The White House Band
aka Ornette’s All-White Cover Band

THE MEN WHO LIVE IN THE WHITE HOUSE
Ornette Coleman
Skies of America
Columbia : 1972

OC, alto sax; Dewey Redman, tenor sax; Charlie Haden, bass; Ed Blackwell, drums, and the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted By David Measham.

SOCIAL WORK
Curlew
1st Album + Live At CBGB 1980
DMG/ARC : 2008

George Cartwright, tenor sax; Nicky Skopelitis, guitar; Bill Laswell, cello; Tom Cora, cello; Denardo Coleman, drums.

So you’re Ornette Coleman. It’s 1980. You’ve recorded an epochal series of records with your original quartet, twenty years ago. You’ve traveled the world with small groups, and written major works for symphony orchestra, and introduced the world to harmolodic funk. But you’re still feeling like your music isn’t receiving its due. So what do you do? 

Naturally, you need to start an all-white cover band to play your own tunes. You realize it’s a way to make your music instantly seem more “accessible” to a wide audience and finally achieve a major payday. As saxophonist George Cartwright put it in this 2002 MN Star Tribune article: “I’m 28, I’m in New York City, and I’m gonna play with Ornette and his band. He had this idea that if he hired all white musicians, it would be successful. He was gonna call the band White House. I’m white, I’m from Mississippi, and that’s how it was presented to me.”

As Ornette told critic Robert Palmer in the early 1970s: “America is a very good country for a Caucasian human being, because regardless of what his native tongue is, if he changes his name and speaks English, he could be of any Caucasian descent. And I think this is very beautiful thing for a human to have, where he can go out into the world and make a living for himself and then come home and have his ancestral roots still intact. That is one thing that black people here have never yet had. I’ll tell you, man, I’m so tired of feeling that being black in America has something to do with not being white in America.”

The band never panned out, though apparently there were a number of rehearsals. Another great “what if” from jazz lore. In lieu of anything from White House, please enjoy a relevant track from Mr. Coleman, along with a live cut from Curlew, featuring Cartwright and Ornette’s son Denardo on drums, in 1980.

(Special thanks to Doan Brian Roessler for inspiring this post)

 

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One Response to The White House Band
aka Ornette’s All-White Cover Band

  1. This is a story I had never heard before. Thanks for that. I was a 16 year old white kid in Toronto when I first came to Ornette Coleman with the Golden Circle album. I was hooked. When Skies of America came out I thought then, and still do, that it was a stunning piece of work. It never would have occurred to me (of course), with his legendary discography, that he was lacking an audience. With the exception of my ex-wives, everybody I knew – almost all white in Toronto – loved his work and love it still. Mind you, I would agree that is probably a smallish group of admirers. On the other hand, I can’t imagine anyone going to listen to somebody else play Ornette Coleman’s work when we have the man himself.

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