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Ornette Coleman 1930-2015

Ornette by Ian DuryIt was 1961 when I first heard the sound of Ornette Coleman. I was 14 years old and I’d somehow scraped together the money to buy This Is Our Music, his latest release. I’d been getting interested in jazz, devouring anything I could find. Every word I read about Ornette, even the scornfully dismissive stuff that was about at the time, made him sound interesting. And, of course, I loved the cover, with its Lee Friedlander photograph of four young men — Don Cherry, Ed Blackwell, Ornette, and Charlie Haden — looking impossibly cool.

So I took it home, put it on the Dansette, switched off the lights, and lay down on the floor. For the next 40 minutes I moved only to get up and turn it over. And then I listened to it again. The effect has never gone away.

To me, Ornette’s music sounded like the most natural thing in the world. Nothing about it — the raw timbre of the horns, the lack of conventional chord sequences — bothered me in the slightest. What it had, apart from undoubted modernity, was the “cry” that went back to the origins of the blues.

(That sound impressed me so much that three or four years later I bought a white plastic Grafton alto saxophone, just like Ornette’s, and invested in some lessons with the lead altoist in a local dance band, who also worked the music shop from which I bought it, and was more of a Paul Desmond man. I didn’t get far. Particularly after the night when, during a club gig with the R&B band in which I played, I got up from behind the drums and attempted to insert a bit of free-form improvising into the middle of a Bo Diddley medley. This was 1965: eat your hearts out, Magic Band, Contortions, Pop Group. And even Prime Time, come to that. But it didn’t go down well, and I couldn’t afford to keep the horn. I think I got £30 for it. They’re rare now, not least because they stopped making them in the ’60s, after which the tools and jigs were destroyed. If you dropped them, they cracked and couldn’t be repaired. The last one I saw for sale in a shop, a couple of years ago, had a price tag of £1,500.)

Later on I was fortunate enough to meet Ornette several times, and to discover his unusual mode of verbal expression. Like Captain Beefheart and Van Dyke Parks, he had a way of answering your questions by taking off in a wholly unexpected direction, making several detours, and finally ending up with a completely logical pay-off. That process could take several minutes, and you had to align yourself to the cadences of his thinking if you wanted to get the most from it.

The most striking encounter was at Abbey Road in 1972, when he was recording The Skies of America, his extended orchestral piece, with the LSO, conducted by David Measham. The work had been written to feature his quartet alongside the orchestra, but union rules made that an impossibility. So it was just Ornette and the straight players, some of whom displayed a ready disdain for his score. To be fair, it did make some unorthodox and occasionally severe demands — usually in terms of the upper range of the wind instruments — on a bunch of players including one or two who liked to fill the gaps between takes by propping a copy of the FT on their music stands and checking the progress of their shares. Some inaccurate copying of the parts didn’t help.

The trumpeters made an informal deal between themselves to alternate the highest notes in order to save their lips from damage. At one point, after the orchestra’s percussionist had observed, quite seriously, that it would help to have three conductors working simultaneously, Ornette took a pair of sticks and showed him exactly what he wanted.

So a degree of pain and struggle was certainly involved in the recording, but it sounded marvellous as the composer took out his alto to play along with them. He was wearing a charcoal mohair suit with a flared flap in the back, a silky cream shirt, and multicoloured patchwork leather boots. Ornette’s self-designed wardrobe was just another facet of his originality.

When the album appeared, it was with a sleeve note in which Ornette wrote: “The skies of America have had more changes to occur under them this century than any other country: assassinations, political wars, gangster wars, racial wars, space races, women’s rights, sex, drugs and the death of god, all for the betterment of the American people.” And somehow he managed to get a sense of all that into his 41 minutes of pure American music.

I heard it performed live a couple of times in New York and London, featuring the quartet with the larger ensemble, as originally intended. As time went by it was gussied up a little to smooth away some of the rough edges and make the orchestra players’ lives a little easier, but I don’t think it ever sounded nearly as good. It needed those tensions to bring out the ideas behind its conception. To me, it still sounds like a masterpiece, the product of a mind in which simplicity and complexity achieved a perfect coexistence.

* The image of Ornette Coleman is from Ian Dury’s design for the first UK edition of Four Lives in the Bebop Business, A.B. Spellman’s classic portrait of Ornette, Herbie Nichols, Jackie McLean and Cecil Taylor, published by MacGibbon and Kee in 1967. You can find a short piece I wrote about Ornette’s significance for the Guardian’s music blog here:

11 Comments Post a comment
  1. Richard, thanks for this post and for your eloquent article about Ornette in The Guardian yesterday. That last paragraph is a perfectly precise and concise summation.

    June 12, 2015
    • Great to hear from you, John. My admiration of your Ornette bio is undimmed. Have you written this week?

      June 12, 2015
  2. Richard Harris #

    WKCR (Columbia University Radio) cancelled all their schedule on news of Ornette’s death and are now programming his music and back catalogue exclusively 24/7 up until next Wednesday. Phil Schaap was almost in tears last night.

    R3 here, I think, are merely repeating a one hour profile at midnight Saturday…words fail.

    Excellent tributes Richard. It really does now feel like the definite end of that classic era and the one that defined jazz and its culture at least for me.

    “The times do flit…Oh shit” – Dorothy Parker

    June 12, 2015
  3. Nice piece. At school in 1968 I had a music teacher whose impeccable taste prompted him not only to run a weekly lunchtime jazz club, but to use it to introduce to we spotty fourth-form recorder stranglers the joys of Coleman, Coltrane, Miles and the usual suspects. I remember ‘The Shape of Jazz to Come’ and, in particular, the beautiful ‘Peace’: a tune that’s lingered with me as ‘This Is Our Music’ stayed with you. Also as a yoof I bought a battered alto – not a Grafton – which I’m afraid I swapped for Soft Machine tickets when I realised that three months of undisciplined squawking did not a new Ornette Coleman make. I saw the man at Victoria in 1970 or ’71. Very sad; Ornette’s passing really does feel like the end of an era.

    June 12, 2015
  4. Hi Richard, thanks for this and for the Guardian piece. Ornette is such an interesting, yet problematic musician. And the problem is not so much about the music, but media/public categorisation and expectation. On the one hand he appears to be a jazz musician. But he approached the music in such a wholly different way to the prevailing paradigm. And the same is true for classical music when it comes to ‘Skies’. Ornette was an innovator undoubtedly. But I think he ploughed a lonely furrow and whether he really left or will leave a legacy in the way that Coltrane did is open to question. That said, he is up there with the greats and not just of jazz. I think The Skies of America stands alongside Schoenberg and Stravinsky. And his electric bands with double rhythm sections need re-appraising.

    A lot of the debate about Ornette (160 comment on tyour Guardian piece) depends on how you conceive and hear this music called jazz; whether you see it as art that relentlessly explores and challenges or as something which works within a more familiar domain and is to an extent skillfully designed to entertain and soothe. Inside “the box” or outside? Some fine players never go outside the box. Some weave in and out. For Ornette ‘the box’ never even existed. That’s the difference between Ornette and someone like Sonny Rollins – both great players but with wholly different conceptions of something we label ‘jazz’.

    June 12, 2015
  5. Inspiration.

    June 12, 2015
  6. Beautiful and humble tribute, Richard. And a very eloquent Guardian article. Ornette seems to have such a touching and human impact upon people and for me,
    I find it difficult to see beyond Ornette’s passing in that truthful music. (And very hard to be coherent) –
    On a lighter note, the white Grafton acrylic was my first horn too – in ’65! x

    June 12, 2015
  7. John Kieffer #

    Thank you Richard for this tribute and the Guardian piece.

    I have to agree with Richard H above that the BBC’s response to his passing has been shameful.

    June 12, 2015
    • John Evans #

      Actually, the BBC response was wholly predictable. Any fule kno that WKCR is the place to go for a full-scale jazz wake.

      June 13, 2015
  8. Mick Steels #

    My introduction to Ornette’s music also came via “This is Our Music”, a second hand copy on London/Atlantic in Mono. It is strange to think of the classic 6 Atlantic albums originally released this was the only one to feature this personnel, wonderful drummer as Billy Higgins was Ed Blackwell was always the ideal percussionist for the group. It was probably due to Haden’s health problems that La Faro and Garrison were used but Haden’s deep folk/blues groove could never be replaced. I hope everyone in the next few days puts “Ramblin” on the turntable and listens in wonder

    June 13, 2015
  9. hamertheframer #

    Thanks Richard. My own route to Ornette came via a circuitous route. I trace it back to your review in Melody Maker of Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra. This led to Carla Bley’s Escalator Over The Hill and then Don Cherry’s Relativity Suite, all Ornette inspired projects but it wasn’t until 1977 that I got to hear The Shape Of Jazz To Come and the flood gates finally opened. Thanks for setting me on the right track.

    June 16, 2015

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