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Genius Guide to Jazz

Free to A Good Home

By Published: August 17, 2005

On the heels of the staggering impact of his live performances and seven Atlantic records between 1959 and 1962, Coleman did something completely unexpected. He retired from performing for two years to follow his lifelong dream of becoming a rodeo clown.

Suppose you woke up tomorrow morning (around 7am, but you hit the snooze till about 7:30, before finally getting up to make some coffee), and found that all the old rules of music no longer applied. Notes no longer had to have any relationship with chords, chords didn't have to relate to keys, time was no longer measured in steady, even beats, and it wasn't even necessary to play real instruments.

You may think that you have gone completely insane. Or... you may think you are Ornette Coleman. Except if you are Ornette Coleman, in which case everything would be normal (unless you don't get up until around 9:00, Mr. Coleman).

Be that as it may.

If time had any meaning in Ornette Coleman's world, he would have been born on March 19, 1930, in Fort Worth, Texas. Since I am in no mood to get into a discussion about the relativity of time, and Einstein is either dead or just not returning my phone calls, let's just stick with that date. The point is, he was born. Musicians like Coleman are born, of course, they don't just happen. But the same could be said of every musician with the possible exception of Nemo Liebold; who was not a musician at all, but rather, an outfielder for the Chicago White Sox in the teens and twenties. And even he was born.

Wait.

I apologize, I've been listening to so much of Ornette Coleman's music for this piece that I've had a little trouble focusing my attention on the confines of structured writing and decided to just do whatever in the hell I want. Which is pretty much what I do anyway, but the old "give 'em an inch" theory really comes into play as I meander farther and farther from whatever salient points I intended on making. And here we find the central difficulty of so-called Free Jazz.

I'll get to that in a bit.

Coleman received his first alto saxophone at the age of 14 and taught himself to play. It wasn't long before he picked up the tenor sax and, under the tutelage of the best local player, Thomas "Red" Connors, he began learning the fundaments of bebop and dissecting the music of Charlie Parker. It wasn't long before he was playing professionally, mostly in R&B bands, and touring with a minstrel show. Ending up in Los Angeles, which would be the incubator for his unique playing style and brilliantly idiosyncratic compositional techniques, Coleman would remain in L.A. until taking the jazz world by storm (winds 35-50 mph, moderate hail) in 1959.

After two albums on L.A. label Contemporary Records, Coleman began to attract some heavyweight attention in the upper echelons of the jazz scene. None other than Nat Hentoff, the preeminent jazz critic of the era, rallied to Coleman's cause. Ornette signed to Atlantic Records, who promptly sent him and band mate Don Cherry to the Lenox School of Jazz where they lettered in baseball and captained the debate team to a city championship.

All of this build-up led to the autumn of 1959, when Coleman went to New York with perhaps his finest collection of like-minded musicians, for an epochal run at the legendary Five Spot. Coleman, Cherry, bassist Charlie Haden, and Billy Higgins on drums played an extended ten week run that effectively turned the entire jazz world on its ear and began a debate about what was and what was not jazz that has continued to this very day, taking a brief respite at about 5:00 because The Simpsons are on.

So then.

For as revolutionary as the music sounded, it wasn't really so rootless and abstract as it seemed. Coleman understood blues phrasing and traditional song structure, making his music sound less alien than exhilarating. Even piped through Coleman's almost comic plastic saxophone and Cherry's pocket trumpet (insert your own "pocket trumpet" joke here), the sound was beyond mere novelty. In that moment Free Jazz existed as a legitimate element, a natural course in the progress of the music. Before the inherent flaws emerged that turned Free Jazz into hodgepodge of defiantly artless noise, washing over the music with a snake-oil air of pretentiousness and exclusion that confirmed the worst that critics of jazz had always thought of it, Coleman sounded like a breath of new life.



Of course, Ornette Coleman cannot be blamed for the wretched excesses that came from the Free Jazz movement. I've decided to blame actress Julia Roberts, because I just don't care for her anyway. And while we're at it, let's see if we can pin Soft Jazz on her, too. Two birds, one stone.

Meanwhile, back to our show.

On the heels of the staggering impact of his live performances and seven Atlantic records between 1959 and 1962, Coleman did something completely unexpected. He retired from performing for two years to follow his lifelong dream of becoming a rodeo clown. Or am I thinking of professional rodeo clown and barrelman Festus Allcock (who has one of the most fun-to-say names we've come across since Baroness Panonica de Koenigswarter)? Either way, Coleman took two years off and took up violin and trumpet before reemerging in 1965 at the Village Vanguard with an entirely new trio.

To say that Coleman's impact diminished over time is somewhat of a disservice to him. The quality of his music, and the adventurousness of his approach, have remained true to their spirit. Yet, buried under the morass of so much musical debris spawned by lesser minds, Coleman's genius no longer resonated with quite so much force. Just as Orson Welles was never quite able to make another Citizen Kane, Coleman left himself with a virtually unapproachable legacy from the very start. To his credit, though, he never became a bloated version of his former self, hawking cheap wine in widely parodied TV commercials.

Which brings us to.

Of the innovations in jazz that have had the greatest impact, it is difficult to argue for Coleman's concept of harmolodics (giving equal importance to harmony, melody, and rhythm, without regard to their particular social standing). For one thing, only Coleman and his hand-picked few were ever able to truly execute the concept. Like Miles Davis' "time-no-changes" approach, that only worked with a particular group of musicians at a limited point in time, harmolodics served only as a high water mark for a particular concept that could never transcend the influence of its originator. And if I keep this sort of thing up, I run a considerable risk of being mistaken for a legitimate jazz writer.



Still, Ornette Coleman must be considered among the most important jazz musicians of all time if for no other reason than the startling contributions he made to the music that still sound ahead of their time 40+ years after the fact. That, and the fact that if he weren't so damned important, I'd have wasted this entire column. So let's call it even, shall we?

Before we close for the month, I have a few bits of Genius Guide housekeeping to address:

First, a correction. I have repeatedly stated in this column that pioneering saxophonist Frankie Trambauer was, in fact, a very large raccoon. It has been brought to my attention that this is incorrect. He was a Coati, which is a cousin of the raccoon.

Secondly, I have decided that I will focus my unhealthy obsessions normally reserved for Nicole Kidman on actress Thora Birch for the remainder of 2002.

Third, I have received several e-mails wondering what happened to the Modern Bachelor pieces I was alternating with the profiles earlier in the year. Well, the fact is, it wasn't getting me any leg so why bother?

Lastly, being a connoisseur of beer amid the wine aficionados here at AAJ, I've decided to devote a small piece of the Guide to giving equal voice to my favorite potable. This month's beer is Left Hand Brewery's Sawtooth Ale. An English-style Extra Special Bitter (ESB), of which I am normally not fond, I was impressed with the character of the beer and its multidimensional palate. I am also left-handed, which swayed the voting.

Till next month, exit to your right and enjoy the rest of AAJ.



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