Ornette Coleman – Tomorrow Is the Question!

Tomorrow Is the Question! The New Music of Ornette Coleman!

Ornette ColemanTomorrow Is the Question! The New Music of Ornette Coleman! Contemporary M 3569 (1959)


There is an old saying, “To a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.”  This adage goes a long way to explain Ornette’s earliest studio recordings.  In hindsight at least, it is fairly clear that he had his musical vision already worked out in the mid-1950s.  His problem — well, one of his problems — was bringing together musicians sympathetic to his radically new ideas and then getting them up to speed performing based on those new ideas rather than being “hammers” banging on nails like they usually did in conventional jazz combos.  He was practicing regularly, in private, with a core handful of players like Don Cherry.  The thing was, while living in Los Angeles, he secured his first recording contract as an offshoot of selling some compositions to Contemporary Records (run by Lester Koenig, who was blacklisted from Hollywood films during the McCarthy witchhunt era).  He began recording with groups that included some mediocre players and some bigger name players brought in just to play recording sessions.  For the most part, Ornette had already met and played with the musicians who would make up arguably his greatest combo, which would record extensively for Atlantic Records, but for whatever reason Cherry and Billy Higgins (Higgins being absent here) were the only ones to appear on Ornette’s recordings for Contemporary.  For instance, Ornette had asked drummer Ed Blackwell to play on his debut album Something Else!!!! but Blackwell turned down the offer.  Blackwell later joined Ornette’s band in New York City after fleeing discriminatory miscegenation charges in New Orleans.

Shelly Manne on drums sounds just fine here.  Ignore the detractors!  Manne was always one of the most forward-thinking West Coast players.  He has a more open and spare style than Billy Higgins.  Given more time to play with Ornette, I imagine Manne would have gone even further out — though that wasn’t to be, because Ornette moved to the East Coast.  Manne nonethless credited his time playing with Ornette as being significant to his later work.

Percy Heath and Red Mitchell, great bassists in their own rights, just go on playing in a progressive yet still conventional style that isn’t always enough for what Ornette’s music calls for.  Heath and Mitchell are the “hammers” in this band. Sessions with Mitchell took place first.  Mitchell is out of his element, and Ornette felt Mitchell thought he was a bit looney.  Though Mitchell was a noted bop player in Los Angeles at the time, and was responsible for putting Ornette in touch with Contemporary Records in the first place, he clearly isn’t interested in Ornette’s pioneering musical ideas.  Ornette actually recruited Heath, the bassist for the renown Modern Jazz Quartet, for a third recording session after two with Mitchell were fairly unproductive.  Ornette’s recruiting efforts also put him in touch with The MJQ’s pianist John Lewis, who was immediately impressed by Ornette’s music, and who would end up being the single most decisive factor in Ornette’s critical success down the road.  It is not an overstatement to say that Ornette would have been forgotten to history and his best music never recorded if not for Lewis.

Anyway, by ditching a piano, Tomorrow Is the Question! sounds worlds better than the debut (this album was Ornette’s second to be recorded, but was released third).  Sure, things got better from here, but this is still a good one.  The opening title track is a really great composition, highly indicative of Ornette’s off-kilter yet oddly endearing nursery rhyme melodies.  It starts the album off on a high note.  And the rest of the album is good too.  Actually, it’s better than just good, thanks to a lot of great compositions, more confident playing from Cherry (though he would play even more strongly in the future), and, of course, unique and inventive soloing from Ornette himself on pretty much every song.  The recording is crisp enough that even when Mitchell plays just a plain vanilla walk it leave space to hear Ornette’s microtonal explorations on his (plastic) horn.  So, Tomorrow Is the Question! pales only in comparison to what Ornette had in store next, but is quite rewarding in its own right.

Ornette Coleman – Sound Grammar

Sound Grammar

Ornette ColemanSound Grammar Sound Grammar SG 11593 (2006)


Ornette’s last solo album before his death, and first in a decade (after releasing three albums in 1996), found surprising success.  This is a live recording with Ornette’s working band.  He seems to have learned that it takes two bassists to replace Charlie Haden.  On the whole, this album is nostalgic and kind of presents a summary of Ornette’s entire career.  “Sleep Talk” sounds good in this reading.  There isn’t a whole lot else here that stands out, but this is consistent top to bottom.  The reasons this became so popular probably have more to do with timing (Ornette’s stature plus the gap since his last albums) and, especially, promotion (Ornette granted an uncommon number of interviews) than purely the merits of the performance.

Ornette Coleman – New York Is Now!

New York Is Now!

Ornette ColemanNew York Is Now! Blue Note BST 84287 (1968)


As much as I find a lot of individual elements of this music rewarding, New York Is Now! never quite comes together as well as it could.  “Broad Way Blues” is a catchy, memorable tune.  The opener “The Garden of Souls” has a lot going for it too.  Ornette’s playing is pretty good throughout — especially on “The Garden of Souls.”  Dewey Redman makes some solid contributions too.  But the nagging problem is basically the same one that plagued Ornette’s early albums for Contemporary Records: the rhythm section just isn’t right.  Often the rhythm section seems to be operating in a different world than Ornette and Redman.  Jimmy Garrison is on bass.  He had played with Ornette in the early 60s, but on these sessions he is hostile and uncooperative.  Elvin Jones is a great drummer, just not the right kind of drummer for this music.  He’s a little too uptight.  This was recorded in the spring of 1968, and live recordings made over the next twelve months for the Impulse! label would prove more effective, thanks to a different rhythm section — though Ornette has some arguably stronger moments in his own playing here.  Now, had these sessions featured Henry Grimes on bass and Rashied Ali on drums, that might have been something.  Or even if some of the songs featured Ornette unaccompanied, or just with Redman.

I came to this album after hearing Joe Lovano and Greg Osby‘s version of “Broad Way Blues” on Friendly Fire and I wanted to check out the original recording.  I can’t say I’ve ever returned to the Lovano/Osby version.  But I don’t return to Ornette’s late 1960s small combo recordings much either—it’s a period that has always perplexed and frustrated me, with too many failed experiments and tentative half-measures.  After hearing Lovano/Osby, then Ornette’s original, I found myself gravitating more to Change of the Century, which was an Ornette album readily available to me at the time.

Ornette Coleman – Prime Design / Time Design

Prime Design / Time Design

Ornette ColemanPrime Design / Time Design Caravan of Dreams CDP 85002 (1986)


Ornette Coleman met futurist/architect/inventor R. Buckminster Fuller in 1982, after first attending one of his lectures in Los Angeles back in 1954.  In an interview included in the film Ornette: Made in America, Ornette calls Fuller his “number one hero.”  After the 1982 meeting, Ornette told Kathelin Hoffman Gray, the artistic director of the Caravan of Dreams in Fort Worth, Texas, that he had to write something for Fuller.  That composition ended up being Prime Design / Time Design.  Ornette also wrote another tribute to Fuller that appears on the bootleg Reunion 1990.

Fuller is perhaps most widely known as the popularizer of geodesic domes.  But he also invented the Fuller Projection map (the most visually accurate flat representation of the Earth) and “tensegrity” structures used in bridge design, coined the phrase “Spaceship Earth”, developed the “World Game” simulation, participated in the “Dartmouth Conferences”, designed an experimental city (never constructed) called “Old Man River’s City” and (never constructed) floating-in-water apartment complexes, and advocated for a global electricity grid (something slowly inching toward realization).  He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1983.  In his book Critical Path, he claimed, “I am apolitical and an ardent advocate of an omnihumanity-advantaging freedom of individual initiative . . . .” and described one of his early life goals as to be a kind of Robin Hood armed with scientific textbooks, microscopes and calculators instead of a longbow and staff.  One of Fuller’s famous quotes is, “If success or failure of this planet and of human beings depended on how I am and what I do… HOW WOULD I BE? WHAT WOULD I DO?”  Fuller operated in a way often parallel to Technocracy Incorporated, the radical era of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), and Veblen‘s essays collected in The Engineers and the Price System, though Fuller wasn’t ever a part of those organizations or directly linked to Veblen.  He did, however, explicitly subscribe to Count Alfred Korzybski‘s “General Semantics”, documented in a 1933 book Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics but mostly promoted through lectures (which Fuller attended, as did beat writer and Coleman acquaintance William S. Burroughs).

General Semantics was intended to offer a synthesis of all human knowledge.  Mostly, though, the focus was on the imprecision of language, and a rejection of dualistic essentialism and extrovert bias.  Korzybski’s most famous saying was that “the map is not the territory”, which is similar to Saussure‘s formulation in semiotics that the signifier is not the signified.  Something like this is also involved in the analysis of chains of signifiers in psychoanalysis.  William S. Burroughs (a strong adherent to psychoanalysis) often recalled to interviewers how Korzybski would start his lectures by banging his hand on a table and saying, “Whatever this is, it is not a table.”  What he meant was that the word “table” referred to the thing he had just banged his hand on, but the word was not the thing itself.  A funny aspect of this is that in a later-life interview included in the book The Jazz Ear: Conversations Over Music, Ornette spoke in strikingly similar terms.  He said, “Do you think ‘the brain’ is a good title for the brain?  Well whatever you think your brain is, is that all there is?  I doubt it.”  In another interview he said, “Is life different than if the title wasn’t called that?” All this also happens to be a crucially important concept in terms of how Ornette wrote music and wanted that music performed: performers were meant to “transpose” the notes by their own discretion.  He talked about this transposition constantly in interviews.

It also bears mentioning here that Buckminster Fuller and Ornette Coleman are arguably two of the most famous autodidacts of the Twentieth Century — meaning they learned through self-directed education rather than through institutions or a master-apprentice type situation.  Fuller went so far as to refer to himself as “Guinea Pig B”.  The two even used similarly offbeat language and crafted their own esoteric lexicons of terminology.  For instance, Fuller used portmanteau terms like “Dymaxion” (derived from the words dynamic, maximum, and tension) just as Ornette used the term “Harmolodic” (derived from the words harmonic and melodic…or perhaps also rhythmic).

Prime Design / Time Design follows a somewhat similar approach to The Music of Ornette Coleman, particularly “Forms and Sounds” and “Saints and Soldiers,” and also “Dedication to Poets and Writers” from Town Hall, 1962.  That is to say this resembles the music of the serialists of the Second Viennese School (Schönberg, Webern, Berg).  Of course, in addition to that Ornette’s son Denardo plays free jazz drums, more like with Skies of America, or, perhaps, even Schnittke‘s Concerto Grosso No. 2 bears some resemblances.  Ornette composed the music, but does not perform on the recording.  Aside from Denardo, the other performers are Gregory Gelman (1st violin; later sent to prison for arson), Larissa Blitz (2nd violin), Alex Deych (viola) and Matthew Meister (cello).  Meister is American, while the other three string players are Soviet emigrants.

The album was, appropriately, recorded live in 1985 inside the 32-foot tall, neon lighted Fullerian Desert Dome on the rooftop of the Caravan of Dreams club in Fort Worth, Texas.  The club was the project of Ed Bass, a billionaire entrepreneur born into oil wealth.  It featured a lot of avant-garde artistic endeavors, and was part of an urban renewal venture of sorts, but was an entirely private development intended to be commercially profitable.  The club also ran a record label of the same name, and this album appeared on that label.  That proved to be something of a handicap, as the independent label had limited distribution and promotion, and, frankly, didn’t last that long or release much.  This album has never be reissued — of Ornette’s few albums on the label, only In All Languages has been reissued.

Paul Bley has spoken about how when he attended Julliard in the early 1950s, he was taught a line of thinking prominent among “Third Stream” theoreticians that said jazz was developing along a similar path as Euro-classical music.  He said:

“We learned something about the evolution of classical music, which had gone through a parallel sequence of development seventy-five years earlier than jazz.  Once you realized that, you could look at the history of this European art music to see what was coming next in jazz.  It was easy in 1950 to see that the music was about to become very impressionistic, and so it did. . . .  After impressionism, atonality was next.  The big mystery wasn’t whether atonal music was coming; it was why it wasn’t already here.  European music had been atonal since the twenties — what was taking jazz so long?”

Stopping Time: Paul Bley and the Transformation of Jazz (1999), p. 24.

While it is possible to question the kind of historical determinism present in this view — perhaps along lines similar to Leon Trotsky‘s theory in political economics of uneven and combined development, asking why jazz couldn’t leapfrog development paths in the Euro-classical field — there is nonetheless a certain hindsight accuracy to it, in Ornette’s case at least.  And when Bley refers to atonality in Euro-classical music, that is a reference, principally, to the Second Viennese School.

A useful supplement to Bley’s invocation of the Second Viennese School is to look at Theodor Adorno‘s Philosophy of Modern Music.  Adorno compared and contrasted the composers Arnold Schönberg and Igor Stravinsky.  He concluded that Stravinsky “restored” a traditional/conservative perspective in the face of crisis, whereas Schönberg offered a more genuinely progressive and new approach via atonality.  Adorno still saw limits in Schönberg’s twelve-tone system.  Famously, Adorno was very disparaging of jazz, though many have pointed out that his reference to “jazz” was likely more a kind of popular society music and not the genuine article.  It is here that Ornette fits in, as someone who carried the torch for what Schönberg suggested, adding his own novel contributions and his own unique formulations.  Schönberg, after all, composed from a systems perspective involving the relationships between notes (i.e., syntax).  Ornette, in contrast, tended to emphasize paradigmatic improvisational choices and the independence of performers.  Adorno did critique Schönberg for applying universalist rationalism in a way that suppressed the individual, the flip side of which just so happens to be one of Ornette’s unique and lasting contributions to music!

In the album’s sleeve notes, Ornette described Prime Design / Time Design this way:

“This piece is designed for five soloists. At different points in the piece, each musician plays in different time signatures: 2/4, 1/4, 2/3, 4/4, 7/4, 9/4 and 12/4.

“The second violin introduces the theme which is then played by viola, the cello, and the first violin. After completing the theme, each musician plays his part as a solo, performed “ensemble.” Each soloist will end at a different place. Second violin finishes first, then the viola, the cello and lastly the first violin.”

Not mentioned by Ornette is the fact that the ensemble comes together for a final collective statement after all the performers finishes their ensemble-performed solos.

In this piece, it is indeed remarkable how Ornette manages to create some of the same “sourness” of tone that he achieves in his alto saxophone playing through written notation for a string quartet.  And yet there is a grim, determined hopefulness to the music.  The piece is also curious in how it delegates spheres of latitude to different performers, giving the drums apparent free-range in all aspects, while the string players seem to have extensive time-duration freedom even as they tend to follow certain notated melodic statements.  This works well for this piece.  Ornette had perhaps learned from his experience with Skies of America etc. that Euro-classical players were not as comfortable with improvisation as jazz musicians.  It also helps that he rehearsed with the string quartet for a full month leading up to the performance on the recording.

I’ve long been an admirer of Fuller, Coleman, Korzybski, Schönberg, and pretty much all the other names mentioned above.  Prime Design / Time Design doesn’t strike me as particularly evocative of Buckminster Fuller.  In other words, this isn’t the sort of music that enters my mind when I think about Fuller — I’m more inclined to think of something like “Focus on Sanity” from The Shape of Jazz to Come or the “Buckminster Fuller” song on the Reunion 1990 bootleg.  And yet, Fuller and Ornette were most definitely two people of similar minds.  Both were futurists, trying to construct a different and better world, be that through music, architecture or whatever, and both being profoundly optimistic about other people having the capacity to similarly contribute in their own ways.  In that more general sense, Prime Design / Time Design is a very worthy effort.  Granted, this album is much derided.  But I find that it holds up admirably, and even more favorably than some Second Viennese School works/performances (e.g., Neue Wiener Schule: Die Streichquartette).  I think listeners are mostly likely to enjoy this if you take Ornette’s repeated assertions that his “Harmolodics” theory was applicable to any art form, not just jazz theory, and understand that as an assertion of how he developed musical techniques reflective of certain political philosophies attuned toward freedom principles.  Looked at as jazz music, this is going to seem incomprehensible and just plain difficult.  Looked at a Euro-classical music, this might seem dilettantish and muddled.  But a key point of General Semantics is that there are many ways to look at things and dualistic extremes are rarely helpful.  I like to see this as being in service of an agenda completely independent of genre categories like jazz/classical, though I also must admit to thinking this expands and improves upon formulations earlier identified by the Second Viennese School, overcoming some of the limits of their solutions to underlying challenges of musical theory and practice in a way that draws from blues/R&B and — especially — jazz.

Ornette Coleman – Ornette at 12

Ornette at 12

Ornette ColemanOrnette at 12 Impulse! AS-9178 (1969


Ornette’s first of two albums — both recorded live — for the Impulse! label.  The band is Ornette, Charlie Haden, Dewey Redman, and Denardo Ornette Coleman (Ornette’s son).  Denardo was 12 years old at the time, hence the title of the album.  Much has been said and written about Denardo’s presence — nepotism? a reliance on the fact that he was too young to have learned “conventional” jazz drumming?  The perfect fit?  Here, he does manage to contribute some things, though I wouldn’t say he is able to sustain a level of meaningful contribution over the entire performance.  The opener “C.O.D.” (whatever that acronym stands for!) is the highlight, with some great interplay between the two sax players, but “New York” is strong too, with a long section for Haden to stretch out while Denardo holds back.  The rest (“Rainbows,” “Bells and Chimes”) is not especially memorable, with Ornette playing trumpet and violin less successfully than elsewhere.  Lots of this is in the style of Ornette’s albums for Blue Note (New York Is Now!, Love Call), recorded earlier the same year, though a bit better thanks to the presence of a more sympathetic rhythm section.  So, on the whole this is decent if still a bit uneven.  The next Impulse! album Crisis is stronger.  For what it is worth, Impulse! marketed this as a studio album, though it is in fact a live recording with audible noise from the audience.

Ornette Coleman, Through the Systemic Functional Linguistics Lens

English linguist Michael Halliday developed a theory called Systemic Functional Linguistics.  As one online encyclopedia states, quoting Halliday himself:

“For Halliday, language is a ‘meaning potential’; by extension, he defines linguistics as the study of ‘how people exchange meanings by ‘languaging””

Howard Mandel, in the liner notes to an Ornette CD, recounted how Ornette liked to tell a story about asking a grade school class what music was.  A little girl answered that it is when you put your feelings in sound.  Ornette liked that answer. It points toward the view of music as feeling/meaning potential.

A definition of Systemic Functional Linguistics summarizes the theory (in basically anti-Chomskyan “universal grammar” terms) by saying:

“it places the function of language as central (what language does, and how it does it), in preference to more structural approaches, which place the elements of language and their combinations as central.”

Discussing the significance of Halliday’s linguistic theory, the same online encyclopedia goes on to state:

“Halliday, in a sense, ‘liberated’ the dimension of choice from structure and made it the central organising dimension of this theory. In other words, where many approaches to linguistic description place structure and the syntagmatic axis in the foreground, Hallidean systemic functional theory adopts the paradigmatic axis as its point of departure”

Ornette’s “Harmolodics” musical theory was often expressed in terms of transposition or translation from underlying compositional ideas or feelings — this is a lot like the “paradigmatic axis” in linguistic theory.  “A paradigmatic relationship refers to the relationship between words that are the same parts of speech and which can be substituted for each other in the same position within a given sentence. A syntagmatic relationship refers to the relationship a word has with other words that surround it.”  Leo Selivan, “Two axes of word relationships.”  See also the graphic here.  In a June 1997 interview with Jacques Derrida, (“The Other’s Language: Jacques Derrida Interviews Ornette Coleman, 23 June 1997,” Les Inrockuptibles No. 115, August 20 – September 2, 1997, Timothy S. Murphy trans, Genre, No. 36, 2004), Coleman said:

“I’m trying to express a concept according to which you can translate one thing into another.  I think that sound has a much more democratic relationship to information, because you don’t need the alphabet to understand music.”

He continued, emphasizing how Harmolodics was about the exchange of meaning through a new musical language:

“In fact, the music that I’ve been writing for thirty years and that I call Harmolodics is like we’re manufacturing our own words, with a precise idea of what we want those words to mean to people.”

Harmolodics might be seen as evincing a super-Platonic “notion that empirical reality can ‘participate’ in an eternal Idea, that an eternal Idea can shine through” the spatio-temporal reality and appear in it, while recognizing that “the distinction between appearance and essence has to be inscribed into appearance itself.” This fits quite closely with Systemic Functional Language as being the exchange of potential ideas/meanings.  But rather rather than just multiple choice linguistics, Ornette permits just about any selection (transposition) within a compositions — and the syntax is flexible too, up to a point.

If Ornette’s Harmolodics seems imprecise, it is fair to ask whether demands for further precision are normative.  Halliday has indicated that “grammar is viewed as a resource rather than as a set of rules . . . .”  Ornette’s music tried to tear down walls and open doors, to make fuller use of the resources of music.  He always emphasized an expansion of meaningful expression, not a contraction or a limit on possible meanings.  In the Derrida interview, Coleman rhetorically restates the Sapir–Whorf Hypothesis of linguistic relativity:

“Do you ever ask yourself if the language that you speak now interferes with your actual thoughts?  Can a language of origin influence your thoughts?”

Psychoanalysis describes this same phenomenon as the acceptance of (pre-existing) language colonizing us.

When writing about Ornette’s music in the past, I have largely stuck with his own description of his music as being tied to the so called freedom movement or civil rights movement.  But I go further to claim that Ornette’s music represented an important adaptation of the philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau to music, in the sense of being a meeting of theory and action — more than just technique but also more engaged and active than pure theory.  People like Mark Gridley have written about this sort of approach as a “misconception” (though not responding specifically to my Rousseau argument).  Of course, it is possible here to accuse Gridley of being the one who has misconceived the situation.  The underlying divergence results from Gridley viewing “free jazz” in the reductionist sense of being a technique, and he offers the revisionist definition of that technique as meaning, specifically (and only), totally “spontaneous” performance.  In contrast to Gridley’s view, which is academic pedantry mostly as a defense of the power of “jazz historians” and “jazz teachers” (of which he counts himself) against “journalists” to define the proper meaning of certain historical events and musicological developments — Gridley’s article reads almost like an example of religious dogmatism straight out of Pierre Bourdieu‘s Language and Symbolic Power!  Or, as two quotes from Philippe Carles and Jean-Louis Comolli‘s Free Jazz/Black Power establish, Gridley is just making self-serving and hypocritical assertions:

“When the dominant ideology advocates the separation of art and politics, it intervenes in the aesthetic field to condemn all ideological intervention in the aesthetic field!”

***

“When critics swear they are only speaking of musical facts, they are lying to themselves and misunderstanding all that is determined by the dominant ideology of a capitalist society and Western culture in their own aesthetic criteria and conception of art, in what they consider musical or not, etc.”

Sure, Gridley has a point that “free jazz” relies on certain techniques that pre-date that term and the movement it describes, and certainly not all “free jazz” performers explicitly or consciously saw or described their music as part of a freedom/civil rights movement or any related, but Gridley’s views also seem drawn from simply a different kind of historical reductionism that refuses a sociological or social-political perspective on the question of the meaning of the music or of implicit, perhaps unconscious or disavowed perceptions of the artists. Frankly, Gridley’s discussion of Ornette Coleman runs counter to some of Coleman’s own descriptions of what his goals were, which alone is enough to throw Gridley’s conclusion into doubt.  (This is epitomized by Gridley’s quotation of Harold Batiste offered in a way all too congruent with common stylistic double standards, which recognize the accomplishments of “free jazz” players only to the extent that they can “prove” themselves in traditional settings, without expecting the same of “traditional” players).  Ornette has said, for instance:

“Emotion has always been far more interesting to me than technique . . . . *** There’s a social quality in music, and a relationship between music and society that’s always been important.”

I disagree with Gridley at a pretty basic level as to what does or does not constitute “free jazz”.  But I do agree with him that “[f]ree jazz did not originate in a striving for racial freedom and equality during the 1960s.”  Rather, “free jazz” arose in the 1950s as an extension of revolutionary “Enlightenment” thought going back at least as far as Rousseau, in part, but not exclusively, accounting for the uniquely racialized and oppressive social circumstances at the time.  Reference here what art historian Linda Nochlin once said:

“art is not a free, autonomous activity of a super-endowed individual, ‘influenced’ by previous artists, and, more vaguely and superficially, by ‘social forces,’ but rather, that the total situation of art making, both in terms of the development of the art maker and in the nature and quality of the work of art itself, occur in a social situation, are integral elements of this social structure, and are mediated and determined by specific and definable social institutions, be they art academies, systems of patronage, mythologies of the divine creator, artist as he-man or social outcast.”

What does this digression about Gridley have to do with Systemic Functional Linguistics?  In much the same way that Halliday’s theory emphasizes paradigmatic choices conveying meaning, Ornette emphasized transposition of notes by individual players (as a way even to loosen syntax restrictions).  In contrast, other linguistic theories like “universal grammar” emphasize syntagmatic choices without as much concern for paradigmatic choices which are more structurally determined, which is fairly close to Gridley’s insistence that “free jazz” break established relationships of notes to those around them.  In a way, Ornette’s Harmolodics is defined in opposition to the sort of thinking underlying both chord-based musical theory and chomskyan universal/generative grammar.  Ornette’s concern with (essentially) the Sapir–Whorf Hypothesis is partly an opposition to — or at least disinterest in — chomskyan ideas about learning (generating) grammar.  Ornette’s ideas start to look a lot closer to the “critical pedagogy” practices of Paulo Freire.  So, I think it is safe to conclude that Gridley rejects certain commentary about the music of Ornette Coleman on purely ideological grounds, attempting to undermine Ornette’s intentions by depoliticizing them in order to neutralize their revolutionary sociopolitical impact.

It would be wrong to insist that Ornette’s “Harmolodics” are a direct counterpart of Systemic Functional Linguistics — the two are most certainly different theories.  But, rather, there are aspects of linguistics that can help understand Harmolodics, including its importance and its theoretical gaps and limitations.  As a corollary, it is interesting to consider the history of linguistics, and the battles for recognition in that discipline, with those in music and in jazz specifically.  I think one of the most continually fascinating aspects of Ornette’s music is they way it retains some syntax as a way of preserving paradigmatic freedom — helping to at least lessen the “Tyranny of Structurelessness,” the risks of “melodic obsessions, personal cliches, idea or sound associations, and other autonomisms” (Carles & Comolli, Free Jazz/Black Power), and the “totally free piece, end of concert” problem (articulated by Paul Bley in The Wire magazine, Sept. 2007) — and mediating compositional syntax and paradigmatic improvisation in a kind of co-equal and utopian “dual power” framework.

Ornette Coleman, Vanishing Mediator

I have written much about Ornette Coleman, his “Harmolodics” musical theory, and various commercial recordings he released over his storied career.  Reading Slavoj Žižek‘s Lenin 2017: Remembering, Repeating, and Working Through, some clarifications occurred to me that, I think, go a long way to explaining what separates Ornette’s most accomplished work from the rest (that rest still being impressive unto itself).

As I have quoted extensively in the past, Paul Bley‘s description of Ornette’s music and the role of composition (in an interview with Andy Hamilton in The Wire magazine, Sept. 2007) is one of the best available starting points:

“There was an article in Down Beat in something like 1954, in which I mentioned that jazz had reached a crisis and that AABA form had too many As, and not enough CDEFG.  So I began working with groups where we would play totally free, and that led to a kind of dead end, because ‘totally free’ didn’t necessarily allow you to continue.  A totally free piece is a totally free piece, end of concert. ***  [But Ornette] suggested ABCDEFGHIJK, in which repetition was anathema *** It wasn’t totally free because totally free was A forever, metamorphosing.  It was a form that took hold, because you could finally return to the written music, and the audience had something to hold on to.”

What if Bley’s description, with its emphasis on composition (often echoed by Ornette himself, and quite similar to Jacques Attali‘s notion of “composing” as a historical phase that breaks from “repetition”), is largely right but ever so slightly off the mark?  Lars Lih has written extensively about V.I. Lenin (born V.I. Ulyanov) and his political tactic of heroic leadership.  This entails setting a heroic example, not to impose upon or force others to act in a particular way, but to inspire them to act on their own in an effective way.  Žižek calls upon Lih’s interpretation, and expands upon it using terminology adapted from literary theorist Fredric Jameson and Lacanian psychoanalysis.  He says that Lenin acted as a “Master” or “vanishing mediator”.

“A true Master is not an agent of discipline and prohibition, his message is not ‘You cannot!’ or ‘You have to…!’, but a releasing ‘You can! — what? Do the impossible — in other words, what appears impossible within the coordinates of the existing constellation.  *** A Master is a vanishing mediator who gives you back to yourself, who delivers you to the abyss of your freedom: when we listen to a true leader, we discover what we want (or, rather, what we always already wanted without knowing it).  A Master is needed because we cannot accede to our freedom directly — to gain this access we have to be pushed from outside, since our ‘animal state’ is one of inert hedonism . . . .  The underlying paradox here is that the more we live as ‘free individuals with no Master’, the more we are effectively non-free, caught within the existing frame of possibilities — we have to be pushed or disturbed into freedom by a Master.”  (p. lxii; see also Comradely Greetings, p. 78).

“The function of the Master here is to enact an authentic division — a division between those who want to hang on within the old parameters and those who recognize the necessity of change.”  (pp. lxiv-lxv).

In a similar vein, Ernest Mandel had written years earlier that thinking becomes effective when it

“learns to discover the mediations—the intermediate links—which articulate . . . contradictions, instead of juxtaposing them and ‘transcending’ them by virtue of this juxtaposition.”

Turning back to Ornette’s music, John Litweiler, in his nearly-definitive biography Ornette Coleman: A Harmolodic Life, makes some important observations about Ornette’s recordings with his Prime Time band in the late 1970s, when he began working with younger musicians steeped in rock traditions:

“The net effect of these recordings, then, is of an alto soloist of uncommon stamina accompanied by rhythm players who take their cues from him and whose strong-beat accenting affects his own rhythmic organization.”

Perhaps this hints at the failure of Ornette’s methods, while also hinting at their source of success elsewhere.  Howard Mandel has described Ornette’s “Harmolodics” musical theory as being about “dynamic tension”, where:

“each and every member of his ensembles is expected to be listening to each and every other member, to be ready to react to what any and everyone is doing melodically and harmonically (the two being horizontal and vertical expressions of the same pitched material) and rhythmically, while hewing one’s own path through a composition.”

Mandel’s description is astutely accurate, as far as it goes, but what is needed is something more that explains what Litweiler obliquely drives at: a concept that explains why some Harmolodic performances/recordings succeed more than others.  Mandel explains the strength of Ornette’s most effective work.  But it is also necessary to probe the weaknesses inherent in Ornette’s approach from the beginning.  It is here that the “vanishing mediator” (or leadership by heroic example) framework comes in, bolstered by Bley’s analysis.

The most successful Ornette performances begin with Ornette’s melodies.  They key to success is that the other performers must be ready to then step in and supply everything else themselves, taking on co-leadership of melodic content.  What is crucial is that Ornette was not going to supply the mechanics to his bandmates.  There were basically no harmonic limits imposed on them.  Performers were hanging on to the old parameters if they approached this in terms of “chord changes”!

When musicians “take cues” from Ornette’s performances or him from them, like on the lesser of the Prime Time band recordings, then his heroic leadership has failed to properly inspire his compatriots, because he has not yet “vanished”.  He is, in however much a muted way, still controlling what they do.  In this respect, Ornette remains an “Ego Ideal” (adopting a term from psychoanalysis) rather than a vanishing mediator.  His bandmates are not acting out their own freedoms in the music, they are following Ornette’s (or vice-versa).  In a practical sense, in these performances, the band members are just reflecting each others’ statements back again, with a bit of a lag.

At other times, when the music is a chaotic jumble, some of these sorts of recordings turn into precisely what Bley called “A forever, metamorphosing.”  Even at its nadir, Ornette’s music hardly fit this description.  But looking at other instances of semi-widespread free jazz practice (and let’s be honest here that free jazz was never that widespread), this often might be called chaotic surrealism.  In other words, it is a crowd of musical performers each performing music arises from the unconscious minds.  Discussing Sigmund Freud and Gustave Le Bon‘s respective theories of crowds, Jodi Dean noted that nothing new appears in crowds: “Rather, [in crowds,] the impulses repressed in the unconscious have simply become free to manifest themselves.”  When people talk about totally spontaneous free jazz, they usually refer music structured according to the unconscious, denying the structure of the unconscious (and privileging the conscious).  Which is not to say that music manifested from the unconscious is bad, but it should be identified for what it is, and it should not be projected onto what it is not.

Certain collaborations, as with The Master Musicians of Joujouka, offer little beyond this.  They get stuck in a simplistic juxtaposition, and a retreat into the past.

One episode in Ornette’s life that always struck me is that sometime in the 1950s, while he was living in Los Angeles, some communists tried to recruit Ornette to the party.  He rebuffed them, saying that while the communist party was officially anti-racist, he believed that the people trying to recruit him would have been racist if not for the constraints of the official party platform.  With that rejection of explicitly communist politics, which otherwise seem like a close fit for Ornette’s musical outlook, he turned more toward a de facto anarchist political position that often looks curious like the “totally free piece, end of concert” problem Bley pointed out.

One of the most pernicious “revisionist” takes on Ornette’s music (unfortunately, somewhat widespread today among younger listeners) is to re-normalize him into existing paradigms, by asserting that he merely played be-bop — albeit a quirky kind of be-bop/hard bop — in the early days, and there was nothing particularly revolutionary about his music.  This view is usually extended to say that Ornette did not play “free jazz” at all — overlooking the historical fact that the very term “free jazz” was developed to describe the music of Ornette and his contemporaries like Cecil Taylor!  Rather, these revisionists usually insist that “free jazz” consists more or less exclusively in unwritten, “spontaneous” music that is completely, molecularly structureless — what Bley referred to as a “totally free piece, end of concert.”  There are many problems with this view.  Aside from “The Tyranny of Structurelessness”, and the limits of spontaneity imposed by the structure of the unconscious mind, this is classic revisionism in that it adopts the post-1968 view of a multicultural multitude acting purely and strictly horizontally (“democratically” is another term sometimes applied).  Of course the reason many take this view is the now widespread influence of a particular brand of university discourse drawn from Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, among others.  But Jodi Dean, Žižek and a few others have critiqued this view as responsible in large measure for the collapse of the political left (especially after 1989/1991 and the fall of the Berlin Wall and the USSR).  Going back to the “be-bop” pigeonholing, I suggest imagining a classic Venn diagram formed by two circles.  In essence, the revisionists insist that to be “revolutionary” or constitute a “paradigm shift”, Ornette’s music must be mutually exclusive of what came before.  They insist that the Venn diagram must be depicted as two separate circles, not overlapping, one representing the past and the other a truly revolutionary music (or, perhaps, that of two circles with one completely inside the other, like a doughnut hole).  But this is a flawed argument of the “Beautiful Soul” variety (in the full Hegelian sense).  It amounts to nothing more than a perverse insistence on a kind of impossible purity, untainted by the real world — indeed, these arguments are adopted not because of their methodological rigor, but are typically devised after the fact to justify preferences for musicians other than Ornette, without exploring the real reasons those preferences were developed beforehand (perhaps, unconsciously).  But a paradigm shift can include a Venn diagram with two circles that overlap, with one circle effectively bridging the old with new territory.  This is what Ornette’s music was always about.  In the early days, his collaborators and bandmates came from be-bop traditions.  So be-bop remained part of the music.  But the music was not bound by the coordinates of be-bop.  That was the achievement.  It mediated the tension between be-bop and that which went beyond be-bop.

The other important point here, against the “revisionists” and also those who approach Ornette’s music from the standpoint of hyper-technical musical theory (usually by way of transcribing his recordings into Western notation, then analyzing those transcriptions), is that I see Ornette’s main contribution as philosophical and political. This very much fits Ornette’s own descriptions of “Harmolodics” and the purpose of his work as being about “freedom”.  He once wrote about his theory in a super-Platonic way in Bomb magazine (Summer 1996):

“The composed concept of the music I write and play is called Harmolodics. The packaged definition is a theoretical method not exclusively applied to music. Harmolodics is a noun that can be applied for the use of participating in any form of information equally without erasing or altering the information.”

In a July 1983 Down Beat article, he had previously defined it by calling it

“the use of the physical and mental of one’s own logic made into an expression of sound to bring about the musical sensation of unison executed by a single person or with a group.”

In a snippet of an interview with Stephen Rush, he also responded to a question in which he equated Hamolodics to human equality:

“Stephen: ‘This constraint on civilization and the constraint on music is going to cause an end to jazz?’

“Ornette: ‘I know you’re right…. I know you’re right. And the reason why it is … sex, money, and race. In that order.'”

Ornette suggested a new meaning for why people make music and why they might do so.  For this argument to prevail, I insist that it is not necessary that Ornette, himself, went to the furthest reaches of what his theory suggested.  In other words, his performances and recordings need not adopt the most extreme meanings in order to have philosophically and politically opened space for new meanings, through music.

Contemporary notions of multitudes of singularities, fragmented pluralization, indeterminate forms, molecular spontaneous self-organization, a long tail of micro-initiatives, etc. tend to fit the sort of anarchistic tendencies in Ornette’s music.  But this actually arose more in the post-Science Fiction era.  One the one hand, after the cultural forces that peaked around 1968 (though the early 1970s, in the case of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense), it seems natural and uncontroversial that Ornette would be swayed somewhat by all that.  And, indeed, Litweiler’s biography reveals that during the this time Ornette became somewhat preoccupied with becoming rich (which he did accomplish).  But the crucial fault these anarchistic (and sometimes paleo-traditionalist) tendencies produce in Ornette’s music is that they rest on mere aggregation (hardly even juxtaposition), leaving no sense of tension, contrast, conflict.  The music becomes static, adapting itself to any situation (yes, a kind of achievement in itself), but incapable of inducing change, and, crucially, incapable of inspiring the listener.  Tension is simply preemptively resolved, and never apparent to the listener.  While these methods perhaps suggest a kind of utopian music practice useful for some kind of future utopia, in a pre-utopian present, this can lack appeal to listeners not involved in making the music.

Of course, a meta-criticism of the multitudinous individualism of Ornette’s Prime Time bands is that it is easy to overlook the “ferocity of commanded individuality” it entails (to adapt a statement by Jodi Dean).  When critics lament that Ornette’s bandmates don’t always bring enough to the table, perhaps a more precise criticism would be that Ornette’s music demands too much of them in the way of uniquely individualized contributions?  That is to say that the demands of the music are impractical, requiring unrealistically talented musicians to pull it off.  The result is sometimes that of a “crowd” of individualized music makers (again adapting a term from Dean), without the experience of a “band” of music makers with a collective purpose.  This, then, might be precisely the distinction between Ornette’s most vital music and his lesser works.  The most successful music shows some kind of collective purpose, made possible through the loose and open-ended structure of “Harmolodics” mediated by Ornette go into truly uncharted territory, rather than just “spontaneous” individual efforts that each reflect back something already known and already established as possible.  Ethan Iverson has also written (somewhat pessimistically) that:

“The use of Harmolodics can access a kind of emotion that is breathtakingly pure, as long as everyone makes the right decisions to serve the music. *** The successful application of Harmolodic theory almost certainly requires Ornette’s own participation as performer, and an improvising drummer besides.”

Le Bon, whom Dean calls an “odious reactionary“, wrote in the late 1800s, before Lenin’s time as an international public figure, but used Robespierre as an example of monstrous leader who, hypnotized by the ideas of the political philosopher Rousseau, was led along with the rest of crowds of the French Revolution that attacked traditional social structures.  That view seems quite typical of latter-day (reactionary) detractors who despise the principle of free jazz, mostly for its lack of respect/adherence to traditional social structures and roles.  No doubt, there must have been racists who said similar things about Ornette.  But Le Bon’s description hardly seems to describe Ornette’s best music.  It describes, at most, a “crowd” as something different and less than what Ornette achieved via a “band”.  Lenin viewed Robespierre as an important historical precedent and a hero.  So, we can at least see some continuity here in comparing Ornette to Lenin (and Robespierre and Rousseau), as part of an overarching political project working against reactionaries like Le Bon.

In the 1950s, when Ornette struggled to find an outlet for his new kind of music, his approach was in part to struggle to assemble a band of sympathetic players.  As reviewer Patrick Brown astutely comments about the early album Tomorrow Is the Question! The New Music of Ornette Coleman!:

“As Ornette creeps toward the fulfillment of his destiny he gets his music more together than on his debut album, helped in no small part by Shelly Manne who sounds absolutely terrific here, and by an ever closer understanding with Don Cherry. Tunes are the sort of crazy, complex heads that he specializes in – impossible to predict what he’s got up his sleeve next – and soloing is budding into the maturity that really blooms (for me at least) on his next album [presumably The Shape of Jazz to Come, which was recorded next but was actually released prior to Tomorrow Is the Question], though he sounds quite in control here. I say this not so much to disrespect this, but as with many great jazz players whose music I come to late, hindsight lets me know where they’re going and I’m almost itching to hear them get there when I listen to something that sounds ‘wrong’ — in this case, I suspect that it’s the absence of Charlie Haden. Again, no disrespect is meant to the great Red Mitchell or Percy Heath, I just know how in tune with this group Haden will be and it creates a note of discord for me. Manne on the other hand sounds right at home – a shame he didn’t pack up and move to NYC with the others (and don’t read ill will toward Higgins or Blackwell into this). So it’s like this — Ornette knew very early on how he wanted his music to be made, and putting together the pieces of those who shared that vision took a few tries. Here, he’s almost at that point and at times this shines as brightly as anything from the Atlantic era. At other times I feel an undefinable something missing, something that takes it down a half notch for me. But it’s that close to being great, really, despite my seemingly disparaging review.”

Brown is basically making the point that Ornette’s music demanded certain kinds of players to be effective.  Iverson has also noted that “One of the earliest longer pieces about Ornette is in A.B. Spellman’s Four Lives in the Bebop Business. When you compare Ornette’s profile to those of [the other interviewees], it seems that he’s trying to go the extra mile to communicate the importance of his sidemen to Spellman.”  This hints at the proposition that Ornette’s success was, in part, forging a collective project in the form of a band (and, also, in the form of an audience; see The Battle of The Five Spot: Ornette Coleman and The New York Jazz Field).  In contrast, after he achieved success, and after 1968, he became more interested in breaking down those collective projects and instead fostering crowd-like gatherings of individuals.  This was a different project — though it could be said that Ornette still returned to his earlier project in different ways through the years, but his work was not exclusively in that realm.

As Ornette moved on to other pursuits, his role as a “vanishing mediator” (or perhaps, his compositions’ role as a “vanishing mediator”) faded and the torch was passed on to others.  Anthony Braxton deserves a special mention here, given his long commitment to developing new compositional forms that do the same sorts of things Ornette (and his compositions) did in urging fellow players to free up their performances.

While I have mostly focused on the performance aspect of Ornette’s music, and how he related to his bandmates, it almost goes without saying that Ornette also established an “authentic division” among listeners.  Frances Davis, writing a quarter-century after Coleman’s famous stand at the Five Spot club in New York City, said, “Coleman was either a visionary or a charlatan, and there was no middle ground between advocacy and disapproval.”  (intriguingly, this article was entitled, “Ornette’s Permanent Revolution,” which parallels the title of Leon Trotsky‘s book Permanent Revolution).

Part of the purpose of this essay is to offer sympathetic criticism about the limits of Ornette’s musical vision, which, in my opinion, represents one of the most important of the 20th Century!  His later years could have been more productive, perhaps, had he made more effort to document his “Harmolodics” musical theory (the term was first publicly mentioned in conjunction with Skies of America) to found a musical “school” that would institutionalize his program (akin to a political party).  Many fans and critics who lament that Ornette never did this (despite his own statements that he was working on a book about Harmolodics) is that they wanted to join.  This is sort of the hard part, precisely what Jodi Dean’s book Crowds and Party deals with.  Ornette’s repeated equating of “Harmolodics” with a concept of “unison” very much maps onto Dean’s description of a “party” beyond that of a “crowd”.  However, the rather isolated musical interventions Ornette staged in his later career often lacked the social purpose of his early attempts to pursue an agenda of “freedom”, those later activities sometimes reduced to the far less compelling goal of amassing a personal fortune.  Maybe most importantly, Dean’s book, a reflection on the shortcomings of the anarchist underpinnings of events like Occupy Wall Street, is that Ornette’s loosely structured later bands were more like “crowds” that came together briefly, stated multitudinous demands, then dissolved, with little or no sustaining permanence.  The refusal to stick with the slow and methodical building of permanent institutions (Dean’s emphasis in on a political party), is emblematic of the the individualist turn during the neoliberal era (see Jefferson Cowie‘s Stayin’ Alive), and also consistent with political failings of anarchistic political action over the same period.  And central to that failure of institutional permanence is Ornette stepping away from being a “vanishing mediator”, and side-stepping efforts to concretely establish what “unison” means within “Harmolodics”.  It was when he pushed his bandmates into a larger cause, then “vanished” to allow them to pursue the project of their own volition, that you end up with works like his Earth-shattering recordings for Atlantic Records.  This is not to say that Ornette always appears on his recordings in a way that directly reveals his role as a vanishing mediator, but that the most successful performances arose out of situations in which efforts along those lines had taken place, whether through extended practice sessions, careful selection of band members having certain predispositions, or both, which established what sort of “unison” they were working towards.  Those practice session techniques weren’t institutionalized or emphasized by Ornette publicly, but they mattered.  I suppose my constructive criticisms might be best viewed with reference to Lenin’s mountaineering analogy “On Ascending A High Mountain” from his 1924 article “Notes of a Publicist,” which asserted the need to return to the starting point and begin again in order to reach the highest summit — something that other appreciations of Ornette’s music recognize.  I think it is necessary to work through Ornette’s music theories, take them back to the beginning, and then push them ahead even further.

Ornette Coleman – The Music of Ornette Coleman

The Music of Ornette Coleman

Ornette ColemanThe Music of Ornette Coleman RCA Victor LM-2982 (1967)


Ornette frequently stated that he considered himself a composer who performed.  Among his greatest achievements in recording compositions for a Euro-classical ensemble is certainly The Music of Ornette Coleman (AKA Forms and Sounds). This live recording is much superior to the 1972 release of Skies of America, perhaps the best-known of Coleman’s “classical” compositions and recordings.  It builds on “Sadness” and “Dedication to Poets and Writers” from his self-produced Town Hall, 1962 concert (and accompanying album).

The opening “Forms & Sounds” is an astounding piece — comparable in some regards to stuff like Stockhausen‘s “Zeitmaße” (1956) or “Kontra-Punkte” (1953).  It is performed entirely on wind instruments.  A density is achieved through having woodwinds players (The Philadelphia Woodwind Quintet) perform almost independently, which is to say that the notes played by each of the performers seem built from independent lines and notations rather than through overarching themes or motives.  Passages with the woodwind players are interspersed with (and separated by) Coleman playing trumpet solo.  Much of what he does would be classified as “extended technique” in the Euro-classical realm.  His performances are stunning — as much or more captivating than what the whole woodwind quintet achieves (and they perform excellently, by the way).  What really distinguishes this from European avant-garde music (Stockhausen, etc.) is the way the music shifts back and forth between the chamber ensemble and Ornette playing solo, with Ornette’s own playing being organized differently than the ensemble parts, with the occasional R&B/blues riff and offhand jazz phrasing.  There are differences between the two types of playing, but they are complementary.  This juxtaposition of differences without the two ever really meeting, and without one dissolving into the other, is the innovative contribution Ornette makes.  Of course, the parts that resemble prior avant-garde music are simply excellently conceived and executed.

The piece “Forms and Sounds” here was recorded live.  An earlier live version recorded in England appeared on An Evening With Ornette Coleman.  Ornette used the money he received to record a soundtrack to the film Chappaqua (a soundtrack ultimately not used in the film, but released on an album) to finance a European tour.  However, protectionist British Ministry of Labour quotas required that as a “jazz musician” certain British musicians must be engaged to play in the United States in order for Ornette’s band to be permitted to play in England.  That reciprocity didn’t happen.  These policies were notoriously discriminatory against pop and rock and roll music.  However, the country quota regulations had a loophole for “concert artists”, a category that included Euro-classical musicians and Asian improvising musicians.  So Ornette wrote “Forms and Sounds” in mid-August 1965, two weeks before the scheduled concert, and because of those efforts was successfully reclassified as a “concert artist” to enable the concert to proceed.  In spite of all this, the British union still retaliated by demanding different performers for the opening act and then later blacklisted the people who helped Ornette organize the concert.  The British musicians union pulled the same stunt when he returned years later, forcing him to compose “Emotion Modulation” (a backstage rehearsal of the “Aos” section of that piece appears on Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band).  In spite of its unusual origins, “Forms and Sounds” is still a notable composition, and the version here is superior to the earlier recording, which lacked the trumpet interludes performed by Ornette himself.

“Saints and Soldiers” is Ornette’s reflection on how the remains of both revered saints and lowly soldiers end up in jars after their deaths.  Strings (The Chamber Symphony of Philadelphia Quartet) are used instead of wind instruments — Ornette does not perform on the track.  It is yet another instance of Ornette’s politics influencing the way he writes music, with a dogged interest in radical egalitarianism showing through.  From a technical perspective, it is less innovative than “Forms & Sounds.”  In a way, this piece might be one of the first to highlight a question that would take on increasing relevance in Coleman’s music, especially in the 1970s and 80s with his fusion band Prime Time.  That question might be framed as one of federalismFredric Jameson wrote about Thomas More‘s book Utopia (1516):

“More’s solution — to make all the subdivisions of his utopia equal in all respects — is a mechanical one, which casts some doubt on the equally mechanical uniformity of its citizens.  Federalism is the central political problem of any utopia…”  Fredric Jameson, An American Utopia: Dual Power and the Universal Army (2016), p. 79.

This echoes a criticism that can be leveled at Ornette and his “Harmolodics” system of musical performance.  He organizes the music very mechanically sometimes.  Here on “Saints and Soldiers,” he locks some of the woodwind players into rather rigid roles to hold them all equal.  The piece, on the whole, is still moody and effective.

“Space Flight” is the closer, and the shortest piece on the album.  It is played very staccato, again all on strings.  It has a punchiness or fire not found on “Saints and Soldiers.”  While hinting at afro-futurism, this might be seen more generally as part of Ornette’s ongoing fascination with space exploration — he later composed for NASA — and technocracy — in a later interview he described techno futurist R. Buckminster Fuller as his number one hero.  The song makes a fitting closer to the album, looking forward to the “space age” with hope and determination.

Today Ornette’s recorded work from the later 1960s is less known than what came before or after, partly due to fewer reissues, but The Music of Ornette Coleman is a crucial recording in his catalog.  It presents a unique and important facet of his career.  Even if less widely available than many other Coleman recordings, this one is worth seeking out.

Various Artists – Lenox School of Jazz Concert 1959

Lenox School of Jazz Concert 1959

Various ArtistsLenox School of Jazz Concert 1959 Royal Jazz RJD 513 (1990)


There are a few jazz concerts that changed the world.  The “October Revolution in Jazz” series is often cited as one of them.  But that concert series from 1964 wouldn’t have occurred without a particular concert at the end of the Lenox School of Jazz summer jazz workshop in 1959.  Run by John Lewis of The Modern Jazz Quartet, Ornette Coleman was brought in to an audience of East Coast (mostly New York City) jazz luminaries.  Ornette had the opportunity to present his music to the most influential performers in the jazz world.  It was this concert, more than any other factor (Cecil Taylor still being ignored and not finding gigs), that convinced the jazz world that something eventually called “free jazz” was a real possibility.

The first track is Ornette’s “The Sphinx.”  The melody is perhaps reminiscent of Henry Mancini, but without the irony or kitsch.  That was the thing about Ornette.  He could merge the simple and complex seamlessly, just as he could high and low culture.  There are a lot of good performances here, from many different performers, many of whom are stars in their own right (or at least notable underground/fringe figures, like composition student Margo Guryan), but it is most likely that listeners will come to this seeking to hear Ornette’s performance.  Bear in mind this is a mere selection from the concert; not all the performances have survived in recorded form.  For listeners most concerned with the earliest recorded performances of Ornette Coleman, note that there are earlier recordings, including Complete Live at the Hillcrest Club (recorded in 1958) and his studio albums for Contemporary Records.  But the reason his studio albums for Atlantic Records gained notoriety is because of these concert performances.

Ornette Coleman – Ornette on Tenor

Ornette on Tenor

Ornette ColemanOrnette on Tenor Atlantic 394 (1962)


Often considered the least of Ornette Coleman’s albums for Atlantic Records, those statements need to be put in some kind of context.  Even if it is nominally true that this is the least of the Atlantic albums, it is merely the least of one of the most astounding and groundbreaking sets of recordings of the 20th Century.  There is still plenty of amazing music to be found on Ornette on Tenor.

The tenor saxophone was Ornette’s primary instrument when he played in R&B and minstrel bands starting in the 1940s.  The alto sax became his primary instrument as he committed himself to a solo career making his own music.  Using the tenor again here allows Ornette to add some variety to his music, even as his phrasing and musical approach is no different than on alto — save for being a tad slower given the greater volume of breath needed on the tenor.  He calls up a few R&B tricks from his past too, like kind of greasy glissando and honking effects, but there still is no mistaking him for any other performer.

“Eos,” and to some extent “Ecars,” which conclude the album, are lesser cuts (“Eos” was the first song recorded in these sessions).  These are the only hindrances in an otherwise fantastic album.

Personnel discussions are always of relevance on Coleman recordings, because his musical vision (“harmolodics” he later termed it) was, in many ways, fragile.  It depended on assembling a group of performers with shared visions.  When he put together bands with performers who were more timid than he was, or just with different ideas, the results were mixed at best.  Bassist Charlie Haden had left Coleman’s group, and his immediate replacement Scott LaFaro was later killed in a car accident a few months after these sessions.  Jimmy Garrison came on after LaFaro and is featured on these recordings.  He had a rocky relationship with Ornette, and frequently rejected Ornette’s musical ideas (he left to join John Coltrane‘s classic quartet, but returned later to record with Ornette in the late 1960s).  Garrison is also a more conventional bassist than either Haden or LaFaro.  The personal tension surrounding Garrison is evident in places, giving the music a husky aura that Ornette mostly seems to ignore.  But even if Garrison holds back by sticking to static motifs rather than diving in headfirst past the point of no return, drummer Ed Blackwell is in peak form here, making the bass playing less critical.  His rhythms are slippery and agile.  Just when it seems like he’s playing a simple cymbal ride or a march-like beat, he proves otherwise.  He never abandons a sense of meter, but he plays without that ever being a limitation.  The horn payers, for their part, play with delightful contradiction, with happy-sounding melodies played with much dissonance and irreverence.

While this might be the album to turn to last among Ornette’s recordings for Atlantic (setting aside the many outtake collections, which are still pretty good), it is still well worth investigation for fans of the rest.