Ornette Coleman's Hidden Connections to Houston's Jazz Scene
Last Thursday's passing of free-form avant-garde jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman brings to mind a number of real and more abstract connections the legendary alto saxophonist had to Houston jazz musicians.
Pianist and Houston native Jason Moran, a Blue Note recording artist and Artistic Director for Jazz for the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., knew Fort Worth native Coleman and even once played pool with him at the elder musician's loft in New York City after the two were introduced by jazz photographer John Rogers. Referencing the game in a piece for NPR's Web site entitled "My Friend, Ornette Coleman," Rogers relayed a quote from Moran about the experience:
My friend John Rogers took me by Ornette's to play pool. I broke the rack of balls scattered about the table. Ornette approached the table with his cue stick. He gracefully swiped all of the balls to one side. He picked up the cue ball and placed it in front of him. He picked up the six ball and placed it in front of the side pocket. He then shot the six ball in. He then replaced the cue ball in the same position and picked up the three ball, and shot the same shot. We did this for 90 minutes — all kinds of different shots. It was the best lesson in life: you make your own rules. Set up your game for you, and practice it.
Moran's June 14 set at the Playboy Jazz Festival in Los Angeles, though inspired primarily by iconic pianist Fats Waller, also included a reverent tribute to Coleman in the form of a deconstructed version of "Lonely Woman," a composition from Coleman's 1959 album The Shape of Jazz to Come. Los Angeles Times jazz critic Chris Barton opened a report on the festival with Moran's words to the audience: "We'd like to play a piece for Ornette Coleman." During performances, Moran often wears or displays a Didier Civil-designed papier-mâché mask of Waller that's reminiscent of garishly colored New Orleans Mardi Gras float sculptures; according to Barton, Moran wore this mask. A photo of the event also shows the mask placed upside down on a piano. Moran, a MacArthur fellow who collaborated with wife and mezzo-soprano opera singer Alicia Hall Moran on the multimedia piece BLEED at the 2012 Whitney Biennial, also co-created with his wife a tribute to Coleman at New York City's Blue Note Jazz Festival on June 12, the day after Coleman passed away at age 85.
Recently selected by curator Okwui Enwezor for inclusion in this year's 56th Venice Biennale, Moran has followed in Coleman's footsteps to create a number of multimedia pieces reflecting an artsy, "color outside the lines" rule-breaking philosophy: a vinyl pressing limited to 300 copies of Moran's STAGED compositions, released in conjunction with New York's Luhring Augustine gallery in honor of Moran's Venice Biennale inclusion and art installation. Here in Houston, this past February saw the Da Camera world premiere of Moran's The Rauschenberg Project: Holed Up, a project partially inspired by his trips to the Menil Collection, where he often encountered late Port Arthur native Robert Rauschenberg's work. Also, like so many past and present residents of Houston's Third Ward, Moran also has a deep connection to the artistic vision of late muralist John Biggers.
Moran, like fellow High School for the Performing and Visual Arts alum Robert Glasper, also paid tribute to Coleman via social media. Drummer Jamire Williams, another HSPVA alum who also graduated from The New School and founded the band ERIMAJ, wrote, "Rest well Ornette. Your innovation and contributions will stand the test of time." The growing village of Houston jazz musicians who have migrated to New York City was celebrated in a 2011 Moran-organized event billed as "713 to 212: Houstonians in NYC," a jam-session reunion of sorts for a number of Houstonians: the Williams-led ERIMAJ, who performed an exquisite instrumental version of the Geto Boys' "Mind Playing Tricks on Me" (a clip exists on YouTube); drummer Eric Harland; bassist Marcos Varela; Glasper and Moran, who performed a churchified instrumental version of Scarface's "My Block" (also posted on YouTube); drummer Chris "Daddy" Dave; bassist Burniss Earl Travis; bassist and singer Alan Hampton; trumpeters Leron Thomas and Brandon Lee; songwriter Josh Mease; drummer and bandleader Kendrick Scott; trombonist Corey King; guitarist Mike Moreno; singer Lisa Harris; Mark Kelley, these days a bassist for The Roots; pianist Helen Sung; Dr. Bob Morgan, the retired longtime leader of HSPVA's jazz program; and a few older musicians including Melvin Sparks, Ku-umba Frank Lacy, Tex Allen, Michael Carvin and Billy Harper. According to a New York Times article about the event, one group performed a rendition of late Houston legend Johnny "Guitar" Watson's "Superman Lover," while other groups performed renditions of Archie Bell and the Drells' "Tighten Up" and ZZ Top's "Sharp Dressed Man."
While many such collaborations of Houston musicians are inspired by a contemporary approach to jazz, there's also an undercurrent of free expression and disregard for strict genres originally expressed in Coleman's 1961 album Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation, which informs and insinuates itself into the ultramodern jazz atmosphere embraced by many of the younger jazz musicians from Houston.
On the flip side of things, approaching the work of Coleman during his student days — before he became known as quite eccentric and later as the genius he always was — Coleman himself was inspired by at least two Houston jazz legends and members of the "Texas Tenors" who came before him: saxophonists Illinois Jacquet and Arnett Cobb. The Jacquet brothers (Russell Jacquet was a trumpeter) lived in Houston's Fifth Ward down the street from another seldom-mentioned but extremely important Houston tenor saxophonist named Ernest Alvin "Texas Tom" Archia. Archia spent a number of years in Chicago, including a stint during Houstonian Milt Larkin's 1942-1943 residency at Chicago's short-lived Rhumboogie Café (owned by boxer Joe Louis); he later played in the "Dream Band" alongside jazz icon Charlie "Bird" Parker. The band also sometimes backed Texan blues singer-guitarist T-Bone Walker.
When a new band leader named Marl Young came to town, both Parker and Archia got fired simultaneously without notice for basically the same reason: not following the rules. Both musicians not only challenged the rules of jazz, but certainly they must have felt stifled by all the strict union rules in place in Chicago at the time. Archia had joined Larkin's band in Chicago, which was packed with Houston musicians: Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson (whose own band later included a young John Coltrane), Cobb, Illinois Jacquet, pianist Cedric Haywood (who later played in a band with Sidney Bechet), and honorary Houstonian Wild Bill Davis. And when Archia passed away here in 1977, he was given what reports indicate was a memorable and fitting jazz tribute in Fifth Ward.
Although some Chicagoans and those not in the know tend to claim Archia as one of the Windy City's own musicians and omit the obviously deep Houston connection, he was always loyal to Houston and came back to live out his final years here — an extensive Archia discography created by Robert L. Campbell, Leonard J. Bukowski and Armin Büttner goes into great detail about Archia's life in Houston. Per anecdotal information on the site, Archia's family owned and operated a watermelon stand at the corner of Lyons Avenue and Hill Street, which later morphed into what is now known as Jensen Drive. The watermelons were harvested at the family farm northwest of Houston in Hempstead. Along with Cobb and the Jacquet brothers, Archia studied jazz at Phyllis Wheatley High School under the direction of world-renowned educator Percy McDavid.
Archia was known in some circles as "The Devil" because of his ability to "play the hell out of his horn"; it could be argued he's also the missing link between Cobb, Jacquet and Coleman. Though Jacquet later became well-known, especially for his improvisational "Flying Home" solo and his Illinois Jacquet Flies Again album, which undoubtedly inspired Coleman's Free Jazz album, Archia never became well-known outside a few jazz circles. But like Cobb and Jacquet, Archia also paved the way for Coleman to eventually de-frame and deconstruct jazz; all the paradigm-shifting Coleman is known for essentially began with Archia's and Cobb's genre-bending work.
All these musicians, including Coleman, transcended jazz and were just as proficient in the blues. The older Houston saxophonists opened conceptual doors for Coltrane, who studied and admired the work of the "Texas Tenors." But perhaps due to their shared humble beginnings in Texas, Coleman and the Houston saxophonists who inspired him created a new musical language still evident in the work of generations of Houston-reared jazz musicians today.