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’.