Ornette Coleman : Artist of the Century


When Ornette Coleman passed away last year at the age of 85 there was much written about his life, career and impact.  Today is his birthday, and I wish to mark the day by repeating some of those remembrances and listening his music, which is his true legacy.

Joe Lovano
From an early age I was in Ornette’s audience. His tunes and titles gave me direction: The Shape of Jazz to Come, Tomorrow Is the Question!, Beauty Is a Rare Thing, Love Call, Broadway Blues, The Art of the Improvisers and New York Is Now are just a few. All of a sudden I was in New York, on the scene playing with Paul Motian, Charlie Haden, Carla Bley, Dewey Redman, Ed Blackwell, Billy Higgins and others folks from within his inner circle. Thank’s Ornette for opening the door and letting me in!

Greg Osby
But not for Mr. Coleman’s tenacity, curiosity and fearlessness, modern music would not exist as we know it. As a generation, we all owe him a tremendous debt of our collective gratitude. 

Sonny Rollins
We’ve all gained from Ornette’s life and explorations, so we are not sad today. We’re appreciative and thankful.


As John Coltrane was dying of liver cancer, he made it known that he wanted a relatively spare funeral. The service was held on July 21, 1967, at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church, on Lexington Avenue and Fifty-fourth Street, and was presided over by the “minister for the jazz community,” John Garcia Gensel. The funerals of African-American notables have a tendency to stretch out—the astonishing service, in Charleston, for the Reverend Clementa Pinckney went more than four hours; the service for Rosa Parks, in 2005, went nearly seven—but not this one. At Coltrane’s request, Ornette Coleman—backed by two bassists, Charlie Haden and David Izenzon, and the drummer Charles Moffett—closed the ceremony by playing one number, a raging version of “Holiday for a Graveyard.” Later that evening, at the Village Vanguard, Coleman played one of Coltrane’s most haunting ballads, “Naima.”

On Saturday morning, nearly a half-century later, at Riverside Church, John Coltrane’s son, Ravi, played a haunting improvisation on soprano saxophone, accompanied by Geri Allen on piano, over the casket of Ornette Coleman. The song was Ornette’s composition called “Peace,” from his audacious 1959 album The Shape of Jazz to Come.

John-ColtraneUnlike Coltrane, who was forty when he died, Ornette Coleman lived a long life. He died on June 11th [2015]; he was eighty-five. Denardo Coleman, his son and longtime drummer, made sure that his father’s farewell would be rich not only with speeches but with music. For some three hours, many of the graying lions of the jazz world—Pharoah Sanders, Cecil Taylor, Henry Threadgill, Jack DeJohnette, Joe Lovano, and David Murray among them—took to the cathedral’s improvised bandstand to make a righteous noise before the remains of their inspiration and friend.  (David Remnick, “Ornette Coleman and a Joyful Funeral”, The New Yorker, June 27, 2015.)

Ornette was born in Fort Worth, Texas, to Randolph, a construction worker and cook, who died when Ornette was seven, and Rosa, a clerk for a funeral director. The variety of his music obscured the fact that, at root, he was one of the greatest geniuses of a simple song, the song of the blues. Coleman stripped down and simplified the conventional harmonic framework of jazz, remoulding the raw materials of improvisation and casting off the formal and technical bonds of the bebop style dominating jazz during his childhood. But his saxophone sound was steeped in the slurred notes and rough-hewn intonation of 19th-century singers and saloon-front guitarists at work before jazz was even born. His affecting tone swelled with the eloquence of the human voice.  (John Fordham, “Ornette Coleman obituary”, The Guardian, June 11, 2015.)

1379951753870.cachedUnfortunately, Coleman’s early development was not documented. Originally inspired by Charlie Parker, he started playing alto at 14 and tenor two years later. His early experiences were in R&B bands in Texas, including those of Red Connors and Pee Wee Crayton, but his attempts to play in an original style were consistently met with hostility both by audiences and fellow musicians. Coleman moved to Los Angeles in the early ’50s, where he worked as an elevator operator while studying music books. He met kindred spirits along the way in Don Cherry, Charlie Haden, Ed Blackwell, Bobby Bradford, Charles Moffett, and Billy Higgins, but it was not until 1958 (after many unsuccessful attempts to sit in with top L.A. musicians) that Coleman had a nucleus of musicians who could play his music. He appeared as part of Paul Bley’s quintet for a short time at the Hillcrest Club (which is documented on live records), and recorded two very interesting albums for Contemporary. With the assistance of John Lewis, Coleman and Cherry attended the Lenox School of Jazz in 1959, and had an extended stay at the Five Spot in New York. This engagement alerted the jazz world toward the radical new music, and each night the audience was filled with curious musicians who alternately labeled Coleman a genius or a fraud.

During 1959-1961, beginning with The Shape of Jazz to Come, Coleman recorded a series of classic and startling quartet albums for Atlantic. With Don Cherry, Charlie Haden, Scott LaFaro, or Jimmy Garrison on bass, and Billy Higgins or Ed Blackwell on drums, Coleman created music that would greatly affect most of the other advanced improvisers of the 1960s, including John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, and the free jazz players of the mid-’60s. One set, a nearly 40-minute jam called Free Jazz (which other than a few brief themes was basically a pulse-driven group free improvisation) had Coleman, Cherry, Haden, LaFaro, Higgins, Blackwell, Dolphy, and Freddie Hubbard forming a double quartet.  (Scott Yanow, “Artist Biography”, Allmusic.com.)

In essence, Mr. Coleman believed that all people had their own tonal centers. He often used the word “unison” — though not always in its more common musical-theory sense — to describe a group of people playing together harmoniously, even if in different keys.

“I’ve learned that everyone has their own moveable C,” he said to the writer Michael Jarrett in an interview published in 1995; he identified this as “Do,” the nontempered start of anyone singing or playing a “do-re-mi” major-scale sequence. During the same conversation, he said he had always wanted musicians to play with him “on a multiple level.”(Ben Ratliff, “Ornette Coleman, Saxophonist Who Rewrote the Language of Jazz, Dies at 85”, The New York Times, June 11, 2015.)

“I don’t want them to follow me,” I want them to follow themselves, but to be with me.”

513VIWT0W0LBeauty Is a Rare Thing: The Complete Atlantic Recordings
Rhino Records R2 71410
6 CDs; 1993

While it’s true this set has been given the highest rating AMG awards, it comes with a qualifier: the rating is for the music and the package, not necessarily the presentation. Presentation is a compiler’s nightmare in the case of artists like John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman, who recorded often and at different times and had most of their recordings issued from the wealth of material available at the time a record was needed rather than culling an album from a particular session. Why is this a problem? It’s twofold: First is that listeners got acquainted with recordings such as The Shape of Jazz to Come, This Is Our Music, Change of the Century, Twins, or any of the other four records Ornette Coleman released on Atlantic during that period. The other is one of economics; for those collectors who believe in the integrity of the original albums, they need to own both those recordings and this set, since the box features one album that was only issued in Japan as well as six unreleased tunes and the three Coleman compositions that appeared on Gunther Schuller’s Jazz Abstractions record.

Politically what’s interesting about this box is that though the folks at Rhino and Atlantic essentially created a completely different document here, putting Coleman’s music in a very different context than the way in which it was originally presented, his royalty rate was unchanged — he refused to do any publicity for this set when it was issued as a result. As for the plus side of such a collection, there is a certain satisfaction at hearing complete sessions in context. That cannot be argued — what is at stake is at what price to the original recorded presentations. Enough complaining. As for the music, as mentioned, the original eight albums Coleman recorded for Atlantic are here, in one form or another, in their entirety: Shape of Jazz to Come, Change of the Century, The Art of the Improvisers, Twins, This Is Our Music, Free Jazz, Ornette, and Ornette on Tenor, plus To Whom Keeps a Record, comprised of recordings dating from 1959 to 1960. In fact all of the material here was recorded between 1959 and 1961. Given that there is a total of six completely unreleased compositions as well as alternate takes and masters, this is a formidable mountain of material recorded with not only the classic quartet of Coleman, Don Cherry, Charlie Haden, and Billy Higgins, but also the large double quartet who produced the two-sided improvisation that is Free Jazz with personalities as diverse as Eric Dolphy, Freddie Hubbard, and Scott LaFaro, as well as Coleman, Cherry, Haden, and Ed Blackwell, who had replaced Higgins on the music for To Whom Keeps a Record and This Is Our Music — though Higgins does play on Free Jazz.  (AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek)

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