Happy Birthday Ornette Coleman, roots avant-gardist

Composer, conceptualist and multi-instrumentalist Ornette Coleman, b. March 9 1930, is widely known for “free jazz” — which is routinely depicted as the most abstract and daunting music to emerge from the U.S. But this overlooks Ornette’s deep roots in blues from the Southwest and his fealty to the freedom of expression, mobility and individuality that has made the U.S. great.

Coleman, who comes from
Fort Worth, Texas, was a mostly self-taught saxophonist whose earliest
professional touring experience was with the “Silas Green from New
Orleans” tent show/minstrel troupe (aka “Prof. Eph Williams’ Famous
Troubadours”) that did one-night stands throughout the south from 1885 to
the late 1950s. Ornette’s unique sound (then on tenor sax) and his talent for
composition were evidently in place by the time he joined this outfit in 1949, though he played repertoire from the group’s longstanding book, which
included songs from pre-WWI, and got to solo usually on a blues.

His horn style is
intense (so much so that he was attacked on at least one occasion after a gig
by roughnecks enraged by it) and has many qualities of vocalization — a
keening cry, purposely cracked notes, hoarseness, multi-phonics that lend a
burr to pure pitch, licks that suggest laughter and babble. So he stood out
from more conventional horn players, though he was also known for having
absorbed quite a lot of Charlie Parker’s ferociously virtuosic sax extensions
(as can be heard on his 1958 live recording
from the Hillcrest Club
 of Bird’s composition “Klactoveedsedstene” in company of pianist Paul Bley and the
musicians who would become known as Coleman’s first quartet ). In fact, according to John
Litweiler’s biography Ornette Coleman:
A Harmolodic Life
, Ornette was fired for angering the other
saxophonist in the Green band by “trying to teach him bebop.” Coleman reportedly looked odd at that time, wearing his hair long, and he was an unhappy
19-year-old, distraught by the low-down quality of the places Silas Green
played as well as the distances traveled on his first trip away from home.

Let go in Natchez,
Coleman was lucky to get picked up by blues singer Clarence Samuels, and
luckier yet to have been asked by a man he met in a restaurant to come up with
“eight or nine songs” for a hastily organized recording date. He did
so, and apparently the date went down, but he was run out of town (just for being
weird) before the records were issued and he never found out what became of the
tapes. That music has never been released, but I’ve always wondered if it bore
any resemblance to the funkiest and most tightly formatted of Ornette’s albums, Of Human
 which he recorded with his highly charged band
Prime Time in the late ’80s (and which has not been reissued as a cd in the

Ornette’s distinct sound
and personal style made him a pariah in Los Angeles music circles in the ’50s,
until Bley, Charlie Haden, Don Cherry and Billy Higgins convened to feature him
at the Hillcrest. He first sought a recording deal as a tunesmith, but Lester
Koenig of Contemporary Records would only sign Ornette if he played his tunes
himself. OC’s first two records were Something Else! (with
relatively straightahead pianist Walter Norris) and Tomorrow Is The
 (with mainstream-progressive Shelly Manne on drums, Percy
Heath of the Modern Jazz Quartet and equally well-established Red Mitchell
switching off on bass). Although both albums and Ornette’s subsequent, very
productive recording stint with Atlantic Records feature the sax and front-line
(with Cherry playing pocket trumpet) sound and harmonically-untethered
improvisational initiative that raised the hackles of many established jazz
musicians in the late ’50s-early ’60s, the tunes themselves are melodic,
catchy, hummable and often upbeat. They make reference to country music and
Latin music as well as jazz, all filtered through Ornette’s lively sonic
imagination. When Ornette arrived in New York City in 1959, his fellow Texan
saxophonist King Curtis, then riding high as the sax star of r&b, met him with a car at the train

Ornette has always
insisted on his own way — he is a true pioneer and a fearless one. His 1963
self-produced concert at Town Hall seems
to be the first attempt to fold together classical musicians (a string trio),
jazz and an r&b group (only half that concert was recorded, apparently; it is available as originally released by ESP disks). He received one of the first Guggenheim fellowships
given to a jazz musician and used the funding to compose a concerto grosso
(usually taken as a symphony), Skies of America.
He was among the first jazz musicians to pursue deep interests in music from
far-away cultures, collaborating with the Master Musicians of Jajouka in
Morocco (as written about by Robert Palmer). He has been a provocative colleague and mentor to dozens of musicians
since the ’60s, among them his son Denardo Coleman (his drummer and sometimes producer), poet-cultural critic-bandleader Jayne Cortez (Ornette’s ex-wife), Edward Blackwell, John Coltrane, Albert Ayler, Eric Dolphy, Freddie Hubbard, Scott Lafaro, Gunther Schuller, John Lewis, David Izenzon, Charles Moffett (and his son Charnett), Dewey Redman, Yoko Ono, Jamalaadeen Tacuma, James “Blood” Ulmer, Bern Nix, Tony Falanga, Albert McDowell, Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson, Jerry
Garcia, Howard Shore (on the brilliant soundtrack to the film Naked
), Joe Henry, Geri Allen, John Snyder, Ronald Shannon Jackson, Anthony Braxton and indeed the entire AACM-BAG-JCOA-Creative Music Studio-Studio Rivbea outreach, Wallace Roney, John Giordano, Wynton Marsalis, Kurt Masur — the list goes on and on.

But what Ornette most
stands for through his music and fascinating, philosophical inquiries (several
of them are included in my book Miles Ornette
Cecil – Jazz Beyond Jazz
) is humanism and essentialism that
dispenses with encrusted thinking. He is an idealist — and we need a few more
of those — who has inspired musicians and listeners alike get underneath
superficialities to discover the basics and basis of sound. He encourages
people to connect with their creative powers regardless of formal training
(which is too often just training in formalities). He is a genuinely free
spirit — the kind of artist America produces every now and then who could
hardly come from anywhere else. He embraces new technologies but he does so
firmly grounded in what humans have done since time immemorial. Don’t be put
off by his reputation — his music speaks to open-minded listeners very
directly, though it cannot be mistaken for being anyone else’s. He is extremely
generous with his gifts, without showing the least pretense about his art.

The references above are not meant to diminish the genuinely paradigm-shifting nature of Ornette’s work. But Free Jazz, his early shocker, today is revealed as a jubilant experience in collective improvisation, one of jazz’s earliest principles, and many of his ideas have become common processes for contemporary improvisers (not least of all his insistence on being oneself). Among his especially well-realized and totally uncompromised later albums (starting after Skies in 1970) I count Science Fiction, Body Meta, Song X (with Pat Metheny), In All Languages, Tone Dialing and Sound Grammar, for which he received the Pulitzer. Plus those aforementioned.

I always feel happy to
be in Ornette’s presence and to listen to his music. He is exemplary of what’s best
about American culture — his music absorbing and reflecting everything
surrounding it, completely in the moment, distinctly personal but offered
without any imposition to everybody. It may at first sound strange, but soon
seems natural, inevitable, just right. Happy birthday, Ornette!

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  1. says

    After getting into Ornette as a teenager in the late ’60’s, I have only had the opportunity to see him live on 2 occasions. Both were at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage festival. First was with Prime Time, at the time w/ Badal Roy on tabla drums, and more recently in 2003. Both remain fond memories. Happy Birthday, Ornette, and thanks, Howard, for the public “Birthday card.”
    /s/ Marty
    Martin Z. Kasdan Jr.
    Jazz Columnist, Louisville Music News

  2. says

    I went to an Ornette Coleman concert once. A wonderful experience. Since then I’ve bought several of his albums. I’m not one to listen to Jazz usually, but for Ornette Coleman’s stuff I’ve made an exception