Adam Shatz remembers Ornette Coleman
‘One of the most baffling things about America,’ Amiri Baraka wrote in 1963, ‘is that despite its essentially vile profile, so much beauty continues to exist here.’ Perhaps, he wondered, ‘it is because of the vileness, or call it adversity, that such beauty does exist.’ Baraka made the observation in his liner notes to John Coltrane’s album Live at Birdland, which includes ‘Alabama’, an elegy for the four girls murdered in the 1963 Birmingham Church bombing.
I thought of Baraka’s words at New York’s Riverside Church last Saturday, at the funeral of the alto saxophonist and composer Ornette Coleman. No one mentioned the atrocity in Charleston explicitly; no one had to. We were in the church where Martin Luther King declared his opposition to the Vietnam War in 1967. We were honouring the life of America’s leading free jazz musician in a dramatic week for freedom in America. The Supreme Court had ruled five to four in favour of gay marriage; at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, Obama had drawn on the cadences of the Southern black church, in perhaps the most powerful speech of his presidency, and invited his audience to join him in singing ‘Amazing Grace’.
In speech after speech, Coleman, who died at 85, was remembered as a man who embodied a set of values – freedom, independence, improvisation, cultural survival – that transcend music, values shared by Coleman’s friend John Coltrane, who, just before he died in 1967, requested in his will that Coleman perform at his funeral. With Coleman’s death, an era closes. As the jazz DJ Phil Schaap said, ‘I have the feeling of the conclusion of the age of the prophets.’
The pianist Cecil Taylor performed an elegy of shimmering delicacy, punctuated by hints of an impending storm. Ravi Coltrane, John Coltrane’s son, gave a stately reading on soprano saxophone of Coleman’s 1959 composition ‘Peace’, with Geri Allen on piano. The tenor saxophonists Joe Lovano and David Murray howled their way through Coleman’s most famous tune, ‘Lonely Woman’. There was a haunting duet between Henry Threadgill, on alto flute, and Jason Moran, on piano, and an electric dialogue between the drummer Jack DeJohnette and the tap dancer Savion Glover. The only alto saxophone heard on Saturday was Coleman’s, glimpsed in a documentary filmed at the 2009 Meltdown festival, which he curated.
‘I had a very interesting father,’ his son, the drummer Denardo Coleman, said, in the understatement of the day. ‘It’s not that he thought outside the box. He just didn’t think there were any boxes.’ In his indifference to convention he resembled his friend John Cage, who hated jazz but loved Coleman. Schoenberg is reported to have said that Cage didn’t have the makings of a traditional composer, ‘but he is an inventor – of genius.’ The same might be said of Coleman.
Coleman spoke little of himself, and dismissed the idea that he was exceptional. The ‘autobiography of my life is like everyone else’s’, he wrote in the liner notes to his 1960 album This Is Our Music. ‘Born, work, sad and happy and etc.’ But the journey that led Coleman from Fort Worth, Texas, where he was born to a ‘poorer than poor’ family in 1930, to international fame as a free jazz innovator was anything but ordinary, and required no small amount of courage. The world of saloons, honky tonk clubs and travelling minstrel bands in which he performed in his teens was dangerous. Coleman was jailed for having long hair. When a white woman raised her dress over his head in the back of a Texas club, he knew he could be lynched if a white man saw them. In Baton Rouge, a group of thugs smashed his saxophone case, and left him with a collarbone injury that took years to heal.
In 1949 Coleman moved to Los Angeles, where he flirted with the Communist Party and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, in a kind of LA version of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and became known as a freak. It wasn’t just his strange ideas about music. Coleman looked weird. He had a long beard and wore overcoats in the California sun. The trumpeter Don Cherry, who became his closest musical associate, thought he looked like a ‘black Jesus Christ’ when he first laid eyes on him. In 1958 he made his first two records, Something Else and Tomorrow Is the Question, on the Contemporary label, owned by Lester Koenig, a blacklisted Hollywood producer and friend of Schoenberg’s. The albums were more tentative than their titles suggest, yet even then – as the trumpeter Bobby Bradford told Coleman’s biographer John Litweiler – there was ‘an urgency and dead seriousness in Ornette’s music that said things weren’t going to be about Jim Crow or a resigned black man or West Coast cool any longer.’ When the pianist John Lewis, the leader of the Modern Jazz Quartet, heard Coleman perform with Cherry in Los Angeles, he compared them to ‘twins’: ‘they play together like I’ve never heard anybody play together.’
In November 1959, Coleman took his new quartet – Cherry, who played on a small Pakistani pocket trumpet; Charlie Haden, a white bassist from a family of country singers in Shenandoah, Iowa; and Billy Higgins, a drummer from Los Angeles with a flawless sense of swing – to New York to perform at the Five Spot. These were ten weeks that shook the jazz world. The Five Spot engagement is usually remembered as marking the birth of free jazz, but the ‘free’ in free jazz was more of a verb than an adjective. As the critic Howard Mandel observed, what Coleman did at the Five Spot was to free jazz of the bop conventions it had settled into. Coleman loved Charlie Parker’s music – he wrote a tune called ‘Bird Food’ and could mimic Parker brilliantly – but, as he put it in the liner notes to Change of the Century, he felt that ‘the idolisation of Bird … has finally come to be an impediment to progress in jazz.’
The distinguishing feature of Coleman’s music was its rejection of bop-style chord-based improvisation, in favour of a more melodic approach that he later called ‘harmolodics’ (a contraction of harmony, motion and melody) and promised to unpack in a work of musical theory (it never materialised). Yet Coleman’s jazz wasn’t so much a thing as a process, a musical happening that grew out of intensive practice. He wrote in 1960 that ‘when our group plays, before we start to play, we do not have any idea what the end result will be.’ In the hands of less talented musicians this would have been a recipe for chaos, but Coleman thought it worth the risk, because what he valued most was spontaneity of expression. He insisted, against a mountain of evidence, that he had no style, because style, as he explained to Whitney Balliett, ‘happens when your phrasing hardens’.
Coleman made his career in ‘the field of music the white man calls jazz’, but his war on cliché extended far beyond it. He composed dissonant European art music for string quartet; played jagged electric funk with a band he called Prime Time (an important influence on the New York punk scene); and sat in with local musicians in Morocco and Nigeria. Nothing musical was foreign to him, and therefore nothing human since, as he often said, ‘everything is music.’ In his work, the usual distinctions of form – urban and country, jazz and classical, composed and improvised, sacred and profane, electric and acoustic – dissolved. It’s no wonder he got on so well with Jacques Derrida, another slayer of binary oppositions. There was a racial subtext to Coleman’s deconstruction of musical boundaries. He had grown up in the Jim Crow South, when recordings by black blues artists were released as ‘race records’, and saw musical categories not as neutral designations of style, but officially policed boundaries, and often markers of race and class exclusion. In his later years, he seldom used the term ‘jazz’ to refer to music: in his eulogy the writer Herb Boyd remembered Coleman saying that America had to ‘get over this war jazz, race jazz and poverty jazz and become what this country’s supposed to be, God’s country’.
As Denardo Coleman pointed out, Coleman recognised that Western musical theory was ‘just an idea, not like water or air’. Which meant that there were other ideas outside the West and its academies. Yet Coleman was enough of a utopian to hope that the diversity of the world’s musics would eventually achieve a higher unity: a day of non-judgment, when ‘the categories of sound will not involve any race but just the sound itself.’ That he spoke of ‘sound’, rather than ‘music’ or ‘jazz’, is telling. The search for new sounds was a passion he shared with other composers in the American maverick tradition, from Charles Ives, Cage and Morton Feldman to Robert Johnson, Jimi Hendrix and Sun Ra.
The revolution that began at the Five Spot was part of the wider black freedom struggle, as well as an extension of an American philosophy of self-reliance and artistic emancipation that runs from Emerson to Whitman to Allen Ginsberg. Coleman claimed that freedom as his birthright; it echoed in his music’s sense of space, the way it moved between country and city, land and sky. As Cecil Taylor told me after the funeral, ‘Ornette was a Southerner, a country boy’; he looked at New York through the eyes of a Texan immigrant, and never shed his accent or his attachment to black Southern culture. Part of the shock of the new is the shock of the old, the revival of a forgotten vernacular. Having started out in honky tonk and rhythm-and-blues bands, Coleman restored to jazz the intensity of its popular sources, particularly its blues cry. A few months before his arrival in New York, he was signed by Nesuhi Ertegün of Atlantic Records, who had produced Ray Charles and other R&B legends. Coleman knew that his ideas had a precedent in jazz tradition: as he noted in his liner notes to Change of the Century, free group improvisation had ‘played a big role in New Orleans’s early bands’.
The initial response to Coleman in the jazz world was captured with admirable candour by the composer George Russell, in Shirley Clarke’s documentary Made in America, as ‘a feeling of apprehension. A feeling of being threatened by this mind of yours.’ Russell confessed to Coleman that ‘when I finally met you … my worst dreams came true. Here was a music that was frightening in its implications.’ The critic Martin Williams, who persuaded Joe Termini, the owner of the Five Spot, to book Coleman’s band, wrote: ‘I believe that what Ornette Coleman is playing will affect the whole character of jazz music profoundly and pervasively.’ John Lewis agreed; so did the composers Gunther Schuller and Leonard Bernstein, who sat in with Coleman at the Five Spot. ‘The unforgettable thing about this very dark, soft-handed man,’ Eric Hobsbawm wrote, ‘is the passion with which he blows. I have heard nothing like it in modern jazz since Parker.’ But a number of jazz musicians suspected a hustle, particularly East Coast musicians who considered him a musical primitive, if a shrewd one who knew how to ‘manipulate perceptions’, as one of his rivals told me. The trumpeter Roy Eldridge thought he was ‘jiving’. Miles Davis called him ‘all screwed up inside’, and wrote in his autobiography that Coleman ‘just came and fucked up everybody’.
Coleman wasn’t the only jazz musician on the scene who was looking for a way out of chord-based improvisation, or who took liberties with tonality. Miles Davis was experimenting with modes, Coltrane with ‘sheets of sound’. Cecil Taylor was even more daring in his gripping synthesis of Ellington, Monk and atonal European modernism. Yet it was Coleman who led the free jazz revolution. This was partly a reflection of his charisma. Everything about him was something else, from his bespoke silk suits (according to Denardo, he had a new one made every week at a Chinatown tailor) to his peculiar name, which sounded like a small horn and also evoked Charlie Parker’s bop classic ‘Ornithology’.
The most important reason for his success, however, was musical. Coleman played with a raw, gutbucket expressiveness that most jazz musicians had learned to conceal, and with a languid, unembarrassed lyricism that invited comparison with Lester Young, who died the year that Coleman came to New York. His phrasing had an inner balance that lent cohesion to the improvising lines swirling around him. He wrote some of the most beautiful tunes in postwar jazz: ‘Lonely Woman’, ‘Peace’, ‘Una Muy Bonita’. As the critic Ekkehard Jost observed, he would deliberately leave his melodic lines open, ‘stopping just short of the goal for which he is heading, and placing a dash’. His sound changed over the years: brash, buoyant and somewhat waxy on his first recordings, when he was a young man determined to make himself heard, it grew into something more languorous and almost creamy by the end of his life. But Coleman never lost sight, even in his most challenging music, of blues and swing, the fundamentals of Afro-American jazz.
Coleman’s quartet of the late 1950s and early 1960s formed an ‘image of community’, to borrow a phrase from Greil Marcus. Coleman never counted off his pieces, and yet – as George Russell marvels in Made in America – ‘everybody would instinctively or intuitively come in at the same time and you didn’t nod your head. How did that work?’ The answer was that Coleman and his bandmates had spent countless hours practising; they had discovered a way to go off in separate yet complementary directions, and always to achieve what Coleman called ‘unison’ (not to be confused with the classical sense of the word). Coltrane, who said the 12 minutes he shared on stage with Coleman at the Five Spot were the most thrilling of his life, rapidly adopted his ideas, made a record with members of Coleman’s band, The Avant-Garde, and recorded an orchestral free blowing session, Ascension, that responded directly to Coleman’s 1960 album Free Jazz, a collective improvisation session by a double quartet. Sonny Rollins was so startled by Coleman that he retired to the Williamsburg Bridge to work on his horn. When he returned to the stage two years later, he was leading a piano-less quartet with Coleman’s bandmates Cherry and Higgins. Even Miles Davis ended up lifting ideas from Coleman when he formed his great quintet of the mid-1960s with a group of younger musicians who admired Coleman. In his autobiography he admitted that ‘some of the things Ornette Coleman had said about things being played three or four ways, independently of each other, were true.’
After settling in New York, Coleman became a leading figure downtown. He moved easily in artistic circles, and struck up friendships with Willem de Kooning, Allen Ginsberg, Yoko Ono, Robert Frank and the great figurative painter Bob Thompson, who shared his love of jazz. He was a pivotal influence on a student at Syracuse, Lou Reed; another close listener was a composition student at Juilliard, Philip Glass. Yet his most electrifying effect was on young black jazz musicians, who looked to him as a model of artistic integrity, particularly after Coltrane’s death. Coleman thought deeply (and, as in all matters, idiosyncratically) about race, and its relationship to creativity. Blacks, he believed, had ‘a superior sense when it comes to expressing their convictions through music’, because ‘most whites tend to think it’s below their dignity to just show their suffering.’ Even so, he made no secret of his preference for white bassists – Haden, Scott LaFaro, David Izenzon – at a time when many politically conscious black musicians frowned on interracial collaborations.
Coleman made some scorching albums in the late 1960s and early 1970s, such as Crisis and the monumental Science Fiction, but otherwise his work betrays few signs of the era’s turbulence. He had little interest in the Afro-kitsch and militant sloganeering that were hallmarks of avant-garde jazz in the 1960s and 1970s: the dashikis, the tributes to Malcolm X, the use of African instruments and Swahili titles. Yet in the sheer exuberance and freedom of his playing, he suggested that nothing could be more subversive, more defiant of a social order founded on white supremacy than a refusal of fixed categories, an insistence on joy, a radically democratic form of musical communication and, above all, self-determination. The study of blues-derived music has long been divided between those, like Amiri Baraka, who hear a music of protest and revolt, and those, like Albert Murray and Stanley Crouch, who hear the sound of affirmation and pride. Coleman’s music shattered the false opposition, joyous in its repudiation of any restriction on freedom.
‘This is our music,’ Coleman declared, and he did everything he could to maintain his ownership rights. ‘All the people I recorded for and worked for,’ he told A.B. Spellman in 1966, ‘act as if they own me and my product.’ He knew his worth, and stopped playing clubs in the early 1960s when they refused to meet his financial demands. He was also sickened by the ‘whole sex thing’ at clubs: ‘The nightclub is still built on the same things: whiskey and fucking.’ He rented out the Town Hall in 1962, put on an extraordinary concert there with a new trio and a string quartet, and then retreated into a three-year silence. When he resurfaced he was playing two new instruments, the trumpet and the violin – the latter with an unvarnished, backwoods modernism that suggested a Texan Bartók. He began making records again, but devoted most of his energy to Artists House, a performance space he established in a storefront below the loft he’d bought at 131 Prince Street in Soho. The late violinist Leroy Jenkins called the Prince Street loft the ‘University of Ornette’. A generation of musicians and artists passed through Artists House; if you rang Coleman’s buzzer, he would give you a bed for the night. (It was left to Denardo to turn people away; his father never said no.) In his eulogy, Felipe Luciano, a radical Puerto Rican poet who met Coleman in the early 1970s, remembered that whenever he expressed his anger at racism and injustice, Coleman ‘talked about the human condition. He was air. It calmed me down. It probably saved my life.’
Like many American composers of his time, Coleman was beguiled by non-Western music. While Philip Glass backpacked through India, and Steve Reich studied West African drumming and Balinese gamelan, Coleman travelled in 1972 to Morocco, where he forged an enduring collaboration with the Master Musicians of Jajouka, an orchestra in the Rif Mountains. He was astonished by the way ‘they changed together, as if they all had the same idea, yet they hadn’t played what they were playing before they played it!’ He suspected that ‘originally, jazz must have been about that: individuals don’t have to worry about the written note in order to blend with it.’ Like the gospel he grew up hearing in church, this was music ‘about life conditions, not about losing your woman, and, you know, baby will you please come back, and, you know, I can’t live without you in my bed.’ It had ‘the quality to preserve life’. On Saturday, the funeral procession was led by the Master Musicians, whose sonorous, non-tempered horns filled the cathedral; Sonny Rollins marched behind them and the coffin.
Coleman’s 1976 record with the Master Musicians was called Dancing in Your Head. It’s an apt description of the effect his music has. ‘Nobody spoke like Ornette,’ the vibraphonist Karl Berger pointed out. ‘He wanted you to go beyond simple logic.’ Ornette’s riddles gave jazz musicians permission – even incited them – to question received truths about music. His titles were arresting collages of image and idea: ‘New York is Now’, ‘The Jungle is a Skyscraper’, ‘The Skies of America’, ‘Africa is the Mirror of All Colours’, ‘Mothers of the Veil’ and, not least, ‘Lonely Woman’. But the title I’ve thought of most often since his death is ‘Beauty Is a Rare Thing’. Coleman made it less rare.