Ornette Coleman learned about music in mother Fort Worth, and he learned about running elevators in Los Angeles. But in the tradition of such matters, we will claim him -- now. As much as from a birth certificate, you identify a person by his scars. By that measure, we'll also lay stake to a piece of Charles Mingus, and Charlie Parker before him, because they would have told you the value of L.A.: to isolate the artist, to ignore him and to kick him out. After that, he can face anything.
To stay alive by working as a stock boy, a porter and a baby sitter; to have musicians abandon the bandstand in contempt when you play; to walk your soles off on your way home in the middle of the night and give the police a run at you ("Hey, nigger, where'd you get that horn? Let's see you play it") -- enduring Los Angeles takes a powerful dream. Ornette Coleman is one of the prime dreamers of all time, a man so wrapped up in his dream that he doesn't even know he's asleep. Only here in Dream Central could he have found the allies he needed to start a revolution in music, the musicians you hear on Coleman's Beauty Is a Rare Thing: The Complete Atlantic Recordings and whose stories John Litweiler relates in his biographical/critical probe, Ornette Coleman -- A Harmolodic Life.
What is this thing called harmolodics? When Coleman himself talks about it, it sounds more like religion than theory: "You can think harmolodically, you can write fiction and poetry in harmolodic." The easy explanation is that it's just another name for Coleman himself; in its purest form, his music has more to do with the man's personal DNA than with bop, blues or any other ancestor. If you happen to be the one applying it, though, the practice has to do with freedom of options, the result being that your music, your improvising, really sounds like you. You bring to bear your own innate sense of melody and harmony, forgetting preconceptions of what goes where in what chord -- forgetting about chords, in fact, as building blocks of music, and substituting emotions, impressions, reactions. In Coleman's music, you don't hear musicians playing music, you hear people expressing their feelings. With discipline.
"I created everything about me," Coleman is quoted as saying in Litweiler's book (from which the biographical details that follow also come); that rocky individuality is everything to him. While this has made him an original as few have ever been, it has also created the kind of obstacles to understanding his art -- obstacles to understanding him -- that only particular kinds of crusaders would want to break through.
Don Cherry, for instance. Cherry was a kid trumpeter from Watts via Oklahoma, born to bebop. (Bebop was a common language in the '50s -- along with the blues and R&B material Coleman grew up playing around Texas, the saxist could blow 69 choruses on ultracomplex Charlie Parker tunes without dampening his brow.) And when Cherry first saw and heard Coleman in a Watts record store in August 1956, "He thought Ornette was crazy," says Texas saxist James Clay, a Cherry bandmate in the Jazz Messiahs (does that name tell you anything?) at the time. Says Cherry, "He had an overcoat on, it was 90 outside, and he had long hair . . . he looked like a black Jesus Christ."
Clay wasn't into Coleman's weird music, but Cherry conquered his first impressions and wanted to hear more. Also a member of the Messiahs was local drummer Billy Higgins, who wound up rehearsing with and copping a few harmolodic hints from Coleman and Ed Blackwell, a New Orleans skinman first exposed to Coleman when Coleman visited N.O. in 1949.
You might call these musicians converts, players whose styles were bent away from their previous orbits by Coleman's gravity. A different case was Charlie Haden, a bassist from Iowa who grew up yodeling in a family band and could play everything from bluegrass to bop. Haden had the same trouble as Coleman: if he played the way he wanted to, he drew evil stares. So when he heard Coleman's free, personalized approach, it was love.
Contemporary Records signed Coleman on the strength of his songwriting -- buy the whole package or not, you couldn't deny he penned some beautiful lines -- and in 1958 and 1959 he made a couple of excellent albums for the label, Something Else! and Tomorrow Is the Question!, featuring Cherry and assorted others. Digging into his cellar for his most commercial (and oldest) material, Coleman recorded as straight as he could, with rhythms and sidemen (Shelly Manne, Percy Heath) that emphasized his links to the bop tradition. With his vocalic, bent sound and erratic phrasing, though, he had critics adding their own exclamation points and warning of an attempted revolution.