Ornette Coleman still blazing a musical trail
Critics praise or skewer his musical theories
By Howard Reich
Tribune arts critic
September 21 2003

NEW YORK -- He has been called a charlatan and a genius, a musical illiterate
and a fearless visionary, a destroyer of noble traditions and a builder of
enthralling new idioms.

He has been skewered by listeners who yearn for the days when jazz was sweet
and easy on the ear, he has been showered with some of the most prestigious
prizes in American culture.

Along the way, he also has been falsely arrested, attacked by muggers,
beaten, bludgeoned and left for dead.

Yet on this warm September morning, Ornette Coleman -- his name to this day
sparks fierce debate among listeners around the world -- looks and sounds the
picture of tranquility and peace, a soft-spoken, septuagenarian gentleman if
ever there were one.

As the saxophonist-composer welcomes a visitor into the lobby of his
Manhattan loft building, one might suspect that Coleman never had seen a day of strife
in a career that, in truth, has generated more than its share of distress.

"Oh, man, I've had some really terrible things done to me," says Coleman,
arguably the most influential jazz composer, theorist and freethinker of the past
half century.

Nevertheless, "At a certain point in my life, I just decided that I would
never fight any kind of class, any kind of race, and if someone said, `I don't
like you,' I wouldn't try to defend myself," continues Coleman, who plays a rare
Chicago performance Friday night at Symphony Center.

"I'm not trying to control, change, dominate, kill or be against anyone, or
put somebody above another," adds Coleman, speaking at a hush in a spartan loft
dotted by African-inspired sculpture and vividly abstract paintings. The
accoutrements brighten a wide-open room that aptly reflects the spaciousness of
much of Coleman's music.

"I think my position is that I'm no more than a speck of dust in the sand,"
says Coleman, "and I'm trying to avoid being stepped on."

In that regard, however, Coleman has not been thoroughly successful, for
virtually every concert he has played, every recording he has issued and every
unexplored musical avenue he has delved into has drawn at least a measure of
derision. Though many fragments of the music establishment have long since
acknowledged that Coleman not only changed the course of jazz but opened it up to
uncounted possibilities, he has been a walking target at least since the
mid-1950s, when he began to unfold his unconventional views of composing and
improvising music.

Yet he seems to have been as unfazed by the assaults as he has been unseduced
by the accolades (which have included a MacArthur "genius" Fellowship in 1994
and Guggenheim Fellowships in 1967 and '73), instead steadily spreading the
gospel of his unorthodox musical philosophy to any musician seeking it out.

Thinking differently

Although artists famous and obscure have spoken of Coleman's efforts to
instruct them in the self-styled musical language he long ago termed "harmolodics,"
Coleman himself recalls a recent encounter that sums up his approach to
getting musicians to think differently.

"A young lady who is trying to make her debut professionally came by a couple
of days ago, and though she makes a living doing something else, she also
writes songs," says Coleman, 73.

"So I said, `Sing,' and she sang [music based upon] an F chord," a
not-exactly-radical gesture that clearly would hold little appeal for a set of ears as
restlessly inquisitive as Coleman's.

"So I gave her a newspaper, and I said, `I want you to read the newspaper,
and I'm going to play while you're reading,'" with Coleman presumably blowing
unexpected pitches, bizarre melodic intervals and chord-shattering phrases into
his alto saxophone.

"And the more she was reading the newspaper, the more her voice became a
song," meanwhile leaving the F major chord behind and slipping, unwittingly, into
Coleman's more free-ranging musical terrain.

"And I said to her, `You know what? You might not realize it, but when your
voice sings ... it's [now] coming out to make you sound like an individual.

"And I call that `harmolodics.'"

In purely musical terms, Coleman's "harmolodics" -- a linguistically suave
merger of "harmony" and "melody" -- represents a rebellion against the chord
changes that has driven everything in Western music from the fugues of Johann
Sebastian Bach to the pop songs of Elvis Costello. In Coleman's "harmolodics,"
the strictures of chord progressions are abandoned, allowing each
instrumentalist in a band to pursue his own melody line. Instead of chord changes, then, the
players use the particular interrelationships of multiple melody lines to
forge a common musical language.

"It's like having a million melodies all at once," explains Coleman, "yet
it's still a kind of unison."

In Coleman's hands, this approach produces a music that is often sublimely
lyrical, though also often harmonically provocative.

Love it or hate it, however, it continues to influence some of the most
significant experimenters in jazz.

Just a few weeks ago, the brilliant Chicago musician Ken Vandermark gave the
Chicago Jazz Festival its most artistically significant performance leading
his new Crisis Ensemble.

Named for Coleman album

"Yes, the Crisis Ensemble was named after [Coleman's] album `Crisis,'" says
Vandermark, in an e-mail from Oslo (where Vandermark is on tour), referring to
a characteristically adventurous Coleman recording of 1969.

"Ornette's use of `fluid tonality' [another way of describing `harmolodics']
has had a huge impact on the way I think about harmony in my compositions and
playing," adds Vandermark, whose art embraces a broad range of techniques,
many originating with Coleman. "Coleman's breakthrough with freeing harmony from
a strict, repetitive structure has had a huge impact on the way improvisers
have thought about tonality since the late 1950s. And his efforts to reduce the
hierarchy between soloist and rhythm section also indicated a direction that
free improvisers have built on since the late 1960s."

Indeed, as Vandermark suggests, Coleman utterly rewrote the rules for
improvising and writing jazz. The conceptual leap he made -- from the extraordinarily
complex chord changes of bebop giants such as Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie
and Thelonious Monk to a post-chordal language of his own device -- not only
changed the music but liberated it.

Like most aesthetic revolutions, however, this one earned its leader
considerable fire.

In Los Angeles, in the mid-1950s, Coleman was hard-pressed to find musicians
who would talk to him, let alone take his radical ideas onto a bandstand.

And in New York, in the early 1960s, revered swing trumpeter Roy Eldridge
said, "I think he's jiving, baby"; trumpeter Miles Davis said, "If you're talking
psychologically, the man is all screwed up"; and drummer Max Roach, after
hearing Coleman play, "punched Ornette in the mouth," notes John Litweiler in his
Coleman biography, "A Harmolodic Life" (William Morrow and Company Inc.,

Even today, some observers hold serious reservations about the significance
of Coleman's contributions.

"Free jazz is one of the things that anyone can do, because there are no
rules to which you have to conform," says John McDonough, a veteran jazz critic
who penned a famous anti-Coleman essay -- "Failed Experiment" -- in the January,
1992, issue of Down Beat, where he serves as contributing editor.

"It's empty in the same way that when Sid Caesar does a [fake] Japanese or
French dialect. It sounds authentic, but it says nothing."

Others, such as veteran Chicago jazz impresario Joe Segal, have had mixed
feelings about different facets of Coleman's work.

"I've heard him make some great music -- like when we had him at the Jazz
Showcase [in 1975] with [bassist] Charlie Haden, [drummer] Ed Blackwell and
[saxophonist] Dewey Redman. I liked the tunes, because they had that Charlie Parker

"But [later] I heard him playing all-electric, and me and the other beboppers
left at intermission, because it sounded like a big mess."

Early on, however, a select few musicians instantly perceived the melodic
beauty that Coleman's ideas made possible.

"Don Cherry [the innovative trumpeter] told me about this alto player,
Ornette Coleman, so I went to hear him, and Ornette takes out this white plastic
alto saxophone, and I never had heard anything so beautiful in my life," recalled
bassist Haden, in a conversation with the Tribune last year.

"When he walked out of the club, I ran back after him.

"I just thought he played like some revolutionary angel.

"So he invited me to come to his home -- actually, it was his apartment, a
little one-room shack with music on the floor and everywhere.

"And I'll never forget what he said to me: `After we play the intro, listen
to me, and we'll play what we want to play, not what we're supposed to be

Altered direction of jazz

From these early collaborations with Haden, trumpeter Don Cherry and bassist
Billy Higgins, among others, came recordings that radically altered the
direction of jazz. The bracing sounds of "Something Else! The Music of Ornette
Coleman" (1958), "Tomorrow is the Question" (1959), "The Shape of Jazz to Come"
(1959), "Change of the Century" (1959) and "Free Jazz" (1960) signaled that jazz
musicians content to play endless choruses on "All the Things You Are"
permanently had lost their position on the front lines of the music.

If this work sounded shocking to the uninitiated, it represented a great gust
of fresh air to musicians with open ears and minds.

"I remember listening to those records when they came out, and it's true that
a lot of people didn't seem to understand what he was doing," recalls Chicago
tenor saxophone virtuoso Fred Anderson, himself a cutting-edge player.

"But I understood what Ornette was doing -- he was coming right out of
Charlie Parker, and it was good.

"It wasn't that he was trying to play like Charlie Parker. He was trying to
find his own voice."

Parker, indeed, was the alto saxophonist Coleman most admired, but while
generations of imitators tried to ape Parker's breakthroughs, Coleman chose
instead to push beyond Parker's bebop revolution.

"I saw Charlie Parker play when I just got to L.A.," in the early 1950s,
recalls Coleman, "when I was really, really starving at that point. I couldn't
even get in the nightclub, because of the way I was dressed.

"They said, `Please, the customers don't want to see you like this.'

"So I spoke to him outside . . . he opened up ears to hearing another way of
playing music."

Coleman chose to do no less.

"Jazz means two things: `unknown' and `present,'" says Coleman, explaining
his view of the music that has defined his life.

"In other words, you [bring] something unknown into the present, right?

"Now I didn't call the music I was doing `free jazz.' Someone [at the
Atlantic record label] named it that, put a Jackson Pollack painting on it and called
it `Free Jazz.'"

The phrase, which has stuck to post-chordal jazz ever since, may have done a
disservice to Coleman and his idiom, for it gave casual listeners the
impression that, in this music, anything goes, anyone can play anything.

In reality, however, Coleman's fluid system of "harmolodics" requires
musicians with uncommonly sensitive ears and nimble intellects, as well as audiences
willing to embrace bursts of abstract instrumental color, utterly
unpredictable phrase lengths and a kind of democracy among players that allows a robust
counterpoint to flourish.

So far as Coleman is concerned, this thinking-outside-the-margins approach to
creating music was shaped early on, in Ft. Worth, where the absence of
Coleman's father and the tiny wages earned by his mother left the family shut out of
mainstream society.

Beyond his reach

Even music seemed beyond his reach, at first.

"I don't ever remember hearing [classical] instruments like violins -- I was
always hearing people with guitars and blues and stuff like that, because
there was segregation," says Coleman.

"The first time I saw a guy play a saxophone, I didn't know what it was. And
someone told me it was a saxophone. So I asked my mother, and she told me that
if I go out and make money I could buy myself one. So I made me a shoeshine
box and went on the streets smelling feet.

"Until one day she told me, `Look under the bed' -- it took about three or
four years -- and I took it out and played it."

Or, more specifically, Coleman invented his own way of playing the
instrument, since music education was not in the family budget. Long unfamiliar with the
technicalities of keys, transpositions and other nitty-gritty of the
musician's art, Coleman conceptualized his own systems for how tones harmonize (and
didn't harmonize), leading, perhaps, to his homemade "harmolodics."

Looking in other cultures

Ever since, Coleman has been relentless in his search for new sounds,
venturing to study the musical rituals of Hopi Indians in 1962, to absorb the
"healing powers" of the master musicians of Joujouka, Morocco, in the early 1970s,
and to practically every other culture to which he could obtain entree. These
influences perpetually have refreshed his art, inspiring epic pieces such as the
jazz-meets-the-symphony "Skies of America" in the early 1970s, the
quasi-classical "Freedom Symbol" suite (featuring a 20-piece ensemble) in 1989 and the
multimedia, multicultural social commentary of "Tone Dialing" in 1995.

Though these works have been praised and damned, Coleman remains undeterred.

"I'm drawn to what I can't see that represents God," says Coleman, who has
put aside, he says, bitterness over race-driven arrests in his youth, beatings
from fellow musicians early in his career in the South and two brutal muggings
from apparently random criminals in his adopted home, New York.

"I remember that I got my horn in the '40s, and after I had some experience
[on it], I discovered the word `art.'

"And it seemed to me that art was anything that was created that didn't have
to give in to anyone's influence. . . .

"That's one thing that I haven't done yet, and I'm not planning to."

- - -

Essential Coleman

Essential listening from Ornette Coleman's discography:

"The Music of Ornette Coleman: Something Else!" (Original Jazz Classics; 1958
). The opening shots in Coleman's revolution seem tame by today's standards
but caught a generation of listeners off guard.

"The Shape of Jazz to Come" (Atlantic; 1959). The first recording of
Coleman's breakthrough quartet shows trumpeter Don Cherry, bassist Charlie Haden and
drummer Billy Higgins forging a harmonically liberated, intensely melodic
musical language.

"Change of the Century" (Atlantic; 1959). Coleman and the quartet venture
more deeply into a post-chordal idiom.

"Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation" (Atlantic; 1960). Coleman's
pioneering double quartet foreshadows the composer's future projects.

"Beauty is a Rare Thing: The Complete Atlantic Recordings" (Rhino/Atlantic;
1959-1961; reissued 1993). This must-have, six-CD boxed set exhaustively
documents Coleman's late '50s, early '60s innovations.

-- Howard Reich