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.

January 2001By Comments

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 bassist Charlie Haden, who have accompanied him off and on for more than forty years. The sharply honed trio, clearly the crowd favorite, leaped immediately into an extended give-and-take dialogue in which one voice—Coleman’s high, lyrical sax; Haden’s airy bass lines; Higgins’ caressing drum patterns—would grasp a cue and move briefly to the forefront to say its piece, then step back to let one of the others respond with a new melody inspired by the previous passage. Halfway through, the Staten Island Ferry honked its horn while docking; Coleman responded with a rumbling blast of his own that the other two picked up on instantly, moving the piece in a new direction. Now that is group improvising.

Coleman says he has been playing harmolodic music since the forties in Fort Worth (though he first used the word in the liner notes to his 1972 album Skies of America, the first classical composition he recorded). Born to Randolph and Rosa Coleman in 1930, he grew up a strict Methodist in the Bottoms, a ghetto just across the Trinity River bridge northeast of downtown. The area has long since been revitalized, though an empty field marks the place where his family home once stood. “Fort Worth was segregated before it was segregated, know what I mean?” he asks. “So there wasn’t a lot of territory where you could go and participate.” He declines to discuss his life there further. In 1983 he returned to Fort Worth to play at the opening of the Caravan of Dreams nightclub, which he hoped might become a Texas base for him, and received the key to the city. When I ask if he felt reconciled after that, he laughs and shakes his head: “No, not at all—I—I don’t know.”Randolph died when Ornette was seven, and Rosa raised him and his two sisters, Truvenza and Vera (his brother, Allen, had already married and moved to California). He got his first alto sax at age fourteen and began working in local clubs with bands that played “Sentimental Journey” to white dancers, “Night Train” to blacks, and “La Paloma” to browns. Then he switched to tenor sax so that he could get more-lucrative gigs playing rhythm and blues, mostly in gambling joints, where he became convinced that his honking and screaming style stimulated the fighting and sexual advances among audience members. (Years later he asked a doctor to castrate him after he decided that women were attracted to him because of his playing instead of his personality. He wisely settled on circumcision.) Even today, no matter what horn he’s blowing, there’s a healthy dollop of the fat, wide-open, gospel-based “Texas tenor” sound in his music. Though he never received formal training, the marching band at I. M. Terrell, which was then Fort Worth’s sole black high school, provided him a creative cauldron and ultimately produced such other jazz notables as trumpeter Charles Moffett, woodwind players John Carter, Curtis Ousley (who would come to define rock and roll sax under the name King Curtis), William Lasha (later known as Prince Lasha), and Dewey Redman (eventually one of Coleman’s trustiest sidemen). When Coleman first arrived in New York more than a decade later, King Curtis, by then a star, picked him up at the train station in his Rolls-Royce.

After seeing Dizzy Gillespie on a trip to New York when he was fifteen, Coleman immersed himself in bebop with local saxophonist Red Connors. Coleman, who already considered himself more of a composer than a musician, was drawn to the freedom that bop’s harmonic structure allowed soloists, but he kept upping the ante. On the road in 1949 with the archaic New Orleans minstrel show of Silas Green and later with the rhythm and blues band of Clarence Samuels, he’d sneak in wild, careening solos that completely abandoned the song’s rhythm, melody, and chord changes and went for its pure feeling. To him it seemed like such a natural sound that he’s still incredulous that fans and fellow musicians objected. But when he was in Baton Rouge with Samuels, customers who were infuriated by his unorthodox style and appearance (including long hair and beard) beat him up and smashed his instrument. After taking six months off in New Orleans and then working in an Amarillo house band for another four, in 1950 he signed on for a tour as a tenor player for Pee Wee Crayton, a T-Bone Walker-style guitarist then riding high with “Blues After Hours.” After Coleman uncorked his first free solo, Crayton started paying him not to play. But he hung in long enough to reach Los Angeles, which had been his goal all along. “I thought I would be able to find a band there that could better play the kind of music I wanted to play,” he says. Except for a couple of dispirited trips home during his leanest years, he has since returned to Texas only for family funerals and appearances at the Caravan of Dreams.

Not that Los Angeles proved much more receptive. Its fifties jazz scene was cool and conservative, consisting largely of crew-cut white men in between big-band or studio gigs who read music expertly and played solos more closely related to architecture than to improvisation. Enter Coleman—dressed in white robes, with a bushy beard and hair to his waist, barefoot, vegetarian, deeply religious—his combustible, raggedy, Texas-blues-based alto solos skittering all over the place with no clear beginning or end. When he tried to sit in on after-hours jams, he was thrown off bandstands or the other musicians simply walked away. So he took a job at a department store while studying harmony and composition voraciously. In 1954 he married poet Jayne Cortez, and in 1956 she gave birth to their son, Ornette Denardo Coleman. Two years after that, though, their marriage was all but over (she divorced him in 1964). By then Coleman’s radical notions were intriguing a few local musicians, old friends like Fort Worth trumpeter Bobby Bradford and New Orleans drummer Ed Blackwell and new acquaintances like trumpeter Don Cherry, drummer Billy Higgins, and tenor James Clay. In the late fifties he released his first two albums, Something Else!!!! The Music of Ornette Coleman and Tomorrow Is the Question!, on Contemporary Records, an adventurous but respected label. Marked by his implacable resolve and deep blues feeling, along with his idiosyncratic tone and rhythmic aggression, the albums offered jarring departures while barely hinting at what was to come.

Modern Jazz Quartet’s pianist John Lewis, one of the genre’s most respected arbiters of taste, championed Coleman’s cause, arranging for a contract with Atlantic Records. Before the first Atlantic album was released, Coleman’s quartet (with Higgins, Cherry, and bassist Charlie Haden) began an extended booking at the Five Spot Café in Greenwich Village, the hippest club in the nation’s jazz capital. Those dates from 1959 and 1960 were as momentous as Bob Dylan’s decision to go electric five years later at the Newport Folk Festival: As if overnight, the world became a whole ‘nother place. Coleman wasn’t the only musician then forging free jazz; he was joined by John Coltrane and pianist Cecil Taylor. But Trane had an unimpeachable jazz pedigree, and Taylor was classically trained. As far as New York knew, Coleman’s raw, screechy, self-taught sound came out of nowhere. His detractors actually argued that he sounded that way because he didn’t know how to play chord changes. Miles Davis pronounced him “psychologically . . . all screwed up inside,” which was one of the kinder reactions.

But the controversy was good for business, and some listeners even “got it.” The art and bohemian worlds adopted Coleman, and Dorothy Kilgallen mentioned him regularly in her daily Journal-American gossip column. Acknowledged jazz masters like saxophonist Jackie McLean joined Lewis in supporting and eventually exploring Coleman’s path. Nine astonishing albums Coleman recorded for Atlantic between May 1959 and March 1961 (three weren’t released until the seventies) fleshed out his ideas, with a strong sense of swing and rich, durable melodies such as “Lonely Woman” and “Ramblin.” The biggest eye-opener was Free Jazz, in which two quartets, one played through each stereo speaker, improvised on a single theme for more than 35 minutes. (The 1993 box set Beauty Is a Rare Thing: The Complete Atlantic Recordings gathers all nine albums, six previously unreleased compositions, and two cuts from compilation albums of that period.) Today, using the term “harmolodics” instead of “free jazz,” Coleman likens the music to a conversation in which everyone expresses his feelings freely, sometimes all at once, sometimes separately, but with each participant remaining sensitive to what the others say. If that’s hard to visualize, consider that Coleman has been writing a book about harmolodic theory for more than two decades, “finishing” it numerous times before starting over. Consider too that practically everyone who plays harmolodically was taught one-on-one by Coleman. It works—it’s just hard to explain. “He gives you the freedom to play, bringing out the best in yourself. Playing with Ornette, you become yourself,” says German pianist Joachim Kühn.

I watched Kühn and Coleman in action as they prepared for a spring 1997 tour of duet concerts in Europe. Coleman, who rarely names a tune before recording it, called each one by number as the two men moved through their set. After some slow, sweet tunes, they settled into a noirish ballad that left Kühn drained and sighing audibly. “Number nine,” Coleman continued, quickly stating the theme on his alto, then playing Afro-pop-sounding lines while Kühn rhythmically built the piece to a crescendo. The two men barely glanced at each other as they worked, but Coleman was pleased. “That piano sounds so good today. It’s open. That’s what we’re trying to get to,” he said. The next piece built on alto, one phrase at a time, to a startling wail; Coleman suddenly dropped it back down and then added chunks of rhythm until he was at full cry again. Kühn’s piano seemed to dart in several directions at once as Coleman blew unison lines on top of it. The music sounded like it came from one mind but two hearts. Later, over oxtails, goat, pork chops, and sautéed codfish at a nearby Caribbean restaurant, I asked how much of it was composed. He asked me what I thought, and when I replied that it all sounded composed though I knew it wasn’t, he chuckled. “Then I must be doing my job right. It’s really about fifty-fifty composed and improvised,” he said.

Achieving notoriety, or even status as a big fish in a small pond, is one thing. Making a living is another. Coleman has never had problems coming up with new music, but since the early sixties he’s had nothing but problems when he has tried to release it or play it in concert. Ornette Coleman will be the first to tell you that he is no businessman—and that the music business stacks its cards against him anyhow. Both assertions ring true. The Five Spot breakthrough led to more New York engagements and some of the only real touring Coleman has done in America. But by March 1961 the quartet had been torn apart by heroin (everyone but him) and the desire of his sidemen to try their newly developed styles in other settings. The deal with Atlantic ended, and not much later, Coleman quit playing clubs, partly because he disliked the smoke, booze, and sexually charged atmosphere but also because cool—and white—pianist Dave Brubeck was commanding fees more than twice what Coleman was paid while drawing smaller crowds to the same rooms. Yet sometimes when a promoter agreed to his sky-high price, Coleman would demand even more (he still does, according to some exasperated promoters). Coleman soon fired his manager and his booking agent and was staging his own concerts; a December 1962 program at New York’s Town Hall featured Coleman’s new trio (with bassist David Izenzon and drummer Charles Moffett), a three-piece rhythm and blues band, and a string quartet playing his first-ever classical compositions. He has continued to work with both jazz and classical units ever since. “Classical musicians are people who read music. That’s all it means,” he insists. “People who play jazz improvise. That’s the only difference.”

After the Town Hall concert, Coleman left the public eye, establishing another pattern that continues today. He’d burned himself out trying to manage his own affairs in a jazz world of low-paying dives, destructive drugs, and cutthroat competition. He’d gotten ulcers from absorbing so much criticism, and his divorce from Cortez staggered him further. Meanwhile, the phrase “free jazz” was being hung on an impressive roster of musicians storming through the doors he’d opened: celebrated names like Coltrane and Taylor, George Russell, Andrew Hill, Charles Mingus, and Eric Dolphy as well as clarinetist Jimmy Giuffre, soprano saxophone player Steve Lacy, bassist Steve Swallow, pianists Paul and Carla Bley and Burton Greene, trumpeter Mike Mantler, keyboardist Sun Ra, trombonist Roswell Rudd, tenor players Albert Ayler and Archie Shepp, and the Chicago players such as pianist Muhal Richard Abrams who would help organize the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. All were in some sense deeply influenced by Ornette Coleman, and even past critics were beginning to come around. In 1965 Coleman’s trio played a three-week stand at the Village Vanguard, and audiences treated him like a grand old man. Then he went to Europe; the two-volume Ornette Coleman Trio at the “Golden Circle” Stockholm, released on the prestigious jazz label Blue Note, unveiled his newfound prowess on violin and trumpet. Returning home, Coleman was once again in demand on both coasts. In 1967 he used the first of his two Guggenheim Foundation Fellowships to compose Inventions of Symphonic Poems, which premiered at the UCLA Jazz Festival. Though he was making enough money to buy one of the first artists’ lofts in SoHo—dubbed Artists House, it quickly became a gathering place for the international avant-garde—the familiar start-and-stop patterns of Coleman’s career persisted. But his music continued to evolve.

In 1971 Coleman scored another coup when he signed with Columbia Records, his first major label since Atlantic, yielding the warm, kaleidoscopic Science Fiction and Broken Shadows (the latter was not released until 1982). Together, they form the recent reissue The Complete Science Fiction Sessions. Most important, from his point of view, Coleman and the London Symphony Orchestra recorded what remains his most noteworthy symphonic work, Skies of America, inspired by a night sleeping outdoors on a Crow Indian reservation in Montana. Last year’s reissue benefits from a remix that brings out a clean elegance and an unsettling eeriness the original album only suggested. But Columbia soon dropped nearly its entire jazz roster, and he has rarely enjoyed major-label distribution since then.

In 1973, after hearing tapes played to him by his friend Robert Palmer, a musician and critic, Coleman and Palmer traveled to the foothills of northern Morocco’s Rif Mountains to visit the Master Musicians of Joujouka. This family had been exclusively providing court musicians to the sultans of Morocco since the thirteenth century. Coleman discovered that harmolodic principles allowed him and Palmer to play in unison with the local drums, stringed instruments, and oboelike raitas, even though Moroccan music has no tempered Western scales. Seizing on those possibilities, Coleman has spent the past quarter-century combining American and indigenous musics from around the world; he has, to use his metaphor, found a way for everyone to speak in one language.

His other major breakthrough followed in 1977 and stemmed from his growing fascination with African American funk and disco and the electrified “noise” bands of downtown Manhattan. Dancing in Your Head, his first new recording in five years, presented music for alto, two electric guitars, electric bass, and percussion, none played by musicians previously associated with him. Prime Time, the name he soon gave his electric band, hurled an orchestral maelstrom of sound while staying down to earth with funky rhythms clearly rooted in his old style as well as his new interests. The album, which also included one track made in the field with the Master Musicians—a second was added to last year’s reissue—brought Coleman his broadest audience yet. It also opened up careers for young performers who’d studied with him. Most prominent were guitarist James “Blood” Ulmer, bassist Jamaaladeen Tacuma, and drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson (a Fort Worth native Coleman had only recently met). For the first time, there was a school of musicians who identified themselves specifically as harmolodic, putting that word on the tongues of hipsters around the world. And yet, and yet . . .

While the highs—his art—were higher than ever, the lows—his business and personal life—were lower. Old and New Dreams, a group made up of members of his earliest bands that played his music or music inspired by him, was well received when it emerged in 1976. Coleman had become nostalgia fodder. In the mid-seventies he had to vacate his Artists House, after disputes with neighbors that he says were racially motivated. In 1977 he started a label named Artists House that folded two years later. While nearly every significant movement in jazz was proceeding along various lines laid out by Coleman, he was crashing in cheap hotels or in his record label’s office.

There were repeated conflicts with concert promoters, especially in America, and work at home threatened to dry up. His interviews grew increasingly strident on the subjects of his income and his rightful place in American popular culture; he talked about going after the Grateful Dead audience (1988’s Virgin Beauty, inspired by that rock band and including guitarist Jerry Garcia on three songs, was arguably his most accessible work yet). He was touring—mainly with Prime Time—and making more money than ever but spending it even faster or simply giving it away to friends. He went through a succession of managers, his last best hope from the music biz being Sid Bernstein, the man who first brought the Beatles to America. That relationship lasted from 1980 to 1982, ending in suits and countersuits. Bernstein’s eventual replacement was none other than Denardo Coleman, who’d first drummed on Coleman’s 1966 album The Empty Foxhole when he was ten years old. “Every manager I’ve ever had, they didn’t get me my money, and it put me in trouble,” Coleman says today. “Denardo’s never gotten me in trouble.”

In 1982 he bought an abandoned schoolhouse in one of the Lower East Side’s most drug-infested neighborhoods but fled within the year after being attacked and nearly killed twice. His only albums between 1979 and 1985 were a pair of live sets documenting his launching of the Caravan of Dreams. Both appeared on the club’s own barely distributed label. While Coleman had hoped the Caravan could serve as a second base for him, that outfit soon scaled back radically as financial backing decreased and charges likening its staff to a cult surfaced. A bright spot came in 1987, though. Coleman was voted Jazz Musician of the Year by the readers of Downbeat, the Bible of mainstream jazz, and it was official: The man once accused of destroying jazz had become one of its leading figures. Through it all, that big Texas tenor sound remained at the heart of his music, whether he identified with the state or not.

But soon after Virgin Beauty was released, Coleman left public life once again while Denardo sorted out his business affairs and recruited a staff to build and operate a studio on East 125th Street. Finally, in 1995, a new album, called Tone Dialing, was released on his new label, Harmolodic (distributed by the venerable Verve Records). Three more came the next year before mergers left Verve under new ownership and Harmolodic and Coleman without a home. Coleman’s price, which he bases on what he regards as his worth rather than on the number of paying customers he can draw, has become almost prohibitive in America; his fee for the Battery Park show reportedly neared $90,000—out of which, it must be added, he flew in numerous musicians from around the world and paid for room and board, per diems, and salaries. (Tickets to sit on the lawn were $20-$25, and regular seating ran $40-$45, hardly out of line for a major jazz show these days, though these prices would increase considerably in a smaller venue with no corporate sponsor.)

He’d like to find backing to take that show on a tour of Texas, but nobody’s biting. In Europe and Japan, where state subsidies help pay his fees, he performs twenty to thirty nights a year. He may give audiences a jazz group, Prime Time, an orchestra, some sort of world-music band, or even a harmolodic opera or ballet. No two will sound even vaguely similar, even when they’re playing the exact same music. Persecuted genius, his own worst enemy, or both, Ornette Coleman is unlike anyone else in American culture in the past century, and could well hold that distinction at the end of this one too.

Ornette Coleman at amazon.com

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