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The Mort Report

Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry Once Blew Us Away Under LA’s Big Top

By Published: May 31, 2012
But the one place I remember most was called the Big Top, owned by a guy named Earl Bruce. (Man, if you're out there, please get in touch with me!) The Big Top was located in Hollywood on Sunset Boulevard, two blocks east of Western Avenue next to the Columbia Studios lot. It had a small stage, and a reasonably tuned piano. I started going there when I was 17 and when I was drafted and in the Army (1954-56) other guys would be dreaming about their girlfriends and things back home. Me? I'd be dreaming about the Big Top, and blowing with some ass-kicking rhythm section. And if and when I got to come home for a couple of days, that's where you would find me. The Big Top attracted the very best of the young lions of the day, and the older more experienced cats. One never knew who would come through those doors. I played with way too many cats to list here, including one great night when I got to play a set with Dexter Gordon. Oh, yeah!

I wanted you to get a feel for the place, the people and the mood that prevailed among us cats—the jazz musicians of that day who were hanging and/or blowing. It was the Creme de la Creme of the Cool! I saw my first Playboy magazine there, with Janet Pilgrim as the centerfold. Saw the first Mad comic there, too. There was an air of "hey, we're here to play and learn and to talk to like-minded people—and to pay homage to Bird, Diz, Bud, Max, et al." Bruce, the club owner, was a car buff and had one of the very first gull-wing Mercedes in town. He hung with a lot of car people. Occasionally, the legendary Von Dutch—the auto and bike pin-striping cat—would come in with his friend Steve McQueen, who was then just a young cat trying to make it in Tinsel Town. (For those of you in Walla Walla, he did!) A nice, quiet, laid-back cat. The Dutch played flute and would sit in for a couple of tunes. Man, I mean, this place was a Jack Kerouac birthday cake, dig?

Then this one night, at about 10 p.m. some time in 1957 at the Big Top, I was on the stand. It faced the bar, and the In and Out doors were to my left, facing Sunset Boulevard. We were playing some standard, and I noticed two black cats coming in. The one cat was carrying a white alto sax, out of the case. I didn't know it was plastic, at the time. It became one of Ornette Coleman's trademarks, that horn. But, back then, no one there knew these cats—and they asked if they could sit in. The other cat played cornet. They waited until the next set to play, as one did. At this point, I can't tell you if I was on the stand or sitting out for the set that Ornette and his friend played. By this time most of us had said hello to him and his friend ... Don Cherry. I remember the set starting and the first tune—though I don't remember the name. Everyone played the head OK and then the solos started: Ornette grabbed the break and the first chorus. To this day, I can hear the sounds that were coming out of Ornette's horn. The pianist, who was comping, turned half way around on the bench—just to see what the fuck was going on. Cats started looking nervously at each other, and I could see that something horrible was about to happen—and it did! The worst possible thing you could do to a cat in those days—and I only saw it happen once afterwards—was to walk off the stand while he's blowing. One by one, guys started leaving the stand as Ornette was playing. Finally, there wasn't any one left on the stand ... except Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry.

Ornette, of course, went on to become a musical icon, a living legend who arguably changed the face of jazz—just as much as Bird and Trane did. Ornette's first album, Something Else!!!! (that name sounds familiar), came out in 1958 and he became the darling of pseudo-hipsters and many prominent people breathing the rarefied air of the upper financial and social strata. People like Leonard Bernstein loved Ornette and convinced his minions to come up with funding and endowments for this wunderkind playing out all his heartbreak and oppression on that white plastic horn. The cat even won a Pulitzer! I wonder if he could have passed Wynton's citizenship test?

I'll leave you with two quotes from two cats that one would think were kind of hip about these things: Miles Davis famously declared that Coleman "was all screwed up inside." Roy Eldridge said "I listened to him all kind of ways. I listened to him high—and listened to him stone-cold sober. I even played with him. I think he's jiving, baby."

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