This Week on Jazz Spectrum: Ornette Coleman

Read this week's Jazz Spectrum blogs on Ornette Coleman by Fritz Byers and contributing writer, Kim Kleinman.

On Ornette Coleman

By Fritz Byers
(August 1998)

(This week at Jazz Spectrum is Ornette Coleman Week, an homage propelled by the approach of the 94th anniversary of his birth on March 9, 1930. This week’s show will focus on Ornette’s recordings, and through the week we’ll be posting a few thoughts on his achievement. We begin with a piece I wrote for the City Paper in August 1998.  I’ve refrained from editing it.  Although I’d like to think I could improve the writing a bit, twenty-six years later I stand by the judgments and the enthusiasm.)

The image of the great, aging artist, emerging from a long period of decline for a final flourish of brilliance, is one of the most enduring sentimentalities in American culture.  It may be all blind nostalgia — a few recent Oscar nominations come to mind.  Or there may really be something captivating going on, a twilight renascence before final sundown.  You all have your own favorite examples. Dylan’s Time Out of Mind, released last year, and Jimmy Connors’s rollicking streak to the semi-finals of the 1991 U.S. Open are two of mine.

Of course, like any pop convention, this familiar formula probably masks more than it explains.  While, to be sure, some geniuses may lie fallow for long periods of time, it is more often true that they are merely laboring outside of the culture’s momentary preoccupations, being brilliant on their own terms while they wait for the popular spotlight to swing back around.  Again, we can trade examples: the century is full of them.

Jazz Spectrum Blog

The one on my mind right now is that of the great alto-saxophonist Ornette Coleman.  Coleman made his East Coast debut at the Five Spot Café in Greenwich Village in November 1959, and in his own fitting understatement, “all hell broke loose.”  By the time Coleman hit the Five Spot, the era’s most authoritative commentators had already anointed him, on the basis of a handful of recordings, and a legendary 1958 stint at the fabled Lenox School of Music, where he garnered the enduring support of the Modern Jazz Quartet pianist John Lewis and the powerful critic Martin Williams.  

But it was all just highbrow vapors until the Five Spot. As Coleman describes it, “Everybody in New York was saying you’ve got to go down to the Five Spot and hear this crazy alto player from Texas.  It was like I was E.T. or something, just dropped in from the moon, and everybody had to come take a look at me.”  Take a look they did, and jazz hasn’t been the same since.  At the time, Martin Williams raved: “What Coleman is playing will affect the whole character of jazz music profoundly and pervasively.”  If anything, this turned out to be an understatement.  (Not everyone was charmed.  The ever-charitable Miles Davis pronounced Coleman “insane,” and even Dizzy Gillespie, a notable cheerleader for jazz innovation, was puzzled.)

Once Coleman ascended, he was nearly a force of nature.  His influence bestrode the Sixties, which in jazz, as elsewhere, were notably turbulent.  It seemed Coleman might actually succeed in the almost inconceivable feat of merging the popular with the avant-garde.  Then, however, as that decade waned, jazz took a startling, downward turn, and Coleman was left to pursue his own eccentric fantasies.                      
Since then, he has been largely ignored by the popular press and by most of the jazz world.  But this was an illusion.  If you knew where to look, Coleman was everywhere.  Over the years, Coleman’s restless, forceful genius has extended its sway to chamber and symphonic music, experiments in funk and fusion, and the almost unimaginable brilliance of his singular extended work, “Skies of America”, a sort of inverted concerto grosso for orchestra and alto sax.  Still, for the most part, all of his versatile, majestic virtuosity took place beneath the radar of all but the most sapient fans.  Cultists may have followed his every move, but, for most of the last three decades, he just hasn’t had that Tina Brown buzz.

Until the last couple of years, that is.  Beginning with his galvanic 1996 two-CD release, Sound Museum, Coleman has re-emerged as, perhaps, the most dynamic artist in jazz.  Since then, he’s released a cluster of path-breaking recordings, including Colors with the pianist Joachim Kuhn, and Tone Dialing with his current group Prime Time, a versatile octet that defies description.  After a long, saddening, irregular patch of intermittent public appearances, he’s also returned to frequent concert performance, with a sort of chameleon exuberance, appearing now with Kuhn, now with a vibrant new quartet, now again with the New York Symphony Orchestra.  

Too, after a long period of neglect, the honors have resumed their flow toward Coleman -- in 1997, he was made an officer in the French Order of Arts and Letters, a monumental cultural achievement for an American.  And DownBeat, the magazine of record for the U.S. jazz world, announced this month that Coleman had won the 1998 Critics Poll as Jazz Artist of the Year, a sure sign that the culture’s gaze has swung back around.  True, Coleman is aging, and the jazz world has long since absorbed at least the most elemental of his still-stirring innovations.  But the recent rain of awards doesn’t have the nostalgic, garlanded feeling of late-life elegies.  Rather, it seems a spontaneous outpouring of, if not love, then a rich appreciation for Coleman’s forty years of following his singular, bewitching muse.  There is no one like Ornette Coleman.

Once Again Working on The Enigma off Ornette Coleman

By Kim Kleinman, Contributing Writer

When he invited me to this birthday party for Ornette Coleman, Fritz wrote, “…I’ve loved his music since I got the ears to hear it correctly, and now I’m convinced I’ve underestimated his brilliance and the sheer beauty of his music.”  

“The ears to hear it correctly” captures my efforts too. I dutifully read Martin Williams as a new jazz fan in the late 1960s or early 1970s and saw that Ornette Coleman was not only NEW, but IMPORTANT.   I think I snatched up the Atlantic Best of collection from the Columbia Record Club.   It was new, important, but not really much fun.   Still, it would come out for at least one side from time to time in those days of vinyl LPs as the soundtrack to underaged beer and the deep but tedious thoughts of young people trying to figure out the world.   Like the world itself, this music was mysterious, challenging, and a little scary.

I kept returning to Coleman, though far more often than other avant-gardists, even late-era John Coltrane.   There was brilliance and sheer beauty, plus a vulnerability that kept drawing me back.   A.B. Spellman’s Four Jazz Lives showed Coleman to be shy and brave, thoughtful and enigmatic.   Later I saw Shirley Clarke’s documentary “Ornette: Made In America,” which conveyed an overwhelming sense of loneliness. It was with that impression in mind that I walked into the green room after a 1981 concert with Prime Time when I began to get the ears to hear him correctly.   Shy myself, I shook Coleman’s hand to say thanks, for that night and all the years before.   It was easier to talk to bassist Jamaaldeen Tacuma, who asked what I played.   We both heard me blurt, “Er, stereo.”

In 1981, over the two drums, two basses, and two guitars with the leader, I heard just how Ornette sang, not just on alto but on trumpet and violin.   Somehow the lack of technical prowess on the latter instruments expressed that vocal element of his art.   That’s what he’d been doing all along; I finally had the correct ears to hear him singing brilliantly and beautifully.

With that insight, I could go back to those early Atlantic albums and really hear them for the first time—the coherence and poignancy of the melodies, the rich interplay of the voices, the harmonies that are there even without a chordal instrument to frame them.   The previously daunting “Free Jazz” had a logic and opportunities to triangulate Coleman’s music with the more familiar voices of Freddie Hubbard, Eric Dolphy, and Scott LaFaro, a chance to hear how they played this music.

Coleman composed some wonderful tunes—my favorites are among the obvious ones: “Ramblin’,” “Una Muy Bonita,” “Peace,” “Lonely Woman.”   Other musicians have covered these and a few other gems, but they aren’t really part of the canon.   Still, the lead sheets of his that I’ve seen in fake books are straightforward, but his highly personal concept of “harmolodics” was not widely developed by others.   He certainly contributed to the shape of jazz that came along in the 1960s with terse snarling lines and swoops of sound, but to parse out the Coleman from the Shepp, the Ayler, the Dolphy, the Coltrane, in an adventurous young saxophonist of today is difficult.

Yet his sound is distinctive and I do revisit it often enough.   Usually it’s the Atlantic albums from the early 1960s, though I have a selection from the late-sixties Blue Note sides and I paid attention to his work with pianist Geri Allen in the mid 1990s.   

As part of the Jazz Spectrum birthday bash for Ornette, I once again have listened to those favorite early albums this time around, including the one standard that Coleman covered, which is included in this week’s Song of the Week segment, “Embraceable You.”   It’s a chance to test his approach with a recognizable point of reference.   In the same vein, I also returned to his contribution to “Sonnymoon for Two” from Sonny Rollins’s September 2010, 80th birthday concert at the Beacon Theater in Manhattan, which is collected on Road Shows, Vol. 2.   It is, in the end, not all that good.   For one, it is way too long, though to be fair Coleman doesn’t start playing until the nine-minute mark.   They solo only serially in two- or three-minute segments over the remaining 12 minutes with little direct interplay.   They certainly listen to one another but the interaction is passive.   Coleman does invoke the theme at least tangentially in one solo, but more revealing is the way his improvisatory approach rooted in melody and theme has an affinity to Rollins’s and yet is so different.   They each hear those intersections and lean into them.   

It doesn’t quite work, but I am glad I listened.   Coleman’s music does work, brilliantly and with sheer beauty.   I am glad I have listened to it again and again and again.


By Fritz Byers

Ornette Coleman has been dancing in my head for much of the last two weeks, since I happily noticed that this year the anniversary of his day of birth – March 9, 1930 – falls on a Saturday.    Mostly, it’s the beauty of his sound, at once otherworldly and uncannily like a human voice, that has taken up occupancy there.    This is nothing new – once I gave in to hearing Ornette on his own terms and realized his form of beauty is a rare thing, one to be treasured, his music has been a constant.    But this week the music has been a soundtrack, not just to the last forty years of my life, but also to two images that I cannot (and do not really want to) shake:

  • More recently: Hill Auditorium in Ann Arbor, March 19, 2004.     I think of this as the Sound Grammar concert, although it predated that great recording, which won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Music, by more than a year-and-a-half.    Ornette, dressed in an elegant pale blue suit, with two bassists – Tony Falanga and Greg Cohen -- and his son Denardo at drums.    I’ve somehow misplaced the program, which I swore to keep forever.    But I recall that it said most of the music the quartet would play that night had been freshly written during his brief residency at the University of Michigan.    Fresh is an apt word, but one could apply it to everything Ornette played between his debut recording in 1958 (Something Else!!!!) and whatever and whenever he played his final notes before his death in 2015.    I remember being filled with both inexpressible joy and a sense of jarring time-travel when, midway through the concert and mid-way through a tune I’d not heard, he digressed into an extended quote from his canonical piece, “Lonely Woman,” first recorded in 1959.    The mélange of aging hipsters and ardent students that filled the Auditorium instantly responded with appreciative clapping, but even before that applause had faded Ornette had moved on to another of his sinuous, sensual melodies.

Ornette, as early as Free Jazz (1960), where he placed two full quartets side by side and set them to work, had a propensity for doubling instrumentation.    Prime Time, the band he formed in the mid 70s to make his own profound statement about the possibilities of musical fusion, featured pairs of electric guitars and electric basses.    That band’s first recording, Dancing in Your Head (1973-75), is archetypal Coleman, if there can be such a thing in the conceptions of a ceaselessly inventive artist.    The bulk of the album comprises two extended variations on the central motif of his 1972 orchestral composition, Skies of America.    And the other tune, “Midnight Sunrise” adds the Master Musicians of Jajouka to the mix.    To astonishing effect – you have to hear it.    (I can’t avoid dropping the nearly random fact that the author Williams S. Burroughs was in the studio when this tune was recorded.)

So the presence of two bassists on stage that night in Ann Arbor caught my eye.    And ear.    Tony Falanga played with a bow almost the entire night, and the plangent, drawling tone his arco playing produced was a perfect counter-voice to Ornette’s.    In contrast, Greg Cohen’s pizzicato work on bass seemed more focused on serving the paired rhythm-and-harmony role that bassists more conventionally fill.    But since Ornette’s harmolodic theories cast rhythm, harmony, and melody into a sort of free-fall triangulation, you just knew it wasn’t nearly that simple.    

At the end of the concert, Ornette said something to the effect that “Life isn’t only day and night; it’s forever inside of you.”    (I wrote the exact quote on the program, but, as I said, I’ve misplaced it.). And then, after sustained calls for an encore, the quartet concluded with “Turnaround,” from his 1959 masterwork, Tomorrow Is the Question!    Ornette took two mind-bending solos on the piece (O! how I wish I had a memory for music), straddling a bowed melodic invention from Tony Falanga, and they brought the show to a close.    

I wished the night had never ended.    But then Ornette released Sound Grammar, with the same quartet and at least a partially overlapping program, and I keep that recording in a mental reliquary, there for the listening anytime.

  • An earlier image: Ornette grew up in Ft. Worth, Texas, which is the sort of implausible biographical factoid you’d think might be a premise for improv.    But it’s true.    He started in music early, finding kindred spirits in a pair of Ft. Worth free spirits, the saxophonist Prince Lasha and the drummer Charles Moffett.    John Litweiler’s biography, Ornette Coleman: The Harmolodic Life, has some wonderful details about the three of them, and their group, the Jam Jivers.    (Litweiler’s biography, published in 1992, is serviceable, but necessarily incomplete.    Maria Golia’s life study, Ornette Coleman: The Territory and the Adventure, published in 2022, is properly vast, idiosyncratic, and challenging.). Ornette split for New Orleans when he was 19, was assaulted in Baton Rouge for playing weird music, and eventually moved to Los Angeles.    There, he scuffled as a musician.    

He also worked as an elevator operator, and this is the image I keep with me: Ornette Coleman, operating an elevator on the night shift and filling the dead hours by reading books of music theory.    The legions of jazz listeners who condemned Ornette at the start of his career insisted that Ornette should have listened to music rather than read about it, and they devised the trope that his idiosyncrasies were the result of comprehensive misreadings of the relevant texts.    Ornette never deigned to respond to this tripe, although one snowy night at the Five Spot in New York City, before a sparse audience (that included a rapt Sonny Rollins), while playing a blues Ornette perfectly emulated the iconic saxophonist Charlie Parker – note selection, embouchure, tonality, everything.    Just in case you were wondering whether he understood music and whether he knew how to play his horn.

I cherish the image of Ornette, alone, nearly broke, without a steady music gig or even a supportive community, sitting on a stool in an elevator, reading conventional music theory, sifting it through his own intricate ideas, and incubating a new music in his head while he waited for the chance to play it.    

Jazz Spectrum