By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
Beauty Is a Rare Thing makes a final contribution: two tracks featuring Coleman from the long-out-of-print John Lewis Presents Contemporary Music: Jazz Abstractions -- Compositions by Gunther Schuller & Jim Hall, recorded two days before Free Jazz. "Abstraction" was a disposable "third stream" composition/improvisation with a string quartet -- it never came together. But "Variants on a Theme of Thelonious Monk," featuring basically the same instrumentation, interpreted Monk as well as it's ever been done, capturing the pianist's letter and spirit; Coleman and Dolphy twined around each other's lines as if born to it.
Ornette Coleman's career was just kicking in at the time of the Atlantic recordings; the years from 1962 to the present have followed an on-off pattern of activity and hiatus. He has often revisited various of his musical homes -- geographical and personal -- for inspiration, but his returns to Los Angeles have been mostly for the purpose of making money. He formed a whirlwind trio with bassist David Izenzon and Fort Worth drummer Charles Moffett. He composed classically derived chamber music. He hired his 10-year-old son, the drummer Ornette Denardo Coleman, a collaboration that continues to this day. He added another Fort Worther, tenor saxist Dewey Redman, as well as Dallas trumpeter Bobby Bradford, to several of his groups. He recorded a dark symphonic work, Skies of America. He performed with the Master Musicians of Joujouka in Morocco. He created a long-running electric band, Prime Time. He co-composed the music for the David Cronenberg film Naked Lunch. He jammed with the Grateful Dead a few weeks ago at the Sports Arena. He was on the Bravo Network Birdland TV show recently, performing with his latest electric band (including Denardo and a tabla player) and talking about how he left the music business and joined the music world.
A lot gets said about Coleman's influence on the music world, but what, really, has that influence been? The Shape of Jazz To Come did not prove to be a prophetic album title, not by a long rifle shot. You can count the number of leader-musicians who actually sound something like Coleman on one hand, and they're all ex-members of his electric bands, and all pretty obscure: guitarist James "Blood" Ulmer, drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson, bassist Jamaaladeen Tacuma. Compare that to the legions who have followed Charlie Parker or John Coltrane or Miles Davis or Bill Evans or, what the hell, Kenny G., and Coleman as direct musical influence tends to evaporate.
Where Ornette Coleman's influence has been enormous is as a person. He is the ultimate individual, someone who seems to have practically nothing in common with mainstream USA, someone whom director Shirley Clarke, in her documentary Ornette: Made in America, very literally and unironically depicted as a cartoon spaceman, yet who has commanded scrutiny, over and over again, for 35 years. Litweiler, a pre-eminent authority on avant-garde jazz, lays out his biography with humor and sympathy, giving you the sense that as much as he admires the man, he finds it hard to account for the survival of someone cursed with such a terrible combination of genius, gentleness and innocence, except, as Coleman himself says, "The thing I have always felt -- I think I got it from my mother -- is patience." As the details of Coleman's behavior mount up, they become almost incredible. There's Coleman walking into a doctor's office and asking to be castrated. (He settles for circumcision.) There's the ever-generous Coleman finding a homeless man on the street, taking him home, letting him sleep in his bed and, finding himself unable to ask him to leave, being stuck with him for two months. There's Coleman, paranoid about homosexual conspiracies ("Most people who control the music business become bisexual, homosexual or whatever because their nature is so tense from all the wrong they're doing") and suspicious of sex as an element in music ("I didn't have in my mind, `I'm gonna write Skies of America and everybody gonna start screwing'"). There's Coleman the money mismanager: "At the same time he's making $100,000 or $200,000 a year, he's living in my back office, taking sponge baths with cold water," says friend John Snyder. There's Coleman His Own Worst Enemy, who repeatedly forced himself into semiretirement by demanding ridiculously high fees for his services.
Coleman has always thought he deserved mass success, although, says Litweiler, he was "lacking two essential elements for becoming a fabulous entertainment commodity -- he was not a vocalist, and his musical ideas were not trivial. Since producing trivial art requires time, energy and concentrated attention, just like producing valuable acts of communication, we can sympathize with Coleman's choice of the latter."
Coleman's bands, along with John Coltrane, Albert Ayler, Anthony Braxton, Henry Threadgill, and many others down to the present time, have seen something in the man: not a specific path, but the potential for the absence of a path. That absence could be called freedom, and even when it's joyous, even when it's gentle, it can be a disturbing thing, whether you hear it in music or you see it in someone's eyes. And it starts with the individual. As Litweiler says, "The most valuable aspect of freedom . . . is the freedom to assert your own perceptions in the face of received attitudes and dogma."