Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music


COLEMAN, Ornette

(b 19 March 1930, Ft Worth TX; d 11 June 2015, Manhattan) Alto sax; also tenor, trumpet, violin; composer. He became the third musician to change the course of jazz after Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker, sounding like an original from the beginning.

He began on alto at age 14, took up tenor sax in 1946, gigged in Fort Worth until 1949. He played in R&B bands, but frequently raised hackles because nobody understood what he was doing. He settled in Los Angeles, working as an elevator operator, studying theory and harmony; then went to New York in 1959 with a quartet, playing a plastic alto because he liked the sound, and with Don Cherry on pocket trumpet; these looked like toy instruments, giving critics something extra to complain about (but perhaps explaining a tune title 'Joy Of A Toy'). Coleman blazed a trail for free jazz with original 'atonal' compositions; his music was neither free nor really atonal, but he recovered a necessary myth of spontaneity, his invention liberated from conventional restraints.

His first album Something Else!!! was bravely recorded in early 1958 by Lester Koenig at Contemporary in Los Angeles, the quintet including Cherry, Billy Higgins (b 11 Octtober 1936, Los Angeles; d 2 May 2001, Inglewood CA), Walter Norris, piano (b 27 December 1931, Little Rock AR; d 29 October 2011, Berlin, Germany; his own albums were on Enja, Concord, Progressive), early sympathizer Don Payne on bass. A live date at Los Angeles's Hillcrest Club that year had Charlie Haden on bass, Paul Bley on some tracks; two albums resulted, one under Coleman's name (on Improvising Artists) and one under Bley's (on America). The second Contemporary LP Tomorrow Is The Question! '59 had Cherry, Shelly Manne and Red Mitchell, who had introduced Coleman to Koenig, then to Percy Heath and to John Lewis, who arranged a visit to the summer jazz school at Lennox MA. A gig at NYC's Five Spot in November 1959, together with titles of Atlantic LPs that year The Shape Of Jazz To Come and Change Of The Century (with Coleman, Cherry, Haden, Higgins) put the fat in the fire: the new music was supported by critics Nat Hentoff and Martin Williams and jazz academic/third stream composer Gunther Schuller; Lewis said, 'Coleman is doing the only really new thing in jazz since the bop innovations of the mid-'40s', but others thought he was a fraud: Charles Mingus said, 'Trouble is, he can't play it straight', but later thought better: 'I'm not saying everybody's going to have to play like Coleman. But they're going to have to stop playing Bird.' (Mingus, Coleman, Max Roach, Kenny Dorham played together as the Newport Rebels in mid-1960, but were not recorded.) Composer George Russell knew immediately what Coleman was doing: 'Ornette seems to depend mostly on the overall tonality of the song as a point of departure for melody. By this I don't mean the key the music might be in [...] the melody and the chords of his compositions have an overall sound which Ornette seems to use as a point of departure. This approach liberates the improviser to sing his own song, really, without having to meet the deadline of any particular chord.' Free Jazz '60 added Freddie Hubbard, Eric Dolphy, Scott La Faro and Ed Blackwell to Coleman's group to make a double quartet, with a quartet on each stereo channel; even more challenging for the critics, it now sounds more impressive each time you hear it. This Is Our Music had Cherry, Blackwell, Haden; Ornette! La Faro instead of Haden; Ornette On Tenor (Jimmy Garrison replacing LaFaro) showed Coleman at home on the bigger horn (all recorded 1960-1; later releases The Art Of Improvisation and Twins had other tracks from these sessions).

In a discussion on an Internet music forum in 2010, a couple of well-known writers and broadcasters in the field of jazz and blues used words like 'drivel' and 'dyslexia' with regard to Ornette Coleman's music. The concensus seemed to be that 'either you get it or you don't,' and the same thing could have been said about Charlie Parker in the 1940s, and there were probably vaudeville musicians who wondered what Louis Armstrong thought he was doing in the 1920s.  

After the album Town Hall 1962 on ESP Coleman lay low to concentrate on composition; piqued because Dave Brubeck got so much more money than he did, he had raised his price too high and could not get club work. Coleman was one of four musicians, with Cecil Taylor, Herbie Nichols and Jackie McLean, treated in the classic book Four Lives In The Be-Bop Business by A.B. Spellman in 1966 (since retitled Black Music: Four Lives).

He resumed recording with Chappaqua Suite '65, a two-disc set on CBS for quartet (including Pharoah Sanders) and a studio band directed by Joseph Tekula, an ambitious project which became something of a classic. Other albums included Ornette Coleman In Europe, two volumes from Fairfield Hall, Croydon, England in 1965 which appeared on Arista, Freedom and Polydor; At The Golden Circle, Stockholm '65, two volumes by a trio on Blue Note; Who's Crazy '66, a two-disc film soundtrack on Affinity and Trio: all these have a trio of Coleman, drummer Charles Moffett and bassist David Izenzon, except one track from Croydon, 'Sounds And Forms For Wind Quintet', played by a quintet called the Virtuoso Ensemble. The Empty Foxhole late '66 is a trio on Blue Note with Haden and Ornette Denardo Coleman on drums, then nine years old (b 19 April 1956); The Music Of Ornette Coleman '67 on RCA is played by a Philadelphia woodwind quintet and a string quartet: Coleman plays trumpet interludes with the woodwinds, not at all with the quartet; later on Bluebird subtitled 'Forms And Sounds'. A session made at the the Royal Albert Hall in London early 1968 was unissued except for one track on a Plastic Ono Band LP with Yoko Ono's voice dubbed. New York Is Now! '68 has a quartet with Dewey Redman on Blue Note; Ornette At 12 '68, Crisis '69 are on Impulse; Friends and Neighbors on Flying Dutchman. Science Fiction and Broken Shadows '71 on CBS have Bobby Bradford on some tracks.

Doug Ramsey said on the radio in 1966, preparing to play At the Golden Circle:

I think enough time has passed to make it clear that Ornette Coleman is neither genius nor fraud, merely a pretty fair alto player with his own vision. I was going to say, who hears a different drummer. But, as you will hear momentarily, Coleman's drummer, Charles Moffett, is a basic, sort of old-timey drummer working in the avant-garde. And I assume that's what Coleman wants, because in many ways he himself is a basic, old-timey player. He has freed himself from some restrictions of harmony and bar lines, but I don't think he's done it because of some desperate need to escape from formal restrictions.
      Coleman is a naïve, brilliant musician whose jazz sense is as instinctive as it is learned, who has the blues in his bones and who is an extremely powerful rhythmic player. He is a man in whose name some of the most outrageous and powerful cults have sprung up. Coleman doesn't deserve some of his self-appointed disciples. Nor does he deserve the burden of exaggerated praise that has proclaimed him some sort of messiah.

Skies Of America '72 on CBS was another attempt to break chains: a quartet with Redman, Haden, and Blackwell  was accompanied by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Measham; Coleman's work at rehearsals and recording earned him a standing ovation from the orchestra. To describe the composition in 21 segments he invented the word 'harmolodic', much used since and perhaps best defined (by Gary Giddins) as improvised coloration. The 'new thing' had combined revival of collective improvisation with harmonic freedom ('If I'm going to follow a preset chord sequence I may as well write out my solo'); the freedom that Coleman Hawkins had found 30 years earlier improvising on chords instead of melody was extended by improvising on harmony itself. Coleman opened doors, but the early fuss about his music must have seemed overdone to those who also listened to modern 'classical' music, and pointed up the essential conservatism of many critics.

Other albums on various labels included J For Jazz Presents Ornette Coleman Broadcasts '72; Dancing In Your Head '73 on A&M Horizon made in Joujouka, Morocco by a sextet with two guitars plus local musicians (including repetitious treatment of a theme from Skies, but more than the usual hypnotic effect of such music). His childhood friend Prince Lasha said that he and Coleman were influenced by Red Conner, a Fort Worth tenor saxophonist who died in the 1950s; it is arguable that Coleman's avant-gardism arose directly from early R&B experience, a genre despised as tavern/sex music by some (just like early jazz); at any rate, harmolodics began to allow echoes of funk and rock, a crossover appeal creating coalitions among listeners and musicians. He formed Prime Time, an electric group: Body Meta '76 had two guitars and electric bass, while Soapsuds '77 was a duo with Haden (both on Artist House), Of Human Feelings '79 on Antilles had two drummers including Denardo.

Denardo now looks after the business end as well as playing drums; on a Caravan of Dreams label Opening The Caravan Of Dreams and Prime Design/Time Design were followed by two-disc In All Languages '87, one disc a reunion with Higgins, Haden and Cherry, the other by Prime Time. Song X '86 on Geffen was co-led by Coleman and guitarist Pat Metheny, the loudly demanding music played by a quintet with Haden, Denardo and Jack DeJohnette; Virgin Beauty '88 on Portrait with Prime Time had guest Jerry Garcia on one track and was overproduced by Denardo: restricted as to phrase length instead of making his own logic, Ornette's keening cries seemed drafted in from another album. He played alto sax solos in the soundtrack of David Cronenberg's film of Naked Lunch '91. Tone Dialing '95 on Verve/Harmolodic was said to be a return to form, except that Coleman's form is to astonish: the band 'has a light springy sound that lends itself to any musical form that comes to hand [...] the CD has the feel of walking in a city neighborhood where there are radios blaring something different from every window. But where other composers would synthesize all this into one unified sound, Coleman lets it mesh together in all its chaotic glory' (Jerome Wilson in Cadence). The Ornette Coleman Sound Museum released Three Women and Hidden Man '96 on Verve including Denardo, Charnett Moffett on bass and Geri Allen on piano, two different acoustic workouts on much the same tunes, while Colors '97 also on Verve was a duo with pianist Joachim Kühn (b 15 March 1944, Leipzig): 'When I was 14 I first heard his music in East Germany. He played jazz without chord changes, and his freedom of expression really meant something to us.'

Coleman has gone from enfant terrible to guru without much commercial success and without many albums; his loyal following does not generate the sales that big record companies want. There was not another album until Sound Grammar, recorded in concert in 2005 and released the next year on Coleman's Sound Grammar label, with Denardo, and Gregory Cohen and Tony Falanga on basses. It was remarkable for Coleman quoting composers from Richard Rodgers to Stravinsky, and Denardo came in for some praise, having long since become a very good drummer. The album was at or near the top of the jazz polls, was nominated for a Grammy and awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2007. Critic Terry Teachout, as much as he loves jazz and admires Coleman, wondered in the Wall Street Journal whether the Pulitzer committee should have stretched its own rules so far (the award is supposed to go to a 'distinguished musical composition by an American in any of the larger forms'; there was originally nothing about improvisation or about recordings), but as Teachout admits, the Pulitzer is seen as increasingly irrelevant to classical music anyway. John Litweiler's Ornette Coleman: The Harmolodic Life '92 is a good book on the subject.

Prime Time sidemen Charlie Ellerbee, Jamaaladeen Takuma, drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson became up-and-comers; Jackson (b 12 January 1940, Fort Worth TX) played in Last Exit with Bill Laswell, solo Pulse on Oao, and with his Decoding Society: Decode Yourself on Island; Barbeque Dog and Mandance on Antilles, Nasty and Street Beat on Moers Music, Eye On You on About Time, When Colors Play on Caravan of Dreams, Raven Roc '92 on DIW; also his own Power Tools '87 on Antilles, Taboo '90 on Caroline, Red Warrior '92 on Axion, A Guitar Thing '93 on Muse, and a co-led CD with Bertrand Gallaz '94 on Planisphere. Tacuma's Music World '87 was heavily electronic; later ones were Boss Of The Bass '93 and House Of Bass '94 (a best-of), all on Gramavision.