RIP: Ornette Coleman, Jazz Visionary (1930–2015)

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Ornette Coleman
Ornette Coleman doing his thing on his white saxophone. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Cézanne. Picasso. Stravinsky. Schoenberg. Pollock. Derrida. Ornette Coleman. They all rewrote the books.

Ornette - This is Our Music
This is Our Music, 1961.(The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Ornette Coleman (b.1930–2015) died this morning of cardiac arrest in Manhattan at the age of 85. He burst upon the jazz scene in 1958, not in New York but here in Los Angeles when he recorded his first album, Something Else!!!, for Lester Koenig’s great Contemporary Records label. Coleman had come to Los Angeles in the early 1950s, and for a time worked as an elevator operator at the downtown Bullock’s department store.  Taking the elevator to the upper floor, he’d pull the emergency stop and work on his music.  Charlie Haden, meanwhile, had just come to Los Angeles to study at the new Westlake College of Music (after selling shoes for a year in his hometown of Springfield, MO, to pay tuition) and heard about a new cat in town with a white plastic horn. He joined Ornette at the Hillcrest Club (on Ardmore & Wilshire in what is now Koreatown) with Paul Bley replacing Walter Norris on piano. Bley recorded the quintet, with Ornette on plastic alto sax, Don Cherry on pocket trumpet, Haden on bass, and Billy Higgins on drums, at the now-defunct club, and the album was released as Coleman Classics.

51WYlOyRBZL._AA160_Some members of the audience threw stuff at Ornette onstage. And even the other musicians on the busy studio scene who’d just come to check him out just didn’t get or like his free harmonies and improvisations. Many hated his sound and found the new music insulting. Charlie Haden, on the other hand, fell in love, saying it was the most beautiful sound he’d heard since Charlie Parker. Maybe even the most beautiful sound ever.  It wasn’t just the notes, it was the amazing sound of Ornette;  he transformed the alto sax into a human cry as rich as Bird’s or Eric Dolphy’s.  His sound was, in other words, unique.

Personally speaking, I always loved it when Ornette picked up his white violin or trumpet.  It helped separate the faux-hipsters and wanna-bees from the true and experienced jazz lovers.

Ornette has his own “harmolodic” concept in place when he plays.  There is Fort Worth Texas blues-funk just lurking around the corner (he hailed from Ft. Worth).  His music is very structured as well, so don’t let his free improvisations fool you.  But it is always flowing and joyful, never clinical or stiff.

Nevertheless, the group (sans Bley) went to New York City and scored a contract with Atlantic Records, on which they released six classics.  It was John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet who brought Coleman to the attention of Nesuhi Ertegun, who ran the jazz division of Atlantic.  The major-label signing did much to establish Coleman’s group and help secure its success.

The cover art on the first Contemporary side and the six Atlantic sides that followed are beautiful. They were also given a two-and-a-half-month gig at the Five Spot, where the whole jazz world came to check out these young turks. But unlike LA, New York was ready for Ornette and embraced their sound. In fact, Charlie Haden once explained that the reason he started playing with his eyes closed was because he’d once looked out into the Five Spot audience and saw bass legends Wilbur Ware and Percy Heath looking back at him. He froze. Then another night, Leonard Bernstein was seated in the first row. The new stuff they played was, challenging, intriguing, and free.  Playful too.  It also always had a child-like innocence to the melodies.

Ornette re-envisioned the harmonic structure of music, making it no longer necessary to play the chord changes from before. He freely transposed notes into totally different sequences and freed other jazz improvisors to try new things. Ornette also composed a number of wonderful pieces that many others have played and recorded over the years, like “Lonely Woman,” “The Blessing,” “Una Muy Bonita,” and “Turnaround,” to name just a few. His album, Dancing in Your Head, even featured a Moroccan trance orchestra.  Ornette also did a 1993 show in Oakland, Calif. with the Grateful Dead.

Ornette in Morocco, recording with the master musicians of Jajouka, 1973. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Ornette was also very popular on the European free jazz scene. He toured frequently and even began composing classical music (Skies of America). Later years saw him forming an electric band, Prime Time, and asking for serious money to perform, $100,000.00 per concert in the 1990s. By contrast, avant-garde pianist Cecil Taylor played constantly, for little or no money, anytime, any place.

I saw Ornette perform at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) in 1966, the trio with David Izenson on bass and Charles Moffett on drums),  in Paris at the Salle Wagram with Charlie Haden, Don Cherry, and Billy Higgins, and here at home at the Orpheum Theatre with the same group, Catalina’s Bar and Grill, and at Walt Disney Concert Hall. I remember that at his WDCH performance, some jazz series subscribers in front of me kept squirming around during the first set. Were they thinking Dave Brubeck? It s they hated the music and escaped as soon as intermission came.

Ornette’s songs are clever and fun, just like Thelonious Monk’s. Jazz players will continue to play his challenging music. Ornette will be with us for a long time.

Here is a 2008 performance of his famously beguiling song, “Lonely Woman.”

A second version of “Lonely Woman” with Geri Allen and Charlie Haden.

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