers to destroy what the composer writes or says.”

On pre-written pieces

Ornette Coleman: “I don’t know if it’s true for language, but in jazz you can take a very old piece and do another version of it. What’s exciting is the memory that you bring to the present. What you’re talking about, the form that metamorphoses into other forms, I think it’s something healthy, but very rare.”

On language

Ornette Coleman: Do you ever ask yourself if the language that you speak now interferes with your actual thoughts? Can a language of origin influence your thoughts?

Jaacques Derrida: It is an enigma for me. I cannot know it. I know that something speaks through me, a language that I don’t understand, that I sometimes translate more or less easi¬ly into my “language.” I am of course a French intellectual, I teach in French-speak¬ing schools, but I have the impression that something is forcing me to do something for the French language…

Ornette Coleman: But you know, in my case, in the United States, they call the English that blacks speak “ebonics”: they can use an expression that means something else than in current English. The black community has always used a signifying language. When I arrived in California, it was the first time that I was in a place [milieu] where a white man wasn’t telling me that I couldn’t sit somewhere. Someone began to ask me loads of questions, and I just didn’t follow, so then I decided to go see a psychiatrist to see if I understood him. And he gave me a prescription for Valium. I took that valium and threw it in the toilet. I didn’t always know where I was, so I went to a library and I checked out all the books possible and imaginable on the human brain, I read them all. They said that the brain was only a conversation. They didn’t say what about, but this made me understand that the fact of thinking and knowing doesn’t only depend on the place of origin. I understand more and more that what we call the human brain, in the sense of knowing and being, is not the same thing as the human brain that makes us what we are.” (source / pdf)


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