Ornette Coleman celebrated his 75th birthday by playing a series of concerts in England recently. Peter Segal looks at his life and work.
'This was the missing link between playing totally free, without any givens, and playing bebop, with steady changes and steady times. Ornette struck fear into the heart of the average world-famous jazzman, because nothing would be the same again' - Paul Bley, jazz pianist.
Ornette Coleman has changed the way we listen to music. He spearheaded the idea of improvisation without chord changes, while retaining the rhymic impetus - the swing - of jazz. By changing the way we listen to music and redefining ideas about collective improvisation, his radicalism divided his listeners into either staunch enthusiasts or those who decried him as a fraud.
Coleman was brought up in poverty during the 1930s in the deeply segregated town of Fort Worth, Texas. His father died when he was seven, and it was his mother, a seamstress, who scraped together sufficient funds to buy his first saxophone when he was 14. Coleman subsequently taught himself sight reading from a 'how to play piano' book.
His classic quartet with Don Cherry (father of Neneh), Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins released a series of superb albums on Atlantic Records. Their debut, Something Else!, was praised by fellow jazz musician John Lewis: 'It reminded me of Joyce's use of literature or Dylan Thomas's. It was a delight, something really new in jazz.'
Their debut at New York's Five Spot Cafe in late 1959 for a two-week engagement has become one of the most famously controversial residencies in jazz. The residency went on to last six weeks, but divided critics and musicians alike. The abandonment of chord changes and musical conventions, and the improvised interplay among the quartet, thrilled and appalled audiences and critics in equal measure.
In 1960 Coleman released Free Jazz, a seminal work which gave a name to this new musical style. It was a work of improvisation performed with a double quartet. Significantly, Coleman chose a Jackson Pollock painting for the sleeve, mirroring the dynamism of the music. Atlantic Records did not share Coleman's enthusiasm for Free Jazz, and promptly severed the relationship.
For the next few years Coleman studied the trumpet and violin, and expanded the scope of his compositions to include string quartets, woodwind quintets and symphonic works. In 1972 Coleman used a Guggenheim foundation grant to write a symphony, Skies of America - a sweeping, moody piece that evokes the turbulent political and social stresses of American society.
Coleman's second great band was Prime Time, a seven-piece electric group with Coleman on alto sax, two guitarists, two bassists and two drummers. Prime Time brought a totally fresh approach, and in many ways was both a reaction to, and the antithesis of, the jazz-rock and jazz-funk of the time. Prime Time were amped up and young, with energy and ideas in abundance, playing a blistering, searing electric jazz drenched in the blues.
In 1985 Coleman's work reached a new and more mainstream audience through a high profile recording with guitarist Pat Metheney. The resulting 'Song X' remains his most commercially successful work to date.
Two years later he recorded In All Languages, which was in many senses the summation of his work. He juxtaposed different versions of the same music recorded by both the classic quartet of the late 1950s and Prime Time. It is a fascinating exploration of what constitutes a song.
Coleman, who had worked with the beat poets in the 1950s, contributed to the soundtrack to the film based on William Burroughs's novel Naked Lunch, and was to collaborate with Allen Ginsberg on a documentary in 1995.
Working with various incarnations of Prime Time, Coleman continues to innovate by introducing dancers and video installations, working with rappers and Indian and Japanese musicians, and even included a lecture by deconstructionalist Jacques Derrida as part of the performance.
Coleman's compositions in the 1960s crystallised the era's energy and optimism. His philosophy and music were in tune with the times. In a period of social activism, Coleman promoted the ideals of freedom implicit in his music by playing benefits for civil rights campaigners, and testified for John Lennon's fight for US citizenship. An artist himself, he befriended avant-garde artists such as Bob Thompson, Robert Rauschenberg and Yoko Ono.
Throughout his career Coleman has fought hard for jazz to be treated with the respect shown to other art forms. He fought for parity of performance fees with classical musicians, with the result that he often found it hard to perform. In addition he felt that free jazz artists should command similar fees to the then established and more mainstream players.
John Coltrane was studying music with Coleman and, shortly before the former's death, sent him a note saying that he 'finally got' the musical concepts they'd worked on together. It took many less talented people than Coltrane a lot longer (if at all) to 'get' Coleman's enormous contribution to 20th century music.
If you are a newcomer to jazz then any of Coleman's Atlantic recordings are a good place to start. For the more adventurous, I recommend In All Languages. If you missed his recent concerts, then make sure you see him next time he is over - he is a compelling live performer.