It was when I found out I could make mistakes that I knew I was on to something.
Free Jazz – RIP Ornette Coleman
After I left Texas and went to California, I had a hard time getting anyone to play anything that I was writing, so I had to end up playing them myself. And that’s how I ended up just being a saxophone player.
Art and expression and feeling seem to be uppermost in the musical compositions of Ornette Coleman. I got into him years ago while flipping through used albums (searching for Rare Groove stuff) at a record shop in Santa Barbara. Free Jazz had a picture of Jackson Pollock’s 1954 painting The White Light, which I had been studying in a course I was taking at university. Without so much as a second thought, I added it to my purchase pile and, thankfully, have never looked back. While not as famous or well-known as other jazz musicians of his day, but like Pollock, Coleman was prolific and by subverting the mainstream movement, he expanded the palate and canvas for all artists to come.
Ornette Coleman, composer, violinist, trumpeter and alto-saxophone jazz bandleader, was born Randolph Denard Ornette Coleman in 1930. Unlike many of his slightly older jazz counterparts who passed away in or even perhaps before their primes (Charlie, Parker, Gene Ammons, Chet Baker, Art Blakey, Paul Chambers, John Coltrane, Stan Getz, Grant Green, Billie Holiday, et al), he lived a long and fruitful life with a career spanning 60 years. Not only did he enter jazz at a time in the late 50s when the genre was in retrograde against the high energy of 40s Bebop with the Birth of the Cool (Miles Davis) movement, the West Coast and Bossanova movements threatened to transport the universe in cool modal jazz mode ad infinitum.
Enter “Lonely Woman” (1959, a great year for Jazz) an original composition by Coleman that is the closest thing to a standard in the movement he co-lead with Cecil Taylor, John Coltrane, Charles Mingus and Pharaoh Sanders–Free Jazz. Free jazz was an attempt to break through the “rules” that had emerged as jazz convention throughout its young history. The musicians would do this by altering tempo, time signatures and chords changes. Mainstream jazz had come to be semi-rigid and free jazz was seen as an avant-garde alternative that strove to return jazz to its origins, such as in Coleman’s 6th album Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation. Which is not to say that all those experimenting with free jazz were strictly Free Jazzers, so to speak. They were the Hippies after the Beat Movement, eschewing all classification and standards not by denigrating the past but by choosing a different route to build onto the past.
Throughout his early career Coleman put out nearly as many live recordings as he did studio albums. Apart from the quiet hiss of the studio monitors in contrast to the applause of a live audience, there is likely very little difference in what he would have played as in how he played it. It seems plausible that Time was the only difference to him in a song. As in how shall I play this song this time, or going even further, how will this song come out of me this time around? He says:
Jazz is the only music in which the same note can be played night after night but differently each time.
The man was flashy and poetic, while being down to earth and gentle. He had his troubles with record companies which is likely why his albums weren’t properly marketed and didn’t sell as well as some of his contemporaries. The early years with Atlantic got him in the game and he was at Blue Note during the hey day of that label, after which he jumped to multiple labels throughout the rest of his career, eventually starting his own with the release of Sound Grammar, the Pullitzer Prize winning album recorded live in Ludwigshafen, Germany, in 2005. A most notable moment includes “Sleep Talking” which begins with the same notes as Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. It is fitting that he ended his life in the late spring in New York, a city he came to but was not born in, and made some part of it, however small to him, bigger to the rest of us.