Ornette Coleman - The unjustified bugbear

He was already a legend before he made his first record. Or rather: infamous. When the dark-skinned Texan joined in at a jam session, skilled beboppers such as Max Roach and Dexter Gordon just stopped playing. Well-established jazz musicians shared the same opinion: this crazy guy was neither a master of harmony nor of his instrument. In their ears what he played was simply wrong. And because Ornette Coleman had never been trained in the strict school of modern jazz, it wasn’t necessary to take this nonsense seriously. At least, not in Los Angeles, which was a fairly conservative jazz metropolis. This “bugbear” of the scene there grew up in humble circumstances in the Fifties, and supported his family with menial jobs as a baggage porter or liftboy. Just a mere handful of young musicians gathered around him like disciples, such as the trumpeters Bobby Bradford and Don Cherry, and the drummers Ed Black and Billy Higgins. The latter explained Ornette’s fascination: »In conventional playing, everything is based on 4, 8, 16 or 32 bar phrases. He started to compose things that were eleven or six bars long. If you listen to him, it sounds completely natural, and it makes one think differently somehow. That really opened up my mind.«

Ornette finally signed a recording contract in 1958 with Contemporary Records, a West Coast Jazz company, although this was not thanks to his playing but to his compositions. Ornette’s melodies possessed a very unique appeal: America’s South is in there, the sound of the blues, and the festive music of Mexican wind bands. These numbers were so elementary, so irregular, they were as inexplicable as folk songs. And that was quite simply Something Else!, as his first record was called. The album set off a chain reaction. Ornette now received regular engagements in L.A.’s Jazz Cellar; his bass player Don Payne persuaded his bass-playing colleagues to listen to his performance; and bass player Percy Heath of the Modern Jazz Quartet gave his bandleader John Lewis a hot tip. Lewis considered Ornette to be an »extension of Charlie Parker« and took him under his wing. Suddenly everything was quite different. The bugbear was now a member of the avant-garde.

The pianist John Lewis was already an influential man in the music scene on the East Coast. He paved the way for Ornette to sign a recording contract with Atlantic Records, he engaged him for his own music publishing company MJQ Music, he had Ornette’s most catchy tunes complemented by lyrics, booked him for the Monterey Festival, engaged him for Third stream jazz projects with Gunther Schuller, and as a lecturer at the Summer Music Camp in Lenox, Massachusetts. And the final concert in Lenox resulted in the Ornette Coleman Quartet being engaged to appear at Five Spot, one of the best jazz clubs in New York. Word-of-mouth propaganda was in full swing, and on the very first evening a mass of New York celebrities were there, followed by a horde of yellow press reporters. In the end, the engagement was extended to last two and a half months: the messiah of a new jazz era had arrived. Quite logically Ornette’s new records for Atlantic were entitled The Shape Of Jazz To Come and Change Of The Century. The third was called Free Jazz – the name of a totally new style. In his music, Coleman frees himself of all traditional chordal forms, harmonies, a constant beat and tonality. The form – or “background” as Ornette called it – should no longer stand in the way of the improvisational flow. What appeared “wrong” to conventional jazz musicians was dubbed a “continual modulation” by Ornette’s bass player Charlie Haden. The improvising band could move just anywhere as long as the musicians listened attentively to one another. Dissonances and jarring conflicts were all part of the concept. Fellow musicians of a like, innovative mind quickly recognised a strong ally: Charles Mingus said he thought that saxophonists should at long last stop playing like Charlie Parker. And John Coltrane even had private lessons with Ornette.

Ornette Coleman’s “classical” Free Jazz Quartet with Don Cherry (trumpet), Charlie Haden (bass), and Billy Higgins or Ed Blackwell (drums) only really existed in 1959 and 1960. A second important quartet, with Dewey Redman on a second saxophone, was extant from 1968 to 1970. Later Coleman’s orientation towards an electric band sound received a lot of attention: with his group Prime Time he created so-called “free funk” in the Seventies. Further musical highlights were his collaboration with the guitarist Pat Metheny (1985) and with the pianists Geri Allen and Joachim Kühn (both in 1996). Coleman made his final studio album in 1996, almost 20 years before his death. His turning away from the formalities of pop music led to Ornette Coleman being more or less adopted by the more serious art scene. Jackson Pollock’s painting White Light decorated the cover of his Free Jazz album. And whatever this unconventional, rather shy saxophonist did from now on to keep his music alive, it was interpreted as the self-staging of an enfant terrible. Whether he withdrew from business for two years, whether he began to learn to play the trumpet and violin, or whether he engaged his 10-year-old son Denardo as drummer: here was apparently a black Warhol at work, a reality artist. Ornette accepted this role to a certain degree. He spoke of no longer wanting to be a buyable product, but to be the salesman – a tradesman on the official cultural scene. In the Sixties he had already begun to compose for the string quartet, wind quintet, symphony orchestra and ballet. He demanded huge fees and created a name for himself as a headstrong contemporary artist. Late in life came a number of great, and well-paid, awards and honours, such as were seldom bestowed on jazz musicians: the MacArthur Fellowship (1994), membership of the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1997), and recipient of the Japanese Praemium Imperiale (2001), and the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize (2004). Even Wynton Marsalis, not exactly well known for free tonality, could not completely ignore the importance of Ornette Coleman. In 2004 he presented a programme completely dedicated to Ornette Coleman’s music with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra.

But even his greatest admirers frowned when it came to one thing and that is Ornette’s theory book, which was announced in 1963. What he wrote about his musical system and philosophy, entitled Harmolodics, sounds mostly confused and esoteric. Here’s what one believes to have understood: “Harmolodics” is the weaving together of moving lines that communicate with one another, without predetermined harmonies. Each voice has equal rights and is in a position to steer the direction of what is happening. »There is no leader in the music«, said Ornette. He himself demonstrates that best, for example in the trio with David Izenzon and Charles Moffett, or with his band Prime Time. Who needs a theory book? Hans-Jürgen Schaal

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