Ever since his legendary and controversial New York debut in 1959, jazz saxophonist and composer Ornette Coleman has been an elusive figure, both musically and personally. His recent Pulitzer Prize in Music, awarded for his 2006 album Sound Grammar, provides a fitting occasion to look back at two Atlantic essays that shed light on Coleman and his unconventional music.
In “Ornette Coleman and the Circle with a Hole in the Middle” (December 1972), Robert Palmer recounts a visit to Coleman’s SoHo loft. Coleman had just completed Skies of America, a full-length work for soloist and symphony orchestra. Over a game of pool, Palmer listened to Coleman speak about art, race, and the way his music had been received in America.
Coleman told Palmer that the “tragedy of America” was a racial tragedy, and that he was “so tired of feeling that being black in America has something to do with not being white in America.” Skies of America was a reaction to this, a musical work “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.”
Palmer observed that Coleman and his contemporaries were grappling with a unique combination of influences, from rural American blues to African folk. The resulting music was “often too intricate and demanding” to either satisfy nightclub goers or earn the foundation support needed for appearances in concert halls. Despite Coleman's frustrations, his intellectual dexterity had a dizzying effect on Palmer:
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 jazz world was still trying to come to terms with Coleman’s legacy in the mid-1980s when Francis Davis penned “Ornette’s Permanent Revolution” (September 1985). Davis recalled the frenzied responses, both positive and negative, to Coleman’s East Coast nightclub debut at the Five Spot Café in Greenwich Village on November 17, 1959. As Davis noted, musicians themselves rejected Coleman’s blues-inspired raggedness as well as his disregard for the rules: “What must have bothered musicians still more than the unmistakable southern dialect of Coleman’s music was its apparent formlessness, its flouting of rules that most jazz modernists had invested a great deal of time and effort in mastering.” Davis elaborated as follows:
It has often been said that Coleman dispensed with recurring chord patterns altogether, in both his playing and his writing. The comment is not entirely accurate, however. Rather, he regarded a chord sequence as just one of many options for advancing a solo.... Moreover, Coleman’s decision to dispense with a chordal road map also permitted him rhythmic trespass across bar lines. The stealthy rubato of Coleman’s phrases and his sudden accelerations of tempo implied liberation from strict meter, much as his penchant for hitting notes a quarter-tone sharp of flat and his refusal to harmonize his saxophone with Don Cherry’s trumpet during group passages implied some escape from the well-tempered scale.
Davis concluded that Coleman's most significant musical contribution was his approach to rhythm. He seemed to “hear rhythm as melody” in a manner similar to King Oliver or Sidney Bechet. But his most influential was to transform the way people looked at jazz, to transform the genre into a true modern art with all the complexities that can be found in modernist theater and painting. “With Ornette Coleman,” Davis proclaimed, “jazz established its permanent avant-garde—a 'new' that would always remain new.”