Ornette Coleman, 1959
In an essential jazz history book Jazz, co-written by Gary Giddins and Scott DeVeaux, the authors describe Ornette Coleman as being “universally revered as one of American music’s most original figures,” and whose influence is “beyond calculation.” In addition to his musical significance, his six albums recorded for Atlantic Records from 1959 – 1961 “generated a cultural storm, not least for album titles that continued to lay emphasis on the group’s challenging attitude, which — without once mentioning the civil rights struggle — seemed to incarnate the authority of the New Negro: The Shape of Jazz to Come, Change of the Century, This is Our Music, and Free Jazz.” Those Atlantic albums are creative and emotional landmarks, and for open-minded musicians and listeners, continue to be indispensable material for measuring our respective aesthetic boundaries.
The importance of these recordings heightens the influence of their liner notes. But, which liner notes best characterize Ornette Coleman’s work on Atlantic? Focusing on the first three of the recordings, in the liner notes to the first, The Shape of Jazz to Come, Martin Williams correctly predicted that “what Ornette Coleman is playing will affect the whole character of jazz music profoundly and pervasively.” That music would ultimately be characterized by Ornette as “free,” and on the third Atlantic release, Free Jazz, Williams — again writing the album’s liner notes — observes, “I don’t suppose any jazz performance ever took bigger chances.”
As co-founder (with Nat Hentoff) of Jazz Review in 1958, Williams was one of the era’s most lauded and respected critics, and his observations of Ornette and his ability to communicate his significance on the liner notes to Shape and Free Jazz would have been reason enough to choose either of those pieces for this feature.
However, on the second Atlantic album, 1959’s Change of the Century (the year of his group’s historic Five Spot engagement), Ornette himself (as told to writer Gary Kramer) pens the liner notes, where he opines that “modern jazz, once so daring and revolutionary, has become, in many respects, a rather settled and conventional thing,” and articulates his band’s lofty goal of addressing this by breaking through “to a new, freer conception of jazz, one that departs from all that is ‘standard’ and cliche in ‘modern’ jazz. ” A way he does this, he explains, is through his concept of “free group improvisation,” an approach that resulted in, as Giddins and DeVeaux write, “the startling newness of his music.”
Ornette’s liner notes on Change are an open window to his musical and managerial philosophy of the time, and given his stature in the music’s narrative, a significant historic document worth revisiting.
Some musicians say, if what I’m doing is right, they should never have gone to school.
I say, there is no single right way to play jazz. Some of the comments made about my music make me realize though that modern jazz, once so daring and revolutionary, has become, in many respects, a rather settled and conventional thing. The members of my group and I are now attempting a break-through to a new, freer conception of jazz, one that departs from all that is “standard” and cliché in “modern” jazz.
Perhaps the most important new element in our music is our conception of free group improvisation. The idea of group improvisation, in itself, is not at all new; it played a big role in New Orleans’ early bands. The big bands of the swing period changed all that. Today, still, the individual is either swallowed up in a group situation, or else he is out front soloing, with none of the other horns doing anything but calmly awaiting their turn for their solos. Even in some of the trios and quartets, which permit quite a bit of group improvisation, the final effect is one that is imposed beforehand by the arranger. One knows pretty much what to expect.
When our group plays, before we start out to play, we do not have any idea what the end result will be. Each player is free to contribute what he feels in the music at any given moment. We do not begin with a preconceived notion as to what kind of effect we will achieve. When we record, sometimes I can hardly believe that what I hear when the tape is played back to me, is the playing of my group. I am so busy and absorbed when I play that I am not aware of what I’m doing at the time I’m doing it.
I don’t tell the members of my group what to do. I want them to play what they hear in the piece for themselves. I let everyone express himself just as he wants to. The musicians have complete freedom, and so, of course, our final results depend entirely on the musicianship, emotional make-up and taste of the individual member. Ours is at all times a group effort and it is only because we have the rapport we do that our music takes on the shape that it does. A strong personality with a star-complex would take away from the effectiveness of our group, no matter how brilliantly he played.
With my music, as is the case with some of my friends who are painters, I often have people come to me and say, “I like it but I don’t understand it.” Many people apparently don’t trust their reactions to art or to music unless there is a verbal explanation for it. In music, the only thing that matters is whether you feel it or not. You can’t intellectualize music; to reduce it analytically often is to reduce it to nothing very important. It is only in terms of emotional response that I can judge whether what we are doing is successful or not. If you are touched in some way, then you are in with me. I love to play for people, and how they react affects my playing.
A question often asked of me is why I play a plastic alto. I bought it originally because I needed a new horn badly, and I felt I could not afford a new brass instrument. The plastic horn is less expensive, and I said to myself, “Better a new horn than one that leaks.” After living with the plastic horn, I felt it begin to take on my emotion. The tone is breathier than the brass instrument, but I came to like the sound, and I found the flow of music to be more compact. I don’t intend ever to buy another brass horn. On this plastic horn I feel as if I am continually creating my own sound.
Now to the music. They are all originals. Each is quite different from the other, but in a certain sense there really is no start or finish to any of my compositions. There is a continuity of expression, certain continually evolving strands of thought that link all my compositions together. Maybe it’s something like the paintings of Jackson Pollock.
RAMBLIN’ is basically a blues, but it has a modern, more independent melodic line than older blues have, of course. I do not feel so confined to the blues form as do so many other jazz musicians. Blues are definite emotional statements. Some emotional statements can only be told as blues.
FREE is well-explained by the title. Our free
group improvising is well demonstrated here. Each member goes his own way and still adds tellingly to the group endeavor. There was no predetermined chordal or time pattern. I think we got a spontaneous, free-wheeling thing going here.
FACE OF THE BASS begins as a vehicle for our bassist. Charlie Haden is from Missouri and he has a lot of heart. It is unusual to come across someone as young as he is and find that he has such a complete grasp of the “modern” bass: melodically independent and non-chordal.
FORERUNNER shows the interchangeability and flexibility of the component parts of the group. I like the way the melody here often runs through the rhythm instruments, with the melody instruments – the horns – providing rhythm accents (the traditional function of drums and bass).
BIRD FOOD has echoes of the style of Charlie Parker. Bird would have understood us. He would have approved our aspiring to something beyond what we inherited. Oddly enough, the idolization of Bird, people wanting to play just like him, and not make their own soul-search, has finally come to be an impediment to progress in jazz.
UNA MUY BONITA, in Spanish, means “a very pretty girl.” I had no one in particular in mind. It is perhaps a little lighter in mood than some of our other pieces. It has a relaxed feeling and a more settled rhythm – and yes, I suppose, a “prettier” melody.
CHANGE OF THE CENTURY expresses our feeling that we have to make breaks with a lot of jazz’s recent past, just as the boppers did with swing and traditional jazz. We want to incorporate more musical materials and theoretical ideas – from the classical world, as well as jazz and folk – into our work to create a broader base for the new music we are creating.
Every member of the group made an important and distinctly personal contribution to this album, which I think is the best we have made so far.
ORNETTE COLEMAN (as told to Gary Kramer)
(From Change of the Century; Atlantic SD-1327)
“Ramblin'” from Change of the Century
A brief documentary of Ornette Coleman’s influence on jazz in 1959