Ornette's Permanent Revolution

A jazzman breaks all the boundaries.

If one listens closely for them, one can hear Colemanesque accents in the most unlikely places: the maundering piano soliloquies of Keith Jarrett and the bickering, simultaneous improvisations of young hard-boppers like Wynton and Branford Marsalis. Yet for all that, Coleman's way has never really supplanted Charlie Parker's as the lingua franca to jazz, as many hoped and others feared it would.

One reason could be that Coleman's low visibility has denied the jazz avant-garde a figurehead. Since his debut at the Five Spot, Coleman has set a price for concerts and recordings that reflects what he perceives to be his artistic merit rather than his limited commercial appeal. Needless to say, he has had very few takers. As a result, he performs only occasionally, and it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that he bears some responsibility for his own neglect.

Just a few years ago it appeared that Coleman's star was on the rise again. In 1977 his former sidemen Cherry, Redman, Haden, and Blackwell formed a quartet called Old and New Dreams. Coleman compositions, old and new, accounted for roughly half of the group's repertoire. If the myth that Coleman had to be physically present in order for his music to be played properly persisted in some quarters, Old and New Dreams dispelled it once and for all. The band played Coleman's music with a joy and a sense of purpose that bore witness to Coleman's acuity as a composer. The success of Old and New Dreams showed that the music that had once been both hailed and reviled as the wave of the future had taken a firm enough hold in the past to inspire nostalgia.

The rapture with which jazz audiences greeted the band's reinterpretation of vintage Coleman owed something to the fact that Coleman himself had moved on to other frontiers—appearing with two electric guitarists, two bass guitarists, and two drummers in a band he called Prime Time. The group provided the working model for a cryptic (and, one suspects, largely after-the-fact) theory of tonality that Coleman called harmolodics. The theory held that instruments can play together in different keys without becoming tuneless or exchanging the heat of the blues for a frigid atonality. (As the critic Robert Palmer pointed out in the magazine The New York Rocker, Coleman's music had always been "harmolodic.") In practice the harmolodic theory functioned like a MacGuffin in a Hitchcock film: if you could follow what it was all about, good for you; if you couldn't, that wasn't going to hamper your enjoyment one iota. What mattered more than any amount of theorizing was that Coleman was leading jazz out of a stalemate, much as he had in 1959. He had succeeded in locating indigenous jazz rhythms that play upon the reflexes of the body the way the simultaneously bracing and relaxing polyrhythms of funk and New Wave rock-and-roll do.

Unlike most of the jazz musicians who embraced dance rhythms in the 1970s, Coleman wasn't slumming or taking the path of least resistance in search of a mass following. Nonetheless, a modest commercial breakthrough seemed imminent in 1981, when he signed with Island Records and named Sid and Stanley Bernstein (the former is the promoter who brought the Beatles to Shea Stadium) as his managers. There is some disagreement among the principal parties about what happened next, but Coleman released only one album on the Island label. In 1983 he severed his ties with the Bernstein agency and once more went into a partial eclipse

Lately the task of shedding Coleman's light has fallen to Ulmer, Tacuma, and Jackson. They have been no more successful than Coleman in attracting a mass audience, despite a greater willingness to accommodate public tastes—and despite reams of hype from the intellectual wing of the pop-music press. When Coleman next emerges from the shadows, he may have discarded harmolodics in favor of some other invention.

IN the final analysis, Coleman's failure to redefine jazz as decisively as many predicted he would is more the result of the accelerated pace at which jazz was evolving before he arrived in New York than of his lack of activity afterward. During the fifty years prior to Coleman's debut a series of upheavals had taken jazz far from its humble folk beginnings and made of it a codified art music. It was as though jazz had imitated the evolution of European concert music in a fraction of the time. Just as the term "classical music" has come to signify European concert music of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the words "modern jazz" have become synonymous with the style of jazz originally called bebop.

With Ornette Coleman, jazz established its permanent avant-garde—a "new" that would always remain new. If one measures a player's influence solely by the number of imitators he spawns and veteran players who adopt aspects of his style (the usual yardstick in jazz), Coleman finishes among his contemporaries a distant third behind Davis and Coltrane. Yet his accomplishment seems somehow greater than theirs. Davis and Coltrane showed which elements of free form the jazz mainstream could absorb (modality, approximate harmonies, saxophone glossolalia, the sixteenth note as a basic unit of measurement, the use of auxiliary percussion and of horns once considered "exotic") and which elements it finally could not (variable pitch, free meter, collective improvisation). Coleman's early biography is replete with stories of musicians packing up their instruments and leaving the bandstand when he tried to sit in. If Coleman now showed up incognito at a jam session presided over by younger followers of Parker, Davis, and Coltrane, chances are he would be given the cold shoulder. Bebop seems to be invincible, though Coleman and other prophets without honor continue to challenge its hegemony.

The bop revolution of the 1940s was a successful coup d'etat. The revolution that Ornette Coleman started is never wholly going to succeed or fail. Coleman's revolution has proved to be permanent. Its skirmishes have marked the emergence of jazz as a full-fledged modern art, with all of modernism's dualities and contradictions.

No modern jazz record library is complete without the albums that Ornette Coleman recorded for Atlantic Records from 1959 to 1961, including The Shape of Jazz to Come (SD1317), Change of the Century (SD1327), This Is Our Music (SD1353),Free Jazz (SD1364), Ornette! (SD1378), and Ornette on Tenor (SD1394). Although most of them remain in print, the question arises why Atlantic has never re-issued its Coleman material in chronological order, complete with unissued titles and alternate takes. This seminal music merits such historical presentation.

Coleman's recordings with Prime Time and its immediate precursors are Dancing in Your Head (A&M Horizon SP722), Body Mehta (Artists House AH-1), and Of Human Feelings (Island/ Antilles AN-2001). The group Old and New Dreams, which still exists as a part-time endeavor, has released three albums, including Playing (ECM-11205) and two titled Old and New Dreams on different labels (ECM-1-1154 and Black Saint BSR-0013).

Other essential Coleman includes his album-length concerto for alto saxophone and orchestra, The Skies of America (Columbia KC-31562); his duets with the bassist Charlie Haden, Soap Suds (Artist House AH-6); and his best concert recordings, The Ornette Coleman Trio Live at the Golden Circle, Volumes 1 & 2 (Blue Note BST-84224 and BST-84225, available separately).

Jump to comments
Presented by

Francis Davis

"If I go to a concert and I'm supposed to be reviewing it, and I'm taking notes, I sometimes wind up jotting down as much about the audience as I do about the performers," Francis Davis recently told The Atlantic in an online interview. "I'm interested in what music means to people: what does it signify to them?" A contributing editor to The Atlantic since 1992, Davis's interest in the social and intellectual significance of jazz, musical theater, pop, and blues has brought a unique depth to his career as a music critic and historian.

Davis's writing career began to take form in the scripts he wrote for a Philadelphia public-radio show (which he also produced and hosted) that specialized in playing out-of-print jazz. When his scripts evolved into more sophisticated jazz criticism, he started submitting them for publication and became a staff writer at a small New Jersey newspaper. Since his first article for The Atlantic, "The Loss of Count Basie" (August 1984), he has authored seven books: In the Moment (1986), Outcats (1990), The History of the Blues: The Roots, the Music, the People From Charley Patton to Robert Cray (1995), Bebop and Nothingness: Jazz and Pop at the End of the Century (1996), Like Young (2001), Afterglow: A Last Conversation with Pauline Kael (2002), and Jazz and Its Discontents: A Francis Davis Reader (2004)

Davis writes for a variety of publications, including The Village Voice, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and Stereo Review. A 1994 Pew Fellow in the Arts, he teaches a course in jazz, blues, and folklore at the University of Pennsylvania and is currently working on a biography of John Coltrane and a history of jazz.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Juice Cleanses: The Worst Diet

A doctor tries the ever-popular Master Cleanse. Sort of.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

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

Video

Why Did I Study Physics?

Using hand-drawn cartoons to explain an academic passion

Video

What If Emoji Lived Among Us?

A whimsical ad imagines what life would be like if emoji were real.

Video

Living Alone on a Sailboat

"If you think I'm a dirtbag, then you don't understand the lifestyle."

Video

How Is Social Media Changing Journalism?

How new platforms are transforming radio, TV, print, and digital

Video

The Place Where Silent Movies Sing

How an antique, wind-powered pipe organ brings films to life

Feature

The Future of Iced Coffee

Are artisan businesses like Blue Bottle doomed to fail when they go mainstream?

Writers

Up
Down

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In