TO PARAPHRASE HIS friend and collaborator, jazz trumpeter Don Cherry, we should be very proud and happy to have lived in the world at the same time as Ornette Coleman. Throughout his 50-plus years of sonic innovation Coleman broke rules, eliminated chords and ignored metric time to develop and elaborate a “blow what you feel” philosophy – dubbed Harmolodics – that allowed him, and his followers and acolytes, to tap into something deep, beautiful and profound, and to make music as pure emotional thought. However, when Coleman first brought this revolutionary new sound to New York in 1959, audiences and fellow jazz musicians were thrown by this new direction, scared by the man and the music.
“There was something unique and profound in Coleman's language of improvisation.”
“That cat is nuts,” was Thelonious Monk’s considered opinion. “He’s got bad intonation, bad technique,” deemed bandleader Maynard Ferguson. “It [was] like organised disorganisation,” thought bassist Charles Mingus. “He just came and fucked up everybody,” said Miles Davis.
Born in Fort Worth Texas on March 19, 1930, Randolph Denard Ornette Coleman started out playing bebop and R&B with local outfits at roughneck dives before running away from home to join a travelling tent show. After a gang beating in Baton Rouge where his tenor sax was thrown off a hill, Coleman found himself stranded in New Orleans. The predicament proved fortuitous. Jamming on a borrowed alto axe with such forward thinking musicians as drummer Ed Blackwell, Coleman’s new ideas became informed by New Orleans gospel cries, Second Line polyrhythms, and the Delta Blues of Robert Johnson, developing a sound that was sonically raw, soulfully hypnotic, melodically microtonal, and rhythmically complex.
After hooking up with Pee Wee Crayton’s R&B band Coleman moved to Los Angeles where he purchased a white plastic alto saxophone (he couldn’t afford a metal one) and played a series of club gigs that divided opinion between those who thought he played sharp and out of tune and others who recognised something unique and profound in Coleman's language of improvisation. Such kindred spirits included Don Cherry, Iowa-born bassist Charlie Haden, local drummer Billy Higgins and esteemed Modern Jazz Quartet pianist John Lewis who told anyone who’d listen that he had heard the future of jazz.
Lewis brought the group to New York, got them a residency at the Five Spot Café in Manhattan and secured a deal with Atlantic Records where they recorded the game-changing jazz LP, The Shape Of Jazz To Come.
Euphoric, bright, wild, contradictory, mystical and joyous, The Shape Of Jazz To Come, was the first of nine records for Atlantic, and the emergence of a sound that would inform the new explorations of John Coltrane, a post-bop Blue Note and, on his collaborative 1960 release, Free Jazz, a whole new philosophy of black music.
“He just came and f--ked up everybody.”
After Free Jazz, Coleman’s music became more dissonant, angular, avant-garde. He took a sabbatical in 1962 but returned to touring in 1965, developing a reputation throughout Europe, best evidenced on a pair of live albums for Blue Note, At the Golden Circle Stockholm, Volumes 1 and 2. Larger symphonic works proved less successful but individual 70s albums such as 1972’s Science Fiction, his fusion work with the band Prime Time and his stunning 1991 soundtrack for David Cronenberg’s The Naked Lunch kept his reputation alive. 2005’s quartet LP, Sound Grammar received a Pulitzer Prize and that same year he was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Grammy.
Simultaneously, the importance of those late ’50s and early ’60s continued to grow, as their influence was heard in post-punk, noise, drone, metal and multiple forms of free music from the past forty years.
As such, Coleman’s recent appearances at the Barbican and as the curator of the Meltdown Festival in 2011 felt like acts of worship, a massed giving of thanks in realisation that without the music he recorded with Don Cherry, Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins at Radio Recorders Studio in Hollywood California on May 22, 1959, the future of music would have been a very different and dismal prospect indeed.
Watch The Ornette Coleman Quartet performing live in Rome in 1974.
For more visit www.ornettecoleman.com.
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