© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
“When the musicians hang on to a few rhythmic phrases Coleman has been able to create — when they realize they have a new camouflage of atonality, no time bars, no key signature — when they simultaneously begin to jabber in this borrowed style in all the nightclubs all over America—then the walls of all the nightclubs will probably crumble. . . .”
- Charles Mingus,Mingus Dynasty (Columbia CL 1440):
“Mingus's foresight bordered on clairvoyance. In the sixties, as "free jazz" began to alienate much of the jazz audience, coinciding with the ascendancy of rock among the young, leading jazz clubs from New York to San Francisco closed their doors forever.”
- Grover Sales
Jazz is constantly transforming itself.
For proof of this, just checkout the many styles of the music that rapidly evolved from 1925 to 1975: from Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives/Sevens recordings in 1925 to Miles Davis’ Jazz-Rock Fusion, electronically ladened troika of Get Up With It , Pangaea  and Agharta , the number of approaches to the music and the pace at which these changes occurred would literally make one’s head spin.
Many of these changes were jarring at first: The Swing Era’s collision with the Bebop movement as led by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie; the Birth of the Cool and Modal Jazz with Miles Davis in the vanguard; the “Coltrane Changes” [major thirds modulations]; the unusual time changes initiated by Dave Brubeck’s Quartet; the fusing of Jazz with Rock ‘n Roll, to emphasize only a few, transformative examples.
But they were nothing compared to the explosive reaction from the Jazz World that greeted the arrival of the “music” of Ornette Coleman [1930-2015]. I put the word music in quotation marks because there were many at the time who refused to considered it as such.
One of the better descriptions of the effect that the appearance of Ornette Coleman had on the Jazz scene is contained in Grover Sales, Jazz America’s Classical Music.
By way of background, the following appeared in www.jazzhouse.org as an obituary following Grover Sales’ death in 2004. You can locate the complete text for Ornette Coleman The "New Bird" in Jazz: America’s Classical Music [New York: Prentice Hall, 1984; New York: Da Capo Paperback Edition, 1992].
“Strongly opinionated and superbly literate, longtime Bay Area resident Grover Sales was the kind of jazz critic who left no doubt about where he stood on issues ranging from the genius of Lenny Bruce to the paucity of gay jazz musicians.
During a career that spanned 50 years Sales wrote about jazz, film and cultural politics and published widely in the San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, the Tiburon Ark and Gene Lees' Jazzletter. He wrote three books: Jazz: America's Classical Music, a biography of John Maher and, with his wife Georgia, The Clay-Pot Cookbook, which sold more than 800,000 copies.
Sales was also publicist for the Monterey Jazz Festival from its birth in 1958 until 1965, and for the hungry i nightclub. He also did freelance publicity work for artists such as Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Judy Garland and Dick Gregory, and wrote liner notes for several Fantasy recordings.
Over the years, he taught jazz history courses at Stanford University, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, San Francisco State University and the JazzSchool.
Sales became a jazz fan at 16, after hearing a broadcast of Benny Goodman's band with drummer Gene Krupa, and later became what he called "an inveterate Ellington groupie" after hearing a recording of "Black And Tan Fantasy".
After serving in the Army Air Corps in Southeast Asia during World War II, Sales studied at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, and then settled in the Bay Area, where he received a BA in history from the University of California at Berkeley.”...
“Even before the passing of Bird the jazz press was abuzz with speculation on his successor, a fitting pastime for an era obsessed with experiment and change. Because jazz musicians and journalists tend to form a cloistered in-group, they naively anticipated a Mozartian fertility god like Parker to pop up every spring like some new welterweight. Where, they wondered, was the "New Bird"? Was it tenorman Johnny Griffin who was "faster than Bird"? Sonny Rollins? John Coltrane?
Suddenly, in 1958, word got out that the Messiah had arrived in the person of Ornette Coleman, a strange, intense young Texan who wrote bizarre tunes declaimed on a plastic alto sax in a radically new and disturbing way. Few would deny that Ornette Coleman is the most controversial musician in all of jazz. Even more than Parker and Gillespie in the bebop era, Coleman's ascension split the jazz world into two hostile camps. Nor was this breach soon to heal, for unlike Parker, the controversy over Coleman rages to this day.
Coleman's earliest champions included Gunther Schuller, Nat Hentoff, and Martin Williams who assigned him no less than three lengthy cuts in the Smithsonian Collection (Smic 12/1, 12/2, 12/3). His most prestigious support came from the Modern Jazz Quartet's John Lewis who claimed "Coleman is doing the only really new thing in jazz since the innovations of Parker, Gillespie and Monk." (Spellman, Black Music: Four Lives.) Many young soloists who were already notable and were to become more so — Rollins, Coltrane, Roland Kirk, Eric Dolphy — were profoundly changed by Coleman's concept of "free jazz." Tenorman Joe Henderson told Leonard Feather in 1966: "Ornette inspired me to move from the canal-like narrow-mindedness of the 40s through the latter 50s to the Grand Canyon-like harmonic awareness of the 60s." (Feather, Encyclopedia of Jazz in the Seventies.) Shelly Manne, the drummer on Coleman's second LP and one of the few older musicians to endorse his new style, offered a rare insight when he told Nat Hentoff:
Ornette sounds like a person crying or a person laughing when he plays. And he makes me want to laugh and cry The real traditional players will do those things to you. Although he may be flying all over the horn and doing weird things metrically, the basic feelings are still there. ... He makes you listen so hard to what he's doing that he makes you play a whole other way. . . . somehow I became more of a person in my own playing. He made me feel freer." (Hentoff, The Jazz Life.)
But most of the established players regarded Coleman's departures from bebop with skepticism at best. Roy Eldridge told Hentoff in The Jazz Life:
I listened to Coleman high, and I listened to him cold sober. 1 even played with him. I think he's jiving, baby. He's putting everybody on. They start out with a nice lead-off figure, but then they go off into outer space. They disregard the chords and they play odd numbers of bars. I can't follow them. I even listened to him with Paul Chambers, Miles Davis' bass player, "you—you're younger than me—can you follow Ornette?" Paul said he couldn't either.
Thelonious Monk, once stigmatized as a far-out cultist, sounded a lofty note of orthodoxy when he told Hentoff, "there's nothing beautiful in what he's playing. He's just playing loud and slurring his notes. Anybody can do that... 1 think he has a gang of potential though, but he's not all they say he is right now." (Hentoff 1975.) Leonard Feather's down beat "Blindfold Tests" drew similar responses when Ornette first burst on the scene:
Charlie Byrd: (1960) "Coleman's a sweet and sincere guy... but I resent his being touted as a great saxophonist ... as for people making an analogy of Parker and Coleman, that's kind of ridiculous."
Andre Previn: (1961)".. . an unmitigated bore . . . turning your back on any tradition is anarchy."
Benny Carter: "From the very first note he's miserably out of tune."
Miles Davis: "Hell, just listen to what he writes and how he plays. If you're talking psychologically, the man is all screwed up inside."
Alto saxist Paul Desmond told Gene Lees that "listening to Ornette is like being imprisoned in a room painted red with your eyes pinned open."
Coleman's painful struggle for acceptance and the barest livelihood is well covered in A. B. Spellman's Black Music: Four Lives. A native of Fort Worth, he toured the Southwest territory with rhythm 'n' blues bands that left a lasting mark on his urgent style. For all his drastic departures from tradition, Ornette, claim his advocates, remains basically a blues-man. By the late 1940s he was already forming the eccentric, unpredictable style that aroused the anger of fellow bandsmen. Leaders fired him or paid him not to play. Tenor sax giant Dexter Gordon rudely ordered him off the bandstand. He supported himself, poorly, with a succession of menial daytime jobs—the kind that jazzmen call "slaves." These humiliations were compounded by ugly brushes with racial violence that left him guarded and touchy but no less determined to follow his own bent. Moving to Los Angeles, Coleman began to attract a coterie of young players like the dextrous drummer, Ed Blackwell, who told Spellman:
Ornette sounded a lot like Parker back then, and he was still hung up with one-two-three-four time. I had been experimenting with different kinds of time and cadences . . . Ornette's sound was changing too, and a lot of musicians used to think he played out of tune. He never used to play the same thing twice, which made a lot of guys think that he didn't know how to play.
Coleman's first break came in 1958 when Lester Koenig, producer of the Los Angeles jazz label, Contemporary, gave him his first record date, Something Else! (Contemporary S7551) with Don Cherry on trumpet, Walter Norris on piano, Don Payne on bass, and Billy Higgins on drums. For all the fuss this record kicked up, its departures from standard bebop hardly seem radical compared to the records Coleman was to make within a few years. The instrumentation and basic structure of Angel Voice was similar to the Bird's Nest of Parker a decade earlier. Both pieces are based on I Got Rhythm; both begin and end with trumpet and alto sax unison statements of a "head" that sandwich a succession of solos. Coleman's pianist and bassist are still working along conventional bebop lines. What is most striking about Something Else!, besides Coleman's slide-whistle conception of pitch, is the originality of compositions like Invisible and The Disguise.
Coleman soon made drastic changes in his group to urge it closer to the "free" concept he had been hearing all along. Though the pianoless quartet did not originate with him, Coleman's exclusion of a keyboard instrument was grounded on a different rationale than Gerry Mulligan's. His playing, and that of his disciples, was freeing itself from the pianistic "prison" of the chromatic scale in order to explore off-pitch notes and quarter tones, common in African and other ethnic musics, that would clash with a "properly" tuned keyboard. "There are some intervals," said Coleman, "that carry the human quality if you play them in the right pitch. I don't care how many intervals a person can play on an instrument; you can always reach into the human sound of a voice on your horn if you're actually hearing and trying to express the warmth of the human voice." (Spellman, Black Music.) Coleman's most gifted followers—Coltrane, Dolphy, and Kirk—adapted his notion of "crying" through a horn.
The absence of a piano also helped to free Coleman and his group from improvising on chord progressions. Coleman told Nat Hentoff,
What I'm trying to do is to make my playing as free as I can. The creation of music is—or should be—as natural as breathing. ... Jazz is growing up. It's not a cutting contest anymore . . . if you put a conventional chord under my note, you limit the number of choices I have for my next note. If you do not, my melody may move freely in a far greater choice of directions. (Liner notes, The Best of Ornette Coleman, Atlantic SD 1558.)
Coleman's discovery of bassist Charlie Haden proved a major breakthrough; at last he had found the "free" bassist he sought all along. Coleman instructed the flexible, receptive Haden to
forget about changes in key and just play within the range of the idea.... so after a while of playing with me it just became the natural thing for Charlie to do ... it doesn't mean because you put an F7 (chord) down for the bass player he's going to choose the best notes in the F7 to express what you're doing. But if he's allowed to use any note that he hears to express F7. then that note's going to be right because he hears it, not because he read it off the page. (Spellman, Black Music.)
Coleman allied himself with drummers Billy Higgins and Ed Blackwell, who developed a freer style not tied to playing steady time but to making the drums more of an independent melodic instrument. As with bebop, Coleman's unorthodox rhythm section was the high hurdle most traditional players could not clear. Coleman's biographer, A. B. Spellman, confessed his reaction to the first LP was skeptical: "... typical of the general critical reception, I thought the saxophonist was some oddball imitator of Parker, but I can see now that this was more because of the rhythmic placement of his notes than because of the actual melodic material that he was using."
Aside from Coleman's "rhythmic placement of notes," his pitch threw many listeners off. Spellman wrote: "On first hearing, I actually did not recognize the melodic content of Ornette's music (because).. . these melodies, simple as they are, are difficult to sort out if one is offended by the sound of Ornette's instrument."
Lonely Woman (Smic 12/1) is Coleman's best-known and most accessible piece for the uninitiated. This haunting ballad begins and ends with a trumpet and alto sax unison statement of a theme that, for all its originality, lies so much within the tradition of the popular song that singer Carmen McRae performed it with her own lyrics. What lies between, however, is Coleman's and Charlie Haden's unconventional sliding in and out of pitch and drummer Higgins's "free" concept of time. Listeners who approach Lonely Woman with open ears and steel themselves against the abrasive "off" pitch of Coleman's plastic horn may find themselves strangely moved by the naked emotions of this declamatory outcry. His oblique approach to Gershwin's Embraceable You (Atlantic SD 1558) shows how far he departed from the relative orthodoxy of Parker's treatment (Smic 7/8, 7/9). On the same album Ramblin’ offers a good example of Coleman's way with a funky blues, bristling with wit and high spirits as does much of his work.
With his celebrated package, Free Jazz (Smic 12/3), Coleman cut his few remaining ties to bebop. The ten-minute excerpt in the Smithsonian Collection was taken from a 36 minute performance on Atlantic (S-1364).
Thanks to the long playing record, free jazz advocates could now stretch out as they did in nightclubs with uninterrupted 45 minute sets devoted to a single composition (to the alarm of club owners anxious to push drinks). Here, stereo recording technique plays a crucial role because Coleman spatially divided his disciples into a double-quartet for the 1963 waxing of
alto sax (Coleman) trumpet (Don Cherry) bass (Charlie Haden) drums (Ed Blackwell)
bass clarinet (Eric Dolphy) trumpet (Freddie Hubbard) bass (Scott LaFaro) drums (Billy Higgins).
Stereo allows the listener to separate these voices of an unusually dense octet that is improvising collectively. As Martin Williams indicates in his Smithsonian notes, this session took place "with no preconceptions as to themes, chord patterns or chorus lengths. The guide for each soloist was a brief ensemble part which introduces him and which gave him an area of musical pitch."
Today, twenty-five years after Coleman's hotly-debated debut, how does his work stand up? Do his records stand the test of time or will they survive only as historical curiosities? Is his legacy permanent? Just what kind of a musician is he?
In The Making of Jazz, James Lincoln Collier makes a sound case for Coleman as that anomaly in modern jazz, a primitive musician. Nothing derogatory is implied here. As Collier points out, primitive artists, like the painter Rousseau, function largely on instinct without the benefit (or, as some may insist, the hindrance) of formal academic training. While Coleman Hawkins and Charlie Parker were well schooled in harmony and could "think ahead" any number of chord changes at high speed, Ornette Coleman, unencumbered by such theories, felt "free" to pour out anything summoned up by his raw emotional state of the moment. This notion of Coleman-as-primitive is buttressed by his naive, self-taught playing of trumpet and violin, on which, his admirers claim, "he sounds amazingly like himself." (It was said that after hearing Coleman play violin in a club, Thelonious Monk admonished him at intermission: "Why do you bullshit the people? Do you have any idea how much discipline and training it takes to play the violin? Stick to the alto—you can play that.")
Coleman inspired a number of front-rank players whose work shows greater promise of survival than his own—Coltrane, Rollins, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and the extraordinary Eric Dolphy who has yet to be given his due two decades after his early death. History seems to recall not those who did it first but those who did it best. Franz Lizst was an early influence on Bartok, but few would deny Bartok was the better composer.
While Coleman opened new exploratory fields for Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, trombonist Roswell Rudd, soprano saxist Steve Lacy, and even former detractors like Cannonbail Adderley, his notoriety emboldened lesser talents to drape themselves in "free jazz" or the "new thing" to cloak a lack of inspiration and originality. Charlie Mingus saw this early in his 1959 liner notes to Mingus Dynasty (Columbia CL 1440):
When the musicians hang on to a few rhythmic phrases Coleman has been able to create — when they realize they have a new camouflage of atonality, no time bars, no key signature — when they simultaneously begin to jabber in this borrowed style in all the nightclubs all over America—then the walls of all the nightclubs will probably crumble. . . .
Mingus's foresight bordered on clairvoyance. In the sixties, as "free jazz" began to alienate much of the jazz audience, coinciding with the ascendancy of rock among the young, leading jazz clubs from New York to San Francisco closed their doors forever.”
[Obviously, the above was written in the early years of Ornette’s career. By the time of his death in 2015, Coleman’s music had endured and Ornette had attained international status as an acclaimed Jazz star.]
The Smithsonian references are to The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz which is available in both CD and vinyl used copies either singly or in boxed sets from a variety of resellers.