Bern Nix, Guitarist Steeped in Ornette Coleman's Harmolodic Language, Dies at 69

Jun 1, 2017

Bern Nix, a thoughtfully expressive guitarist in the jazz avant-garde, best known for his close association with composer and saxophonist Ornette Coleman, died on Wednesday at his home in New York City. He was 69.

His death was confirmed by Denardo Coleman — Ornette’s son, and the drummer in his fusionesque band Prime Time, which has recently been preparing for a memorial Ornette Coleman Festival at Lincoln Center in July.

“I thought he was going to be here at rehearsal yesterday,” Denardo said of Nix. “We got together and rehearsed last week. He seemed to be in good spirits. So this was a total shock.”

Nix favored a cool and nearly unprocessed tone on his guitar, rarely making his presence felt through an assault on the senses. His style was in close dialogue with the jazz guitar tradition as it extends from Charlie Christian to Jimmy Raney to Jim Hall (with many others in between). Still, Nix maintained a highly specific brand of fluency in Ornette Coleman’s proprietary improvisational language, Harmolodics.

Notoriously easy to recognize but tough to describe, Harmolodics has been a slippery force in experimental music over the last 40 years or so. In a new book titled Free Jazz, Harmolodics, and Ornette Coleman, the music professor Stephen Rush takes a stab at a glossary definition:

Harmolodics is about the relationship between style and process in improvisation. It is also about human rights and issues surrounding equality. Simply put, Harmolodics respects every single voice in an ensemble, without creating a preference or elevated function for any one instrument.

Nix put it this way, in a 2009 profile in All About Jazz: “I always thought Harmolodics was an open-ended exploration of the meaning of melody, rhythm and harmony; that's the way I see it.”

He wasn’t the first guitarist to fully master these proprietary strategies: That distinction belongs to James “Blood” Ulmer, who preceded Nix in Coleman’s band. But where Ulmer made his guitar feel like an extension of his bluesy, bellowing vocals, Nix always sounded like a jazz guitarist working freely within a framework.

“Bern was a less-is-more kind of player,” Denardo Coleman said, “not trying to fill up with a lot of notes, but placing the right note, so it has that musical value. In a certain sense, he was almost a Harmolodic minimalist.”

In Prime Time, Nix was the quieter half of a two-guitar front line, with Charles Ellerbee, a rougher and more rhythm-oriented player, operating as his foil. Both guitarists appear on a spirited slew of Prime Time albums made from 1976 to 1988: Dancing In Your Head, Body Meta, Of Human Feelings, Opening the Caravan of Dreams, In All Languages, Virgin Beauty and Jazzbühne Berlin '88.

Any of Prime Time’s recordings will provide an illustration of Nix’s subtle yet central role in the band. In a limited sense, so does this 30-year-old clip from a concert in Cologne, Germany.

“There was a down-home part to Bern, but also a real intellectual part,” said Denardo. “Which somewhat related to my father; they were very simpatico in that sense. My father would talk about Harmolodics and teach him the concept, and Bern would want to go further and further in. At the same time, he was a jazz encyclopedia — that type of person who grew up and had a passion for jazz.”

Bern Nix was born in Toledo, Ohio on September 21, 1947, and grew up enamored of the traditional jazz guitar lineage, though he was often called upon to play rhythm and blues. “I always liked the sound of the guitar as it is,” he said in the All About Jazz profile. “My parents wanted to give me an electric, but I wanted to keep the acoustic. I can admire the boxes, pedals, but I always have a certain sound in my mind, or an idea of the sound that I want.”

Nix studied at the Berklee School of Music in Boston, graduating in 1975. It was soon afterward that he met Coleman, who had been informally auditioning guitarists at his loft in Manhattan. “There was something about Bern’s sound and the way he could quickly interpret an idea and turn it around,” said Denardo. “From that, my father could tell if you as a player were tuned in to where he was coming from.”

In the mid-1980s, while still a member of Prime Time, Nix formed his own trio. But it took almost a decade before an album appeared under his name: Alarms And Excursions, released in ’93 on New World Records, with Fred Hopkins on bass and Newman Taylor Baker on drums. It’s still the definitive document of Nix as a bandleader and composer, largely working with swinging rhythm.

The album includes a neatly boppish version of “Just Friends” that could find airplay on any jazz radio station. But its raison d’être involves a handful of original tunes like the opening track, a Duke Ellington-invoking backbeat tune called “Z Jam Blues.”

Low Barometer, an album released on Tompkins Square in 2006, features Nix in an arid solo setting, on a steel-stringed acoustic guitar.

The results, which warrant comparison with analogous recordings by Derek Bailey, John Fahey and Marc Ribot, demonstrate Nix’s broad imaginative resources on his instrument. The pieces on the album were based on Harmolodic études he had devised while working with Coleman in the ‘70s.

Denardo Coleman said that the Prime Time reunion would proceed as planned this summer, possibly with Al McDowell playing Nix’s melodic part on a piccolo bass.

“We’ll probably bring in some other guests,” he said. “But no one to fill Bern’s chair. He just had his own particular thing that you can’t really replace. Even if you bring in another guitar player.”

An earlier version of this obituary incorrectly stated Nix’s birth year as 1950, and his age as 66.