Ornette Coleman, the composer and multi-instrumentalist, died on June 11th in Manhattan. He was 85. Though health challenges in recent years had been a constant struggle, Coleman’s relevance as a visionary artist kept him at the helm of the “Change of the Century”; this jazz revolution began some 60 years ago but lives far beyond his mortal years.
The challenge Ornette posed to listeners, to musicians and to the public in a period of anxious social upheaval matched the tenor of the times. With roots in Texas blues and then years spent on the road before endeavoring deeply in the Los Angeles jazz scene, Ornette’s concepts were stirring, indeed, radical on every level. His vision of a liberated melody, harmony and rhythm, aka Harmolodics, reflected the abstract expressionist movement in visual art and yet held such a visceral connection to the blues, to African American folk forms, that it was anything but abstract. A closer listen revealed the entire spectrum of the Black experience as it pushed outward.
Born in Fort Worth, Texas in 1930, Coleman was raised in a poor household after his father died in a tragic accident. Searching for the means to grow beyond the cramped rural home by the railroad tracks, the young Ornette became enamored with the arts. His initial foray into music grew out of self-taught experimentation and high school band, and was heralded by the sounds on the radio and what he could pick up on the circuit. Hearing Charlie Parker affected Coleman deeply and many of the musicians who knew him back in Texas have said that he had an uncanny ability to imitate the legendary Parker’s approach to the alto saxophone. Among his cohorts on the Fort Worth music scene were drummer Charles Moffet, whom he’d perform with again in the mid-60s, clarinetist John Carter, drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson and flutist and multi-reeds player Prince Lasha, all of whom would go on to careers as expansive jazz artists. Coleman performed in a disparate range of arenas, from minstrel shows to bars, parties to pick-up gigs, but was wont to make enemies on many a bandstand due to his burning need for invention. Not content to perform the be-bop, jump blues or R & B he was hired for, Coleman forged new ground in this unlikeliest of places—until finally finding his way to the West Coast.
Once in LA, Coleman sought out sympathetic co-voyagers in after-hours clubs until finding cornetist Don Cherry. With the saxophonist acting in the role of guide-star, Cherry’s unique voice came to fruition, offering an indelible counter-part to Coleman’s own searching, achingly blue and yet joyous tone. Both had a penchant for brief, simple folk-like melodies that, upon repetition, reconfigured into bold new layered pathways which overtook the rules of music theory. Just long enough to explode into seemingly unfettered forays.
Coleman’s higher form of improvisatory performance-practice, upon examination, offers clear resolutions connecting passages or movements—not the standard chordal dominant-to-tonic resolution but logical cadences summoning the return of the piece’s melody or its ending. Concurrently, Ornette Coleman’s abilities as a composer came to the forefront and he was able to draw out some of the most painfully captivating melodies from his and Cherry’s horns. Early examples such as “Lonely Woman” and “Beauty is a Rare Thing” continue to dictate the apex of jazz balladry.
To the uninitiated, the music in its formative years was akin to wild confusion. Coleman and Cherry were laughed out of performance spaces, physically threatened. Jazz critics fought over who would get their hatchet pieces to press first. Yet, Coleman’s supporters found in his music a new way, a liberation that shunned pre-conceived notions and tore off the shackles that confined. Pianists John Lewis (of the Modern Jazz Quartet) and Paul Bley, as well as Leonard Bernstein, celebrated the daring sounds and concepts. Even Coleman’s instrument spoke of a new dawn in the music: he played an alto saxophone made of plastic which produced a throaty wail in long-held tones. This coupled with musical memories of the Southwest begat soaring, compelling phrases that dipped and contoured, offering a cry that stirred one’s soul. This was something drastically new, yet simply timeless.
The young progressive bassist Charlie Haden joined the cause, and with the addition of the driving post-bop drummer Billy Higgins or, alternately, the New Orleans-raised Ed Blackwell (who’d define free drumming), the Ornette Coleman Quartet came to be. The four-way instrumental conversations that floated over 20th century jazz constructions advanced the legend, albeit often in negative terms. Los Angeles in the mid-later 1950s was a bitter place for an African American musical revolutionary drenched in the avant garde. Yet, Coleman, brandishing the stealth symbolism of Black liberation, persisted.
The Quartet relocated to New York and held residency at the Five Spot club on the Lower East Side for months. Through the derision of negative reviewers as well as the championing of others, Coleman was elevated to celebrity status. The Quartet’s groundbreaking recordings led the way of this musical genre, this new thing, that had no title as of yet.
Following releases such as “Something Else!” and “Change of the Century”, Coleman’s next albums continued the trend of claiming ground. The self-defining “This is Our Music” led to the breathtaking “Free Jazz” which featured a double quartet–in stereo!–that included the likes of Eric Dolphy, performing freeform works. For many at the time, this was as far as the music could go. The latter album title soon stood as the banner of the genre itself. For the next generation of social justice activists, the eponymous freedom in a free jazz was a grand symbol of, a soundtrack to, movements of liberation. This unleashing of the instrumentalist created an art form as radical as the days demanded.
The musicians of the Coleman ensembles included the aforementioned giants Cherry, Haden, Blackwell, Higgins and Moffet as well as bassists Scott LaFaro and David Izenson, saxophonist Dewey Redman and drummer Denardo Coleman, Ornette’s young son, among others. Ornette Coleman’s chameleon-like tendency toward change saw him through a variety of musical settings, testing his limits (and the audience’s) at each turn. The quartets and trios brought the leader to still wider experimentation including an expansion of his own musical arsenal, adding trumpet and violin.
Later, Coleman played in Morocco with the Master Musicians of Jajouka, he composed the epic orchestral work ‘Skies of America’, founded the space Artists House, won the Pulitzer Prize and multiple fellowships, and then realized the transformation of his Harmolodic theory as Prime Time, a band built on funk and dance grooves. Electric instruments became central and guitarist Bern Nix and bassist Jamaaladeen Tacuma were among the stalwarts Coleman called upon to realize this concept.
Prime Time became Coleman’s vehicle for performance through the final decades of his performing life but he also collaborated with older bandmates at various junctures, helped to found Karl Berger’s Creative Music Studio in Woodstock NY and presented his music at Lincoln Center in a performance with the New York Philharmonic, Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson. He created the performance hall Caravan of Dreams in Texas, performed around the world and recorded an award-winning album with guitarist Pat Methaney. Coleman’s rather legendary battle with major labels saw him refusing huge sums of money as he sought out, as usual, his own way.
There was no one like Ornette, this brilliant musical philosopher and singular voice who forged a path of revolt in a time when racism and inequity coursed through the nation unashamed. His musical journey inspired new generations of free improvisers and experimental composers and demonstrated that undeterred vision can conquer the status quo.
The implications for the wider battle for revolutionary change should have been apparent in all Coleman did. The themes in his epic work ‘Skies of America’ speak volumes: “Foreigner in a Free Land”, “The Men Who Live in the White House”, “Native Americans”, “Soul Within Woman”, “The Military” and “The Artist in America” offer insight into the quiet man’s concerns for his nation and his people.
But Coleman’s commentary on the struggle could best be heard through his revolution of sound. Screaming and then subtle, devoid of the obvious, all was left to the listener to define the meaning for himself.
In remembering some of the Coleman theories on race relations, the trumpeter Matt Lavelle, a student of Ornette for years and a current Harmolodic protagonist, recalled the master stating:
“The major chord is white; the minor chord is black. Do you agree?”
But the question was defiantly rhetorical.
“O.C. just dropped in this sort of subversive, almost subliminal way to bring you to a higher perspective”, Lavelle explained. “To your own reality in that higher perspective”.
And then the profound silence which followed became enveloped in a mournful song of colossal heights.
John Pietaro is a writer and musician from Brooklyn NY. His Dissident Arts Festival occurs this August 15 and 16 in New York City; it will be dedicated to the memory of Ornette Coleman and the struggle for the people’s unity. For more information see www.DissidentArts.com and http://TheCulturalWorker.blogspot.com