The jazz world lost a great today — an original. Ornette Coleman grew up poor and fatherless in Fort Worth. He was largely self-taught as a jazz player and composer. Yet he went on to revolutionize the music and become a worldwide icon of experimentation. He died this morning of cardiac arrest at 85. KERA’s Jerome Weeks has this report.
John Murphy is chair of UNT’s Jazz Studies program. He interviewed Ornette Coleman in the musician’s New York loft apartment on 35th Street — during a 2007 jazz education conference.
“When I got there,” Murphy recalls, “there was a group of students visiting him, and he was letting one of them play his alto sax mouthpiece and reed. Saxophone players can attest that this is not something that you do casually, just hand your horn to someone. So he was that open and kind.”
That kind of radical openness typified Coleman’s music – and life. Born in 1930, he heard after-hours music when he was very young, music played in Fort Worth’s Greenway Park. In Murphy’s 2007 interview, Coleman says that inspired him to ask his mother for a saxophone. She told him he’d have to earn the money. He said he spent the next three-four years shining shoes and giving her the money. Then one day, she said, ‘Look under the bed.’
“And I said, ‘Look under the bed?’ And the sax was there. And I took it out and played it exactly the way I’m playing today. I thought it was just a toy. I didn’t think you had to learn music or anything.”
Coleman played tenor sax in the band at I. M. Terrell High School. According to one biography, he was kicked out for improvising. He also faced ugly racism — telling Murphy about going to buy coffee for his mother — but having to cross an area of wealthy white homes. The kids there knocked the coffee bag out of his hands and threw it around. when Coleman came back home, his mother told him to go back and get some coffee. “So I was going to get a butt-kicking twice,” he said.
Coleman’s real music education took place in Fort Worth’s rodeos and jazz and blues clubs out on Jacksboro Highway. “I played with lots of gambling places in Fort Worth,” Coleman told Murphy. “And when the marshal and ‘em would come in there to chop up the chairs, they’d hire our band to play so the guys could run in and catch a girl and be dancing and they wouldn’t take them to jail. And I grew up like that being a front for gambling in the back.”
Ted Gioia is a jazz historian who lives in Plano. He’s the author of The History of Jazz and Love Songs: The Hidden History. He says for all of his jazz experimentalism, Coleman fits squarely in the traditions of Texas blues and Texas saxophonists.
“You know, people talk about Ornette as though he was some sort of theoretical person with these theoretical notions,” Gioia says. “But there’s a very human quality to his music, and the first thing that jumps out at you is the sound of the saxophone. I really think that came out of those days in Fort Worth.”
It was in 1959 and 1960 that Coleman recorded albums such as The Shape of Jazz to Come. They set off a revolution because of their dense, unorthodox playing. Bebop musicians had experimented with ‘free improvisation’ before this — but not to this extent. This seemed to be ‘jazz cut loose.’ Many people, including other musicians, thought what became known as ‘free jazz’ was simply chaos – the way Jackson Pollock’s paintings were considered childish splatters.
John Murphy says, “When people try to define what free jazz is, they’ll say, ‘It doesn’t use song form. It doesn’t use this, it doesn’t use that.’ I think that’s misguided. It’s more a sense of widening the scope of options.”
Coleman’s songs may sound wild, but his improvisations often follow traditional jazz and blues chord changes and are powered by a steady rhythmic pulse. He may have abandoned typical solo lengths, bridges and verses for overlapping melodic lines, but there are patterns and structures there.
Still, Coleman often was flat-out unconventional. For his 1960 album Free Jazz, he had one quartet play on the right stereo channel and a different quartet play simultaneously on the left channel.
Even though he was seen as the standard-bearer of the avant-garde, Coleman did respond to and change with popular tastes. In the ’70s, he formed an electric jazz-funk band called Prime Time — and if it didn’t sound as crisp and lyrical and orderly as Weather Report, one could certainly pick out bits of Herbie Hancock and Miles Davis.
In 2007, Coleman won the Pulitzer Prize with his live album Sound Grammar — which he recorded with his son Denardo on drums. He won a MacArthur genius grant. He returned to Fort Worth in 1986 to play Skies of America with the Fort Worth Symphony – an event captured in the documentary, Made in America.
Murphy once asked the late Shannon Jackson, Coleman’s avant-funk drummer from Fort Worth, what was Coleman up to in the ‘70s, when he wasn’t recording, performing or practicing. He visited strangers in hospitals, Jackson said, people who looked like they needed a visit. Or he visited courthouses to watch trials.
“And I think there’s a very clear connection,” Murphy says, “between his music and that attitude, being interested in people, being interested in feelings.”
Ultimately, Coleman was utterly original by being utterly himself – open.