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In Writing

Ornette Coleman 1930–2015: Brian Morton

June 2015

Brian Morton pays tribute to Ornette Coleman, who died on 11 June in New York of a heart attack aged 85. (Stream a playlist based on Brian's piece here.)

His “Judas!” moment also happened in England. It was at the Fairfield Hall in Croydon on an evening in 1965, during an improvisation punctuated with silences that were every bit as eloquent as the raucous notes between. Someone yelled for some proper jazz. But Ornette Coleman had fielded brickbats since he started out. Apparently unfazed, he played a few joyous measures of “Cherokee” and the crowd cheered back, though whether in relief that some bebop had finally surfaced or in appreciation of the saxophonist's quick wit isn't clear.

The more influential hecklers were not just critics (some tin-eared, some genuinely baffled by Ornette's dartboard approach to harmony) but more hurtfully fellow musicians, who seemed to feel that he was bringing an already embattled music into further disrepute by parading a non-technique as if it were a brand new philosophy. Miles Davis miaowed and scratched, as he always did when confronted with something new and possibly threatening. Charles Mingus said Ornette's problem was that he couldn't play straight; a pity he wasn't at Croydon that night. Others simply lined the back row of the old Five Spot in New York and sneered. The guy was from so far out of town, it was ridiculous. He came out wearing homemade clothes that reeked of working class display. He played a plastic saxophone. He wasn't even Southern, with the problematic dignity of the Reconstructed South, he was Southwestern.

The vitriol was concentrated because there were supporters too, and they were swallowing the claims inscribed in those gauntlet album titles – Something Else!!!, Tomorrow Is The Question, The Shape Of Jazz To Come, Change Of The Century – that here was the most important new direction in jazz since bebop. Once Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg (apparently with CIA approval) had elevated Jackson Pollock and Abstract Expressionism (both would intersect with this story on the cover of Ornette's Free Jazz) into a new paradigm of artistic activity, a particular brand of critical boosterism had come to the fore in the US, with the critic almost as important as the artist in the public gaze. In the same way, what Gunther Schuller or Nat Hentoff said about the young Ornette Coleman was almost as important as what came out of the speakers or off the club stage. His presence at the Lenox Summer School in Massachusetts, where he had been invited by John Lewis, was both a revelation to others who attended and also a slightly awkward moment, like the exotic ‘native’ at the Victorian exposition.

The problem with Ornette in the eyes of those who could not get him was not so much musical as social. In the slightly rarefied, elbows-out environment of downtown New York at the end of the 1950s, he came over vaudevillian, a bar-walker whose aspirations to play the city’s Town Hall, leave aside Carnegie Hall, almost seemed like a calculated insult. Getting his 10 year old son Denardo, so young he made Tony Williams seem like a veteran, to play drums for him was very much a calculated gesture. It kept things in the family – and the story of Ornette's life with poet Jayne Cortez, and the mutual inspiration that came out of that decade together, remains largely untold – but it also said clearly that what this new music needed was someone whose sense of time hadn't been blunted by too much time on a planet that ran to motorised and programmed rhythms. Ornette was blessed throughout his career by sympathetic colleagues and interpreters, first Paul Bley, then Don Cherry (who also came out of nowhere playing a toy horn), Charlie Haden, Ed Blackwell, later Dewey Redman, but it was Denardo who clinched the genetic coherence of his music with a beat that's probably best compared, in impact at least, to Ringo Starr's.

Born in March 1930, Ornette started his lonely walk through life at the same time as Mahatma Gandhi began his protests. It was a connection that rather pleased him. Family life in Fort Worth, Texas was poor in what Coleman later characterised as a premodern, specifically black and characteristically Southwestern definition of poor. Nowadays poor still means you have a TV and probably a car. Then poor meant no shoes and food only on the hap. Denied a college start in adult life, he got a job as a lift operator and, as he went up and down, began a process of self-education which some would argue led into errors of harmonic thinking, including the impression that the scale must logically begin on A, that couldn't be shaken and explained the eldritch wrongness of the work. The simplest recourse for Ornette's detractors, sometimes delivered caustically, sometimes with a patronising sympathy, was that he had simply got it wrong and was living out, all too publicly, the implications of an illusion as devastating as flat-earthism or neo-Ptolemaic astronomy.

And yet, Ornette’s harmolodics represents one of the two main theoretical constructs to dominate jazz practice of the last 50 years. Its apparent incoherence as a theory is most obvious when set alongside George Russell's The Lydian Chromatic Concept Of Tonal Organisation. Coleman wrote no comparable tract and as a consequence his ideas were widely dismissed. And yet, significantly, it was Russell who recognised his importance and that the essence of that importance wasn't expressible as theory but only in old fashioned praxis. For what Coleman did, far more radically and far more urgently than any of a generation of musicians whose revolution consisted of dandling modalities, was to free the song from the necessity of what Russell beautifully described as “meeting the deadline of the chord”.

It's a perfect image, not just because it casts light on Ornette's instinctive grasp of harmony as an overall thing, indivisible and non-functional in the conventional sense, but also on his positioning outside the rat race values and clocktime of the music industry. Coleman didn't work to deadlines, was awkward around contracts, frequently cried foul on the business. His discography is littered with contested entries: music made for Conrad Rooks's unwatchable Chappaqua movie; Impulse!'s unauthorised release of Crisis!; last year's contentious New Vocabulary; as well as the usual array of bootlegs and copyright violations. Even a dedicated imprint under the umbrella of Verve/Polygram seemed to fall at an early fence.

The radicalism of the sound can't be assessed outside of Ornette's defiant self-positioning beyond the reach of the music industry as a whole. But it's the sound, rather than the sociological locus, that we are left with. Ornette Coleman was not an outsider artist and not a punkish leftist. He cultivated no eccentricities. His adoption of violin and trumpet as secondary instruments was entirely consistent with his approach to saxophone, which was neither ‘raw’ nor ‘untutored’ but simply put to ends that were explainable only as primes. Coleman's music, in its extraordinary breadth and richness, is a series of small autotelic gestures, with each song a sufficiency of content and of information. They are not susceptible to easy analysis. They demand a certain acceptance of premise. Taken all in all, they resemble a prolonged and orderly Tractatus, whose statements relate to one another in logical ways and sequences. The release of box sets that restore Ornette's recordings to their original order often reveals how patiently he works through related groups of ideas. In this way, he's somewhat like his detractor Miles Davis, who frequently only makes complete sense when heard in the plenitude of full sessions rather than their famously edited and tessellated official versions.

Thomas Pynchon may have satirised Ornette as McClintic Sphere in V., combining him with that other mysterious giant of post-bop jazz Thelonious Sphere Monk. The novel's references to a “hand-carved ivory saxophone” and to events at the Five Spot in 1960 suggest Coleman is the real object, but McClintic's surname points to Monk, as does the possibility that the mysterious V. is drawn from the Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter and used in the plot to set up a web of contrasts between old and new worlds, high and low societies, secrecy and openness, esoteric and exoteric meaning, aristocracy and sub-lumpen poverty or what Pynchon identifies as the Preterite. It's that Calvinist world that Ornette Coleman comes out of, his commitment to music matched by a commitment to the dispossessed that makes the leftism and/or African nationalism of many of his contemporaries seem almost perfumed. A man of instinctive and boundless generosity, his New York loft became a refuge for the indigent as much as a hub for new talent.

What was lost this week was a man. The artist, a concept he both embraced and somehow despised, will not undergo the usual posthumous normalisation and belated acceptance. Ornette Coleman had long since pulled off the single magic trick of showbusiness, which is not simply to decline compromise for gain, but to live longer than most of your detractors. ‘The work’ doesn't easily detach from the man who created it and even now won't yield to safe posthumous glamourising. As with Monk's early, untypical “’Round Midnight”, or even Sam Rivers's “Beatrice” (which comes from a similar sensibility and place), there is a palatable ‘hit’ song to decorate the obituary items, but what impresses about “Lonely Woman” isn't its lovely line but the stern discipline of the playing on that original version, the apotheosis of jazz combo performance.

What he leaves behind is a bunch of classic texts, The Shape Of Jazz To Come, At The Golden Circle, Science Fiction, Dancing In Your Head. What he takes away, or what his death takes away from us, is the presence that unites them behind an unshaken belief in a practice he defined as harmolodic, in which the whole of a piece, its form and colour and duration, is improvised in the moment and as one, rather than as a linear progression. He resisted exposition, interviewed awkwardly but always kindly, and so was often characterised as a tricky loner. But perhaps he left a credo after all. It's delivered, chopped up, in the track titles on To Whom Who Keeps A Record (itself a title worthy of Gertrude Stein or ee cummings) and it runs like this: “Music Always”, “Brings Goodness”, “To Us”, “All”, “PS Unless Some One Has”, “Some Other”, “Motive”, “For Its Use”. The postscript is subtitled “Blues Connotation No 2”, a reminder of where it all came from and comes from.


Denardo was actually 10 when he debuted on The Empty Foxhole. Easy mistake to make - Ornette at 12 is the album title that always come to mind when thinking of his youth.

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