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Artist Profile, Ornette Coleman

Ornette Coleman Group

I have wanted to write something about Ornette Coleman for a while but kept putting it off as he was the artist who made sense of ‘free jazz’ for me and opened my ears to a whole new world of musical liberation. Not only do I want to do justice to his music, but I also couldn’t decide on a specific album as there are plenty to choose from, but it boiled down to being a toss-up between The Shape of Jazz to Come and Change of the Century. As it happens, we’ve just started a promotion on Atlantic Jazz, and this includes the superb Beauty is a Rare Thing boxset, which collects all of the Atlantic recordings (including many that were hitherto unavailable) into a magnificent package with an informative booklet, so that gives me free rein to waffle at will.

Of all the artists who were accused of breaking jazz at the turn of the sixties, Ornette Coleman was by far the most visible in the public eye, and the most radical in the way he went about it. He wasn’t alone of course, as John Coltrane was busy confounding with his ‘sheets of sound’, and Cecil Taylor was adding dissonance into the mix at an alarming rate. But both Coltrane and Taylor were still operating within traditional tonal frameworks in the late 50’s and would take a few more years to completely burn the rulebook, whereas when Coleman arrived in New York in 1959 his style was already fully formed and ready to let loose.

Coleman’s back story has parallels with Charlie Parker’s in his dogged determination to persevere in the face of the outright hostility from his peers. Born in 1930 in Fort Worth, Texas, Coleman first sparked trouble with his High School band, being kicked out for improvising to The Washington Post. Aged 19 he got a job playing rhythm and blues with a touring show, only to be assaulted after a show and have his saxophone destroyed. Flat broke, he bought a cheap white plastic alto saxophone, which became something of a trademark for him (he would later go on to learn violin and trumpet amongst other instruments). He travelled to Los Angeles as a member of the Pee Wee Crayton band, and spent a large part of the fifties working a range of temporary jobs such as a janitor or elevator operator, whilst he worked on his own unique concept of music.

In California he met many of the musicians who would form the core of his circle, drummers Edward Blackwell, Billy Higgins and Charles Moffett, trumpeters Don Cherry and Bobby Bradford, bassist Charlie Haden, as well as coming into the orbit of influential figures such as John Lewis (of the Modern Jazz Quartet), pianist Paul Bley and theoretician and composer Gunther Schuller. Here he recorded a couple of underappreciated albums for the Contemporary label, Something Else!!!! in 1958 and Tomorrow Is the Question! early the following year. Both records feature his most important ally, trumpeter Don Cherry, and they also neatly trace the rapid developments in his music, especially the removal of the piano from the equation on Tomorrow Is the Question, a crucial step that freed his music from chordal instrumentation.

Ornette Coleman Group

The single most significant event in Coleman’s career came on 17th November 1959, when his quartet commenced a residency at New York’s famous Five Spot jazz club in the heart of bohemian Greenwich Village, the same month that his landmark debut for Atlantic was released, The Shape of Jazz to Come. It’s worth considering the context of New York’s art scene at the time; abstract expressionism was in full swing, with Pollock’s splatter painting liberating artists from the brush and even nominal notions of the representational painting; over in the classical tradition John Cage had performed his silent composition 4:33 as far back as 1952, and along with others like Morton Feldman and David Tudor was more interested in composing through chance devices, via usage of the I Ching, than noting anything down (at least in any conventional sense). With all of this happening jazz was still entrenched in hard bop in 1959, and any budding young players had a hard slog of a career path to follow, having to cut their teeth for years, ultimately to prove themselves in bands run by gods like Davis, Rollins, Coltrane, Blakey, Silver and Monk. Therefore when Coleman’s band arrived fresh from LA, they seemed to be breaking all the rules.

To get a sense of what they must have sounded like in the club, try a tune like Eventually from The Shape of Jazz to Come. Many of the classic Coleman tunes from this period tend to start off with a catchy, almost pop tune, which gets repeated several times before the group plunge into free improvisation that largely disregards all the rules. Coleman and Cherry would take fragments of the melody, but nothing that got in the way of their inspiration moment to moment. The rhythm section of Haden and Higgins powered all of this, often at breakneck speed, with Haden’s basslines free to wander at will harmonically, and Higgins creating waves of propulsion, but always with a fleetness. To walk in on the group in live at The Five Spot must have been alienating and confounding, and many of the stalwarts were quick to write them off. 'I don't know what he's playing but it's not jazz' said Dizzy Gillespie; 'the man is all screwed up inside' said Davis, and legend has it that Max Roach punched Coleman backstage (the irony being that both the latter musicians would be following Coleman’s lead in the coming years). But Coleman had many supporters who were seen in the audience, including Leonard Bernstein, Norman Mailer, James Baldwin and New York Times critic Martin Williams. The group were causing a stir and the press were busy making the most of it. Time Magazine reviewed the group just a week after they debuted, essentially stating that everything supposedly ‘cutting edge’ in jazz prior to that point had been muzak in comparison. No wonder the hard-boppers couldn’t stand them.

Shape of Jazz to Come

Thus was the legend of Ornette Coleman as an enfant terrible born, but I think it’s important to stress that this isn’t ‘difficult’ music to listen to, at least not on these Atlantic sessions (we’re a good decade away from the hardcore ‘harmolodics’ of Dancing in Your Head). I find very little angst in Coleman’s music (as opposed to late Coltrane or Ayler), rather a deep sense of joy and celebration of the here and now. The music has real soul, especially strong in Coleman’s playing, no doubt a result of his R&B apprenticeship. Above all, after a few listens it becomes evident that this is extremely memorable, melodious and even discretely funky music. There’s a sense of logic to Coleman’s playing, and although he has the freedom to invent tunes in whatever key occurs to him, the lack of chord progressions means it doesn’t sound atonal (try Ramblin’ as an example). Higgins’s brilliant drumming always gets the feet tapping, Haden’s bass often creates the illusion of changing gear, and Cherry’s pocket trumpet is the perfect counterpart to Coleman, playing the scurrying themes in unison with, and almost in the same league as an improviser (being six years younger, Cherry stepped out of Coleman’s shadow later in the sixties, and went on to pioneer world jazz in the seventies). Listen to how Cherry rides the first solo on Chronology, clearly influenced by the cool style of Davis but able to go off on a whim. Of the individual albums Shape of Jazz to Come is the most lauded, and arguably the broadest representation of Coleman’s music, opening with the starkly beautiful Lonely Woman, now considered a standard in the repertoire. Here you get joy-ride classics like Eventually, Congeniality and Chronology as well as the meditative Peace. Change of the Century focuses more on the fast-paced tunes (probably explains why it’s my favourite) such as Free, Birdfood and Face of the Bass. The classic experiment Free Jazz is for a double quartet, and included Eric Dolphy, Freddie Hubbard and genius bassist Scott LaFaro. Again, what comes over strongest is how enjoyable it is to listen to, and it’s certainly nowhere near as ferocious as the piece it would inspire five years later, Coltrane’s Ascension. And then there are This is Our Music, Art of the Improvisers and Ornette on Tenor to enjoy, all bursting with Coleman’s earworm tunes. The remastered sounds really brings these sessions to life, with Haden’s bass especially benefiting from coming out of the shadows.

I was lucky enough to see Coleman in London, at the Barbican in 2001, with his son Denardo on drums and Charnett Moffat on bass and his vitality and imagination showed no signs of slowing forty years on from the initial explosion documented in these remarkable recordings.