Ornette Coleman, seen here at Warsaw Summer Jazz Days in 2007, was a pioneer of free jazz.
Ornette Coleman, seen here at Warsaw Summer Jazz Days in 2007, was a pioneer of free jazz.
Tomasz Paczos/Epa/REX/Shutterstock

Musical Revolutionary Ornette Coleman Unleashed Free Jazz in 1950s L.A.

Few Americans know much about it, but a radical midcentury revolution in jazz was born in Los Angeles in the late 1950s. Some of the most exciting and challenging (and forgotten) American music was created by a rebellious generation of African-American geniuses in the 1960s: Archie Shepp, Albert Ayler, Ornette Coleman, Anthony Braxton, John Coltrane and the composer Sun Ra among them.

These were (mostly) young jazz musicians who pushed “America’s music” in an extremely radical direction — into something that was wildly dissonant, rough, freely improvised and emotionally explosive. Newsweek was quick to label the movement “the New Thing” in 1961, but L.A. transplant Ornette Coleman gave the burst of freedom he’d suddenly unleashed a simpler name: free jazz.

The revolution that shook the musical world like an earthquake from L.A. to Copenhagen was launched on Coleman’s first two albums (issued on an L.A. jazz label, Contemporary Records): Something Else! and Tomorrow Is the Question. These LPs, recorded in Los Angeles in ’58 and ’59, are relatively easy on the ears now: a kind of stretched-out, easygoing bebop, but with Coleman’s “free” alto sax solos at certain points becoming just chaotic enough to worry the listeners of 1959 (one track was titled "When Will the Blues Leave?").

In retrospect, it’s amusing to read about how older jazzmen reacted to Coleman at the time (swing-era trumpeter Roy Eldridge: "I think he’s jiving, baby”), openly wondering if he was able to play standard chord changes. It may be that humanity’s ears were, and still are, evolving.

Ornette Coleman woke up famous at 29. He was soft-voiced, gently eccentric and musically stubborn. He’d moved to L.A. in 1953 from Fort Worth, Texas, living at the Morris Hotel downtown. Earlier he’d gotten a taste of L.A. while touring with a Texas blues singer in 1950. (Fort Worth, he once said, was “where the West begins and where life ends.”)

For a few lonely years he worked in L.A. as an elevator operator and at other cheap jobs in town. Before his breakthrough, he tried his hand at sitting in with other players, in the jazz clubs that dotted L.A. in the mid-1950s: the California Club, the Hillcrest Club, Club Malamo. Many musicians hated his playing. As Coleman biographer John Litweiler put it: “The rejection of Ornette by Los Angeles musicians was massive.” Why was this? Because by the age of 25, Coleman’s improvised saxophone soloing was too atonal, “out” and weird for the ears of 1955. He simply would not budge.

“The Ornette Coleman controversy that was beginning in Los Angeles,” Litweiler writes, “is the one that would burst into a national controversy at the end of the decade.”

There were avant-garde critics in the late ’50s who “got” him instantly: “Coleman will state a theme in a disarmingly simple way," wrote Whitney Balliett in The New Yorker, "interrupt himself furiously, sail into a blistering human-voice run (when these come off, it is a shaking experience)…” This was the point where abstract squawks and peals in the saxophone solo became more and more about an emotional texture than a proper melody.

How strong was Coleman’s confidence? It’s in the title he gave his next record, for Atlantic: The Shape of Jazz to Come.

“The music has changed because the musicians have changed,” wrote poet LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), in his book Blues People: Negro Music in White America (1963). “What these musicians have done … is to restore to jazz its valid separation from, and anarchic disregard of, Western popular forms. ... The implications of this music are extraordinarily profound, and the music itself, deeply and wildly exciting.”

Coleman needed like-minded explorers to improvise with, and miraculously he found the right people in mid-1950s L.A.: young trumpeter Don Cherry (father of singer Neneh Cherry), who’d grown up in Watts; Eric Dolphy, who would emerge as the famously brilliant prince of musical bop geometry on the bass clarinet (he’d studied music at L.A. City College). The stars did align for Coleman, and tomorrow was the question.

As time went on, Coleman’s playing and arranging became even more free-form, more challengingly “abstract” (hear his scratchy, free-improvised violin playing on Live at the Golden Circle), caught up no doubt in the dissonant revolution he himself had unleashed, made even more challenging by atonal “extremists” such as tenor saxophonist Albert Ayler (and even Coltrane; hear his symphonic forest-of-saxophones album, Meditations).

Moving to New York, Coleman wrote Schoenberg-like string quartets (Dedication to Poets and Writers), and in 1962 recorded a double quartet record (Free Jazz) that probably requires four ears to listen to it.

“Is it true,” Litweiler writes, “that Coleman … is the most far-reaching innovator in jazz’s history? Certainly the upheaval his music inspired has had the longest-lasting consequences. … No other jazz artist’s work has had anything approaching equal resonance.”

Like the radical composer Schoenberg (another L.A. transplant from long ago), Coleman was one of those rare innovators of consequence who arrive to say, “This is how it’s going to be done now.” The jazz world did catch up with him (on the East Coast), though the wider American public barely noticed. (Meanwhile, rock-capital L.A. increasingly meant nothing to free-jazz artists after the 1965 Watts riots, save for local stalwarts like Coleman’s friend, trumpeter Bobby Bradford, and composer-pianist Horace Tapscott, both toughing it out with teaching gigs.)

The heavyweights of free jazz may have “pushed the envelope” into a thousand shreds, but in the process they created a new, high art form with an intense emotional core, a black musical art as sophisticated as anything since Duke Ellington or Charlie Parker; that, and hundreds of great recordings that have stood the test of time.

Ornette Coleman and his generation of freedom-pushing musicians need to be heard by Americans of all colors, hues and creeds (by any means necessary), today.

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