Friday, June 12, 2015

Remembering Ornette Coleman

(Randolph Denard) Ornette Coleman (March 9, 1930 - June 11, 2015) succeeded, through his extraordinary musical gifts and linguistic inventiveness, in introducing a new term and form into American music: free jazz. It was the genre for which Ornette--whose first name alone sufficed as his calling card--was best and will always be known, and it exploded upon the landscape with such force that some major figures have still not fully reckoned with it. He did not, however, introduce free jazz alone; his collaborators, beginning in the late 1950s, were the heralds of, as Coleman's albums announced, "Something Else!!!!," "The Shape of Jazz to Come," "Tomorrow is the Question!," and of course, "Free Jazz."

Ornette Coleman was born and grew up in segregated Fort Worth, Texas, and never formally studied music, though he began playing the saxophone while still in high school. He allegedly was dismissed for improvising during a performance of John Philip Sousa's famous march, "The Washington Post"--the shape of things to come!--and later performed R&B and bebop, then the dazzling, dominant trend in jazz, first with his own band and then with a traveling R&B show. After a brutal physical attack in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Coleman switched to the alto saxophone, which would become his primary instrument for the rest of his life.

Beginning with Something Else!!!: The Music of Ornette Coleman and continuing through the landmark albums of the early 60s, which paralleled Ornette's gigs at major venues across the US, he developed what would become quickly viewed as a revolutionary approach to jazz. I am obviously not a musicologist, but I can say that when I listen to these records I hear the variations of the blues and bebop expressed as a series of wails, plaints, chants, extended runs; dissonance liberated, melodies stretched like rubber bands, and harmony pressed beyond its limits in improvisatory and daring ways in solos and instrumental combinations; and a sense of ever-new discovery of what a (plastic, initially) saxophone individually and in combination with small ensemble, can do. Coleman labeled his approach harmolodics, which he defined as "the use of the physical and the mental of one's own logic made into an expression of sound to bring about the musical sensation of unison executed by a single person or with a group."

Coleman drew supporters, among this collaborators such as Don Cherry, Paul Bley, Billy Higgins, Charlie Haden, and even Lionel Hampton and Leonard Bernstein, but also harsh critics; Miles Davis, another of the greatest musicians of his era and a bebop veteran who was pioneering his own new style in the late 50s, "cool jazz," in some ways perhaps the musical antithesis of Coleman's development, mocked the saxophonist, saying he "was all screwed up inside," though he allegedly subsequently retracted this statement.  The effects of Coleman's and his collaborators' performances and pressings, however, would ripple out with free jazz becoming a genre in its own right. From the mid-1950s through the mid-1960s, he was married to the great poet Jayne Cortez, and their son, Denardo Coleman, eventually became an important musician in his own right.

Later Coleman shifted to working with bigger ensembles, particularly string orchestras, as well as electronic instrumentation, and tended to record his own compositions. One of my favorite albums by him is his 2005 LP Sound Grammar, which features tunes that quote standards by Richard Rodgers, among others. The album received a 2006 Grammy nomination for Best Jazz instrumental Performance, and went on to receive the 2007 Pulitzer Prize in Music, making Coleman the first and only person to receive a Pulitzer Prize in music for a jazz recording, and only the second African American winner in this category. Among his other honors were the 2001 Praemium Imperiale from the Japanese Imperial family, the 2004 Gish Prize, the 2009 Miles Davis Award, and a 2007 Grammy for Lifetime Achievement.

Though he is gone, his music--and free jazz, in its many permutations today--will live on. Here are a few recordings. Enjoy!

The Shape of Jazz to Come (full album), 1959

Free Jazz, 1960

Tomorrow Is the Question (Full Album), 1959

 Dancing In Your Head (Full Album), 1976
Sleep Talking, from Sound Grammar, 2005

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