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The Art of the Improviser | The Nation

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The Art of the Improviser

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On or about November 17, 1959, human character changed--according to jazz mythology, anyway. That week, the Ornette Coleman Quartet debuted at Manhattan's Five Spot, a club owned by the culturally fortuitous (and exploitative) Termini brothers, a watering hole for Abstract Expressionist painters and New York School poets. The Five Spot was on the Bowery, poised at an intersection of Skid Row and gentrified bohemia, old ghettos and an in utero East Village counterculture. For a few dollars and a cheap drink, you could stand at the bar and see jazz history in the making, a glimpse into the future that would become part of a fetishized past. The Five Spot wasn't just any dive but a key to the hipster zeitgeist; just two years earlier, in 1957, when the club featured a six-month residency for Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane, Norman Mailer was perched at a table taking notes for his essay "The White Negro."

About the Author

David Yaffe
David Yaffe is the author, most recently, of Bob Dylan: Like A Complete Unknown (Yale). 

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What were these patrons--from the anonymous scenesters to the cultural icons--hearing, and how were they hearing it? Leonard Bernstein, who had recently performed with Louis Armstrong, allegedly exclaimed, "This is the greatest thing that ever happened to jazz!" Bernstein sat in, Lionel Hampton sang Coleman's praises, John Lewis maintained that Coleman was the first true extension of Parker, and Sonny Rollins sat at the end of the bar and moped, in the midst of his Williamsburg Bridge sabbatical. Coltrane came regularly, and he and Coleman would walk out into the night talking music. LeRoi Jones (nearly a decade away from changing his name to Amiri Baraka) would soon hail Coleman's music as the most uncompromising of black aesthetics, a sonic premonition, a soundtrack to the racial upheaval to come. But while Coleman spread the gospel from Baraka to Bernstein, other pace runners were not so impressed--Miles Davis, for example. Davis had worked so hard to be a man of the moment, but the perch felt precarious when someone else, for the jazz intelligentsia, was defining The Shape of Jazz to Come, as the title of Coleman's 1959 album brashly asserted. Staying on one chord was his thing, Davis must have been thinking as he stood at the bar, glaring. But this motherfucker wasn't even playing modes. Coleman sounded like an Abstract Expressionist Louis Jordan, with juke-joint honking and seemingly random splatter. Davis grumpily agreed to sit in and then told a reporter he was sure Coleman was "all screwed up inside." (Coleman would later retort that Davis was a black man who lived like a white man.) Another prominent detractor was Charles Mingus, standing at the bar, arms crossed, making Coleman's bassist, Charlie Haden, tremble. Mingus and Coleman would eventually become friends--Coleman visited Mingus at his deathbed--but Mingus never stopped dissing him. Coleman, he said after the Five Spot gig, was "playing wrong right." Near the end of his life, Mingus harrumphed, "His mama told him he was a genius just because he put the 'm' block next to the 'a' block."

It is remarkable to imagine that there were days when aesthetics were a matter of life and death, when a shift in rhythm or harmony would summon the kind of apocalyptic language usually reserved for war or revolution, a time when the classical music of the moment--from the Darmstadt school of Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen to the New York school of John Cage and Morton Feldman--struggled to define music's future. Change of the Century, proclaimed Coleman's second Atlantic title. This Is Our Music, thundered the third. These were the days when jazz albums were cultural manifestoes, and when the order, as Bob Dylan put it a few years later, was rapidly fadin'.

Nearly half a century later, Coleman's musical revolution has become official enough for the Pulitzer Prize in Music and a Lifetime Achievement Grammy--his first. (The year 2007 may well be remembered as a year of belated awards, when Martin Scorsese and Coleman finally got their due.) Human character did not change. In fact, the revolution wasn't even televised. Coleman was on camera (along with Natalie Cole, who won a Grammy in 1991 for her necrophiliac duet with her great father) to present the Best New Artist Award to Carrie Underwood, a reminder that in the post-Five Spot era, Paula, Randy and Simon are on hand to inaugurate the next cultural moment. But Coleman's lifetime achievement award was presented at a smaller, B-list ceremony at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre, where they also gave out the technical awards and other industry marginalia. It is a shame that the entire speech can't be quoted here, because it's probably the most remarkable Grammy speech ever made. Here, though, are some highlights:

One of the things I am experiencing is very important and that is: You don't have to die to kill and you don't have to kill to die. And above all, nothing exists that is not in the form of life because life is eternal with or without people so we are grateful for life to be here at this very moment.
 For myself, I'd rather be human than to be dead. And I would also die to be human. So you can't die, you can't die to be neither one, regardless of what you say or think so that's why I believe that music itself is eternal in relationship to sound, meaning, intelligence...all the things that have to have something to do with being alive because you were born and because someone else made it possible for you to be here, which we call our parents etc. etc.
 For me, the most eternal thing is that I would like to live until I learn what it is and what it isn't...that is, how do we kill death since it kills everything?

You would think that there would be nothing to add to this, that the rest is silence, but Coleman eventually concludes thus:

It is really, really eternal, this that we are constantly being created as human beings to know that exists and it's really, really unbelievable to know that nothing that's alive can die unless it's been killed. So what we should try to realize is to remove that part of what it is so that whatever we are, life is all there is and I thank you very much.

Coleman is, in other words, unkillable. In his Lester Young-meets-gangsta porkpie and impeccably tailored pinstriped suit, the Grammy winner was unjustly slighted by fashion roundups of the ceremony. But he's still larger than death. Like Baby Huey, he keeps coming back.

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