Ornette Coleman at 80 – tapping America’s musical roots
Composer, conceptualist and multi-instrumentalist Ornette Coleman, b. March 9 1930, is widely known for “free jazz” — which is routinely depicted as the most abstract and daunting music to emerge from the U.S. But this overlooks Ornette’s deep roots in blues from the Southwest and his fealty to the freedom of expression, mobility and individuality that has made the U.S. great.
Coleman, who comes from Fort Worth, Texas, was a mostly self-taught saxophonist whose earliest professional touring experience was with the “Silas Green from New Orleans” tent show/minstrel troupe (aka “Prof. Eph Williams’ Famous Troubadours”) that did one-night stands throughout the south from 1885 to the late 1950s. Ornette’s unique sound (then on tenor sax) and his talent for composition were evidently in place by the time he joined this outfit in the 1949, though he played repertoire from the group’s longstanding book, which included songs from pre-WWI, and got to solo usually on a blues.
His horn style is intense (so much so that he was attacked on at least one occasion after a gig by roughnecks enraged by it) and has many qualities of vocalization — a keening cry, purposely cracked notes, hoarseness, multi-phonics that lend a burr to pure pitch, licks that suggest laughter and babble. So he stood out from more conventional horn players, though he was also known for having absorbed quite a lot of Charlie Parker’s ferociously virtuosic sax extensions (as can be heard on his 1958 live recording from the Hillcrest Club in company of pianist Paul Bley and the musicians who would become known as Coleman’s first quartet of Bird’s composition “Klactoveedsedstene”). In fact, according to John Litweiler’s biography Ornette Coleman: A Harmolodic Life, he was fired for angering the other saxophonist in the Green band by “trying to teach him bebop.” Coleman looked odd at that time, wearing his hair long, and he was an unhappy 19-year-old, distraught by the low-down quality of the places Silas Green played as well as the distances traveled on his first trip away from home.
Let go in Natchez, Coleman was lucky to get picked up by blues singer Clarence Samuels, and luckier yet to have been asked by a man he met in a restaurant to come up with “eight or nine songs” for a hastily organized recording date. He did so, and apparently the date went down, but he was run out of town (just for being weird) before the records were issued and he never found out what became of the tapes. That music has never been released, but I’ve always wondered if it bore any resemblance to the funkiest and most tightly formatted of Ornette’s albums, Of Human Feelings which he recorded with his highly charged band Prime Time in the late ’80s (and which has not been reissued as a cd in the U.S.)
Ornette’s distinct sound and personal style made him a pariah in Los Angeles music circles in the ’50s, until Bley, Charlie Haden, Don Cherry and Billy Higgins convened to feature him at the Hillcrest. He first sought a recording deal as a tunesmith, but Lester Koenig of Contemporary Records would only sign Ornette if he played his tunes himself. OC’s first two records were Something Else! (with relatively straightahead pianist Walter Norris) and Tomorrow Is The Question (with mainstream-progressive Shelly Manne on drums, Percy Heath of the Modern Jazz Quartet and equally well-established Red Mitchell switching off on bass). Although both albums and Ornette’s subsequent, very productive recording stint with Atlantic Records feature the sax and front-line (with Cherry playing pocket trumpet) sound and harmonically-untethered improvisational initiative that raised the hackles of many established jazz musicians in the late ’50s-early ’60s, the tunes themselves are melodic, catchy, hummable and often upbeat. They make reference to country music and Latin music as well as jazz, a filtered through Ornette’s lively sonic imagination. When Ornette arrived in New York City in 1959, his fellow Texan saxophonist King Curtis, then riding high, met him with a car at the train station.
Ornette has always insisted on his own way — he is a true pioneer and a fearless one. His 1963 self-produced concert at Town Hall seems to be the first attempt to fold together classical musicians (a string trio), jazz and an r&b group (only half that concert seems to have been recorded, as released by ESP disks). He received on of the first Guggenheim fellowships given to a jazz musician and used the funding to compose a concerto grosso (usually taken as a symphony), Skies of America. He was among the first jazz musicians to pursue deep interests in music from far-away cultures, collaborating with the Master Musicians of Jajouka in Morocco. He has been a provocative colleague and mentor to dozens of musicians since the ’60s, among them Yoko Ono, Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson, Jerry Garcia, Howard Shore (on the brilliant soundtrack to the film Naked Lunch) and Joe Henry.
But what Ornette most stands for through his music and fascinating, philosophical inquiries (several of them are included in my book Miles Ornette Cecil – Jazz Beyond Jazz) is humanism and essentialism that dispenses with encrusted thinking. He is an idealist — and we need a few more of those — who has inspired musicians and listeners alike get underneath superficialities to discover the basics and basis of sound. He encourages people to connect with their creative powers regardless of formal training (which is too often just training in formalities). He is a genuinely free spirit — the kind of artist America produces every now and then who could hardly come from anywhere else. He embraces new technologies but he does so firmly grounded in what humans have done since time immemorial. Don’t be put off by his reputation — his music speaks to open-minded listeners very directly, though it cannot be mistaken for being anyone else’s. He is extremely generous with his gifts, without showing the least pretense about his art.
I always feel happy to be in his presence and to listen to his music. He is exemplary of what’s best about American culture — his music absorbing and reflecting everything surrounding it, completely in the moment, distinctly personal but offered without any imposition to everybody. It may at first sound strange, but soon seems natural, inevitable, just right. Happy birthday, Ornette!