Ornette Coleman Stayed Light-Years Ahead Until the Very End

Chappaqua Suite (1965) and Science Fiction (1972) are only two examples of the late Ornette Coleman's overwhelming artistry and influence on jazz culture.
Chappaqua Suite (1965) and Science Fiction (1972) are only two examples of the late Ornette Coleman's overwhelming artistry and influence on jazz culture.

Ornette Coleman was always light years ahead of everyone else in terms of his ability to function as a constantly evolving nonconformist who took risks and created new spaces where art and experiential reality meshed. The liner notes to his The Change of the Century album, released in 1960, reveal how Coleman sought to reach and then escape plateaus of structure, human voice-inspired tones and harmonies, time vs. atemporality, and truth within music, in a manner akin to the offshoot of abstract expressionism that art critic Harold Rosenberg once referred to as "action painting":

Now to the music. They are all originals. Each is quite different from the other, but in a certain sense there really is no start or finish to any of my compositions. There is a continuity of expression, certain continually evolving strands of thought that link all my compositions together. Maybe it's something like the paintings of Jackson Pollock.


When the Texas-born saxophonist, bandleader and free-jazz icon was finally laid to rest late last month, it marked the end of a long journey for one of our most forward-thinking geniuses. For those of us who listen to his music, however, the journey continues.

"A Miles Davis is basically an impressionist, Charles Mingus a surrealist. John Lewis a neo-classicist. But how do you classify an Ornette Coleman?", wrote Julian "Cannonball" Adderley in a piece for the May 29, 1960 issue of Down Beat magazine. "I would say that 75 percent of jazz musicians dismiss Ornette's whole thing. But he has caused more reflection and analysis than anyone since Bird, Diz (Dizzy Gillespie), and Thelonious."

In an accompanying article, Charles Mingus referenced Coleman's ability to channel Charlie "Bird" Parker with his bluesy style, writing, "I'm not saying everybody's going to have to play like Coleman. But they're going to have to stop copying Bird. Nobody can play Bird right yet but him."

Coleman's affinity for Parker's style is well documented. Dewey Redman, a tenor saxophonist who played in the same band as Coleman at Fort Worth's I.M. Terrell High School, discussed how Coleman sounded just like "Bird" in Michael Segell's book The Devil's Horn. In director Shirley Clarke's 1985 documentary Ornette: Made In America, the late Martin Williams, a Smithsonian-affiliated jazz critic who founded The Jazz Review with Nat Hentoff in 1958, goes into great detail about how Coleman paid tribute to "Bird" stylistically.

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Ekkehard Jost's book Free Jazz, a landmark assessment of avant-garde free jazz musicians published in 1974, features an entire chapter on Coleman's style and cultural impact. "In 1959, more or less overnight, Coleman became a figure of contention that split the jazz community straight across," Jost wrote. Noting some in the jazz community viewed Coleman as a charlatan, he continued, "He was hailed as 'the new Charlie Parker,' as the man who symbolized a departure for new musical shores." Coleman was a game-changer if there ever was one, and according to Jost's book, perhaps the jazz scene felt threatened since he "had turned up on the New York City jazz scene seemingly out of nowhere." Coining the phrase "motivic chain association" specifically for Coleman's avant-garde approach, Jost continues, "Occasionally Coleman does not limit his motivic chain associations to phrases that follow one another directly, but takes up ideas that are, so to speak, several links back in the chain, and creates larger contexts in this way." He was a versatile, forward-thinking saxophonist similar to saxophonists like Gator and Jug who didn't limit themselves to strict conceptual frameworks of jazz.

So much of what has been written lately about Coleman is very New York City-centric, but as a fellow native Texan, I've always been much more interested in his life here in his home state. I've always looked up to him as one of the Texans — like Robert Rauschenberg, Terry Southern or Lightnin' Hopkins — who made it. He was a progressive-minded Texan, someone who could hang out with the Master Musicians of Jajouka in the mountains of Morocco or discuss the concepts of design icon Buckminster Fuller. My favorite scene in Made in America occurs in Fort Worth, at the Roger Hughes Barbecue joint. He's shown eating a rib and talking with friends seated at at a dining table situated next to a green pool table.

"You know what? When I got to New York City, King Curtis was driving a Rolls Royce," says Coleman, noting his friend and fellow Fort Worth saxophonist King Curtis Ousley made "heavy money" in the big city compared to the "peanuts" he did. King Curtis drove his Rolls Royce to the train station to pick up his musician friend Coleman. King Curtis, whose brilliant work is featured in live recordings of an Aretha Franklin concert at the Fillmore, also attended Terrell High with Coleman, as did other musicians including Prince Lasha and drummer Charles Moffett. Before this scene, Coleman mentions Buckminster Fuller, saying, "As Bucky says, you can't see outside yourself, but we do have imagination."

During an interview with Playboy magazine published February 1972, Fuller almost seems to be referencing Coleman when he says, "Everybody’s acquiring a beautiful vocabulary, beautiful tools to communicate with others regarding his own experience, and that’s something we didn’t have yesterday." In the documentary, part of which is filmed in a cactus-filled geodesic dome (a creation originally invented by Fuller and architect James Fitzgibbon), Coleman fuses Fuller's concept of imagination with his musical concept of "harmolodics." The album cover for Coleman's Prime Design/Time Design album features a photo of the geodesic dome that sat atop Fort Worth's Caravan of Dreams, a defunct Fort Worth performing-arts center. The shotgun shack Coleman lived in near the railroad tracks is long gone. Coleman's addresses, 807 E. 2nd Street and 309 Elm Street, haven't survived the times, which is why seeing him sitting on a porch swing in front of his childhood home during the film is such a wonderful moment.

Though the film doesn't delve into it, he also spent time in New Orleans, a town known for its mystique — a place where geniuses ranging from chess-playing icon Paul Morphy to piano-playing ragtime pioneer Jelly Roll Morton flourished; he often mentioned the connection between ragtime improvisation and his own harmolodics-driven improvisation. While in New Orleans, Coleman played at a "sanctified" church and joined the Silas Green show, a traveling revue which had featured blues singer Bessie Smith many years earlier. He also had a stint in Los Angeles, where he met future band member and collaborator Don Cherry.

In a 1997 interview with French philosopher Jacques Derrida, Coleman gave Derrida a run for his money when he stumped the philosopher by asking questions which seemed to transform Coleman into the black musical incarnation of French theorist Roland Barthes: "Do you ever ask yourself if the language that you speak now interferes with your actual thoughts?," asked Coleman. "Can a language of origin influence your thoughts?" In the interview, which Derrida never dominates, the conversation focuses on many aspects of culture and society. Coleman is particularly bothered by the way invention is often spoken of in eurocentric only terms, saying, "the word 'inventor' has taken on a sense of racial domination that's more important than invention — which is sad, because it's the equivalent of a sort of propaganda." He mentioned an incident in Texas that affected his approach to music and life. "One day, I walked into a place that was full of gambling and prostitution, people arguing, and I saw a woman get stabbed — then I thought that I had to get out of there. I told my mother that I didn't want to play this music anymore because I thought that I was only adding to all that suffering." Coleman said his mother replied, "What's got hold of you, you want somebody to pay you for your soul?" He finished the thought, adding, "I hadn't thought of that, and when she told me that, it was like I had been re-baptized."

Another way of appreciating Coleman's genius is to take a look at some of the hard times he experienced. His exquisite Chappaqua Suite album, which is some of his best work, was supposed to be the soundtrack for Conrad Rooks' 1966 film Chappaqua, which also featured the music of The Fugs and appearances by beat writer Allen Ginsberg and Swami Satchidananda. Rooks originally hired Coleman to score the film, but ultimately decided to ask Ravi Shankar to do it. In my opinion, this was a mistake, but anyone familiar with Chappaqua knows a Coleman score probably would have required a reshoot of the film to match the tone and atmosphere of Coleman's music; that's how sublime the Chappaqua Suite is. The choice of Shankar's score over Coleman's score could be explained by how Shankar's music aligned with Rooks' affinity for India, which is also expressed in his second and final film, Siddhartha.

Coleman also had problems with a cliquish jazz community that didn't want someone new coming in and changing the scene with a new agenda. Cannonball Adderley, in the same Down Beat article referenced earlier, wrote of how Dizzy Gillespie stood at the Five Spot jazz club where Coleman's band was playing and asked, "Are you cats serious?," while Thelonious Monk reportedly said "Man, that cat is nuts!" in reference to Coleman. Speaking to Esquire in 1961, Roy Eldridge said, "I think he's jiving, baby." Coleman changed the whole jazz scene with his first six albums: Something Else!!!!, Tomorrow is the Question!, The Shape of Jazz to Come, Change of the Century, This Is Our Music and Free Jazz. After a couple of albums were released in 1962, he took a sabbatical for a few years, one of several he took throughout his career. Many may not know this, but when Coleman lived in New York City's Lower East Side on Rivington Street, he was brutally attacked twice. His son Denardo Coleman, who debuted at the age of ten as a drummer on his dad's The Empty Foxhole album, spoke of the brutal attacks — one of which involved assault by crowbar — in the Ornette: Made in America documentary.

The hard times for Coleman kept on coming in the form of a string of deaths of musicians whom he either inspired or who inspired him. First came John Coltrane's funeral in 1967, at which Coleman's quartet performed "Holiday For a Graveyard." Then came the death of Albert Ayler, whose body was found floating in New York's East River in November 1970. Ayler's quartet had played "Truth Is Marching" at the same Coltrane funeral that Coleman's quartet had. And then the very next year, 1971, Coleman's old Fort Worth friend King Curtis — the man who came to pick Coleman up from the train station while driving a Rolls Royce — was fatally stabbed at his Upper West Side brownstone. Coleman attended his friend's funeral along with other jazz musicians including Dizzy Gillespie, Tyree Glenn and Herbie Mann.

These hard times don't tell the whole story of Coleman's life, though. Much of his music, including the later brilliant album Science Fiction, is simply too layered, forward-thinking and sublime to ever be forgotten. He also seemed to have good friends wherever he went in his life. He was part of the black cultural intelligentsia, especially the part who considered themselves nonconformists. Two of his friends from this world were an unsung black painter named Beauford Delaney (known for his portrait of Jean Genet), and a black beat writer named Ted Joans, who had an affinity for jazz. A January 1974 issue of Black World magazine features a picture of the three hanging out in Paris — a city that has often been a refuge for black writers and artists in search of a more receptive environment. Amiri Baraka, writing in his essay "Jazz and the White Critic," addressed the subject of writers who are unable to pick up on all the cultural nuances provided by Coleman and other black jazz musicians.

David Remnick's article for The New Yorker last month, "Ornette Coleman and a Joyful Funeral," is a wonderful tribute. Jazz icon Sonny Rollins, a friend of Coleman's, was in attendance at Coleman's funeral, as were Pharoah Sanders and Cecil Taylor, among others. Remnick quotes critic Howard Mandel as saying, "Ornette didn't play free jazz, what he did was he freed jazz." The best quote in Remnick's send-off comes at the very end, when he quotes Coleman's son Denardo, who said, "It's not that he thought outside the box...He didn't accept that there were any boxes." In the end, I think this is the best way to view such a huge cultural icon: as a nonconformist, a genius, and as someone who didn't accept any of the boxes. He also thought in a nonlinear way, as Shirley Clarke once said, "Ornette's thinking is cubed. Most people think linearly, but he thinks of four things at the same time."

Cezanne (4100 Montrose Blvd.) is hosting a tribute to Ornette Coleman Saturday night, featuring Woody Witt (saxophone), Dennis Dotson (trumpet), Richard Mikel (bass) and Daniel Dufour (drums). Starts at 9 p.m.

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