Ornette Coleman: The Territory and the Adventure
Reaktion Books, 368 pp., $22.50
It’s a little ironic how easily the term “contrarian” is batted around these days. It seems like everyone wants to think of themselves—or more accurately to market themselves—as gutsy truth-tellers who have the courage to say the unsayable. Or, on the artistic side, harboring aesthetic ambitions so great that the fact that no one is listening only reinforces how visionary they truly are. Everyone is competing to be the lone voice that stands apart from the crowd. Being independently minded is crucial, but the price one pays, at least in critical or financial terms, for sticking to one’s aesthetic or philosophical guns often ends up being more than most people are willing to pay. Many are called, so to speak, but few are chosen.
The jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman, who didn’t like the term “free jazz” which has been most often applied to him, was in that number. We jazz lovers tend to be a contrarian-minded bunch anyway. For some strange reason jazz is one of the few musical genres it’s still socially acceptable to put down. Too many notes or something. Luckily, we have a new biography by the journalist Maria Golia that takes us inside his life and times. After having tenaciously fought to stay true to his eccentric musical vision throughout his long and eclectic career, it’s delightful to rediscover how accessible Coleman’s work can be.
Coleman started life in raucous, segregated Forth Worth, which is not the kind of place commonly associated with jazz (though evidently quite a few hailed from there). Cutting his teeth in the rough-and-tumble Texas honky tonks and learning his craft on the go, Coleman was exposed to a very different series of sounds and situations that wouldn’t have been available in the usual jazz hotspots. Golia brings that world vividly to life. A mild-mannered vegetarian with a slight lisp, Coleman didn’t really fit in anywhere even as he gigged extensively and spent some formative time on the West Coast. Coleman was routinely mocked and shunned by his fellow musicians at jam sessions, and at one point an irate crowd even threw his saxophone over a cliff.
This hostility not only didn’t deter Coleman, it made him dig deeper and work even harder. Inspiringly, he didn’t pat himself on the back or shun the traditions that had conditioned his audiences to expect the usual fare. He mastered them. Studying classical music kept his musical approach fresh and complex, and ended up melding those two genres in a way that has rarely been attempted before or since. It’s a case study in what it really means to be innovative and pioneering, two buzz words that have become almost meaningless from overuse.
Being labeled an avant-garde artist doesn’t necessarily mean that you don’t actually know what you’re doing. At its best, that restless innovation comes as the logical result of absorbing what came before you in order to transcend it. One time when Coleman was really taking it out, an audience member ironically called out for “Cherokee” the Bebop tune made famous by Charlie Parker. Coleman responded by spontaneously playing it note for note, just to prove that he could, and then launching back into his own improvisation.
One of the signs that someone is onto something significant is who else picks up on it. Some luminaries were anxious to learn from him: John Coltrane sought his counsel and Sonny Rollins, a proud eccentric himself, used to practice side by side with him for hours with only the waves of the Pacific Ocean for an audience. Coleman’s genuine openness and insistence on the creative autonomy of others infused his egalitarian approach to jazz composition. This provided him with the loyal support of musical comrades like drummer Ed Blackwell, bassist Charlie Haden, and cornetist Don Cherry. All of them went on to become leading lights in the so-called New Thing. “I don’t want [band-members] to follow me,” Coleman said, “I want them to follow themselves but to be with me.”
Describing his philosophy of music caused him to coin the term harmolodics, which is both easy and difficult to define. Harmolodics means in a technical sense that the rhythm, harmony, and melody are all equal; everyone is individually leading while playing together. A critic described it more abstractly as “a matter of seeing the world fresh, to see it unnamed, to stop pre-conceiving the world before it had spoken.” It’s a radically democratic approach to playing and thinking about music. Admittedly, sometimes it can be a bit much to take. At times, Golia explores the experience of listening to Coleman’s music perhaps a bit less than she should have. I for one have always found that a little guidance– especially for such far-seeing artists as Coleman– makes songs, records, or entire styles suddenly come alive.
Shirley Clarke’s wonderful 1985 documentary, Made in America, takes us through her subject’s idiosyncratic world and gives us a kind of knowing, playful, and imaginative dramatization of Coleman’s life and thought. We see the house by the train tracks where he was born, and we meet some of the members of his family. We explore the dangerous ’80s era NYC neighborhood where he set up a practice space, which was intended to be an artists-centered collaborative space. The visuals pop, and the performances are often amazing, especially Skies of America, which is a little like what might happen if Stravinsky (whom the Beboppers adored) had written jazz compositions.
To be perfectly honest, even as a lifelong jazz lover I confess that his music (and some of the freer stuff like it) can get a little abrasive, be a little too hard on the ears, and sometimes sounds like a flock of dying geese. Freedom is a challenge. It’s not easy to turn dissonance into beauty, or as Coleman put it, to “turn emotion into knowledge.” That kind of alchemy requires testing the audience’s patience, which will only work if there is something by the end of it that will reward that effort. There are more than a few instances recorded in Golia’s book where audiences felt addressed and moved in a way that they never had before with another artist.
In our market-saturated, consumerist, my-way-right-away oriented culture, engaging with a work of art that demands your attention and patience can actually be exhilarating. It’s not disposable. Sometimes—as with the immortal “Lonely Woman” or “Sleep Talking” or Change of the Century or all his live material from the Golden Circle or New York Is Now—Coleman takes you to places that only a few musicians have ever heard of, let alone reached. He once explained himself with intriguing abstraction by saying, “I don’t try to please when I play. I try to cure.”
Never artistically satisfied but always radiating a Zen-like calm, Coleman followed his idiosyncratic muse for an impressively long career. He played with a pianoless group, alternately inspiring and outraging the locals at the legendary Five Spot in New York, deeply admired Buckminster Fuller, and recorded a surprisingly good record with his ten-year-old novice son on drums, who ended up backing him up the rest of his life. He jammed with Jajoukan musicians in Morocco only to switch to edgy funk in the 1980s with his band, Prime Time. Fort Worth’s legendarily opulent avant-garde performance space The Caravan of Dreams had Coleman and William Burroughs give the inaugural performance, with Coleman receiving a key to the city. He collaborated with the Fort Worth Orchestra, Yoko Ono, Patti Smith, Bruce Springsteen, and Lou Reed. Coleman won a Pulitzer Prize for music, a rare honor for jazz musicians, not long before his death in 2015, having gone from being reviled in his youth to being revered as a genius. Ornette Coleman’s restless vision and profound commitment to his craft prove that what the muse rewards most in the end is persistence.