A legendary jazz innovator, composer and alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman passed away on June 11, 2015, at the age of 85. A key influence on many musicians featured on the Walker stage, he performed at the Walker four times, in 1967, 1982, 1984, and most recently during a 2005 festival on the occasion of his 75th birthday. On that occasion, we commissioned writer and Burnt Sugar Arkestra bandleader Greg Tate to write the following essay on Coleman’s inimitable style, innovation, and legacy.
The advent of Ornette Coleman inevitably altered the shape of jazz to come as surely as Einstein redirected 20th century physics. The notion that several dimensions of time and blues feeling could co-exist in jazz can be heard in Monk, Ellington, and Mingus’ music, but that notion that jazz could serve up a subjectivity as discursive and whimsical as Proust’s or Robert Johnson’s, well now that we owe to Ornette.
Coleman’s cosmopolitan outsider art is one we’d call postmodern now but in the late 1950s it seemed just plain crazy to certain cats, Charles Mingus and Miles Davis chief among them, then the music’s most fervent modernists. Ornette’s music challenged orthodox musicians far more than the listening public and drew critical fire from them accordingly. Davis famously responded to his music by stating it was evidence of how psychologically screwed up Coleman must be; Mingus questioned whether he was really doing anything new. Some of this is because Ornette brought swing into the subatomic realm where fast licks were made to scrape over crawling grooves, and slow, half-phrases got set in relief and studied until they were made to strobe, trill, and throb like a hummingbird going nowhere fast. As in the paintings of Cy Twombly and Jasper Johns, also just coming on line at the time, you felt like movement, melody, structure, and stasis had collapsed in on one another in a furied but elegant heap. Coleman’s art, like theirs (and later, Gerhard Richter’s) was one that refused to make easy distinctions between the gestural and the calculated in ways that never seemed contrived or manipulative.
There was clearly a supreme artistic logic at work, yet one that seemed to find its most effusive voice in teasing out rather than drowning in creative chaos. Ornette’s music did all the things jazz was supposed to do–swing, sing, surprise–but in ways that made everybody else in music, from Coltrane to Cage, sound like they were too fixed, ordered, calibrated and two-dimensional. The early quartet music, the great Atlantic stuff comprised of Ornette, Don Cherry, Charlie Haden, and the late greats Ed Blackwell or Billy Higgins on drums, is so detailed and prismatic it can still puzzle you with its contradictions–as architectonic as a snowflake and just as random, organic, and freefalling. A music so rhapsodically and rapturously unbridled you don’t know why it doesn’t all just fly off into space as so much other free jazz before and after Coleman willfully did. But this was freedom whose intentions were neither libertine nor political liberation, though you heard in the Coleman quartet’s music a jazz as happy and programmatic as any throwback’s Dixieland dreams. It was then an exploration of freedom that was rigorously experimental, a precision-tooled investigation of the unknown–the unknown in this case being the question of whether jazz after Bird and the solo-drunk bebop revolution could return to the New Orleans notions of collective improvisation where everyone soloed, fed an uproarious open ensemble feeling, and utilized the bebop vernacular. Or at least that part of the bebop vernacular more directed by lines and pulses than rocketing around the Western harmonic system. It was largely the way Ornette dispensed with the need to wear his harmonic scholarship on his sleeve that so outraged some of his jazz contemporaries. What he had figured was that each player’s melodic ear could guide him towards resolutions just as consonant as those of strict harmony. He has explained this as his ear always hearing another melody, and sometimes a series of new melodies in several different keys while playing standard tunes. This is the basis of Coleman’s harmolodic system which is less a formal system, I feel, than a very Central African way of putting together a symphony. One where the interaction of discrete units of rhythm, line, and timbre fit together in a logic meant to draw each member of the band into a funky democracy that’s maybe most akin to watching a room full of agile, creative dancers freestyling.
The Motown arrangers and James Brown were doing similar things, but because of Ornette’s influence, jazz musicians came to trust their own ears more than ever before, and to unify and wild-out in a freer universe of space, time and rhyme than ever before in jazz’s modern era. This new catechism begat the late Coltrane quartet, the Blue Note recordings of Sam Rivers, Tony Williams, and Andrew Hill, and the work of AACM, especially the Art Ensemble of Chicago and that of Miles Davis’ bands from the moment Tony Williams, a major Coleman admirer, joined his group, all the way through Davis’ Bitches Brew and Dark Magus bands.
The 1960s was all about the conquest of space, outer and inner, astronauts, acid trips, social revolt, one long strange return of the repressed trip that saw Coleman take the lead on the introspective possibilities of the music as Sun Ra had taken the outer-spaceways and in his own way had already beaten NASA to the moon and beyond. It’s hard to think of any other musician whose sonic convictions have been so personally liberating for themselves and so determined to liberate others. It’s for this reason that we have no choice but to classify Coleman as not only one of the great American inventors, but as one whose inventions epitomize the spreading of freedom in ways about as far removed from a far-right Fox News soundbite as can be imagined. Ornette’s idea of freedom has social implications for a society and a citizenry less and less inclined or able to hear their own muse, sing their own song, and collaborate with neighbors dying to do the same.
Musical revolutions are supposed to eventually subsume or surpass their founding fathers. But Ornette’s freedom song, especially the ones that come out of his alto and violin still sound fresher and more full of surprise and personal revelation than anyone else around save his equally indomitable contemporaries, Sonny Rollins, Cecil Taylor, and Bill Dixon. The sense of the personal Coleman espouses has little to do with confession and
cosmological connection in the Coltrane sense, or Pentecostal expressionism a la Albert Ayler, or even the eruptive ordering of nature we hear in Taylor. Coleman’s music is different because his answers always sound like questions too, like an endless quest for questions fed by an unabated curiosity about human existence and the human capacity to feel, and yes, to suffer too.
Ornette’s horn sublimates angst, anger, and hurt aplenty but it also offers us a million possible escape routes from the blues too, often, as with our most dynamic blues singers, by deploying the most simple, evocative, strange, and ironic turns of phrase. Ornette believes that the most sacred thing in the world is human feeling and that a sense of unity can be made of anything if the communication of that feeling, of love really, is your ultimate goal and true intention. If Ornette remains difficult for some it’s because those beliefs don’t discount airing out all of ones psychic ills, suffering setbacks, and sadness–for some folk the sound of so much joy shot through with so much psychoanalytical release doesn’t rest easily on the ear. Those of us who can’t get enough of Coleman’s cognition-sparking dissonance may be feeling him now more than ever. Living in a time when all of music, no matter the ethnicity or genre, seems overrun by con artists and hustlers, Coleman’s sound, whether in symphonic, small band jazz, or electronic mixed genre settings, remains a reminder of the magic which uncorrupted, uncommodified, and unassimilated music has to subversively intimate, after Marvell, all the things we are that are “vaster than empires and more slow.”