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The Art of the Improviser | The Nation

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The Art of the Improviser

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Indeed, Coleman is one of the last immortals. He can still cause ripples in the jazz world, even if that world and its ripples have gotten much smaller. Ornette listeners would wait patiently for him to release a serious jazz album with a serious and worthy rhythm section. Once in a while (the first half of In All Languages in 1987, the two Sound Museum CDs in 1996), he would. Then only live performances, rumors, man-about-town spottings of him at Harlem fried chicken dives and Upper East Side museums and long spells of silence. Pretty soon, people were waiting for him to release something--anything. This was one of the last surviving jazz musicians who changed the way we hear music. Would he get one more chance to preserve it on disc?

About the Author

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

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Last year, after nearly a decade without officially released recordings (with incendiary performances along the way), Coleman released Sound Grammar, a 2005 live recording from Germany, on his own label of the same name. If the title evokes a lesson, The Shape of Jazz to Come, his 1959 album released a few months before the Five Spot gig, announced a prophecy. Could the new title be a shine on those who want to lay down the jazz laws he so legendarily subverted? Is the shape of jazz to come now so well defined that, as the old surviving mavericks roar into their 70s, few even care? When Coleman appeared at the Five Spot, he had already recorded a couple of albums for Contemporary, the second of which, Tomorrow Is the Question!, also blared a jazz future few could hear, delivered on a tiny indie label that paid him next to nothing.

Coleman had arrived from LA by way of his hometown, Fort Worth, Texas, a veteran of the rhythm and blues and minstrel circuit who'd been beaten up for playing atonal choruses for crowds that shouted for "Stardust." He had been dissed by beboppers (including Dexter Gordon and Max Roach), who thought him incapable of invoking Charlie Parker (a charge refuted by one listen to "Bird Food" or, really, anything he ever did), in and out of the Jehovah's Witnesses, sporting long hair and a beard in a crew-cut era. He was so ragged and weird, it was a testament to his genius (and more than a little luck) that he found the right people to figure him out. After his tenor saxophone was smashed by hostile listeners, he switched to alto, and the sound he created was, for those willing to listen, the instrument's major step after Parker's revolution in the 1940s; John Lewis was onto something. (In the mid-1960s, Coleman also began playing trumpet and violin without any formal training. His trumpet playing has demonstrated a learning curve over the years but still makes one nostalgic for Don Cherry. His violin playing, on the other hand, remains, shall we say, an acquired taste.) This funky elevator operator got a prized fellowship at 29 to study with the Third Stream guru Gunther Schuller at the Lenox School of Jazz in summer 1959, a contract with Atlantic Records and that Five Spot residency, leading him on an eccentric and improbable path to immortality. Schuller wanted to teach Coleman music theory, but when he finally made a breakthrough, Coleman vomited. There would be no more lessons.

In 1959 people were waiting for someone to play outside meter and chords while still providing blues and bop signposts. That year Kline and de Kooning were dribbling; Robert Lowell was confessing; Allen Ginsberg wrote "Lysergic Acid"; John Cassavetes's Mingus-scored, jump-cutting Shadows swept through art-house movie theaters; and curiosity seekers were lining up on that chilly Bowery street to check out the man with the plastic saxophone. Miles Davis's Kind of Blue had come out a couple of months earlier, just a few months after John Coltrane's Giant Steps, each disdaining chord changes in favor of solemn inquiries into chords and modes. Davis's "So What" coolly navigated between a couple of minor Mixolydian modes; Coltrane's "Giant Steps" circled the circle of fifths. Surrounded by a West Coast posse of young, like-minded musicians in short trench coats--including bassist Charlie Haden (who had grown up playing hillbilly music in a family band), Don Cherry (just shy of 23, blowing on a pocket trumpet) and drummer Billy Higgins (who kept time all to himself while sharing his leader's eccentric sense of it)--Coleman showed up at the Five Spot and blew the other band on the bill (Art Farmer and Benny Golson's Jazztet) off the headlines, a gig withered into a footnote.

Who wasn't in the band was just as important as who was: namely, a pianist. Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker's pianoless quartet had already popularized "cool" jazz a few years earlier; Sonny Rollins had already cut out the piano and filled in the missing chords on tenor on the trio dates Freedom Suite, Way Out West and A Night at the Village Vanguard. But the absence of piano in Coleman's quartet called attention to what else was missing--chords, rhythms, structures.

Coleman's alto was white plastic, like the one Charlie Parker would pick up in haste after leaving his brass one in hock. The plastic was not only preferable for its harsher sound--one with less vibrato than Parker's--but for what was read and perhaps misread, as its aesthetic of artifice: Ce n'est pas un saxophone! Of all the ink spilled on Coleman's impact, perhaps the most memorable came from Thomas Pynchon's 1963 debut novel, V., in which the character McClintic Sphere (with a last name nodding to Thelonious Monk's middle name) sets the jazz world on end at a club called the V-Note, making everyone rethink space and time with a motto of equilibrium: "Keep cool, but care." Sphere's alto is ivory, not plastic, but his impact is similarly divisive and shape-shifting:

He blew a hand-carved ivory alto saxophone with a 4½ reed and the sound was like nothing any of them had heard before. The usual divisions prevailed: collegians did not dig, and left after an average of one and a half sets. Personnel from other groups, either with a night off or taking a long break from somewhere crosstown or uptown, listened hard, trying to dig. "I am still thinking," they would say if you asked.

Unlike Dylan's 1965 electric performance at Newport (a Rite of Spring for another genre and another orthodoxy), Coleman's Five Spot gig, in one of the great blunders of music industry history, was never recorded. We have to rely on hearsay and conjecture--and Pynchon!--to get an idea of what everyone was arguing about. Fortunately, Coleman clocked in hours of studio time in the two-year flurry that followed, resulting in a body of work for Atlantic collected on the six-CD box set Beauty Is a Rare Thing, a title evoking the mélange of lyricism and clangor he was summoning with empathetic musicians. By the time of its 1993 release, it was an expensive canonical artifact, meant for the mantle like a Pléiades edition of Proust. The liner notes were hyperbolic, but by then the people who were going to be convinced already were.

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