Friday, June 12, 2015
Ornette Coleman 1930 - 2015
By John Fordham/TheGuardian
The appearance of Ornette Coleman, who has died aged 85, at the Barbican in London in 2001, with a supporting cast of rappers, dancers, video artists, sufi vocalists, opera singers and Chinese traditional musicians, spectacularly symbolised this self-taught musician’s lifelong conviction that all good music is one. Back in London eight years later as the curator of the Meltdown festival, the dynamic Coleman did it again (this time with the singer-poet Patti Smith, the Senegalese griot Baaba Maal, guitarist Bill Frisell and a Moroccan drum choir), and found himself mobbed by fans crowding down the aisles of the Royal Festival Hall to shake his hand, long after the concert’s last chord had faded. It was a spontaneous display of gratitude for a gently indomitable vision that had radically changed the music of the previous half-century not just by revolutionising the intonation, phrasing and shared languages of jazz bands and soloists, but also by offering new ways for contemporary musicians in all genres to communicate with each other.
The groundbreaking and sometimes controversial avant garde saxophonist, pioneer of free jazz, suffered a cardiac arrest.
These triumphant performances were a long way from the world he knew in the early 1960s, when Coleman is reputed to have sat for long stretches in his New York apartment by a silent telephone. His radical ideas had stirred furious controversy and made him a risky proposition for promoters – some critics and musicians, offended by his pitch-bending tone and cavalier attitude to harmony, went as far as to call him a charlatan. Coleman was incensed by the racial and cultural inequalities that sidelined African Americans from classical music at the time, and often made black jazz artists the economic victims of a white-run music industry. He took to demanding that either he was paid the same fees as a classical concert artist or he would not show up. Time proved Coleman right, and from the 1980s onwards his music began to be performed in the world’s great concert halls. Lou Reed said of him: “When you talk about someone speaking through their instrument, that’s Ornette. He changed everything.”
Ornette was born in Fort Worth, Texas, to Randolph, a construction worker and cook, who died when Ornette was seven, and Rosa, a clerk for a funeral director’s. The variety of his music obscured the fact that, at root, he was one of the greatest geniuses of a simple song, the song of the blues. Coleman stripped down and simplified the conventional harmonic framework of jazz, remoulding the raw materials of improvisation and casting off the formal and technical bonds of the bebop style dominating jazz during his childhood. But his saxophone sound was steeped in the slurred notes and rough-hewn intonation of 19th-century singers and saloon-front guitarists at work before jazz was even born. His affecting tone swelled with the eloquence of the human voice.
His most enduring ambition was to imagine shared frameworks within which an impulsive and spontaneous music could emerge with the minimum of formality. From collaborations with symphony orchestras to dialogues with musicians and cultures far removed from jazz, his instantly recognisable themes retained that songlike forthrightness, and a childlike frankness and grace.
Coleman was given an alto saxophone by his mother at the age of 14, but there was no money for lessons. It did not occur to the boy that this might matter. As Coleman once put it: “I thought music was just something human beings done naturally, like eating. I thought [the saxophone] was a toy and I just played it. Didn’t know you have to learn something to find out what the toy does.”
The young Coleman responded to the quicksilver lyricism of the 1940s bop sax idol Charlie Parker, but his early adaptations of Parker’s harmonically complex ideas to the simpler structures of R&B and country blues were derided by fellow musicians and local audiences. His early sound was a mix of Parker phrases, a blues shouter’s rawness and a sax-beginner’s assortment of honks, squeaks and split notes, played in an apparently random relationship to the chords of the underlying tune.
When Coleman, playing the heavier tenor sax at this point, delivered his findings at a Gulf Coast dance in the late 1940s, he was beaten up, and the sax destroyed. He returned to the alto, supported himself with menial jobs, and worked obsessively on radically rethinking the relationship between melody, harmony and rhythm in jazz to set improvisation free. In New Orleans in 1949, he met a young traditional jazz and R&B drummer, Ed Blackwell, whose enthusiasms – like Coleman’s, based on collective rather than soloist-and-backing improvisation – seemed to make him more open to the young saxophonist’s intuitiveness than most of the theoretically advanced bop generation.
Some dismissed Coleman as an untutored fraud and others hailed him an untutored genius.
Moving to Los Angeles to play R&B, periodically working as an elevator operator, Coleman immersed himself in musical theory. What emerged was the basis of a completely new approach to improvising. In 1951 he got together with Blackwell in Los Angeles, and drew in New Orleans musicians including the pianist Ellis Marsalis. Another young drummer, Billy Higgins, appeared on Coleman’s horizon as a Blackwell-like player mixing passionate, unembroidered directness and intense swing. Higgins’s trumpet-playing former school-mate Don Cherry also entered the circle.
Like Coleman, Cherry favoured expressiveness of tone over technical gymnastics. The partners began to fold the saxophonist’s ideas into new bop-related but startlingly fresh-sounding compositions, and as the Jazz Messiahs, with James Clay on tenor sax, Coleman’s revelations began to be displayed to the public.
In 1958, a group including Cherry and the pianist Walter Norris made Coleman’s recording debut, Something Else!!!!, for the Los Angeles jazz label Contemporary Records. Later that year, the Canadian piano virtuoso Paul Bley, then in residence at the Hillcrest Club, LA, hired Coleman and Cherry to join the bassist Charlie Haden and Higgins in his own group.
Their journeys into uncharted musical waters quickly got them all fired from the Hillcrest, though not before they had made what became a cult live recording there. Coleman’s music in this breakthrough year suggested bebop’s quick, twisting, somewhat baroque melodies, but it was looser, wilder and bluesier. These exploits were also the last occasions Coleman would perform with a pianist for 30 years – he found fixed-note harmony instruments too rigid for the improvising flexibility he sought.
Early in 1959, Coleman made his second album for Contemporary. Tomorrow Is the Question! was bursting with exquisite originals – one of which, the lament-like Tears Inside, became a classic. His playing was by now a partly planned, partly serendipitous mingling of tonal, atonal and microtonal music (the exact pitch of Coleman’s notes defy the tuning fork), infused with the blues.
Prestigious musicians began to take an interest – notably the composer, brass player and musicologist Gunther Schuller, and John Lewis, the pianist-leader of the Modern Jazz Quartet. Lewis arranged for Coleman’s group to record for the high-profile Atlantic label. That move led to the albums The Shape of Jazz to Come (1959) and Change of the Century (1960). Through Lewis, Coleman and Cherry attended the Lenox School of Jazz in Massachusetts in 1959, alongside Dave Brubeck and George Russell. Russell, working on radical theories himself, acknowledged that hearing Coleman’s ideas brought a rethink in his own efforts to loosen improvisation from the dictatorship of chord-patterns.Coleman groups, variously featuring Higgins or Blackwell on drums, began to appear on the conventional jazz circuit, and controversy followed. Some dismissed the saxophonist as an untutored fraud and others hailed him as an untutored genius. Coleman’s adoption of a plastic alto sax (at first for economic reasons, and later because he preferred the sound) increased his reputation for eccentricity. The 1961 album Free Jazz – with its famous, and symbolic, Jackson Pollock painting on the cover – was an unbroken collective improvisation for two quartets playing simultaneously, and it was to be a formative influence on younger free-improvisers all over the world in the 1960s and early 70s. Coleman was also experimenting with modern classical music and serialism, and played on the album Jazz Abstractions (1961), which included a Schuller work for jazz band and string quartet.
Coleman took a sabbatical from 1962 to explore the trumpet and violin, which he took to playing with a colourful but approximate, broad-brush waywardness that suited the ends of his music very well. However, these casually adopted additions to his sound palette brought yet more criticism, and the formidably affronted saxophonist and broadcaster Benny Green wrote that “like a stopped clock, Coleman is at least right twice a day”. But when he returned to touring in 1965, a following was growing with Coleman, notably in Europe. With a great trio featuring the former classical bassist David Izenzon and the direct and crisply swinging drummer Charles Moffett, he remained in Europe through 1965, recording a superb pair of live albums for Blue Note (At the Golden Circle Stockholm, volumes 1 and 2).
Jazz giants including Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus and Miles Davis publicly dismissed the newcomer’s work – though the latter’s 1960s bands undoubtedly represented selective use of free-jazz methods – but Coleman began to be perceived as a catalyst for change in contemporary classical music too.
Between the mid-1960s and the early 70s his forays into this field included Inventions of Symphonic Poems, Sun Suite of San Francisco and the symphonic work Skies of America. The last, a logistically troubled session recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra at Abbey Road in 1972, reflected Coleman’s unfamiliarity with the potential of such a large ensemble and the compromises needed to make the segments fit jazz-radio airplay slots. But the sax improvisations over the orchestra retained their old fire, and the symphony contained the original idea for his famous, hypnotically looping theme Dancing in Your Head.
Coleman’s small jazz ensembles began to include a second saxophonist – the tenorist Dewey Redman – at the end of the 60s, and Haden, Higgins and Blackwell returned. But the next decade saw adventurous jazz being increasingly displaced by progressive rock, with a younger public more likely to be interested in the jazz-aware Frank Zappa’s multi-genre experiments than Coleman’s. John Coltrane’s more overtly spiritual music, inspired by Indian classical forms and religious thinking, had also become a popular manifestation of jazz for the hippie generation.
But Coleman’s broad interests – from the earthiest of dance and blues styles to 20th-century classical music – offered him alternatives to acoustic jazz without compromising his beliefs. By 1975, after explorations with drummers in Morocco and a typically oblique reappraisal of funk, Coleman reappeared with a powerful electric band, Prime Time. A minimalist-melody ensemble that played in a kind of noisy trance, it developed to include two electric guitarists – playing brittle counter-melodies rather than chords – alongside two bass guitarists and two drummers.
The group sound spliced the rhythmic intricacy of African drum-choirs, the directness of funk and the unpredictability of free improvisation. Coleman invented a name for the band’s approach – harmolodics, a conflation of harmony, movement and melody – facilitating the simultaneous playing of a given melody line by different instruments at different pitches. Coleman’s son, Denardo, from his 10-year marriage to the poet Jayne Cortez, was a drummer and sometimes a Prime Time member, and in his father’s later years became a constant accompanist and source of support.
By the late 1980s, Coleman’s enfant terrible status had been displaced by a kind of respectability. Younger players, including the fusion guitarist Pat Metheny, loved his music. Metheny recorded with him on the superb album Song X (1985). The film-maker Shirley Clarke celebrated the saxophonist’s career in Ornette: Made in America (1985) and recitals of Coleman’s contemporary classical music were given at Carnegie Hall. Prime Time continued to perform, but evolved to include keyboards, as well as Indian classical percussionists. A double album, In All Languages (1987), was made for both the electric band and the re-formed classic 1960s acoustic quartet, each interpreting the same pieces.
In 1991, Coleman and the Master Musicians of Jajouka performed on the score for the David Cronenberg film The Naked Lunch, and in 1994 the pianist Geri Allen joined Coleman’s New Quartet, with Moffett’s son Charnett on double bass, and Denardo on drums. In a characteristically contrary move, he made his two back-to-back Sound Museum albums with this group – the sessions featuring the same band on almost exactly the same material, in a challenge to listeners to detect and savour minuscule differences.
Coleman was now unreservedly welcomed into the mainstream. The MacArthur Foundation gave him five-year funding from 1994 and Lincoln Center’s Coleman showcase in 1997 featured Skies of America with an orchestra and Prime Time combined; trio, quartet and quintet recitals; and a theatrical event surrounding Prime Time with acrobats and fire-eaters. After a decade-long hiatus from recording, Coleman returned to the studio in 2005 to record the album Sound Grammar, for a new quartet featuring two double-bassists (one bowing and the other playing pizzicato), with Denardo on drums, and the leader playing alto saxophone, trumpet and violin. As ever, Coleman was seeking maximum fluidity between his players, the blues wail from his saxophone was as moving as ever, and the album received a Pulitzer prize. Coleman also put in a vibrant guest appearance on the former Prime Time bassist Jamaaladeen Tacuma’s For the Love of Ornette five years later.
His music confronted people so directly that he was once beaten up by concert goers – but Ornette came to be one of jazz’s torch bearers.
Original Coleman anthems, including Lonely Woman, Peace, Focus on Sanity and Congeniality, have now become jazz standards, reinterpreted all over the world. After the 1960s, new generations of improvisers were liberated by Coleman’s determination that improvised jazz phrasing should stop struggling to squeeze into the same recurring four- or eight-bar slots offered by the Broadway showtune or the 12 bars of the blues. Coleman’s unique sound on a saxophone, as modern as the moment yet reflecting the vocal sounds of the earliest African-American blues and church singers, remains an inimitable balance of the worldly and the transparently pure. As he once put it: “I’m not trying to prove anything to anybody. I just want to be as human as I can get.”
Ralph Denard Ornette Coleman is survived by his son Denardo.