Sound n’ Screen:Ornette Coleman… Exit Of A Revolutionary Saxophonist
THE demise of the legendary saxophonist Ornette Coleman, who rewrote the language of jazz, has several implications for the evolution of jazz, its dynamics and future.
He pioneered ‘free form,’ what is generally referred to as ‘avant-garde’ and experimented with it passionately, consistently until he died on Thursday, June 11, 2015 of cardiac arrest.
A funeral service was held for him yesterday, June 27. In extending the limits of Charlie Parker, Coleman widened the options in jazz and helped change its course, making jazz less dependent on the rules of harmony and rhythm.
His music embodies a new type of folk song, providing deceptively simple melodies for small groups with an intuitive, collective musical language and a strategy for playing without pre–conceived chord sequences.
Apparently, the year 2007 marked a landmark in his career when he won the Pulitzer Prize for his album Sound Grammar. His final public performance was at Prospect Park, Brooklyn in June 2014 as part of a tribute to him by his son.
So much has been said and written by critics, musicians and jazz enthusiasts about his track record and valued contribution to jazz in the last two weeks.
But how did it all start? In the summer of 1959, the pianist and composer John Lewis gave an interview to an Italian jazz magazine which was subsequently printed in Jazz Review. Asked about new trends, Lewis replied that there were two young people he met in California – an alto player named Ornette Coleman and a trumpeter called Don Chery.
Lewis went further to say that he had never heard anything like them before. Ornette was the driving force of the two. They were almost like twins; they played together.
It was not like any ensemble that he had ever heard, and he could not figure out what it was all about yet. Ornette was, in a sense, an extension of Charlie Parker and the first he had heard.
He believed that this was the real need that should take place, to extend the basic ideas of Parker until they were not playing an imitation but actually something new. The announcement was misleading in its casual understatement.Ornette was about to change the course of jazz history.
With his alto, he was preparing to take Charle Parker’s invention to a new level in terms of changing accepted notions of jazz rhythms, melody and harmony. John Coltrane later became more popular for avantgarde jazz which began with the ‘modal’ inventions he acquired from his association with Miles Davis, from the 1959 recording of Kind Of Blue, the classic jazz album.
But it was Ornette Coleman who prepared the ground for this avant – garde to thrive. What Ornette was doing on alto saxophone at the time did not only transform the effort of Parker, it affected the whole character of jazz music profoundly and pervasively.
When he stood up to take his solo in combo setting with Don Cherry, his musical associate or in big band setting, it was as if he opened up the way for jazz to grow. His music made a new sensibility in 1959 the way Parker’s innovation did in 1942 – for one’s ears and heart and mind, all the while including the most fundamental things in jazz. Coleman sounded fresh and new.
He sounded esoteric but nonetheless identified with the tradition of jazz. As often happens with innovators in the beginning, he was not afraid of what his inner mind told him to play. “I don’t know how it’s going to sound before I play it any more than anybody else does”.
The step he was taking, like all great steps, seemed inevitable only when someone had taken it and Ornette was taking it with sublime stubbornness: “If you put a conventional chord or rhythm under my note, you limit the number of choices I have for my next note, if you do not, my melody may move freely with far greater choice of directions”, he used to say.
In the beginning, some saw Ornette as a repository of peace, wisdom and inner serenity for his utterances and gentle attitude. Others saw him as a highly complicated, sometimes naive, sometimes mystical, sometimes suspicious, and dedicated to the point of obsession.
When he came to New York at the time, he became the public darling for a while, then was out of work for a period of time. In between, Ornette became the center of the most violent controversy to divide the jazz world since the arrival of Charlie Parker.
While there were outspoken voices from such critics as Nat Hentoif and Leornard Feather, most critics and musicians equivocated and evaded, not wishing to make the error of out-of-hand condemnation that many of them had made with Parker, yet unwilling to approve of music that offended and outraged them.
Only Milt Jackson, the vibraharpist who played with the Modern Jazz Quartet seemed willing to state point blank that he saw no clothes on the emperor.
“They are afraid to say it is nothing, “ Jackson said. “There’s no such thing as free form. We’re just getting around to knowing what Charlie Parker was playing. They threw him on the public and said that is it. You can’t do it.” And Miles Davis remarked, “Hell, just listen to what he writes and how he plays. If you’re talking psychologically, the man is all screwed up inside”.
Many writers found it handy to deride Ornette because he liked a plastic alto, white and smaller than the standard model. It looked like a toy particularly when seen alongside Don Cherry’s pocket Pakistani trumpet. But Charlie Parker had played such a saxophone at times, and Ornette who had been using plastic altos since l954 clearly explained his selection to critic Nat Hentoff.
“I needed a new horn badly but I didn’t have much money. A man in the music said he could sell me a new horn – a plastic model for the price of a used Selmer. I didn’t like it at first but I figured it would be better to have a new horn any way. Now I won’t play any other.
They’re made in England, and I have to send for them. They are only good for a year the way I play them. That plastic horn is good for me because it responds more completely to the way I blow into it. The notes from the plastic horn are purer than those from the metal instrument”. However, ‘metal’ or ‘plastic’, ‘free form’ or ‘avant-garde,’ Ornette was a great innovator.
His art might not have received the profound acceptance that Parker’s experienced, but as an innovator, Coleman was more powerful and contentious.
A musician – philosopher, he was even more voluble and theoretical than John Coltrane who was also a path breaker of the free jazz movement of the 60s. Ornette Coleman’s classic albums include, Sound Grammar, Tomorrow Is The Question, Science Fiction, The Art Of Improvisation, The Shape Of Jazz, Empty Foxhole, Who’s Crazy, Beauty Is A Rare Thing, Broken Shadows, Skies In America, Friends And Neighbours, Forms And Sounds among many others.
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