Ornette Coleman's Permanent Revolution
Ornette's Permanent Revolution
by Francis Davis
This article originally appeared in the September 1985 issue of The Atlantic.
All hell broke loose when the alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman made his East Coast nightclub debut, at the Five Spot Cafe, in Greenwich Village on November 17, 1959—twenty-five years ago last fall.
The twenty-nine-year-old Coleman arrived in New York having already won the approval of some of the most influential jazz opinion makers of the period. "Ornette Coleman is doing the only really new thing in jazz since the innovations in the mid-forties of Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and those of Thelonious Monk," John Lewis, the pianist and musical director of the Modern Jazz Quartet, is reported to have said after hearing Coleman in Los Angeles. (Lewis later helped Coleman secure a contract with Atlantic Records.) Coleman's other champions included the critics Nat Hentoff and Martin Williams and the composer Gunther Schuller, all of whom wrote for the magazine Jazz Review. "I honestly believe ... that what Ornette Coleman is doing on alto will affect the whole character of jazz music profoundly and pervasively," Williams wrote, a month before Coleman opened at the Five Spot.
Not all of Williams's colleagues shared his enthusiasm, once they were given the opportunity to hear Coleman for themselves. In Down Beat, George Hoefer described the reactions of the audience at a special press preview at the Five Spot: "Some walked in and out before they could finish a drink, some sat mesmerized by the sound, others talked constantly to their neighbors at the table or argued with drink in hand at the bar." Many critics, finding Coleman's music strident and incoherent, feared that his influence on jazz would be deleterious. Others doubted that he would exert any influence on jazz at all. Still others, bewildered by Coleman's music and preferring to take a wait-and-see position on its merits, accused Coleman's supporters at Jazz Review of touting Coleman for their own aggrandizement. Musicians—always skeptical of newcomers, and envious of the publicity Coleman was receiving—denounced him even more harshly than critics did. Some questioned his instrumental competence; the outspoken Miles Davis questioned Coleman's sanity.
Internecine squabbling over the merits of historical movements and geographical schools was nothing new in the jazz world. But not since a short-lived vogue for the rather decrepit New Orleans trumpeter Bunk Johnson two decades earlier (and perhaps not even then) had one musician split opinion so cleanly down the middle. Coleman was either a visionary or a charlatan, and there was no middle ground between advocacy and disapproval. The controversy raged, spreading from the music journals to the daily newspapers and general-interest magazines, where it gradually turned comic. Every VIP in Manhattan, from Leonard Bernstein to Dorothy Kilgallen, seemed to have wisdom to offer on the subject of Ornette Coleman. In Thomas Pynchon's novel V. there is a character named McClintic Sphere, who plays an alto saxophone of hand-carved ivory (Coleman's was made of white plastic) at a club called the V Note
- 'He plays all the notes Bird missed,' somebody whispered in front of Fu. Fu went silently through the motions of breaking a beer bottle on the edge of the table, jamming it into the speaker's back and twisting.
For those of us who began listening to jazz after 1959, it is difficult to believe that Coleman's music was once the source of such animus and widespread debate. Given the low visibility of jazz today, a figure comparable to Coleman arriving on the scene might find himself in the position of shouting "Fire" in an empty theater.
Looking back, it also strains belief that so many of Coleman's fellow musicians initially failed to recognize the suppleness of his phrasing and the keening vox-humana quality of his intonation. Jazz musicians have always respected instrumentalists whose inflections echo the natural cadences of speech, and they have always sworn by the blues (although as jazz has increased in sophistication, "the blues" has come to signify a feeling or a tonal coloring, in addition to a specific form). Coleman's blues authenticity—the legacy of the juke joints in his native Fort Worth, Texas, where he had played as a teenager—should have scored him points instantly. Instead, his ragged, down-home sound seems to have cast him in the role of country cousin to slicker, more urbanized musicians—as embarrassing a reminder of the past to them as a Yiddish speaking relative might have been to a newly assimilated Jew. In 1959 the "old country" for most black musicians was the American South, and few of them wanted any part of it.
What must have bothered musicians still more than the unmistakable southern dialect of Coleman's music was its apparent formlessness, its flouting of rules that most jazz modernists had invested a great deal of time and effort in mastering. In the wake of bebop, jazz had become a music of enormous harmonic complexity. By the late 1950s it seemed to be in danger of becoming a playground for virtuosos, as the once liberating practice of running the chords became routine. If some great players sounded at times as though they lacked commitment and were simply going through the motions, it was because the motions were what they had become most committed to.
In one sense, the alternative that Coleman proposed amounted to nothing more drastic than a necessary (and, in retrospect, inevitable) suppression of harmony in favor of melody and rhythm—but that was regarded as heresy in 1959. It has often been said that Coleman dispensed with recurring chord patterns altogether, in both his playing and his writing. The comment is not entirely accurate, however. Rather, he regarded a chord sequence as just one of many options for advancing a solo. Coleman might improvise from chords or, as inspiration moved him, he might instead use as his point of departure "a mood, fragments of melody, an area of pitch, or rhythmic patterns," to quote the critic Martin Williams. Moreover, Coleman's decision to dispense with a chordal road map also permitted him rhythmic trespass across bar lines. The stealthy rubato of Coleman's phrases and his sudden accelerations of tempo implied liberation from strict meter, much as his penchant for hitting notes a quarter-tone sharp or flat and his refusal to harmonize his saxophone with Don Cherry's trumpet during group passages implied escape from the well-tempered scale.
Ultimately, rhythm may be the area in which Coleman has made his most significant contributions to jazz. Perhaps the trick of listening to his performances lies in an ability to hear rhythm as melody, the way he seems to do, and the way early jazz musicians did. Some of Coleman's comeliest phrases, like some of King Oliver's or Sidney Bechet's, sound as though they were scooped off a drumhead.
Coleman was hardly the only jazz musician to challenge chordal hegemony in 1959. John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, and Thelonious Monk, among others, were looking beyond Charlie Parker's harmonic discoveries to some of the rhythmic and structural implications of bop. Cecil Taylor and George Russell were experimenting with chromaticism and pantonality, and a Miles Davis Sextet featuring Coltrane and Bill Evans had just recorded Kind of Blue, an album that introduced a new spaciousness to jazz by replacing chords with modes and scales. But it was Coleman who was making the cleanest break with convention, and Coleman whose intuitive vision of the future bore the most natural relationship to the music's country origins. He was a godsend, as it turned out.
In 1959 Coleman's music truly represented Something Else (to quote the title of his first album). Whether it also forecast The Shape of Jazz to Come (the title of another early album of Coleman's) is still problematical. Certainly Coleman's impact on jazz was immediate and it has proved long-lasting. Within a few years of Coleman's first New York engagement established saxophonists like Coltrane, Rollins, and Jackie McLean were playing a modified Colemanesque free form, often in the company of former Coleman sidemen. The iconoclastic bassist Charles Mingus (initially one of Coleman's antagonists) was leading a pianoless quartet featuring the alto saxophonist Eric Dolphy and the trumpeter Ted Curson, whose open-ended dialogues rivaled in abandon those of Coleman and Cherry.
Over the years Coleman has continued to cast a long shadow, as he has extended his reach to symphonies, string quartets, and experiments in funk. By now he has attracted two generations of disciples.
There are the original sidemen in his quartet and their eventual replacements: the trumpeters Cherry and Bobby Bradford; the tenor saxophonist Dewey Redman; the bassists Charlie Haden, Scott LaFaro, Jimmy Garrison, and David Izenzon; and the drummers Billy Higgins, Ed Blackwell, and Charles Moffett. These musicians were followed in the late 1970s by younger ones who brought to Coleman's bands the high voltage of rock and funk: for example, the guitarist James Blood Ulmer, the electric bassist Jamaaladeen Tacuma, and the drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson. Some of Coleman's early associates in Texas and California, such as the clarinetist John Carter and the flutist Prince Lawsha, have gone on to produce work that shows Coleman's influence unmistakably.
Coleman planted the seed for the free jazz movement of the 1960s, which in turn gave rise to a school of European themeless improvisors, led by the guitarist Derek Bailey and the saxophonist Evan Parker. Since 1965 Coleman has performed on trumpet and violin in addition to alto and tenor saxophones, and several young violinists have taken him as their model: for example, Billy Bang, whose jaunty, anthemlike writing bespeaks his affection for Coleman. And for all practical purposes, the idea of collective group improvisation, which has reached an apex in the work of a number of groups affiliated with the Chicago-based Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, began with the partial liberation of bass and drums from chordal and timekeeping duties in the first Ornette Coleman Quartet.
If one listens closely for them, one can hear Colemanesque accents in the most unlikely places: the maundering piano soliloquies of Keith Jarrett and the bickering, simultaneous improvisations of young hard-boppers like Wynton and Branford Marsalis. Yet for all that, Coleman's way has never really supplanted Charlie Parker's as the lingua franca to jazz, as many hoped and others feared it would.
One reason could be that Coleman's low visibility has denied the jazz avant-garde a figurehead. Since his debut at the Five Spot, Coleman has set a price for concerts and recordings that reflects what he perceives to be his artistic merit rather than his limited commercial appeal. Needless to say, he has had very few takers. As a result, he performs only occasionally, and it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that he bears some responsibility for his own neglect.
Just a few years ago it appeared that Coleman's star was on the rise again. In 1977 his former sidemen Cherry, Redman, Haden, and Blackwell formed a quartet called Old and New Dreams. Coleman compositions, old and new, accounted for roughly half of the group's repertoire. If the myth that Coleman had to be physically present in order for his music to be played properly persisted in some quarters, Old and New Dreams dispelled it once and for all. The band played Coleman's music with a joy and a sense of purpose that bore witness to Coleman's acuity as a composer. The success of Old and New Dreams showed that the music that had once been both hailed and reviled as the wave of the future had taken a firm enough hold in the past to inspire nostalgia.
The rapture with which jazz audiences greeted the band's reinterpretation of vintage Coleman owed something to the fact that Coleman himself had moved on to other frontiers—appearing with two electric guitarists, two bass guitarists, and two drummers in a band he called Prime Time. The group provided the working model for a cryptic (and, one suspects, largely after-the-fact) theory of tonality that Coleman called harmolodics. The theory held that instruments can play together in different keys without becoming tuneless or exchanging the heat of the blues for a frigid atonality. (As the critic Robert Palmer pointed out in the magazine The New York Rocker, Coleman's music had always been "harmolodic.") In practice the harmolodic theory functioned like a MacGuffin in a Hitchcock film: if you could follow what it was all about, good for you; if you couldn't, that wasn't going to hamper your enjoyment one iota. What mattered more than any amount of theorizing was that Coleman was leading jazz out of a stalemate, much as he had in 1959. He had succeeded in locating indigenous jazz rhythms that play upon the reflexes of the body the way the simultaneously bracing and relaxing polyrhythms of funk and New Wave rock-and-roll do.
Unlike most of the jazz musicians who embraced dance rhythms in the 1970s, Coleman wasn't slumming or taking the path of least resistance in search of a mass following. Nonetheless, a modest commercial breakthrough seemed imminent in 1981, when he signed with Island Records and named Sid and Stanley Bernstein (the former is the promoter who brought the Beatles to Shea Stadium) as his managers. There is some disagreement among the principal parties about what happened next, but Coleman released only one album on the Island label. In 1983 he severed his ties with the Bernstein agency and once more went into a partial eclipse
Lately the task of shedding Coleman's light has fallen to Ulmer, Tacuma, and Jackson. They have been no more successful than Coleman in attracting a mass audience, despite a greater willingness to accommodate public tastes—and despite reams of hype from the intellectual wing of the pop-music press. When Coleman next emerges from the shadows, he may have discarded harmolodics in favor of some other invention.
IN the final analysis, Coleman's failure to redefine jazz as decisively as many predicted he would is more the result of the accelerated pace at which jazz was evolving before he arrived in New York than of his lack of activity afterward. During the fifty years prior to Coleman's debut a series of upheavals had taken jazz far from its humble folk beginnings and made of it a codified art music. It was as though jazz had imitated the evolution of European concert music in a fraction of the time. Just as the term "classical music" has come to signify European concert music of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the words "modern jazz" have become synonymous with the style of jazz originally called bebop.
With Ornette Coleman, jazz established its permanent avant-garde—a "new" that would always remain new. If one measures a player's influence solely by the number of imitators he spawns and veteran players who adopt aspects of his style (the usual yardstick in jazz), Coleman finishes among his contemporaries a distant third behind Davis and Coltrane. Yet his accomplishment seems somehow greater than theirs. Davis and Coltrane showed which elements of free form the jazz mainstream could absorb (modality, approximate harmonies, saxophone glossolalia, the sixteenth note as a basic unit of measurement, the use of auxiliary percussion and of horns once considered "exotic") and which elements it finally could not (variable pitch, free meter, collective improvisation). Coleman's early biography is replete with stories of musicians packing up their instruments and leaving the bandstand when he tried to sit in. If Coleman now showed up incognito at a jam session presided over by younger followers of Parker, Davis, and Coltrane, chances are he would be given the cold shoulder. Bebop seems to be invincible, though Coleman and other prophets without honor continue to challenge its hegemony.
The bop revolution of the 1940s was a successful coup d'etat. The revolution that Ornette Coleman started is never wholly going to succeed or fail. Coleman's revolution has proved to be permanent. Its skirmishes have marked the emergence of jazz as a full-fledged modern art, with all of modernism's dualities and contradictions.
No modern jazz record library is complete without the albums that Ornette Coleman recorded for Atlantic Records from 1959 to 1961, including The Shape of Jazz to Come (SD1317), Change of the Century (SD1327), This Is Our Music (SD1353),Free Jazz (SD1364), Ornette! (SD1378), and Ornette on Tenor (SD1394). Although most of them remain in print, the question arises why Atlantic has never re-issued its Coleman material in chronological order, complete with unissued titles and alternate takes. This seminal music merits such historical presentation.
Coleman's recordings with Prime Time and its immediate precursors are Dancing in Your Head (A&M Horizon SP722), Body Mehta (Artists House AH-1), and Of Human Feelings (Island/ Antilles AN-2001). The group Old and New Dreams, which still exists as a part-time endeavor, has released three albums, including Playing (ECM-11205) and two titled Old and New Dreams on different labels (ECM-1-1154 and Black Saint BSR-0013).
Other essential Coleman includes his album-length concerto for alto saxophone and orchestra, The Skies of America (Columbia KC-31562); his duets with the bassist Charlie Haden, Soap Suds (Artist House AH-6); and his best concert recordings, The Ornette Coleman Trio Live at the Golden Circle, Volumes 1 & 2 (Blue Note BST-84224 and BST-84225, available separately).