Saturday, January 14, 2012

Throwing Down the Gauntlet – The Battle of the Five Spot: Ornette Coleman and the New York Jazz Field

In the late Fifties, Ornette Coleman, a Texas-born saxophone player who would eventually sojourn to L.A., took a leap into space with a quartet that completely abandoned form when they played jazz. With drummer Billy Higgins, Walter Norris on piano and Don Cherry playing trumpet, The Ornette Coleman Quartet first shook up the jazz world with the aptly titled Something Else!!! The Music of Ornette Coleman (1958). But, by the next LP, when Coleman released The Shape of Jazz to Come, adding Charlie Haden on bass, his blues-based harmonically free improvisations dramatically opened up a whole new direction for the music.

When Coleman then appeared at the Five Spot nightclub in New York in the early winter, he inspired a small riot among jazz artists and critics. This 1959 skirmish would in many ways resemble the much larger one Igor Stravinsky had instigated in 1913 with his radical ballet score Le Sacre du Printemps. Why the commotion? By abandoning harmony on The Shape of Jazz to Come, Coleman sought rhythm the way abstract expressionist painters went after sensation. At the Five Spot, therefore, his melodies were experienced by the audience as if they were swirling in a musical maze, driven by an acceleration of tempo, which challenged these stunned listeners to follow along as he gleefully rejected jazz's adherence to strict time. "It was like I was E.T. or something, just dropped in from the moon," Coleman later recalled.

How Ornette Coleman achieved this extraterrestrial status at the Five Spot is part of the thought-provoking and highly readable The Battle of the Five Spot: Ornette Coleman and the New York Jazz Field (Mercury Press/Teksteditions, 2011). Musician, jazz critic and author David Lee builds a cogently argued study that not only reveals how pivotal Coleman's appearance was in the post-bop jazz world following the death of Charlie Parker, but also how his rejection by some surprising jazz artists (Miles Davis) and his acceptance by others in the classical world (Leonard Bernstein) began a lively debate that tackled the long argued hierarchic perception of high and low culture. Essentially Lee, who formerly worked with Coda magazine, asserts that Coleman's performance at the club touched a raw nerve that sparked a quest to define where jazz sat in the world of artistic value. "The declarations of critics that jazz was indeed a 'high art' carried no weight in the milieu where the musicians actually earned their livelihoods," Lee writes. "The music was still played in venues where it needed to turn a profit, in ticket sales or both. The sophisticated vocal and instrumental techniques, original concepts and emotional expressiveness so praised by critics had to be conveyed in a form that would not distract an audience that had paid to drink, dance and socialize."

But Lee goes even further in his analysis of the music beyond its milieu and into the high and low conflicts within the jazz community itself. Rather than merely position Coleman as the hip radical up against the status quo, Lee draws on the work of sociologist Pierre Bourdieu who wrote about artistic "fields," in order to illuminate the complexities of the battleground. Bourdieu described fields as "an independent social universe with its own laws of functioning." Within that universe "members clash and compete for dominance, define themselves (and may even depend for their livelihoods) on the amount of cultural capital they possess, and are defined by other members according to the amount of cultural capital...they have accumulated." In this quest for status, jazz sought to position itself as America's classical music as a means to earn legitimacy as an art form. But with acquired status always comes strict rules and a social positioning that can't be questioned. Coleman's stint at the Five Spot essentially accomplished what critic Steve Huey once described as "a watershed event in the genesis of avant-garde jazz, profoundly steering its future course and throwing down a gauntlet that some still haven't come to grips with."  

The Battle of the Five Spot comes to grip with it all. David Lee does this first by addressing the problem of identity and the representation of jazz as a black American art. In a culture where European traditions still "carried the greatest cultural currency," Lee claims the problem was compounded in America "by the speed with which white musicians appropriated new approaches and new techniques as quickly as black musicians could introduce them." Beginning with the Original Dixieland Jazz Band in the 1920s, Paul Whiteman in the Thirties, and Benny Goodman in the Forties, "white artists won popular success by presenting styles, compositions and arrangements that originated with black artists who were themselves chronically marginalized by the music industry." Within the bitterness of that conflict, the greatest black jazz artists immediately sought ranking and position in the music's history. Which is why, upon hearing Coleman's bold attempt to seek of his own voice, the black jazz elite such as Miles Davis would call Coleman "all screwed up inside." Roy Eldridge would say that Coleman was "putting everybody on." Red Garland, speaking as if his pockets had been picked, claimed that "nothing's happening...Coleman is faking it." Drummer Max Roach, one of the great progenitors of be-bop, was so angry he followed Coleman into the kitchen of the Five Spot and punched him in the mouth. (Still not satisfied, Roach later "harangued him from the street outside his apartment.")

Although The Battle of the Five Spot began as a master's thesis David Lee wrote at McMaster University, the slim volume runs a clear thread through the music's history without the garble of academic abstractions. Not only does he clearly account for the necessity of Ornette Coleman's stand for what he claimed as a free music, Lee also illustrates how Coleman was "the last avant-gardist to make it into the jazz canon before the Marsalis/Crouch neo-cons bricked up the entrance." Lee asserts quite convincingly that Ornette Coleman's work was a "segue between jazz's traditional song forms and much wider horizons of sound - a transition that by no means did everyone want to make." Unlike those who felt that Coleman's music was "angry and divisive," Lee proves that "in reality it was, and is, generous and inclusive." For next decade after Coleman's debut at the Five Spot, jazz would continue to find its innovators. The music would also eventually find its respectability and status. In finding it, though, The Battle of the Five Spot shows us how the art might have lost a larger war when it rejected Ornette Coleman. By finally becoming acceptable, jazz eventually lost its ability to cause any riots.                

– Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author (Artificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles' Utopian Dream). His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. In January 2012, at the Miles Nidal Centre JCC in Toronto, Courrier will be doing a lecture series (film clips included) based on Reflections. Check their schedule in December. With John CorcelliCourrier is currently working on another radio documentary for CBC Radio's Inside the Music called The Other Me: The Avant-Garde Music of Paul McCartney.

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