Book Review: Ornette Coleman –The Life of a Jazz Visionary

By Steve Provizer

“Ornette was looking for those notes, the ones that feel no pain.”

Ornette Coleman: The Territory and the Adventure by Maria Golia. University of Chicago Press, 368 pages,  $22.50.

Ornette Coleman holds a singular place in jazz history. The seeds of change had been sown before him by Cecil Taylor, Sun Ra, John Coltrane, and their cohorts, but Coleman’s appearance at the Five Spot Café in 1959 kicked the process of rebellion into high gear. Author Maria Golia’s depiction of the mise en scene of Coleman’s life, and her insights into his persona, provide ample material to understand the saxophonist’s initial disruption and his long-term influence.

The biography can be viewed through three lenses. One is to see it as a chronological narrative of Coleman’s life and career; the second is its presentation of what Coleman had to say about the work; the third is what Golia has to say about Coleman and his achievements as a musician. The last two are necessarily intertwined: Coleman could be cryptic and contradictory in his verbal communications, so Golia often undertakes the task of acting as his translator.

The chronology seems thorough. There are plenty of facts, with interesting bits of color to keep things moving along. I found Coleman’s life pre–New York City to be the most fascinating part of the biography, doubtless because I knew least about this time in his life. The recreation of his time growing up in ’30s-early ’40s Ft. Worth, TX, is well constructed, with enough detail to flesh out the picture without weighing down the narrative. I was surprised to read that Ft. Worth was sufficiently prosperous to draw a wide range of musicians, giving Coleman the chance to hear many kinds of music. There were large venues for performances by well-known jazz musicians like Ellington and Armstrong as well as dance houses or institutions where one could find everything from polkas and blues to R&B. Then there was the church, an important influence on Coleman.

Golia tells interesting stories about musicians from Ft. Worth and other parts of the state, including T. Bone Walker, who acted as the “eyes” for bluesman Blind Lemon Jefferson and guitarist Eddie Durham (later with Count Basie). The latter was taught by his father, shot rattlesnakes, and sold the rattles to violinists who put them in their resonators.

Coleman was proficient enough as an R&B player to join the union and start gigging when he was 16. He dropped out of high school. The author notes Coleman’s lifelong ambivalent, sometimes defensive, attitude toward education. As a teen, he formed a group called the “Jam Jivers” (with future collaborators Charles Moffett and John Carter), tried to participate in jam sessions (often unsuccessfully), and did a stint with Silas Green’s vaudeville tent show.

Golia covers Coleman’s travels to Los Angeles, where he met Don Cherry, Billy Higgins, James Clay, and Bobby Bradford, and to New Orleans, where he came across drummer Ed Blackwell. These musicians saw something in Coleman that others didn’t, and he continued to work with them for decades.

Ornette Coleman at the Moers Festival, 2011. Photo: Michael Hoefner

The author goes into depth on the impact, positive and negative, of his initial appearance at the Five Spot Café in 1959. Coleman’s challenging music fit perfectly in the context of what was a highly experimental period in art. His circle of admirers included writers LeRoi Jones and A.B. Spellman, painter Larry Rivers, jazzmen Cecil Taylor and Albert Ayler, and filmmaker Allan Kaprow. I was surprised to learn how much he played informally with Sonny Rollins, and the degree to which John Coltrane considered Coleman a teacher.

Coleman’s travels to Europe are covered, as is the increasing importance he put on writing large-scale works. Golia says this ambition was driven, to some degree, by Coleman’s defensiveness in being thought of as a “cornpone” musician. There is coverage of his trip to Morocco to jam with the musicians of Joujouka, and new information (at least to me) about his loft (and record label), called “Artists House.” It’s interesting to note that, even after Coleman made his initial splash, he continued to face resistance from critics and audiences. He was far from financially flush.

As time passes and Coleman’s value and stature in the jazz world is established, the story’s inevitability increases and its narrative momentum slows. The biographer dedicates a lot of attention to the Caravan of Dreams Performing Arts Center in Ft. Worth, at which she worked from 1985 to 1992 and in which she clearly is very invested. Coleman was involved in the founding of the Center and was the first act to play there, so it makes sense to spend time on its inception and instances when he returned to perform. However, much of Golia’s talk about Ft. Worth and the demise of the Center is off topic.

Let’s look through the book’s second lens. What does Ornette Coleman have to say about his music? He understood that emotion, not musical values, per se, was at the core of his compositions. One of his remarks about music in church is telling: “[church music was] created for an emotional experience.… I didn’t have to worry about chords, keys, melody if I had that emotion that brought tears and laughter to people’s hearts.” Throughout his life, he pushed back against his musicians’ reliance on preconceived patterns. He proclaims: “My playing is spontaneous, not a style. A style happens when your phrasing hardens.”

Biographer Maria Golia in 2016, beside a tribute to Ornette Coleman in Fort Worth, Texas.

Coleman tried to develop a more theoretical explanation for what he did as his career progressed. He described his melodies as “territories” — a sound landscape in which many things were possible. He became frustrated that musicians couldn’t be understood as innovators, in the same way as scientists: ”Only the scientists, technicians, and doctors can actually use the whole world as a guinea pig. But artists, we can’t do that. [If you make new music] someone would say ‘this is way before its time.’ They don’t say that about television. They don’t say that about penicillin.” Finally: ”In my musical concept [which he called “Harmolodics”], not only the sensation of tone to the nerves is released, but the very reason for the use of the tone.”

One can see why Golia’s translations of certain musical ideas, such as Harmolodics, will be helpful to readers: “the harmony melody and movement (the rhythmic aspects) of a composition are assigned equal value as the basis for improvisation.” Her summary of the musician’s goal: “Coleman wanted to “rescue improvisation from ephemerality by presenting it as a model for all genuine communication.” Or, “Rather than diminishing the music’s requisite virtuosity, he proposed an alternative means for its expression, namely as an intimacy with one’s instrument and fellow instrumentalists, as extensions of one self.” Finally: “Ornette was looking for those notes, the ones that feel no pain.”

Ornette Coleman: The Territory and the Adventure gives readers a good sense of Coleman’s complex personality. He is described as quiet and, at other times, talkative; nonconfrontational though bluntly expressive about being underpaid; sometimes “Buddha-like” and sometimes withdrawn in the face of negative criticism. He had a vision that was compelling enough to draw a circle of accomplished musicians and to attract the admiration of accomplished nonmusical artists. But a brilliant vision wasn’t enough. He needed sufficient will to persist in the face of scathing criticism from jazz musicians and listeners. If you don’t know his music, listen.

Note: There are two basic varieties of Coleman’s music: acoustic and electric. In this Arts Fuse commentary I go into more detail about his music.

Steve Provizer writes on a range of subjects, most often the arts. He is a musician and blogs about jazz here.

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