Ornette Coleman and the Circle With a Hole in the Middle

"He lives in a world of clear, endlessly permutating images, of global musics, folk and classical and jazz, that interpenetrate."

THE image on the screen is a village street in Nigeria. Brightly dressed people are clustered in a circle playing drums, giant calabashes, double-reed horns, and a sort of violin with horsehair strings. Ornette Coleman is standing in the middle of the circle, switching from alto saxophone to trumpet and back, laying alternations of skittery runs and long, expressive blue notes into the simmering stew of cross-rhythms and gutty, jagged melodies. The picture focuses and refocuses cyclically on the face of a woman, sad or blank or unknowable like the whitewashed walls of the village. Her ululating rises sharply above the music like the barking of dogs.

Behind the television set a collage covers a brick wall. There is an empty space helmet, a tube oozing green paste, the convolutions of a naked brain, an ARVN officer with a pistol shooting a suspected terrorist through the head. The victim is falling in multiple exposure, changing color from flesh tones to a washed-out gray. A corner is hung with the spirit images of Z. K. Oloruntoba, a Nigerian who paints ghosts and gods into rich, stylized color canvases full of disembodied eyes and mysterious protoplasmic movement. Z.K. is hanging his first New York show downstairs, in the storefront where Ornette often rehearses. Ornette is in another corner, sighting down a pool cue. "Take aim, then hit it," he says, dropping one of his stripes into a side pocket. "If you wait, you lose your aim." The cries of children in the SoHo street float in through the open third-floor window.

Ornette's sparkling green tunic creases and his brow knits as he arches over the pool table. He lives in a world of clear, endlessly permutating images, of global musics, folk and classical and jazz, that interpenetrate. Not so long ago he was dissuaded from putting out an early mix of his Columbia album Science Fiction that had on it an inordinate amount of echo in the horns. He liked it, he explained, because the echo "made the sound visual, like a mirror." He calls his orchestral piece Skies of America "a kinetic kaleidoscope composition." On the television, the Nigerian video tape has been replaced by the Ornette Coleman quartet performing in Milan. Ornette's trumpet and Dewey Redman's musette are playing a loose unison, both their voices distinct, like the unisons in the Nigerian music. On a table in the center of the large loft are a score for ninety-piece orchestra, notes for Coleman's as yet unpublished book on his Harmolodic Theory, and a box of specially painted postcards announcing the opening of Z.K.'s show. "Aren't his things beautiful?" Ornette asks as he makes another cushion shot. "I met him when I was in Nigeria, bought his work. And just having it in my possession I learned that, you know . . . it's harmless and it's there. Eight ball in the corner pocket."

Whack! "You know, most artists think they're above show business, but an artist is not a different person; he just has a different title. The fact that you're an artist doesn't mean that you're not supposed to learn to read and write and count. It just happens that if you're an artist, you haven't had any time to be doing lots of other things. I know that when I was going to school I was learning geometry, history, and science, and also I had an art class. So education must include all those things as having something to do with the concept of value in relation to intelligence. I never thought of myself as being a person that just dealt with music and everything else was irrelevant. I like the involvement of bringing things into existence that better the life of people. I love that concept. And whatever it's called, to me that's art. Do you want to rack up the balls for another game?"

Ornette's conversation is often like his painting The Circle with a Hole in the Middle, which graces the cover of his Atlantic album The Art of the Improvisers. His music manifests the same thought pattern, circling around the theme, moving far afield, returning to the starting point when you least expect it, and moving away again, progressing by variations of feelings and ideas, balanced like Humpty Dumpty on the edge of the void, the hole in the middle of space and time.

The Ornette Coleman quartet that debuted in New York at the old Five Spot, in the fall of 1959, approached the void and, at times, tumbled into it. The listeners that first night included Leonard Bernstein, Gunther Schuller, Nesuhi and Ahmet Ertegun, John Hammond, and almost every musician in town. Some heard formlessness and chaos, others a sound that would radically alter the course of jazz and inform the work of a generation of musicians to come. "In the music we play," Ornette said, "no one player has the lead. Anyone can come out with it at any time." This new approach to group playing looked ahead with its polyrhythms, geared to exploration rather than to predetermined patterns, and its melodies that proceeded through a complex of unstated modulations rather than riding on a cushion of traditional chord progressions. But the music looked back through the jazz tradition with its collective improvisations and its personal, speechlike approach to intonation and phrasing, so much like the ensemble and solo styles of the early Southern and Southwestern blues and jazz musicians. In the fall of 1971, Ornette reassembled his original quartet to record Science Fiction. In twelve years the style had become classic, distilled into the kind of unique, breathtaking perfection that characterized the work of Lester Young, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, and a handful of other black innovators.

By the beginning of 1972 twenty-one Ornette Coleman albums were listed in the Schwann catalogue. All but one were small group recordings, and all but two or three of the compositions were Coleman originals.

"I started writing before I started playing," he explains. "I didn't start playing until later, because nobody would hire me. But when I went to audition my tunes for Les Koenig [of Contemporary Records, Los Angeles] he liked me playing my own music, so I got the date. And yet it's been twelve years and they're still saying I haven't paid off the cost of the record." For a decade Ornette channeled his compositional ideas into providing frameworks for his combo to improvise on. Somehow he found time to write a string quartet and a piece for strings and woodwinds. Then he was awarded a Guggenheim, which allowed him to devote more time to writing, and last summer Skies of America, a full-length work for soloist and symphony orchestra, was given its premiere at the Newport-in-New York jazz festival.

In a sense, the composition is "about" the many things that have happened to Ornette Coleman since March 19, 1930, when he was born in Fort Worth, Texas, "under America's skies." More specifically, it is about being black, feeling exploited, working for recognition as an artist and a man in a society that has often been aloof, condescending, or hostile. He started on the alto saxophone at the age of fourteen, switched to tenor two years later, and played in numerous Texas rhythm-and-blues groups. He first left Fort Worth as a teen-ager, with a carnival band. He was dismissed from the tent show for playing bebop, stranded in New Orleans, threatened by racist sheriffs in Mississippi. In Baton Rouge a gang of roughnecks beat him up and threw his tenor off a hill, so he went back to the alto, which is still his principal horn.

He went to Los Angeles with Pee Wee Crayton's blues band and spent the better part of the fifties there, working at various odd jobs, studying music theory, practicing and composing whenever he could. He continued to develop his own expression, and gradually a few musicians began to understand, especially the trumpeter Don Cherry, bassist Charlie Haden, and drummers Ed Blackwell and Billy Higgins. Ornette, Cherry, Haden, and Higgins worked with pianist Paul Bley at Los Angeles' Hillcrest club in 1958, and struck out on their own later that year.

Presented by

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


Cryotherapy's Dubious Appeal

James Hamblin tries a questionable medical treatment.


Confessions of Moms Around the World

In Europe, mothers get maternity leave, discounted daycare, and flexible working hours.


How Do Trees Know When It's Spring?

The science behind beautiful seasonal blooming

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In