The history of jazz can be read as a story of men who seemingly came from nowhere and made everything that came before look terribly old. It all began in the twenties with Louis Armstrong who literally invented the jazz solo. In the fourties it was Charlie Parker who made a whole generation lay ever more complex chord structures over the good old harmonies. Everyone wanted to be like Bird, including his heroin addiction.
Ornette Coleman who passed on June 11 aged 85 was such a singular figure. Coleman as well as tenor saxist John Coltrane were central to the free jazz revolution of the early 1960s. When Coltrane died in 1967 he left behind an army of epigones trying to get ever closer to the creator by means of exotic scales. Looking back the heritage of Ornette Coleman is much greater: It is not about doing justice to the expectations of the critics, the audience, or to the musical conventions of one’s time. It is about relying on oneself as a thinking, feeling and intuitively creative human being.
Is the future bound to squawk?
«Something Else!!!!», «Tomorrow Is the Question», «The Shape of Jazz to Come», «Change of the Century»: The future is here, announced the titles of Coleman’s first LPs released between 1958 and 1960. These titles – invented by the record company – let people expect a poser and pretender.
John Lewis, the Modern Jazz Quartets pianist, had brought Coleman from Los Angeles to New York City in 1959 and introduced him into the important jazz circles. But a lot of the established musicians could not get what Coleman – the shy man with the seemingly wrong notes, the wrong technique and the false sense of harmony – should have to do with the future of jazz. And that squawky plastic saxophone! And why did Don Cherry, Coleman’s partner in crime, play such a funny pocket trumpet?
But many influential critics, fans and musicians heard where Coleman was coming from musically, heard where he wanted to go – and were enthused. Instead of imitating his playing, they let themselves be inspired by his attitude: Do what ever you think is musically right in any moment, throw your creativity in a pot with other people’s creativity – and you will reach an “unison”.
Ways into the wonderful
Ornette Coleman was born into a poor family in 1930. Already as a teenager he tried to earn some money playing r’n’b in the blues bars of his home town Fort Worth. Because of his often strange sounding playing – autodidact Coleman had misunderstood important parts of classic harmony – he was thrown out of several bands. After a gig in a small town somewhere he was battered by a bunch of dissatisfied white people, they also smashed his instrument.
Coleman was not willing to give up, his initial harmonic misunderstanding had opened wonderful worlds for him that he decided to never leave again: dissonances that do not sound ugly but intuitively right. Tone sequences against doctrine that are of a surprisingly forceful logic. Abstractions which are full of – however veiled –the communicative powers of Texas blues.
Ornette Coleman’s music is easily recognizable, no matter if he is composing for an orchestra or a string quartet, grabbing trumpet or violin or if he leads his free funk band Prime Time. «Harmolodics» is what Coleman called his system with which he tried to give equal importance to the elements harmony, melody, tempo and rhythm. When Coleman talked about it this concept his speech was filled with metaphors and oscillating terms («unison», «love») that he left the critics more confused than undelighted.
The logic of intuition
When in 1987 a german TV reporter asks Coleman what the term «Harmolodics» means, he replies that it’s an attempt “to transfer human logic into music”. This may sound like a construction plan for a cold and rational music. In reality it’s a fitting description of Coleman’s friendly, universalitic and deeply humanistic music. Because human beings do not think in bits and bytes, but in analogies and associations, mental connections. And they have feelings that tend to dance with their logic, they are intuitive.
For Coleman the latter never meant to just blow as if there is no tomorrow. He did not like the term “Free jazz” – again the invention of some record company’s PR person. «I am a composer», Coleman says to the TV-Reporter, «everything I do is based on a thought out concept.»
With his concept Coleman revolutionized jazz like Picasso did with painting or James Joyce with literature: Nobody’s music has ever sounded like Ornette Coleman’s music. But without Coleman countless musicians would not sound the way they do. Coleman had shown them that it’s possible to leave the system.