Philosopher Jacques Derrida Interviews Ornette Coleman on Improvisation, Language & Racism

Now THIS is pretty cool – An English translation from the French of an interview that originally took place in English between philosopher Jacques Derrida and jazz great Ornette Coleman.

The interview took place in 1997, “before and during Coleman’s three concerts at La Villette, a museum and performing arts complex north of Paris that houses, among other things, the world-renowned Paris Conservatory.” The he two spoke in English but, as translator Timothy S. Murphy – who worked with a version published in the French magazine Les Inrockuptibles—notes, “original transcripts could not be located.”

As one example of this “democratic relationship,” Coleman cites the relationship between the jazz musician and the composer—or his text: “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.” Coleman goes on later in the interview to clarify his ideas about improvisation as democratic communication:

[T]he idea is that two or three people can have a conversation with sounds, without trying to dominate 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 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.

Derrida recalls his first visit to the United States, in 1956, where there were “‘Reserved for Whites’ signs everywhere.” “You experienced all that?” he asks Coleman, who replies:

Yes. In any case, what I like about Paris is the fact that you can’t be a snob and a racist at the same time here, because that won’t do. Paris is the only city I know where racism never exists in your presence, it’s something you hear spoken of.

“That doesn’t mean there is no racism,” says Derrida, “but one is obliged to conceal it to the extent possible.”