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The Secret History of Texas Music

“Lonely Woman” (1959)

Written by: Ornette Coleman Recorded by: Ornette Coleman

In the early fifties Ornette Coleman, who had left Fort Worth for Los Angeles, was in the initial stages of creating a new kind of jazz in which things like rhythm, harmony, and melody were liberated from old rules. But he also had to make a living, which meant stocking shelves at a Bullocks department store. One day on his lunch break, he walked into a nearby art gallery, where he saw a painting that stopped him in his tracks. It was of “a very rich white woman who had absolutely everything that you could desire in life,” he later recalled, “and she had the most solitary expression in the world. I had never been confronted with such solitude.” 

That evening, he got to work on a song. Though Coleman’s music had the abandonment of free jazz, his compositions always had a core, a riff or theme that he and the band repeated and improvised upon. The core of “Lonely Woman,” which opened his third album, The Shape of Jazz to Come, was palpably melancholic, from the first bass notes to the slow melody line on saxophone and cornet to Coleman’s bluesy sax solo. The song went on to become a jazz standard, and Coleman never forgot what he felt gazing upon that canvas. As he recalled decades later, “I said, ‘From here on I’m going to support artists no matter what they do—because that artist sent a signal out. That’s not just a painting. It’s a condition.’ I related the condition to myself, wrote this song, and ever since it has grown and grown and grown.” 

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