Unsentimental Journey

Five decades ago Ornette Coleman left a segregated Fort Worth to pursue his music, enduring the insults of critics, the resistance of performers, and the fickleness of the record industry.

Ornette Coleman loves repeating the story about giving saxophone lessons to his grandson, Ornette Ali Coleman. When the child had become competent at fingering, the jazz master asked him to show “the passion” in his playing. “He picked up the horn and played, and I said, ‘You didn’t play what I wrote, what I showed you.’ He said, ‘Yes, I did, but I did it my way.’ He was about six or seven, but instead of repeating exactly what I had shown him, he took the concept and then played his own idea. He got way ahead of me,” Coleman says, chuckling. The irony is that seventy-year-old Randolph Denard Ornette Coleman has spent more than half a century performing “instrumental music,” as he calls it, overcoming all kinds of obstacles so that he could “play his own idea”—a theory he calls harmolodics that is better, or at least more easily, heard than explained. When the Fort Worth native first emerged in 1959, his free jazz, which requires musicians to improvise without the conventional map of chord changes, was such a radical departure that many critics, musicians, and fans accused him of trying to destroy jazz. Today, though widely characterized as a genius even by many of his original detractors, he suffers from benign neglect. He is one of three musicians—the others were Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker—whose innovations have redefined jazz (a word he dislikes, incidentally, for its racial and sexual connotations). Though he says he is working—by which he means composing—as much as ever, his troubled relationship with the music business has forced him to go long periods without releasing new albums or performing, especially in the States, and he teeters perpetually on the brink of poverty.

Still, his vision quest carries on. He is continually experimenting, and his following remains as fervent as it is small. Yet the sheer beauty and unfettered emotional wallop of his music guarantee occasional mini-resurgences. With the recent reissuing of three pivotal albums from the seventies (Skies of America, The Complete Science Fiction Sessions, and Dancing in Your Head), followed by his victorious appearance opening the New York Bell Atlantic Jazz Festival in Manhattan’s Battery Park in June, the year 2000 produced such a blip on the radar screen. No doubt that is why he is in such an upbeat, outgoing mood when I visit him in his Garment District loft on West Thirty-sixth Street the afternoon after the Bell Atlantic show. The loft was a hovel, he says, until a fan spiffed it up for him. Now pieces from his extensive art collection hang on the walls, and sculptures stand on the shiny, blond hardwood floors. A kitchen area breaks up the spacious main room, with other rooms off to the sides. He is an avid reader of biography, sociology, religion, and history, but he spends most of his waking hours in the music room. He was there, composing new songs, when I arrived. Coleman speaks earnestly in a soft, singsongy voice, though his occasional laughs simply radiate, as if he’d just discovered something in himself he hadn’t known was there. The kind of guy who easily gets lost in a crowd though he’s its best-dressed person, today he wears gray slacks, a dark blue shirt buttoned to the neck, a black vest, and black shoes. When I had flown to New York three years earlier to interview him at his 125th Street studio-offices, he’d very firmly, yet very politely, halted the discussion after less than an hour because, he lamented, he couldn’t find a subject we could converse on meaningfully: Coleman does not undertake interviews in the conventional sense. He had invited me to stay around the studios for a couple more days, which I did, and he was as gracious a host then as he is today, but he never would let me turn my tape recorder back on. We mostly chatted about mutual friends, New York City life, and the like. I go into the latest interview fearing a similar fate, but he’s talking a blue streak before I’m off the elevator, and our allotted hour turns into two.

His right hand is in a splint that leaves his thumb and fingers free to play the sax. Days before the Bell Atlantic show, he’d fallen in the street, breaking a toe and his right wrist, and he nearly had to cancel his performance. But the concert proceeded, beginning with the Global Expression Project, which paired one of his jazz trios (including his only son, Denardo, on drums) with three Indian musicians and a Japanese singer. “Music is not a race, and it’s not a style. It’s an idea,” he told the audience, referring to harmolodic theory that allows musicians from different cultures to find common aural ground while creating new harmony, melody, and rhythm as they play. The idea in this case was for Coleman—wearing a black fedora and a black shirt covered in brightly colored polka dots, squares, and rectangles—to blow whimsical, boppish lines over ever-changing rhythm patterns as Ustad Sultan Khan bowed his sarangi (an Indian lute) in response. Despite a sluggish start, the musicians quickly melded East and West into a stirring sound that was neither. That was followed by the first American performance of Coleman’s 1989 work Freedom Symbol: La Statue (The Country That Gave the Freedom Symbol to America), a composition commissioned by the French government and inspired by the Statue of Liberty. With the statue just off stage left as the musicians played, the forty-minute piece took on added power. It may be the only “classical” composition that opens with a walking bass line, which is quickly replaced by a deep, dark, wonderfully skewed ensemble passage before every individual provides his own cadenza, each one as physical yet finessed as an athlete’s movement and full of sorrow and yearning. It ends on a triumphant swirl of strings. Coleman didn’t play on that piece, but he returned for the final set with drummer Billy Higgins and

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