The Art of the Improviser

The Art of the Improviser

Nearly fifty years after Ornette Coleman revolutionized jazz, he is finally being honored with the music world’s top awards.


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.”

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.

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?

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.

Perhaps the most telling measure of Coleman’s impact was his influence on his detractors, notably Miles Davis, whose great mid-’60s quintet featured the Ornette-inspired virtuosity of pianist Herbie Hancock and drummer Tony Williams. Mingus, who’d developed a novel approach to collective improvisation in his jazz workshops, would also come around, recording his own version of free jazz with Duke Ellington and Max Roach on the 1962 trio session Money Jungle, and sublimely collaborating with multireedist Eric Dolphy, who teamed up with Coleman on the 1960 landmark Free Jazz. (Free Jazz’s original cover was famously adorned with a reproduction of Jackson Pollock’s 1954 drip painting White Light.) Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane both plucked members of Ornette’s Atlantic ensemble of those anni mirabili for memorable recordings; Coltrane’s The Avant-Garde is a classic, and every note on every track of Rollins’s On the Outside (also known as Our Man in Jazz) is a revelation. It’s astonishing to hear how the era’s most powerful improvisers took Coleman’s audacious conceptions and ran with them with a broader vocabulary than he was ever technically capable of developing himself.

Yet just as Pollock’s work still provokes sneers from abstraction’s adversaries (my kid could do that!), so Coleman’s innovations still draw resentment from older luminaries. I saw the great swing-era alto player Benny Carter at 90 squeak a wrong note in a club date, only to announce, “That was my Ornette Coleman impression.” Was Coleman an idiot or an idiot savant? Gunther Schuller and Martin Williams thought that there was a structure to his music; you just had to learn to hear it. But were they imposing order on a chaos that defied definition? Coleman’s playing didn’t really change no matter what he played. He was already fully formed. The theorists were just gilding a fascinating but inscrutable lily.

By the time Coleman came up with a theory, “harmolodics,” to explain what it all meant–something about harmony and rhythm being the same (and to justify his bloated, though intermittently brilliant 1972 symphony Skies of America)–it already seemed redundant. Coleman’s best work was behind him, and he had disappeared from the scene a decade earlier, having vowed never to play clubs again, only to perform and record for extravagant fees, which he didn’t receive often enough despite memorable recorded dates in Stockholm, lofts and infrequent studio appearances. He took sabbaticals from the American scene for long stretches, but like Nina Simone and Jerry Lewis, he was greeted in Paris with amour fou.

Ornette has been appearing and disappearing steadily now for the past forty-four years, setting up shop in his Prince Street loft for a spell in the ’70s (performing for friends and neighbors and letting the tape roll), only to be evicted; jetting off to record with the Master Musicians of Joujouka and a New York Times music critic, Robert Palmer, on clarinet; hanging out with William Burroughs and Brion Gysin in Morocco; forming the fusion band Prime Time (where the harmolodics act was more droning, repetitive and often dull); performing with body-piercing artists, with Lou Reed, on the Naked Lunch soundtrack and with Kurt Masur and the New York Philharmonic. He had such a monastic devotion to his art, he once asked a doctor to castrate him (he was talked into getting circumcised instead). He let his son Denardo play drums with him from the age of 10–the result can be heard on the 1966 album The Empty Foxhole–causing listeners to yearn for the days when his drummers included masters like Higgins, Ed Blackwell and, briefly, the titanic Elvin Jones. Since the 1997 release of Colors, a duet with the German pianist Joachim Kühn, Coleman watchers have had to subsist on live performances, reviews, anecdotes and hope. Coleman would reunite with Haden, Cherry and Higgins once in a while before Cherry’s death in 1995 and Higgins’s in 2001, and his final appearance with Higgins, at an outdoor concert in lower Manhattan’s Battery Park in 2000, was vintage Coleman. He spent most of that set playing uninspired ragas with a confused-looking tabla player. Finally, he brought out Haden and Higgins, played some blistering harmolodics (or call them what you will), summoning the shock of the new one more time. Then the park was shut down by Rudy Giuliani, the last call of last calls and an infuriating curfew.

Coleman may have called an album and a composition Free Jazz, but the term was in many ways a misnomer. Far from ignoring chords and meter, Coleman’s music forces listeners to rethink how they hear them. The notion of complete freedom from formal constraint is even less convincing when applied to Coleman standards like “Peace” and “Lonely Woman.” (Free Jazz, with its double quartet and layered cacophony, is sloppier but still weirdly ordered.) Coleman and his early collaborators were not merely playing whatever aleatory utterances happened to suit them. Those tunes have melodies (or “heads”) and solos to go around, but the musicians were restless, wanting to inject spontaneity and maybe a little shock into what had become a postbop routine. “Lonely Woman” is a standard with chord changes and a melody line, but playing it in strict 4/4 time (as Branford Marsalis has, in an intriguing, intensely brooding interpretation on Random Abstract) won’t really get to what Ornette was driving at; pianist Geri Allen’s “Lonely Woman,” like the Modern Jazz Quartet cover of 1962, made the melody clear without diluting its unsettled glory (eventually inspiring Coleman to break his forty-year recording ban on pianists to hire her for his band). Coleman once remarked that he wished he could have an entire ensemble play like an off-tempo Robert Johnson, all scattered emotions and wailing without having to keep time, as if there were nothing more outside than being the King of the Delta Blues.

It was not for nothing that Coleman called a classic (currently out-of-print) Prime Time album Of Human Feelings. Feeling, not theory, has always come first for Coleman, harmolodic explanations notwithstanding. There’s a hypnotic pulse to the 1959 “Lonely Woman” that defies explanation. You hear Higgins’s high-wire cymbal rides with Charlie Haden strumming against the beat, a disconnected melody to match discombobulated emotions. Coleman said he was inspired to write the song watching a woman fight with a man, but the loneliness is also pure Coleman, a sound that has inspired shock, misunderstanding, even violence, while persuading listeners–sometimes delicately, sometimes forcefully–to hear the world the way he hears it. “He plays all the notes Bird missed,” says one of the McClintic Sphere onlookers in Pynchon’s V., and nearly half a century later, those notes sound like an indelible vocabulary. What you also hear in Coleman’s work–which is more debatable in the free jazz of, say, pianist Cecil Taylor–is swing and the blues, and this has helped his work of this period make its way into the Jazz at Lincoln Center canon, stretching the boundaries of what, for lack of a better term, is called swing. According to this version of jazz history, the Coleman Atlantics represent its ultimate culmination, a blues as deep, in its own way, as Robert Johnson’s, and a particular kind of flexibility that is the rhythmic bedrock of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker–the canon. What was called avant-garde now sounds more like a culmination of a tradition. And whether he played funk, rock, symphonies, ragas or as a Grateful Dead sideman, he sounded like the same Ornette Coleman who drew from this well and came up as himself.

You can hear that tradition–and Coleman’s ingenious flight from it–on the Sound Grammar version of “Turnaround,” which Coleman first recorded on Tomorrow Is the Question! in February 1959, months before the turmoil on the Bowery. The blues, which would become one of Coleman’s most covered and requested compositions, is one of the less adventurous tracks on the album, not least because it is one of only three numbers with the comparatively mainstream bassist Red Mitchell. (The other tracks had the more enabling and endorsing Modern Jazz Quartet bass player Percy Heath.) Despite the odd fact that it is an eleven–as opposed to twelve–bar blues, Coleman’s punch line comes, as the title suggests, on the turnaround, when a repeated blues phrase is given a response in a few different keys, veering outside just for a few bars before coming back to where the blues began, suggesting a shape of what was to come.

On Sound Grammar‘s “Turnaround,” Coleman’s blues lines are given a polyphonic response, with Greg Cohen plucking with enough open space to let Coleman breathe and Tony Falanga bowing a lyrical counterpart. (By featuring two bassists, Sound Grammar finally makes good on an experiment Coleman started on Free Jazz, when he played with Charlie Haden and Scott LaFaro.) Denardo meets his father’s phrase with a thud, and Coleman, not usually known to quote, throws in Stephen Foster’s “Beautiful Dreamer” and, maybe unconsciously, the start of Vernon Duke’s “I Can’t Get Started.” It was more of a Sonny Rollins moment in improvisatory allusion, but in a world Coleman made. What would have been a concession in 1959 is a valediction in 2005.

On June 16, 2006, on what happened to be the 102nd anniversary of Bloomsday, Ornette Coleman played Carnegie Hall in the most anticipated performance of the JVC Jazz Festival. On a day that was the setting for James Joyce’s Ulysses–a novel that had begun as avant-garde and ended up on the top of the Modern Library list–paying respects to a revolution turned inevitability seemed appropriate. Coleman added a third bassist, Al McDowell on electric, to the ensemble that played on Sound Grammar, muddying the polyphony and the hall’s acoustics. But even if McDowell hadn’t plugged in, this was not to be a night on par with those triumphs of a few years earlier. Bernstein had crashed the Five Spot back in 1959, but now the musical chairs were reversed. Coleman had been more accustomed to playing concert halls for some time, and the music he played was about as avant-garde as Mozart or King Oliver. A 76-year-old virtuoso played some crowd-pleasing versions of “Lonely Woman” and “Turnaround,” pained, heartfelt and defiant, on an alto that somehow sounded as clear as a bell. Even if his tone was more refined, it seemed no less wounded. Outside the hall, it was a new century, one that he would not change. A few months later, 1,085 pages of a new Thomas Pynchon novel would thud into selected mailboxes, opening with a cryptic Thelonious Monk epigraph: “It’s always night, or we wouldn’t need light.” All these years later, a couple of elusive tricksters from the old twentieth century still had some mysteries to illuminate.

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