Nut graf: Ornette Coleman faced a lot of obstacles on the way to becoming a jazz giant.
Ornette Coleman (photo by Geert Vandepoele. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons)
The first time I heard the late Ornette Coleman play, I knew it was the drugs. His, not mine.
I mean, just what is this guy thinking of?
In truth, the album I listened to was fairly tame by Coleman’s standards. These were some early recordings on a barely-legit reissue, and he had Don Cherry on trumpet and different folks on bass and drums. But this stuff was still a lot crazier than I was used to.
My interest piqued, I got his groundbreaking album Free Jazz and put it on. Might as well go in all the way, right?
My first listening to Free Jazz, it sounded like a completely disconnected skronkfest. Coleman on alto, Eric Dolphy on bass clarinet, Don Cherry and Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, Charlie Haden and Scott LeFaro on bass, Ed Blackwell and Billy Higgins on drums. All playing together, more or less. The whole thing sounded like a coal truck slamming into a circus train.
But that was Coleman’s early career track. In the late 50s he was making a name for himself, but I will not relate some of these names in a family venue such as this. Word was that he couldn’t play. At the time Miles Davis said that “psychologically, the man is all screwed up inside,” Many other jazz players gave him similarly glowing reviews, but composer Leonard Bernstein really liked what he was doing.
He’d always run into resistance. The Associated Press related this story after Coleman’s recent death:
One incident remained deeply ingrained in his memory: The night circa 1950 when the saxophonist was playing with an R&B band at a Louisiana road house and his solo stopped the dancers in their tracks. Coleman was dragged outside the club, roughed up and his horn was thrown over a cliff.
“One guy kicked me in my stomach … and said, ‘You can’t play like that!’ He didn’t even know what I was doing. I decided to take my beatings until I can establish where people can say, ‘Oh don’t beat him, listen.'”
Just listen. Pay attention. Real art looks and sounds totally out there at first, but it might develop some clarity after a second or third viewing/listening.
Coleman saw the connection between Free Jazz and a Jackson Pollock painting.
So that’s what I did with Free Jazz. I put it on again, this time with headphones. Coleman, Cherry, LeFaro and Higgins were on one stereo channel while Dolphy, Hubbard, Haden and Blackwell were on the other. With the stereo effect I started to get the idea. Not just two musicians crossing swords or playing off one another, but two full bands. Yet aided by the stereo separation I noticed they were indeed playing together.
Influences and developing voice
When Coleman was first coming up he developed an ear for bebop. “Charlie Parker was the main man,” he said in an interview, ‘Oh man, what kind of music is that?’ And I thought I’m going to play that.”
But when he got to where he could play Parker’s stuff backward and forward, it was time to move on. To develop his own voice. I’ll bet all creatives go through that phase. I know I did.
But even with our own voices we still have our influences. When I meet a new musician or writer my first question usually is “who do you love?” That’s Eric-ese for “what are your influences?”
As out there as Coleman got, you could still hear his early influences: Texas blues. But he didn’t stop there, and he didn’t stop after he found real success. He kept growing. Experimenting with new song forms. Trying different lineups (the London Symphony Orchestra for Skies Of America), even learning new instruments.
Coleman will be missed. He didn’t just leave a legacy of revolutionary music, but by example he left some real actionable truths of the creative process.