Ornette Coleman


Adam Shatz remembers Ornette Coleman

In 1949 Coleman moved to Los Angeles, where he flirted with the Communist Party and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, in a kind of LA version of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and became known as a freak. It wasn’t just his strange ideas about music. Coleman looked weird. He had a long beard and wore overcoats in the California sun. The trumpeter Don Cherry, who became his closest musical associate, thought he looked like a ‘black Jesus Christ’ when he first laid eyes on him. In 1958 he made his first two records, Something Else​2 and Tomorrow Is the Question, on the Contemporary label, owned by Lester Koenig, a blacklisted Hollywood producer and friend of Schoenberg’s. The albums were more tentative than their titles suggest, yet even then – as the trumpeter Bobby Bradford told Coleman’s biographer John Litweiler – there was ‘an urgency and dead seriousness in Ornette’s music that said things weren’t going to be about Jim Crow or a resigned black man or West Coast cool any longer.’ When the pianist John Lewis, the leader of the Modern Jazz Quartet, heard Coleman perform with Cherry in Los Angeles, he compared them to ‘twins’: ‘they play together like I’ve never heard anybody play together.’

In November 1959, Coleman took his new quartet – Cherry, who played on a small Pakistani pocket trumpet; Charlie Haden, a white bassist from a family of country singers in Shenandoah, Iowa; and Billy Higgins, a drummer from Los Angeles with a flawless sense of swing – to New York to perform at the Five Spot. These were ten weeks that shook the jazz world. The Five Spot engagement is usually remembered as marking the birth of free jazz, but the ‘free’ in free jazz was more of a verb than an adjective. As the critic Howard Mandel observed, what Coleman did at the Five Spot was to free jazz of the bop conventions it had settled into. Coleman loved Charlie Parker’s music – he wrote a tune called ‘Bird Food’​3 and could mimic Parker brilliantly – but, as he put it in the liner notes to Change of the Century, he felt that ‘the idolisation of Bird … has finally come to be an impediment to progress in jazz.’


Despre Claudiu Degeratu
Expert in securitate nationala, internationala, NATO, UE, aparare si studii strategice

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