Yesterday I got so wrapped up in Heinz Karl Gruber and his outrageous Third Viennese School aesthetic that I forgot that it (March 9) was Ornette Coleman’s 83rd birthday. By concentrating my focus on a major European iconoclast, I allowed an equally significant American iconoclast to slip from my attention. Furthermore, I realized this morning that I have not written very much about Coleman on this site. Indeed, not counting the times in which I have invoked his name in writing about other avant-garde composers, the only time I wrote about him explicitly was in August of 2011, when I did a piece on a concert video that was being shown on Classical TV (and, alas, is not currently available).
Coleman is sometimes regarded as the “founding father” of free jazz. This is probably not, strictly speaking, the case. His name is associated with the label because of his Atlantic release, Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation By The Ornette Coleman Double Quartet, a recording made on August 2, 1960 of almost 40 interrupted minutes of improvisation that did not take any specific tune as a point of departure. The release positioned each of the two quartets on a separate channel, Coleman (alto sax), Don Cherry (pocket trumpet), Scott LaFaro (bass), and Billy Higgins (drums) of the left and Eric Dolphy (bass clarinet), Freddie Hubbard (trumpet), Charlie Haden (bass), and Ed Blackwell (drums) on the right.
Historically informed purists will be quick to recall that this approach to improvisation could be traced back to recordings of “Intuition” and “Digression” that pianist Lennie Tristano made in his own studio on May 16, 1949. This was a product of intense preparation in which Tristano worked with his two greatest “disciples,” the saxophonists Lee Konitz (alto) and Warne Marsh (tenor). For the recording these three performed with a rhythm section consisting of Billy Bauer on guitar, Arnold Fishkin on bass, and Denzil Best on drums. However, both of these pieces are significantly shorter in duration. “Intuition” is not quite two and a half minutes long, while “Digression” is a bit more than three.
Thus, while Coleman may not have been the first to “liberate” improvisation from the need for a familiar tune, he may well have been the first to carry it to a length that required two sides of a long-playing record. It is also worth observing that John Coltrane was not only aware of what Coleman doing but also highly interested. Thus, by 1965 we had Trane performing with ten other musicians (one of whom was Hubbard) in a session of equally “free” improvising resulting in another recording that required two sides of a single vinyl released under the title Ascension.
However, there is far more to Coleman than the matter of how pioneering the Free Jazz release was. Equally important for me was his first session with Atlantic on May 22, 1959, which led to The Shape of Jazz To Come. Coleman took a lot of flack, even accusations of amateurism, regarding the tone of his instrument. However, those who were only interested in the sorts of refined sounds that come from highly disciplined pedagogy are likely to run afoul of my favorite metaphor that seems to have originated with Warren McCulloch: they are quick to bite Coleman’s finger before looking at where it was pointing. From that point of view in August of 2011, I used a post to my Rehearsal Studio blog to explore parallels between Coleman and Edgard Varèse, both of whom were more concerned with “the basic physical qualities of raw energy” than with the refinement of that energy into “musical” sounds.
Perhaps the most important thing about Coleman making it to the age of 83 is that he is still going. Listening to him, whether in performance or on any recording made after he signed with Atlantic, always challenges my personal capacity for sensemaking; but I am drawn to listening because of that challenge, rather than in spite of it. So much of listening is informed by past experience, amounting to how a performance throws a new light on what we thought was familiar. Coleman continues to point his light in directions we never considered, and familiarity no longer plays a role in how we listen to what he does.