The Puzzle Ornette Coleman Left Us

Ornette Coleman plays at a JVC Jazz Festival concert at Carnegie Hall, June 20, 2004. His son, Denardo Coleman (rear) plays drums. (Photo by Jack Vartoogian/Getty Images)

On Saturday, June 27, at 11am, I’ll be at Manhattan’s Riverside Church for a funeral to celebrate the life, mourn the loss and revel in the spirit of Ornette Coleman.
Coleman, who died at 85 on June 11, delivered on the promise of the title to his 1959 album, “The Shape of Jazz to Come.” The flow of jazz ever since in fact has been redirected, its course widened and altered.
Yet Coleman gave us no template or mold. Rather, he offered liberation from these things while suggesting—no proving—that such freedom did not mean forfeiture of aesthetic purpose or historical grounding. No one has or likely will make music quite like his, but few serious and searching jazz musicians have ignored the possibilities suggested by the doors he blew open.
In a New York Times obituary, which was as notable for its Page One placement as for its elegance and length, Ben Ratliff explained the most basic way that Coleman steered musicians:

Partly through his example in the late 1950s and early ’60s, jazz became less beholden to the rules of harmony and rhythm while gaining more distance from the American songbook repertoire.
His own music… embodied a new type of folk song: providing deceptively simple melodies for small groups with an intuitive, collective musical language and a strategy for playing without preconceived chord sequences.

The title of a 1960 Coleman album, “Change of the Century,” might now raise the question, “Which century?” Within and beyond jazz, Coleman’s best-known compositions, including the haunting “Lonely Woman,” a ballad of sorts, and “Ramblin’” a blues that sounds like a simple folk song but is in fact deceptively complex, have grown in appeal and influence over time. The ideas Coleman advanced—most notably his rejection of standardized notions of tonal, harmonic and rhythmic organization—are no less radical than they were more than a half-century ago, and yet they have seeped into our bodies and lives the way great art and real change always does.
Coleman’s music changed not just jazz’s shape, but also how jazz fit within its surrounding constructs in music, art, science and the humanities. It altered the context for jazz (and for all African American, and American, music) within the wider world.
In 2007, Coleman won the Pulitzer Prize for composition. He was also in his later years awarded a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, two Guggenheim grants, and a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master honor. Yet criticism and controversy have always clung to Coleman’s music. In his beginnings as a musician, his unconventional playing and appearance led to physical abuse (he spoke of getting beaten up after an early gig). Even his breakthrough engagement, a November 1959 extended run at Manhattan’s Five Spot Café, brought, along with praise, harsh criticism and ridicule, including that of fellow musicians such as trumpeter Roy Eldridge, who notably said, “I think he’s jiving, baby.”
Coleman’s approach to an ensemble harked back to early New Orleans jazz, critic Martin Williams suggested in the original liner notes to 1960’s “Free Jazz,” for which Coleman combined two separate quartets; other critics heard only cacophony. Depending upon who was listening, Coleman’s tight and intuitive bond and shared sense of purpose with trumpeter Don Cherry in his classic quartet was either akin to the connection between saxophonist Charlie Parker and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie at the dawn of bebop or a repudiation of what those bebop masters had accomplished.
Perhaps most divisive of all was what grounded but also elevated all of Coleman’s music: The sound of his alto saxophone. Critic Gary Giddins put it well in a 2008 piece for The New Yorker.

Perhaps the chief impediment to greater popularity is the very quality that centers his achievement: the raw, rugged, vocalized, weirdly pitched sound of his alto saxophone. Considered uniquely, radiantly beautiful by fans, it is like no other sound in or out of jazz. Within the space of a few notes—a crying glissando, say, or a chortling squeak—Coleman’s sound is as unmistakable as the voice of a loved one. Even now, in a far noisier and more dissonant world than 1959, listening to Coleman can be a bracing experience for the uninitiated. Coleman’s attitude toward intonation is unconventional. The classical composer Hale Smith once spoke to me of Coleman’s “quarter-tone pitch,” by which he meant that Coleman plays between the semitones of an ordinary chromatic scale. The core of Coleman’s genius, Smith felt, is that, however sharp or flat he is from accepted pitch, he is consistent from note to note. Coleman hears so acutely that even when he is out of tune with the rest of the musical world he is always in tune with himself.

Coleman was his own man pursuing his own ideas from very early on, and doing whatever was needed to support that effort. During some formative time in Los Angeles, when few musicians would warm to his playing, he worked  in one department store while drummer Ed Blackwell, who shared his apartment, worked at another department store. (“I was the stock clerk and Ornette was the elevator operator,” Blackwell told Ted Panken during a WKCR-FM interview. “So that’s the way we would survive in order to pay the rent and just play every day.”)
Yet Coleman, like any musician, had his influences and, despite all the resistance thrown his way, some nurturing environments. He was born in Fort Worth, Texas in 1930 and attended I.M. Terrell High School, which can also claim a surprising number of notable jazz, blues and R&B musicians (including three future Coleman bandmates — saxophonist Dewey Redman and drummers Charles Moffett and Ronald Shannon Jackson). Coleman’s first recording, 1958’s “Something Else!!!! The Music of Ornette Coleman,” displays a clear internalization of Charlie Parker’s innovative style but also the stirrings of desire to break free of Parker’s pedagogy (in interviews, Coleman mentioned the example of Red Connor, a bebop tenor saxophonist who, he said, played ideas more so than patterns). Coleman’s connection to New Orleans is also more than aesthetic parallel. His arrival in New Orleans in 1949 and his brief tenure with Silas Green From New Orleans, a popular traveling minstrel-show troupe, is often cited, as his his experiences in Baton Rouge, where he reportedly got roughed up for his playing. Beyond all that, Coleman’s experience in New Orleans around that time was formative, and it represented an important moment of early encouragement and exposure to like-minded musicians.
As A.B. Spellman wrote in “Four Lives in the Bebop Business”:

It was during these six months in New Orleans that Ornette first had to deal with modern musicians walking off the stand when he approached it. Nevertheless, he thinks back on the period as being more positive than not, since he did get to work out some musical ideas with Lassiter and did receive encouragement from two musicians of obiously unusual talent—Ed Blackwell and Alvin Batiste.

By Lassiter, Spellman really meant cornetist Melvin Lastie, who was Coleman’s roommate in New Orleans. Blackwell, who would go on the play with distinction with Coleman, Batiste, pianist Ellis Marsalis and saxophonist Harold Battiste (best known for his composing and arranging) were among the musicians who were drawn to Coleman’s playing—enough to drive out to L.A. at Coleman’s invitation. Here‘s how Alvin Batiste recalled that period, from another of Panken’s radio interviews:

He was living across the street from the California Club.  Even though he was living across the street, they didn’t want him to play, because his playing was so contrasted to what was going on at that particular time.  So we got into that, and so they wouldn’t let us play either.  So we played at Ornette’s house, and we developed a rapport that I’m thankful I had an opportunity to develop.  Because when you hear the music now, so-called free-form, that was really a very important nucleus of that manifestation.

Last week, it came as some relief to me that I didn’t end up writing a standard obituary on Coleman on a tight deadline. I was too torn up. I’d been preparing myself for quite some time and in succession for the ideas that: we might not get any more new music from Coleman; that I might not get to hear him in live performance again; and, finally, that he was getting old and frail. Anyone who writes about arts is fortunate to enter worlds beyond our imagination or capacity, some of which lead further than we bargained for. Coleman welcomed me not just into his thinking but into his home and his life to a certain degree, and it was enough to change me well beyond my thoughts about harmony and rhythm.
I grew to understand that Coleman’s music was so powerful not simply because he expressed himself in such singular and compelling fashion on his sax and not just due to the fact that he had cast off about as much as a musician can regarding conventions of technique and style. It was also because that sound and those ideas governed his world. He didn’t speak of notes; he talked about “tones” and “sound.” He had no interest in style or genre; he referred to “language” and “grammar.” (His Pulitzer Prize winning work was titled “Sound Grammar.”) He spoke, walked and shot pool on the table in his Manhattan apartment in much the same way as he played his saxophone.
In my sadness last week, I went back to a 1996 cover story I did for a world-music magazine, RhythmMusic, I was editing at the time. Coleman had just released “Tone Dialing,” with which he had inaugurated his Harmolodic imprint within Polygram. (Back then, Polygram-France’s Jean-Philippe Allard, who engineered that development, “The world has caught up with Ornette.”) That album’s edition of Coleman’s Prime Time band, a group Coleman created in the 1970s to explore the possibilities of electric ensembles and to further this theory of “harmolodics,” included tabla player Badal Roy, which was the central conceit of my placing Coleman on the front of a world-music publication.
Not that I wanted to slip him into a category. Denardo Coleman, Ornette’s son, who played drums on the saxophonist’s 1966 album, “The Empty Foxhole,” and thereafter anchored his Prime Time band, was helping him manage the label. Denardo had told me, “Harmolodics is also a way of doing business. It means that you are not going to let someone else define who you are and what can be done.” Along with the album and press released had come a jigsaw puzzle which, when assembled, contained only this phrase:

“Remove the caste system from sound.”

Coleman was about the gentlest and warmest man I’ve ever met. He was slight of build, spoke with a modest lisp and exuded the strangest but most persuasive air of self-confidence I’ve witnessed. Like his playing, his statements in interviews and even casual conversation rarely formed conventional patterns; they were bold, but more so by suggestion or question than declaration. As with his music, some dismissed what Coleman said as illogical or illegitimate while others, including me, heard unabashed honesty and utter clarity. (At a certain point, I decided that, in interviews, Coleman, who rarely answered directly, was in fact answering the question I should have asked instead or the one that would naturally follow if we kept talking.)
Mostly, as in his music, Coleman used narratives and explained activating ideas. Here’s some of what he told me in 1996:
On his early conception of music:

I was living at home with my mother, and I realized I had to analyze and get more information. To me, the piano was like a self-service restaurant. You can take what you want, order what you want, put it in your tray. But then I realized I could get rid of the piano and still get what I wanted.

On his orchestral piece, “Skies of America,” which he recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra in 1972, and performed with the New York Philharmonic during the 2007 Lincoln Center Festival:

I got interested in the way Indians prayed. They had a relationship with their own culture that anyone could relate to, if all you were interested in was relating to who you are as a human being. Here were a people — they weren’t praying for forgiveness, they weren’t asking for promises. They were praying about something they already knew — they were honoring. All the time I was growing up, people were telling me, “If you get out of this environment, you will understand how to be more religious and how to be more spiritual.” There was always something you had to change to become better. And here were people who weren’t concerned with that at all, yet they were in a much worse material position than us, if you looked at it. So, to make a long story short, I went home and started writing “Skies of America.”

On “Lonely Woman”:

I was working as a department-store clerk in Texas. One day, at lunch, I came upon an art gallery. Someone had painted a beautiful woman, surrounded by all the comforts and luxuries you could imagine. But she was sitting there with the most painful expression you could imagine on her face. I thought to myself, ‘You know, I’m not in the position to judge the quality of this work, but I understand what this feeling is about.’ I went home that night and wrote “Lonely Woman.” From that point on, I began to understand how to be a human being first and an artist second. And I’ve never forgotten that. When I wrote that song, I said, “From this day on, I’m going to support any artist I ever come upon.” I realized the person that’s called an artist is probably the only person who does something without worrying about the result.

On categories:

I used to go to Lincoln Center. Leonard Bernstein invited me to come to a rehearsal. It never dawned on me that there was a caste system in sound. I though it was just ability. If you had the ability to play the violin, you could play what you wanted. If you could sing the blues, you could sing any song. But the music community only allows you the territory that serves its ends. I can play music in any territory—anywhere, with anybody. And that’s what I’ve opted to do.
Let’s put it this way. On this planet, there is human expression, which has been related through art for many years. But this expression has not been free of categories or preconceptions. I think of myself as a composer. I could write music for any musician. I don’t think of someone I want to play with, I think of something I want to do musically and, if I can draw people to me who are interested, I’ll do it.

The list of musicians drawn to Coleman’s ideas is long and diverse. In interviews, some have shared with me the sense of validation they first felt in their connection.
Bassist Charlie Haden, who was a member of Coleman’s original quartet with trumpeter Don Cherry and drummer Billy Higgins:

I first heard Ornette at this club on Wilshire Blvd called The Hang. I said to myself, “This guy plays music just like the way I hear it.” I had never thought that would happen.

Guitarist James “Blood” Ulmer, who was a central force in Coleman’s Prime Time band:

Me and Billy Higgins were playing in a studio in Brooklyn. He said, “Man, I play with a guy that’s got to hear you play.” At the time, I had heard of Ornette but I had never met him. I didn’t really know his music. Ornette tried to help me. He produced my first record. He kept me in his house for a year, free room and board. All I had to do was be myself, and do the same thing I was doing in Detroit, in Columbus, in Pittsburgh. He told me, “The way you play, that’s exactly how I want you to play in my band. I play harmolodically, and you are a naturally harmolodic player.” I’ve always understood what Coleman was doing, and Coleman was the one who made me feel good about what I was doing. He had a name for what I was doing.

Other musicians felt empowered to change themselves as a result of playing with Coleman. Pianist Geri Allen, one of the few pianists Coleman has recorded with, on his 1996 “Sound Museum,” told me:

I’m still internalizing the impact of that time, and the things I learned about how I can play piano. But more than any musical idea was the experience of hearing his sound in such close promixity; it’s this voice, really, that lets you truly hear who this person is as a human being, without apology without any resistance. That seemed like a goal worth aiming for.

I recall hearing the edition of Coleman’s band that included Allen (along with bassist Charnett Moffett and Denardo Coleman on drums) at the San Francisco Jazz Festival in 1993, on double bill with new incarnation of Prime Time. During the intermission, there were a series of performance artists, including a long display of body piercing to the beats of a tabla drum. Some audience members cheered, some groaned, some walked out in disapproval or disgust.
A few days later, Denardo Coleman told me. “That was part of the show, and it was Ornette’s idea. Ornette has always studied and read about other cultures. He had gotten fascinated by a people in Malaysia who used body piercing as a ritual and a way of enlightenment.”
At the 2004 JVC Jazz Festival in Manhattan, Coleman surprised the Carnegie Hall audience before playing a note: Billed to perform in a trio with Denardo and bassist Tony Falanga, Mr. Coleman ambled onstage with a second bassist, Greg Cohen, in tow. Coleman had added Cohen to the group just a month earlier, and his reconfigured quartet hinted at exciting possibilities. A year later and back at Carnegie, that group delivered further on that promise, infusing his compositions with fresh textures and energizing Coleman into his most fluid and affecting playing in years. He had been writing furiously, it appeared. With one exception, he played new compositions, some created in the week leading up to this concert. From the stage, he alerted the crowd to the concert-program listings of 10 new pieces, saying, “Usually the titles represent a state of thinking.”
By 2010, it was unclear just how many more times we’d get to see and hear Coleman in concert again. One brief but gleaming and unexpected chance came during a Sonny Rollins concert at Manhattan’s Beacon Theater in celebration of the tenor saxophonist’s 80th birthday. The night was filled with stellar guest artists but word had been spread about an unbilled star. Late in the program Rollins played in a trio with bassist Christian McBride and drummer Roy Haynes. Their trio section began with Duke Ellington’s “In My Solitude,” which Rollins essayed with all sorts of harmonic license at a stately pace until Haynes jumped in for a solo, the brilliant bombast of which erased any thought that, at 85, he had lost any degree of vigor or daring. The three began Rollins’ “Sonnymoon for Two.” Rollins stepped up to the mic and said, “There’s someone backstage who’s got his horn, and he wants to wish me a happy birthday.” I was guessing tenor saxophonist Jimmy Heath, who I’d seen in the audience earlier. The band vamped, facing stage left. No one. Pregnant pause. Finally, out strode Coleman. He bowed gently to Rollins, then listened intently as Rollins messed masterfully with both the key and meter of the 12-bar blues.
Coleman eased in with almost otherworldly gentleness and little formal relationship to what had come before. Yet it all fit and flowed. Haynes changed up his rhythm and flashed an excited smile. McBride seemed momentarily flustered, then found his footing. Soon, Rollins began to play. Coleman had played his version of Rollins, and now Rollins offered up Sonny playing Ornette playing Sonny. Something like that, anyway. Rollins had entered the key-less space of Coleman’s music, fully free of the blues form of his tune. He played in something close to Coleman’s ineluctable dialect, yet through his own familiar voice.
Days later cornetist Graham Haynes, Roy’s son, gave me his analysis. “Sonny and Roy and Christian were pushing the 12-bar blues to its furthest abstraction,” he said. “My dad and Sonny both have ways of opening up rhythmic possibilities that seem to defy time and space. They do this on a regular basis. That’s where they live. But Ornette is going to play Ornette. Melodically, harmonically, he opened things up to the point where what they had been doing was neutralized. It became something else. The rhythms were not covered up, but they become illusory. The most fascinating thing about that episode is that someone could have recorded it, and it would sound great, but it would never approach what actually happened. It was a metaphysical experience, not a musical experience. You had to be there.” (In fact it was recorded, and was released in 2011 on Rollins’ “Road Shows, Vol. 2.”; worthy listening, yet Haynes has a point.)
Finally, a year ago, during the Celebrate Brooklyn! series in Prospect Park, Denardo Coleman honored his father by gathering musicians that somewhat sketched the contours of his influence—among others, saxophonists Henry Threadgill, David Murray and John Zorn; Flea, the bassist from the Red Hot Chili Peppers; Patti Smith, Laurie Anderson, and two members of the Moroccan brotherhood, Master Musicians of Jajouka, who recorded with Coleman decades ago, and with an opening invocation, Rollins.
Rollins didn’t play, but Coleman did. Seated onstage, wearing a purple silk suit, he issued soft but firm threads of blues and more abstract phrases that urged the musicians onstage into compositions of his—“Blues Connotations” and “Turnaround,” among others. Yet Coleman never actually voiced those melodies. He kept playing what he’d been playing, as if these tones had either preceding the song or naturally followed from it.
I remember back in 1996, after I’d turned the tape recorder off to end our interview, Ornette Coleman asked, “Did you get the puzzle?” He might simply had been checking to see if the record company did its job.
I now hear that question as more profound.
Yes. We’re all still working on it, Ornette, thanks to the pieces you gave us.

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