Ornette Coleman: Sound Catalyst

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Ornette ColemanCatalyst (n.)—an agent that facilitates a change.

Catalysis (n.)—the action or effect of a substance in increasing the rate of a reaction without itself being consumed. —Shorter Oxford English Dictionary


While change occurs all around, the agent stands apart, its own dynamism existing somewhere askance from the rest of the world. Though Picasso had a huge influence on several areas of abstract art-making, his own oeuvre stood well outside trends and new developments. In American music, figures like John Cage, Charles Ives, Thelonious Monk, Albert Ayler and Ornette Coleman have likewise stood outside the music that they helped to develop and nurture. In many ways, it might be helpful to look at these artists not so much as "influences," but as true catalysts.

Ornette Coleman was born March 9, 1930 in Fort Worth, Texas. Among his peers in the Fort Worth scene at the time were alto saxophonist Prince Lasha, drummer Charles Moffett and Coleman's cousin, saxophonist James Jordan (for whom the tune "Jordan" on Coleman's 2006 album Sound Grammar was written). Coleman started on the alto as a teenager, picking up the tenor shortly thereafter and soon found himself working in Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas with various dance and blues bands. "When I first got my horn... I mostly played with whatever was going on at that time, Coleman says. "I wasn't thinking about blues; I was doing all kinds of music."

Despite the multiplicity of bands Coleman was working in, he nevertheless always had an affinity for the Texas horn-player's cry, as Lasha puts it, "Standing next to these men it seemed like it was coming up through the ground, up through the bottom of the horn and out the bell and that's one of the most mysterious, magical and frightening things around."

What interested Coleman from very early on, however, was the music of [alto saxophonist] Charlie Parker, which had not taken hold in the groups of the South and Southwest. "Charlie Parker was one of those people who were playing interesting music the way I wanted to, explains Coleman. "So I started to learn what was called bebop at that time. I went on the road again with [guitarist/vocalist] Pee Wee Crayton and some other guys, mostly in the South. I went to California with Pee Wee, where I actually got stranded for awhile and there I got to hear Charlie Parker playing at a club in Los Angeles."

"I had a friend named Ben Hoyt," Coleman continues, "a fella who was much younger than I, who developed early and was my favorite alto player besides Charlie Parker. When I went to California and heard Charlie Parker, it just sounded normal to me and I had to perfect my playing to the kind of music that he was working with. The only thing was that he didn't play his own music; he played mostly show tunes with a rhythm section."



If Charlie Parker had written more tunes that were based on the kind of improvisations he was playing, a very different picture of Bird might have developed. "Basically it turns out that bebop was just another way of playing the same tunes with a different resolution," explains Coleman. "Say if you take 'I Got Rhythm' and call it 'Ornithology,' you're just adding a different melody [to the chords]."

Coleman started writing music on a visit to New York at the turn of the '50s; it seemed that if he was going to be able to play the music he wanted to—that cropped up in his solos, sometimes resulting in protests from bandleaders—he was going to have to set up the context for those very flights. "I started trying to write songs that were coming into my head," says Coleman, "and the quality of what the music could sound like made it possible for everyone to perform it. I never went into any particular style; I was just trying to write music for the band I had."

That band early on included trumpeter Don Cherry, who later employed a 19th-century pocket bugle of North African origin; bassist Charlie Haden, a Missourian who had played with pianist Hampton Hawes; and drummers Ed Blackwell and his student Billy Higgins, both also firmly entrenched in the Los Angeles jazz community.

Haden's recollection provides firm insight into the early days of the Coleman quartet. "I had been going to a lot of after-hours sessions, Haden explains, "and I wanted to play on the inspiration of a composition rather than the chord structure. But whenever I tried to do that, musicians would become very upset. In order to bring them back in after my solo, I'd have to play the melody so they knew where I was. When I met Ornette, the night I heard him, that's what he was doing. He was playing on the inspiration of a song and modulating from one key to another. When we played together for the first time, I thought 'Man! Finally I've got permission to do what I've been doing!'"

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