Ornette Coleman was one of those secular saints who walked terra firma in order to test the self-importance of his listeners. What I mean to say is that for all of the jazz world’s self-proclaimed openness to new ideas, stature as purveyors of artistic freedom, indeed of democracy itself with, by the time of Coleman’s debut, the backing of no less than the U.S. Department of State, the very listeners who might have been expected to at least say, yeah, whatever, do what you do Ornette! did quite the opposite. Miles Davis was some kind of demigod, but he got some things very wrong, including his assessment of Coleman being “screwed up inside.” Has any artist ever endured such direct rebuke and critical dismissal from a community supposedly composed of free thinkers? He couldn’t play his instrument, the alto saxophone, some said. He was out of his mind, said others. Coleman dropped a couple of albums that actually lived up to their titles (The Shape of Jazz to Come, Free Jazz), chilled and woodshedded for a while, and then tripled down on the competency question. He came back with a trio and two new instruments: violin and trumpet. By the later 1960s, he had managed a grudging respect thanks to a movement (mis)named after one of his own records—Coleman’s wanted to set jazz free compositionally with “playing free” as only an occasional element. The decision to have his ten-year old son Denardo play drums on a 1967 record date gave even his closest disciples pause.
But the saint strode onward, doggedly insisting on writing a symphonic piece that surely no one wanted to hear (“Skies of America”), recording a magnum opus (Science Fiction) just as the accountants at Columbia prepared to trim him from The Label’s roster in the name of sound business principles, and plugging in with his Prime Time bands. His encounter with a seemingly unlikely admirer from a younger generation, Pat Metheny, on Song X in 1986 may have helped turn opinion Coleman’s way. The guitarist, recently graduated from Manfred Eicher’s private jazz empire of the mind (ECM) and given free rein by what must have been a distracted David Geffen, amped up the synth-guitar and traded harmolodic licks with the master. The duo, backed by Charlie Haden, Jack DeJohnette, and a mature Denardo, made a beautiful noise and probably set the stage for Coleman’s public reinvention as a Jazz Master, NEA and otherwise (the Pulitzer Prize, the MacArthur, etc., etc.) Nothing could have been more incongruous than to see Ornette Coleman at the Grammy Awards in 2007 helping Natalie Cole announce the winner of Best New Artist: Carrie Underwood. When Coleman was the best new artist in New York in 1959, his art music colleagues called him crazy.
If Coleman suffered from the early rejection by almost all of his peers and many of his own heroes, he didn’t let it stop him from playing his music the way he heard it, from not accepting received notions and conventions of western music and tonality, and redefining, along with partner Don Cherry, what it could mean to play melody in unison in a jazz context. He consistently went his own way, right down to his album titles and cover art. One of the most bracing jackets of the 1960s is the one for This Is Our Music. Paired with master photographer Lee Friedlander’s portrait of the skinny-tied Coleman quartet–the bearded saint, the pocket trumpet playing sidekick (Cherry) in shades, the New Orleans parade drummer (Ed Blackwell) leaning in, the Ozark bass player (Haden) integrating the band—it makes a statement both direct and ambiguous for 1961. Debates in the jazz press–about the role of critics, about whose music jazz was, about the racial characteristics or lack thereof in various jazz practices—provided an index of talking points in a larger and increasingly contentious cultural conversation, a complex discussion in print, backstage at the clubs, and at record companies and festivals, that questioned the assumptions upon which the jazz culture industry, and indeed the larger society, had been built. In the year that James Baldwin published The Fire Next Time, Coleman’s This Is Our Music comes across as a humble offering, a proud boast, a personal claim, a statement of brotherhood, and a rebuke of orthodoxies of various stripes, all at once. Staring directly at Friedlander’s camera, the Coleman Quartet dares you to look away—dares you not to listen to the music inside, and to give what you hear a chance. It is a statement of authenticity, of collective individuality that has always been at the heart of jazz, and a pledge among brothers. The music itself exemplifies all this and much more.
Charlie Haden died last year, and now with the saint’s departure the classic Coleman Quartet members are all gone (sometime drummer Billy Higgins died in 2001, Blackwell in 1992, and Cherry in 1995). The long-term loyalty of these musicians and others who worked with Coleman speaks to the impact of his originality as well as his determination to proceed in his own way. That the rest of the world finally caught on and caught up with him is one of jazz’s happier stories. Who deserved his late-life laurels more?
A few favorite Ornette Coleman recordings:
Tomorrow Is the Question! (Contemporary, 1959)
The Shape of Jazz to Come (Atlantic, 1959)
Beauty Is a Rare Thing: The Complete Atlantic Recordings (Rhino, 1993)
At the Golden Circle, Stockholm, Vols. 1 & 2 (Blue Note, 1966)
The Complete Science Fiction Sessions (Columbia, 1971)
Song X: Twentieth Anniversary (w. Pat Metheny) (Geffen, 1986; 2005)
Sound Grammar (Sound Grammar, 2006)