Why you should care
Because music this challenging has got to be good for you.
Ornette Coleman, jazz saxaphonist, destroyed jazz like Neil Armstrong destroyed the moon.
Sure, the moon still exists, and if it’s out, you can look at the sky and see it. But Armstrong made romantic notions about it being made of cheese and populated with “moon people” sort of quaint.
Similarly, an event in 1959 forever changed the face of jazz: it moved from being pop music enjoyed by the masses to something new. It made what had come before it, if not quaint, then most assuredly easier to embrace. Avant-bop player Ornette Coleman released The Shape of Jazz to Come, and suddenly nothing about the music previously known as jazz seemed easy or embraceable. Because instead of playing to charts or standards played standardly — revolutionary concept alert — Coleman played what he heard. The way he heard it.
Ornette Coleman Quartet: Rome 1974
The response was as immediate as the uproar that met Stravinsky’s Rites of Spring, with which it shared a certain kind of chaotic brio. Though Coleman was not chased out of the theater like Stravinsky was (indeed, none other than the great Leonard Bernstein thought it was genius), while the shows subsequent to its release were mobbed, the critical and popular response was mixed.
Now glossed with the name “free jazz” or the Coleman-sanctioned “harmolodics,” Coleman’s music — sometimes abrasive, sometimes aggressive and noisy and always active — was felt by some to be a kind of trickery to disguise his problems with harmony and tone. Jazz greats Roy Eldridge and Miles Davis purportedly thought it was a boondoggle. Coleman himself was reluctant to enter the fray, so he kept a low profile, playing on few other musicians’ records and giving relatively few interviews. He did what the greats sometimes do: just kept on keeping on.
Now at the age of 83, and having spawned imitators, interpreters and spiritual heirs of all stripes, Coleman still plays (his music appears in films and tributes). But in the spirit of honoring the honorable for all the right reasons — courage, vision, unbounded intelligence — OZY is loving on The Shape of Jazz to Come and the man behind the horn.
Listen closely and you just may hear it.