The Wire

In Writing

Ornette Coleman: 1930–2015: Mark Cunningham

June 2015

The former Mars member recalls Ornette's Artists House loft and his impact on no wave

When I arrived in NYC from a small Florida college in 1974, along with Arto Lindsay, the first thing we did musically was to look for the already mythical (for us anyway) loft jazz scene, not being entirely sure about what was left of it. I think the first place we stumbled on was Milford Graves's loft, or at least a loft where he was playing regularly, and from there on to others, but at some point early on we heard about the Artists House on Prince Street, where Ornette lived upstairs and had a performance space at street level, and that became our second home while it lasted. What I find amazing now is that looking for info about this scene online is extremely frustrating. For example, if I want to know every band that played at CBGBs from 1973 to 1980, there's a blog for it. But the sum total of info about Artists House that I could find before writing this piece was limited to a few lines in a couple of Ornette bios. So I'm forced to rely on a very sketchy, episodic memory.

Anyway, I'd love to remember or have a list of all the great players we saw there, but truth is, I think I mostly just focused on Ornette, who'd alternate on alto, violin and trumpet, and to my young ears at the time was just as expressive on all of them. His humanity expressed through sound was overwhelming.

A lot has been said about the influence of free jazz on no wave and speaking for Mars I'd have to say it's true, but more for the ideas, force and feeling than for the music itself, if that makes sense. I was extremely taken by a way Ornette once described harmolodics, and I think it was the following or something very similar: "The use of the physical and the mental of one's own logic made into an expression of sound to bring about the musical sensation of unison executed by a single person or with a group." It was like having all I liked and all we were trying to reach in the band put into words, without referring to any specific musical system or technique.

This affected Mars and many things I've done since much more than any recording of Ornette's or his harmolodic disciples. Although I'll measure that by saying that the double quartet Free Jazz LP had a very specific impact on the post-Mars Sumner Crane opera John Gavanti – in this case for its sonorities and some chaotic moments. We went out and rented instruments which we'd never played before to record the overture.

Artists House closed down sometime later due to problems with the neighbours (yes, even in 70s Soho) and the loft jazz scene slowly faded away, driven out by gentrification and probably frustration of working so hard for so little recognition and reward.

Thank you Ornette!

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