Ornette Coleman Pissed Off the Jazz Establishment — And They Will Miss Him

Ornette Coleman
Ornette Coleman
Photo by Nomo Michael Hoefner via Wikimedia Commons

When it comes to artists breaking the rules, there will always be classic yarns of how the old butted pointy heads with the nakedly new, and all hell broke loose. Composer Igor Stravinsky premiered his orchestral outrage The Rite of Spring in Paris in 1913, and roughly half the audience booed, catcalled and viciously tossed their handkerchiefs. Astor Piazzolla dared to fiddle about with that heretofore rigidly defined musical form, the tango, and was called a clown, an asshole and a traitor to Argentina. When you mess with long-established musical traditions, you mess with the social order, and people get mad.

Ornette Coleman’s story is similar to the above-mentioned heroes’ (and that’s what they are) in the way it just goes to show that people are going to react to art and music one way or another, even if they don’t fully comprehend the issues involved. The Texas-born and Los Angeles-nurtured alto sax man turned everything the jazz cognoscenti thought they knew upside down when, in 1959, Coleman and his quartet (Don Cherry on trumpet, Charlie Haden on bass and Billy Higgins on drums) set up shop at New York’s Five Spot club and proceeded to rip apart jazz’s social order with their brand of post-bebop experimentation.

In Coleman's music, the hard-swinging, relatively mellifluous flow of Dizzy Gillespie or especially Charlie Parker’s bebop style before him (and the hi-steppin’ stomp of Louis Armstrong before Parker and Gillespie) was cast aside in favor of a “free” style in which rhythm and melody and harmony became, basically, individual components in an open terrain, where those components clashed, argued, asserted dominance and coolly ceded dominion, pretty much all at the same time.

Technically speaking, one thing Coleman’s free jazz at the Five Spot promoted was a radically non-hierarchical interplay of instruments in which everybody solos and nobody solos. It differed fundamentally from the bebop before it mainly in the way it was not built on a rhythmic pulse, asserting instead that rhythm, melody and harmony ought to carry equal “lead” and textural weight in any piece of music. It didn’t exactly have that swing, though to Coleman, it still meant a thing.

That lack of obvious swing and the “dissonant” smashing of tones upon tones pissed a lot of people off, or at least made them think a little too much. Some of the jazz heavies in the audience said Coleman had to play in a free style because the sumbitch couldn’t play — clearly, he just lacked the chops for improvising in traditional fashion (over set chordal patterns). Coleman himself liked to tell the story of how drummer Max Roach punched him on the jaw after one Five Spot show. Roach felt insulted, as if the integrity of everything he’d devoted his life to had been spit on and laughed at.

Coleman, probably a bit pissed off himself, was undeterred. Down through the years, he continued to pursue his muse, a muse that told him that he was best off trusting his instincts about what an ideal music ought to sound like and be shaped like. In 1972, he created a large-scale orchestral piece called Skies of America that’s still being performed in big, grand concert halls all over the world. With his Prime Time band in the late '70s and ‘80s, he further developed his “harmolodics” system of tonal/rhythmic organization, wherein he often doubled all the instrumentation for a deeper, bigger textural sprawl across the above-mentioned ideas about the equality of rhythm, melody and harmony.

Ornette Coleman heard a sound, and he just kept following it. Eventually he “earned” jazz royalty status, which just figures, somehow. He received a Pulitzer Prize for musical composition in 2007. He got a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant in 1994, and a Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize in 2004, and he was inducted into the French Order of Arts and Letters, and given a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and all that sort of thing. He continued to compose, and play, and break the rules, right up to the day he died in New York on Thursday, June 11, of cardiac arrest, at the age of 85. May he rest in peace.


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