Folks who write about jazz have certain conceits they’re fond of. One is the homology between the way musicians talk or act offstage and the way they play. Often enough it works. But in the case of Ornette Coleman, the brilliant pioneer who’s sketched the main lines of jazz exploration over the past thirty-plus years, it breaks down. Yes, he often speaks in gnomic utterances worth of the Delphic oracle, and he relenthlessly develops this ideas concentrically instead of plotting a linear track–modes of discourse that parallel his prismatic music. But next to his plaintively feverish cries on alto saxophone, his distinctively oddball blats on trumpet and his fingernails-down-the-blackboard attack on the violin, Coleman’s Donald Duckish voice is jarring. And next to the fierce density of his music, which even in its balladic forms shoots off sparks of intensity, his genial personality is a shock. You expect him to breathe fire, but he wants you to enjoy yourself. Just dont mess with his music.
His music, of course, still sets the mainstream on edge, even after his decades on the scene. His sheer endurance; his high profile thanks to influential critics like Martin Williams, Gunther Schuller and Nat Hentoff, who embraced his revolutionarey forays early on; and his consequent ability to attract both enlightened record company execs like Atlantic’s Nesuhi Ertegun and patrons here and in Europe have made him impossible to ignore, even for people who wish he’d never materialized. So it happens that every few years he lands a slot in the conservative JVC Jazz Festival in New York, as he did this year.
Part of the reason Coleman’s ongoing revolution makes people uncomfortable is precisely that it’s ongoing. At 61 he remains remarkably unwilling to sit where he, or anyone else, has sat before. Instead, he’s been in near-constant motion since the early 1950s, when his quarter–trumpeter Don Cherry, bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Billy Higgins (later Ed Blackwell)–broke out of what had become jazz’s prisonhouse of language: the recurrent cycle of chords, basic to the thirty-two-bar song form that is acquired by using Tin Pan Alley material as the launch pad for its flights of improvisation. Coleman, a kind of left-wing Charlie Parker disciple, insisted on the primacy of melodic freedom. His tunes, which then as now tended to turn on bluesy boppish figures or near-nursery rhymes, were designed to be open, so that the musicians could modulate–from key to key, chord to chord, rhythm to rhythm–when the need struck them. As Gary Giddins has observed, he also blurred the background/foreground distinction of post-Louis Armstrong jazz, which pits the solist against the rest of the band. In a sort of skewed Dixieland revival, he’s freed everybody to blow.
The notion was put even more severely to the test in the early 1970s, when Ornette went electric and incorporated funk, African and Eastern ideas into his music on classic albums like Dancing in Your Head (A&M). Prime Time, as he’s called his shifting lineups since, alienated many of his early supporters. They understood Ornette’s intelligible if idiosyncratic language as spoken in a modified jazz format, but, to their ears, it got inaudible and hostile once the volume got turned up and the dialects within multiplied. Harmolodics is what Coleman calls his kaleidoscopically hybridized idiom: the collapse of harmony, melody and time in a kind of post-Einsteinian universe. No element is dominant; each is developed simultaneously by the individual voices within the band. This democratic model dares musical anarchy as it flirts with dangerous and expansive energies.
Coleman himself explains it this way: “Bebop deals with only one solo at a time. Even Dixieland, although it’s similar to harmolodics, still deals with one solo at a time, because it’s using the same device [the chord sequence] to play the way they’re playing. Whereas in harmolodics someone might be playing minor, someone else augmented, someone else major–all at the same time. It’s closer to folk music and church music, where anybody can make a contribution to the emotional part of it. Technically, it means transforming the four basics of music–harmony, melody, rhythm and unison–into your own voice. In addition, it means that you can transpose any chord or melody or change and still maintain the original (compositional) design by modulating to any sound that you hear from that design.”
Coleman’s refusal to let himself, his bands or his audiences lapse into stasis is illustrated by a characteristic irony of his last appearance at the JVC Festival in 1987, at Town Hall. He had just released an astonishing double album, Ornette Coleman in All Languages (Caravan of Dreams). One disc featured the 1950s acoustic quartet, the other his then-current edition of Prime Time. It was a neat joke, and a typical comment on hierarchy and linearity, when he opened with Prime Time, forcing antis to sit through (or walk out of) the slashing electric set before getting to what they’d come to see.
From that vantage point, the contrast between Coleman and Miles Davis is revealing. In terms of his influence on the vanguards of the past thirty years, Miles is one of Ornette’s few peers. At times they’ve worked similar lines: twenty-odd years ago, for eample, both moved into exploring electronics and rock, funk and African beats.
But though he’s made jagged leaps into the new since, Miles has seemed to pull back from the brink, the logical if outre extension of where his ideas were taking him, once he upset nearly everyone with On the Corner (Columbia) in 1972. That percussion-foregrounded firestorm, mixed like a hard-rock record, still registers as a key influence for many on the so-called downtown New York scene. (Both Miles and Ornette, along with John Coltrane, have also had an enormous impact on seminal rockers like the Yardbirds, the Byrds, the Grateful Dead, the Velvet Underground and Television.)
But Miles didn’t follow it out. The boiling jazz-rock fusion he’d pushed into on Bitches Brew (Columbia) and subsequent albums was, thanks to its popularity among rock-raised listeners, tranformed into a commercial seedbed. Out of it came the repettious reams of radio-ready but musically pointless noodling that dominate the industry sales charts and clog the airwaves. More disappointing, Miles’s own takes on his music have also become largely codified. His disheartening appearance at this year’s JVC found him coasting through Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” and Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature,” which have been the unrearranged, crowd-pleasing staples of his sets since the 1985 album You’re Under Arrest (Columbia).
Ornette’s set at Carnegie Hall eight nights later demonstrated the distance between the two giants. Fronting an energetic septet that included self-taught Pakistani percussion master Badal Roy, a former Miles sideman, and Dave Bryants, the leader’s first keyboard player in decades, Coleman and his cohort shook up even the older tunes they plaed–despite problems with the hall’s sound system and mix. “Bourgeois Boogie,” from his most recent album, Virgin Beauty (Epic), which had surprised most listeners with its relatively airy gentleness, grew more raucous. Then there was the way he had Chris Rosenberg pick up a nylon-string guitar and play what sounded like an adaptation of a Villa-Lobos piece (there were no program notes). After a couple of rounds, Prime Time piled in and blew it apart via simultaneous lines of improvisation.
That explosion demonstrates Coleman’s incisive understanding of jazz’s peculiarly American dialectic–something he’s underscored before with drastic reformulations like “The Fifth of Beethoven” on The Art of the Improvisers (Atlantic). First is the relation between the role of composition and the role of improvisation–the tension that’s jazz’s hearbeat. Second, like every important figure in the music from Jelly Roll Morton on, Coleman has sought his own way to reconcile the corollary pull between the individual, whose need to shape a unique voice out of the past’s shards is a jazz axiom, and the group, whose ability and need to interact in spontaneity and support the individual are necessary if the music is going to make internal sense.
Those tensions draw fine lines jazzers have had to learn to walk. In the European classical tradition, for instance, what had been an improviser’s art in the days of Bach and Mozart and even, more rarely, as late as Chopin, shriveled into modes of interpretation, as the professional musician, the written score and the post-Beethoven invention, the conductor, asserted increasing, then near-total, authority over music making. Along with the disappearance of the amateur musician and the appearance of the phonograph, this made music a passive activity for ita audience. Even Wynton Marsalis–viewed as the champion of so-called classical norms in jazz–balks at duplicating in jazz the historical process that has enervated so much contemporary classical music and locked its producers into writing largely for one another and for grants. As Marsalis told me, “The purely intellectual approach, which was designed for the aristocracy in European music, has helped to destroy the classical-music audience. The thing about jazz that really sets it apart from other art forms is that you have that type of intellectualism combined with the communal type of feeling that African music has.”
The collection of musical idioms we label “jazz” has only one common element–improvisation. So jazz can only go the purely interpretive route if it’s willing to die. Instead, it has sought to reconcile its apparently contradictory pulls–composition and improvisation, the individual and the group, the past and the present. In the process, it has proliferated a vast number of dialects. That breadth helps mark jazzers as avatars of a quintessential American figure, the self-inventor.
That’s not the same as saying that jazz musicians are untrained–something Coleman, for instance, has been accused of for decades. But it does mean their relationship to the cultural past hasn’t been circumscribed by hierarchical values. (Duke Ellington’s famous line, “There are only two kinds of music: good and bad,” underlines that.) Recently, however, many observers, like the neobop revivalists being touted in the mainstream press, have called for more “classical” training for jazzers. Now, jazz musicians have been training themselves since the music’s beginnings, by studying their predecessors and one another. It’s how they create themselves. It’s how they’ve pushed the musical envelope–on instrumental technique and sonic properties, for instance–far beyond anything imagined or allowed in the European classical world. And on a technical level, there’s no difference, say, in harmonic theory from one type of music to the next–the notes stay the same. So the call for standards is misleading and not a little condescending.
What I mean by self-invention derives from this country’s history and mythology: It’s the place people come to wipe the slate clean and start afresh. America’s cultural development, sometimes to its detrment, sometimes to its advantage, has followed these same lines. Following an inevitable period of European imitators, Charles Ives and James Reese Europe forged idioms derived from American materials and folkways. But their brand of classical music was ironically derailed by the prewar influx of European refugees. As composer/conductor Maurice Peress has observed, the emigres took over the cultural establishment here and turned it back to Europe-gazing. That twist has left arts combines like Lincoln Center with unresolved conundrums about their relationship to the culture around them–conundrums that show in the programming.
But while imported cultured commissars like Theodor Adorno were abhorring what they found here, what you could call the left wing of American classical music went underground and reinvented itself. Hence the barbaric yawps of joyful noise-makers like Harry Partch. Partch, a typical American eccentric, decided that post-Bach European scales were inadequate for his conceptions, so he simply discarded them in favor of a forty-three-note system of jsut intonation he based on ancient Greek and medieval theorists. Naturally, he also had to invent instruments to play the music and a notation system so musicians could duplicate performances. So he did. The sometimes eerie, often hilarious and always infectious results were beautifully realized during May’s Bang on a Can festival in New York, where Partch’s The Wayward was performed. Discarding ideas about “high” and “low” culture, Partch took Depressionera hobos as his heroes, and their scrambling lot as his plot. The staging at the Circle in the Square rightly bypassed the proscenium-arch division between audience and stage. All told, the production showed why Partch became a major influence on other composers and, via disciples like John Cage, on the broad conceptual frames of American art.
While classical music is usually thought of–wrongly–as a monolithic European import, movies, like jazz, are often cited as a quintessentially American art. After all, D.W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton idiosyncratically mapped out the idiom’s methods of communicating, while the Marx Brothers, for instance, were hard at play subverting structure itself. But Hollywood in the 1930s, like “high” culture centers, fell prey to prey to recolonization: European directors and actors flocked to Tinseltown for political freedom, safety, bigger bucks. Still, a writer-director like Preston Sturges could ironically turn an imported giant, Ernst Lubitsch, on his head by injecting unarguably American set pieces like the Ale and Quail Club into a Lubitsch homage, The Palm Beach Story. And then there’s Orson Welles, who got hooked on celluloid by accident, ransacked an ad hoc film grammar assembled for him by an RKO editor, then upended everything from cinematography to mise en scene with his first effort, Citizen Kane.
So maybe it’s not surprising if American self-inventors like Partch and Welles share important techniques (like the lapping voices that fragment narrative structures out of the guise of omniscience, the aggressive emphasis on disjunction that allows the audience–indeed, forces it–to participate in the activity of the artist) with Ornette Coleman, who taught himself composition and theory while working as a houseboy and elevator operator. There’s a strong Romantic or idealist strain common to revolutionary American autodidacts. Partch, for example, emphasized music’s physicality, with its natural roots and role in human life–attributes he considered lost. His homemade instruments were attempts to retrieve that immediacy. Likewise, Welles complained to biographer Barbara Leaming, “You have to hate the best rangefinder and regard it as a detestable machine because it should be doing better than what it can do….I have this terrible sense that a film is dead–that it’s a piece of film in a machine that will be run off and shown to people.” According to Coleman, “I was so in tune to music that I picked up my first saxophone as soon as I assembled it and played the same as I’m playing today–only I didn’t know music, I was just hearing music. Which made me believe that every human being has some of that quality to do just that. There’s a natural instinct that tells people how to do things even before they learn the skills of how to apply them.” Which is exactly the premise garage bands and punk rockers act on.
Seen in this context, the emphasis of today’s young hard-bop revivalists on standards, both in their selection of tunes and formats and in their insistence on a timeless hierarchy of values, simply underscores their Reagan-era conservatism. Not that there’s anything inherently wrong in playing bebop: It’s one of jazz’s many available dialects, and its journey from the fringes to the mainstream hasn’t invalidated its beauties. But the emphasis on pedigree–certain figures “in the tradition” are canonized as sources of all that’s good–is unsettling and self-destructive. No less sacrosanct a figure than Louis Armstrong, after all, famously dismissed bop as “Chinese music,” and the Dixieland revivalists who counter-attacked bop’s exploratory weays used arguments that recur when Wynton Marsalis wannabes put down music “outside the tradition“–as if jazz, that continuing accretion of languages, had a neat, univocal history.
That attitude is actually a reach for moral authority. It recalls how critics like Yvor Winters and F.R. Leavis codified literary tradition along narrow and intolerantly proscriptive lines. Ironically, such ideological baggage weighs on its carriers, pushes them to replicate the past’s voices rather than using them to discover their own. Ironic too is the fact that the heroes of the so-called tradition, from Satchmo to Duke to Bird, would not have understood such a nostalgic stance. They wanted to make their own music to speak to the times and beyond.
Which brings us back to Ornette Coleman: “I think music should have meaning for people first of all, and secondly, it should have a quality of you that people can appreciate. The naturalness of music, of sounds, is basic to human expression. When I was young, I didn’t understand that music came in sets of categories–music for babies, music for teenagers, music for old people, music for black people, music for white people. I thought it was all just music. We in the Western world suffer from too many categories and classes; we’ve forgotten that we all still have diapers on. We’ve separated music from life.”