Jazz Institute of Chicago

Ornette and Don

by Stu Katz

This article is about Ornette Coleman and an important moment in time that he experienced with Don Schatz about fifty years ago.  At this point, virtually all readers will probably react by thinking "Don Who?"

I first met Don Schatz when we were both still in college.  Because of a common passion for jazz, we immediately became close friends - a relationship which has continued uninterruptedly to this day attributable in part, no doubt, to my having met Don's sister, Penny, very early in our relationship and having been instantly smitten with her (Penny and I will celebrate our 50th anniversary on January 23, 2009).

Before I tell you about Ornette's time with Don, I would like you to know a little about him.  Don has always had an insatiable thirst for experiencing life, be it through reading, viewing, listening or creating.  When we met, Don was playing jazz (piano and trumpet), painting, drawing and writing poems.  For the past forty odd years, he has confined himself solely to writing poetry.  

When Ornette's recordings were first released, Don was enthralled with his music (although I - a firmly entrenched bebopper - had serious reservations about it at the time).  As luck would have it, Don's uncle, Lou Alport, owned the Jazz Lounge in Chicago's Sutherland Hotel and ultimately hired Ornette's quartet (Ornette, Don Cherry, Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins) to perform at the club.  At the time, Don was young, single and living in his parents' home on east 68th Street in Chicago.

Of course, Don, Penny and I all went to the club on opening night to see and hear Ornette's band perform.  While there, Don invited Ornette to bring the entire band over to his parents' house during the day on the weekend - for brunch, as I recall, and to play some music.  This appealed to me immensely since I was just then beginning to experiment with playing jazz that was freer than bebop, so I brought my vibes over to the house.  Ornette, Charlie and Billy showed up (Don Cherry didn't make it).  Charlie, Billy and I set up in the living room and began to play some music.  However, Don and Ornette immediately disappeared into the sanctuary of Don's room, where, as I was later to find out, Don insisted on playing some of his recordings for Ornette.  The recordings he played were of the renowned Jewish cantor, Josef Rosenblatt, chanting, and of an obscure gypsy singer.  Ornette never came out to join in the live music.  When Ornette and the band left, Don gave both recordings to Ornette to take home with him.

It is undeniable that the music Don played for Ornette impacted him.  In a September, 2006 New York Times Article, Ornette was quoted as saying:

"I was once in Chicago, about 20-some years ago [sic]." "A young man said, 'I'd like you to come by so I can play something for you.' . . . [H]e put on [Cantor] Rosenblatt, and I started crying like a baby. The record he had was crying, singing and praying, all in the same breath. I said, wait a minute. You can't find those notes. Those are not 'notes.' They don't exist."

After Ornette's September 2008 appearance at the Chicago Jazz Festival, Penny contacted Ornette's representatives and told them the story and, in that conversation, said that she would like to mail to Ornette a booklet called "Stills," containing four collections of Don's most recent poetry.  Ornette's representatives enthusiastically encouraged her to do so.

In her cover letter to Ornette, Penny says:

"From a purely personal perspective, your music and Don's poetry affect me in many of the same ways."

Here is a random excerpt from Stills - judge for yourselves:

This time in consequence
spasms and contortions
as a rule eat
when weary to death one is almost

bringing him round
for its incoherence
which I have not yet
felt reasonably secure from

anyone
on Sundays.

And though I could not do much
perhaps the same day
as a rule
heretofore, literally sparkling

its incoherence, all
he'll never have
near
is possible.


Don Schatz in 1959


Ornette Coleman in 1987