Ornette Coleman cover story, 1989

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.

Also in this issue: Read this week's interview with Denardo Coleman Read this week's interview with Charlie Haden

From past issues: Read a 1996 interview with Ornette Coleman Read a 1991 interview with Charlie Haden Read a 1991 blindfold test with Charlie Haden

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.

And there was Something Else here. Bebop had been ulcer music, outwardly relaxed but intellectual and tyrannical, a factory to turn alienation into technically prodigious artifacts of machine-tooled modern beauty. Following it in the mid-'50s was "cool" West Coast jazz -- eat lotus and forget. Ornette Coleman's music was truly new, the sound of being born: no devices, no illusions, just human blurt, spontaneous and natural. Was it art at all? These first recordings were only a hint. In a minute, people would really start to wonder.

Several revolutions would break out in Coleman's own life in 1959 and 1960: his working quartet would crystallize, he would change labels, he would change coasts, and people would start to yell about him. Lester Koenig, king of Contemporary, used to work with Nesuhi Ertegun, who headed the jazz line of Atlantic records in NYC. Both thought a change of labels and locations was in order for Coleman. Says Koenig, "We just couldn't support him in Los Angeles. There was no place for the group to work." That meant dinky record sales and media invisibility. New York was the place.

Right away, beginning in May 1959, when Coleman was 28 years old, Atlantic abandoned notions of compromise and began recording the straight stuff, the Ornette Coleman Quartet including Cherry (age 22), Higgins (22) and Haden (21), who had aready been rehearsing together maniacally for about a year. "We would really practice and know the tunes frontwards and backwards," says Cherry in the box's notes. "The object was to take the first take." Which they usually did. And nothing like it had ever been done before. The group. That's what Beauty Is a Rare Thing is about.

The sound was new, but it's not as if the music were performed on rubber bands by football players. There would be a head, a melodic statement, played in unison or "harmolodic" harmony by sax and trumpet and flowing around a series of bends and rhythms that seemed to pop out of nowhere, like flashes in a daydreaming mind. Then the drums and bass would break into a straight rhythm and a series of solos would follow just as they might in bebop, except that, harmonically, there were no rules. Bebop had added a couple of new notes to the blues scale, and had opened up a new dimension of chord substitutions. But there was no piano in Coleman's group to block out the improvisational borders, and the musicians had trained themselves to play not off a structure, but off a constantly changing set of interrelationships in melody and mood.

Beauty Is a Rare Thing magnifies Ornette Coleman's rapid radicalization, his transformation from lonely innovator to point man for the avant-garde jazz scene that exploded in his wake. Though the transition was natural, in some ways it was forced on him by circumstances: changes in personnel and a need to stay outside of the outside.

Right beside Coleman at every turn was Cherry, Coleman's "twin," the man furthest inside the leader's mind. Their unison lines were graceful, flexible, breaking the listener's tendency to stamp Coleman an eccentric: look, there's at least one other guy in the world who can do that. His solos had a warm, blurry feel that made his vibratory runs and helium-balloon balladic flights seem friendly. And as a commentator, he provided just the right interjections to motivate continued dialogue.

Listening to the Hollywood recordings from which Coleman pulled his first two Atlantic albums, you have to wonder if he wasn't a little bit lucky that the great individualist Ed Blackwell had moved back to New Orleans a few years previous. That loss made way for Billy Higgins, whose contribution at that moment was crucial. From the fanfare "Focus on Sanity" to the yearn of "Lonely Woman," from the Latin perk of "Una Muy Bonita" to the turkey-in-the-straw goof of "Ramblin'," Higgins had one thing on his mind: groove. For listeners who must have been yanking their earlobes every 10 seconds to adjust to the truant Coleman and Cherry, Higgins' sensuous cymbals laid out the familiar foot-tap that kept them locked in. In 1959, few were ready for Coleman, Cherry and the polyrhythmic bash of Blackwell.

And Charlie Haden was the ideal bridge. Like Higgins and unlike Coleman, Haden didn't just circle the beat, he insisted on it. Whether he was playing half-time, double-time or thirds, even when he was improvising alone, Haden hammered out a coherent rhythmic logic that was simultaneously a bulwark and an inspiration -- check out his anchoring role in the midst of the ritardandos and quarter-time dropouts of "Free." Just as important: his sense of melody. Haden's walking accompaniments were also melodic challenges, showing absolutely no debt to Coleman's EEG patterns. And his solos were songs in themselves.

Out of the Atlantic sessions, recorded between 1959 and 1961, came The Shape of Jazz To Come, Change of the Century, This Is Our Music, Free Jazz, Ornette! and Ornette on Tenor. From same sessions also came the hodgepodges The Art of the Improvisers, Twins and the Japan-only To Whom Who Keeps a Record, all released in the '70s. Of the several valuable services Beauty Is a Rare Thing provides, the main one is its sequential inclusion of all the performances Coleman recorded, displaying the music's incredible consistency. Make no mistake: though freedom was a rule, it was a very disciplined freedom -- this was not jamming. If it were, you'd find a large number of throwaways. Instead, you get a notion of why quite a few tunes were not released until a decade later, and why those '70s grab-bags, inconsistent as they are in terms of cohesiveness, offer so many high-quality selections: the original LPs just didn't have enough room. Otherwise, why leave the beautiful "Just for You" off Jazz To Come or fail to include the arrogant, sexy "Brings Goodness" on Our Music?

Likewise, when it comes to Beauty's six previously unreleased tracks, you can see why they were shelved. Most of them come from Ed Blackwell's first session back with the band replacing Billy Higgins. (Higgins had his cabaret card revoked and couldn't gig, but as it happened Blackwell was available, having skipped bail in New Orleans after being charged with cohabiting with a woman who was not black.) Blackwell was still rediscovering his place in the music, and the band whipped through nine selections in four hours. These tracks aren't dogs, but there's also nothing that really grabs your lapels, except maybe the bluesy folk-swing of "I Heard It Over the Radio," which Coleman may not have considered rad enough for his rep. Also deservedly unreleased is the stiff, chemistryless "Proof Readers," Scott La Faro's first shot in the studio replacing Charlie Haden. But La Faro warms up quickly, as the rest of the session shows.

In 1960, the quartet, shedding few tears over their departure from L.A., began performing and recording in New York. The change of scene and of drummers made for a change in Coleman's music as well: there was a new intensity, a near- complete abandonment of convention. Blackwell's rattling, multiaccented drumming looked backward to a tribal time before "jazz" and forward into the blind future. And the compositions had a new range, from the thoroughly mapped, logical but rolling and carefree "Humpty Dumpty" to the eye-popping rush and Manhattan surge of "Kaleidoscope." This was urban music, fueled by the tension of public controversy. Gil Evans: "He swings, and he's got a good feeling for melody." Roy Eldridge: "I think he's jiving, baby."

In New York, in 1960 still the nation's cultural and critical capital, Coleman finally graduated from nonentity to freak show. It was a variation on a theme Coleman was by now quite used to: "I'd always go somewhere where I thought I'd be accepted, and found out I'd be kicked in the ass." Plenty of people hated his music, and hardly anyone loved it, but thanks to a series of high-visibility gigs at the Five Spot, nobody could ignore it anymore, and many were changed by it. Another ear-opening John Litweiler book, The Freedom Principle: Jazz After 1958 on Da Capo Press, outlines the era's formula. Jazz was already being turned inside out by Miles Davis' "modal" period of extended blowing on one or two loose scales. Sun Ra was experimenting with atonality and free interludes. Most radical was Cecil Taylor, who fast-forwarded the percussive clusters of Thelonious Monk into condensed, shrieking piano symphonies. John Coltrane examined Coleman's music carefully, talked with him often, even recorded an album of mostly Coleman tunes with Coleman's band, and this revered leader's endorsement and subsequent plunge into the avant-garde gave the movement credibility and commercial life.

It was at this point that Coleman recorded Free Jazz, a title that was as much a command as a description. A Collective Improvisation (as it was subtitled) by eight musicians including Coleman, Cherry, Haden, Higgins, Blackwell, La Faro, Eric Dolphy and Freddie Hubbard, it offered another dimension beyond freedom of melody and rhythm: density. It wasn't Coleman's most advanced work compositionally -- that wasn't the point, just the opposite in fact. Though each musician had a traditional solo turn, Coleman encouraged them to play whenever they felt like it, leading to a feeling, especially among the drummers and bassists, of shifting masses in which the individual's contributions were felt subliminally, not through a distinct audit of his statement. This emphasis of emotion over line proved to be a main principle of "free" jazz.

From the Bill Evans Trio, Scott La Faro joined Coleman, Cherry and Blackwell for Coleman's next recording six weeks later, replacing his increasingly unreliable friend, Haden, who, unable to get his bass out of hock, had had to borrow one for the Free Jazz session. (Though the jazz may have been free, the musicians were frequently slaves to opiates in those days.) Litweiler: "La Faro was a strong player, possibly even as forceful as Haden, but his technical facility and his harmonic choices often made his lines appear merely ornamental, whereas Haden's had been integral." Still, the music didn't suffer, it just changed focus -- loose and extended on the model of Free Jazz and delivering at least one Coleman classic, the jaunty "C&D," to which La Faro's bowed bass solo adds depth and gravity.

The Ornette Coleman Quartet's last album for Atlantic, Ornette on Tenor (this time with bassist Jimmy Garrison, soon to join Coltrane), told more about Coleman's musical history than anything else he has ever recorded. And it goes down easy. As a teenager in Texas, Coleman started out playing alto, but switched to tenor for a while because it was easier to get jobs playing in R&B bands on the backstabbing after-hours gambling circuit. And in the Ornette on Tenor sessions, you hear that kid: not Coleman the theorist and experimenter, but Coleman the Texas blues player, honking and gyrating for the bombed night animals on the same stages with entertainers like Big Jay McNeely, who still plays an L.A. bar from time to time, cracked as ever. With On Tenor, Coleman's idiosyncratic riffage was nearly swallowed up by his sound, a way-down-in-the-throat gush, punctuated by percussive overblowing, that nailed his connection to Texas tenor men like Illinois Jacquet and Arnett Cobb. (Arnett is the more common form for Ornette.) In contrast to Coleman's carnival alto, this was sex and boogie, and the rhythm section responded with a shot of Saturday-night forward motion.

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."

Most of us like the word freedom, but we're afraid of the real thing, and we walk out into the world each day with our wrists extended, begging for the manacles. Knowing freedom's price, we learn to do what is expected of us and to abandon our childlike dreams. Ornette Coleman may be dreaming, but he's free.


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories