Signing Ornette Coleman

In jazz histories, as in all histories of human activity, small errors are repeated and become the standard version of events. Don Payne, the bassist on Ornette Coleman’s first album, sent the following addendum to the Rifftides piece on Johnny Mandel’s contribution to a Coleman compositon and the record deal that led to Coleman’s emergence.

We soon did a one a.m. audition at the club. It was attended by John Lewis, Percy Heath, Milt Jackson and Connie Kay–the Modern Jazz Quartet. They brought Les Koenig, the owner of Contemporary Records. On the spot, he signed us, on a handshake, to a two-record deal. I remember Koenig taking Ornette by the arm and saying, “If I don’t get you, Atlantic will.” That first LP, now a classic, was Something Else: The Music of Ornette Coleman. That is history.

Payne’s account differs significantly from the liner-note version, which says that bassist Red Mitchell suggested to Coleman that he take one of his compositions to Koenig, Coleman demonstrated the tune by playing it on his alto sax and Koenig signed him then. In light of the outcome–Coleman’s fame–does it matter which version is true? Only if you think that accuracy in history is important.
After Coleman’s two Contemporary albums, Atlantic did get him. He made eight albums for Atlantic before moving on to Columbia, then a variety of labels.

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  1. Don Payne says

    I did go to Vancouver with the Messiahs. We went by train to appear at the Jazz Cellar in 1957.
    Red Mitchell did drive Ornette to Koenig’s office. To sign contracts, which included publishing rights, the usual new artist routine, but not to “peddle his song.”
    —Don Payne