Friday, July 10, 2020

The Further Adventures of Ornette: The Biography of Ornette Coleman by Maria Golia

Ornette Coleman performing at The Hague in 1994 in 1994. (Photo: Geert Vandepoele)
“Music, faces worn by time, want to tell us something, or are about to tell us something: that imminence of a revelation as yet unproduced is, perhaps, the aesthetic fact.” – Jorges Luis Borges, 1959.
When I first heard the music of Charlie Parker, especially his Savoy recordings while I was still a teenager, my concept of what music was or could be changed forever. A sudden joy escaped from its cage and flew around the room in dizzying circles. Shortly afterward, when I first heard John Coltrane, especially with the magical Miles Davis Quartet and then flying solo on his own, my life changed again, those emotions leaving the room altogether and reaching out for the sky. The same kind of radical transformation occurred when I first encountered the raw music of Ornette Coleman, when the bird was let out forever from its cage and soared off into space.

His album The Shape of Jazz to Come, from the same year when Borges was writing about a revelation as yet unproduced, caused a rupture in musical expectation, not just for me but also for all the most advanced post-bop players then on the scene. They found him, at first, primitive, untutored and almost insanely formless in his quest for a freedom too beautiful to be contained by any customary notation. Now, of course, everyone recognizes that he was indeed foretelling the shape of a music that was, as yet, unproduced, even as he was simultaneously, and spontaneously, producing it before our eyes and ears. He was seriously cooking up music, but also still leaving it mostly raw. It felt, weirdly enough, like the sushi form of jazz.

Reaktion Books, 2020.
Released that same year, Tomorrow Is the Question! pursued the same temporal shift in its title, as did Change of the Century, also arriving, incredibly, like a sonic atomic bomb just before the 60’s dawned. Coleman would welcome that decade from a vantage point which seemed to have already left it behind entirely, dropping Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation, a 1960 record from which many in the music world are still recovering. I know I sure am. In 40 minutes, rather than housing the customary shifting but still formally structured solos favored by Parker and Coltrane, Coleman would unleash an entire band taking solos at the same time. It took some getting used to, even for jazz aficionados.

Even though I would venture further and further afield after these initial exposures to the idea that no real ‘edge’ exists, which meant also embracing the nervous dexterities of Cecil Taylor, Albert Ayler and Anthony Braxton, how I wish that back then I had had a book – a guidebook, a tourist guide, a chart or map of some sort – to keep the compass from losing its hands in the sheer velocity of that vertiginous trajectory. Well, now finally, and better late than never, Maria Golia has written just that book. Ornette Coleman: The Territory and the Adventure was well worth waiting for, as it devises and delivers both an intimate tracking of Coleman’s own personal and creative development from his roots in Fort Worth, Texas as well as an ideal contextualizing of his place in the broader spectrum of new music as it unfolded through the ensuing decades. He has continued to loom large.

Golia, who has first-hand and -ear experience of Coleman’s magical qualities as the manager of the progressive music venue created around his aura, the Caravan of Dreams Performing Arts Center in Fort Worth, released an earlier book through Reaktion called Meteorite: Nature and Culture, as well as a couple of intriguing photography books. I’m struck by a curious parallel that persists in my mind and allows me to align the study of fiery extraterrestrial bodies with the study of a fiery talent such as Ornette’s, whose intensity did not diminish one jot right up until his passing from a cardiac arrest at 85 in 2015. In that respect Coleman had much in common with the classic oldsters of blues and jazz, performers who kept right on going until they practically dropped dead on stage, or in the recording studio.

Meteors are among the rarest objects on earth and have left a pervasive impact on our planet and civilization. Arriving amidst thunderous blasts and flame-streaked skies, they were once thought to be messengers from the gods, embodiments of the divine. Prized for their outlandish qualities, they are collectible as objects of art, desire and literary muses. The astute reader will see exactly where I’m going with this digression: the scientific community had only a reluctant embrace of their interplanetary origins but now has surrendered to one of their key attributes, the power to awaken a precious and near-forgotten human trait – the capacity for awe.

Contemporary Records, 1959.

Ornette Coleman was a musical meteorite. When I saw him, with my late friend Kevin Courrier in Toronto, performing at a small club with a later incarnation of his Prime Time Band (every instrument times two) in about 1990, it was like submitting to a ritual exorcism. I’m still recovering from the experience thirty years later. When Golia opens her book with a typically quirky quote from Ornette that forms the foundation of her title, she sets the perfect tone for the adventures to follow: “The theme you play at the start of a number is the territory. And what comes after, which may have very little to do with it, is the adventure.”

What a perfect place to begin to trace the trajectory of this amazing American national treasure. From there, Golia takes us on a guided tour, not just of Coleman’s mind and music but of the country and state that birthed him and made him into a permanent outlaw and outlier. She clearly designates the framework of the biography of this titanic figure, demonstrating that the individuals who may be said to define an era have generally distilled its characteristic forces and possibilities into a consistent body of work that has in turn transformed the times in which they lived and worked. In other words, Ornette is a mirror of the very America which often found it so hard to incorporate him into its artistic, musical and cultural fabric.
Ornette Coleman was zeitgeist incarnate. Steeped in the Texas blues tradition, he and jazz grew up together, as the brassy blare of big band swing gave way to bebop, a faster music for a faster postwar world. If jazz were an aircraft, the New Orleans trumpeter Louis Armstrong winged it over the Atlantic, Kansas City saxophonist Charlie Parker shattered the sound barrier, and Ornette achieved escape velocity, forging a breakaway art appropriate to the Space Age, often referred to as ‘free jazz’.
Golia deftly explores the core reasons why and how his non-conformist approach to music, almost self-taught in true pioneering fashion, attracted ridicule, censure and adoration in equal measure.

In order to establish the borderlines which he confronted by abandoning jazz conventions and threatening the status quo, what she identifies as “the unmistakable authenticity of his sound,” she charts his course from the margins to the mainstream and back again: “It would have been easier to join the in-crowd but Ornette held his course and made the margins the place to be.” ‘How do I turn emotion into knowledge? That’s what I try to do with my horn?’ was Coleman’s deceptively simple explanation of his ethos and his mission. Finally, mission accomplished: he created embodied meaning.

Atlantic Records, 1960.

And Golia approaches him with the considerable and well-earned awe that befits a national treasure, commencing with her firm grasp of the key aspects of his art form: “Integral to the language of jazz is improvisation, the art of the immediate, an interactive process involving receptive listening and cogent response that Ornette wished to rescue from ephemerality by presenting it as a model for all genuine communication.” Stating at the outset that her book is more a compendium than a comprehensive biography (although it appears to be both), her main motive has been to contextualize Ornette’s work using archival and primary sources, and to describe the pivotal places, people and struggles that shaped his music and his life.

“I created everything about me,” Ornette once quipped, referring to his self-made status as an outsider artist, but Golia vividly reports the fact that he was also the fortunate heir to an exceptional artistic legacy. Part One, “Coming Up,” reconstructs the social conditions and sonic ambience of Ornette’s youth, a field of extensive encounter and active synthesis. “Restlessness and mobility were built into Ornette’s generation,” the author explains, “Musicians were explorers charting new ground and were eager to share their discoveries.”

Part Two, “Ignition,” is just that, a revving up of his creative motor which tracks his music-driven trajectory from Texas via New Orleans and Los Angeles on to New York, where he eventually settled, and then to Europe, where he communed with what the author calls “the fervent free jazz diaspora” he helped create: “Ornette pursued his lines of inquiry immersed in a milieu he helped to advance – of open doors, loft jams, chance meetings, group performances, conversations and projects – a lifestyle that reaffirmed the interconnectedness of both the arts and human beings that he called unison.” Part Three, “Atmospherics,” documents Coleman’s return to his native Texas and the week-long extravaganza at the Caravan of Dreams, a palace of the avant-garde, that was built around him almost in worship.

Part Four, “Transmissions,” shares Ornette’s poetic trains of thought, his philosophies, his musical methodologies (which he obliquely termed harmolodics), as well as his notions about art, poetry, celebrity, women, teaching and death. The author continues her mapping expedition onward into his later life as an elder statesman, while also assessing his influences and historical legacy, and its overlaps with wider cultural expressions: “The music we are playing is no more abstract than most modern paintings, we have tried to use our emotion and intelligence as far as we could carry it.”

Among my favourite of the many abrupt left turns that Ornette took over the course of his long and illustrious (and eventually universally acclaimed) recording and performing career was one in which he rose to the occasion of composing a symphonic piece with a complete classical orchestra. It was also one Golia examines in some detail: “Early in 1967, Ornette became the first of his peers to receive a Guggenheim Fellowship for composition, a boon previously awarded solely to academics and/or composers with classical music backgrounds.” But of course, by then it was abundantly clear that he did indeed have a classical music background, since like blues, its other cousin born of the black experience, jazz is the classical music of America.

Columbia Records.

In his case, and in retrospect even more obviously, Ornette embraced this challenge in a manner very similar to the spirit of George Gershwin’s legendary Rhapsody in Blue. Coleman’s piece, an opus for both symphony orchestra and jazz ensemble melted together, was called Skies of America, and was his direct response to the violence erupting in American urban neighbourhoods of colour. His Guggenheim permitted him the freedom to work uninterrupted in large loft spaces for several years and in 1972 an abridged version was recorded by the London Philharmonic. It remains a scintillating masterpiece that demonstrated that Coleman was a serious composer in the tradition and spirit of Charles Ives, Carl Ruggles, Lou Harrison, Conlon Nancarrow and other outsider innovators.

Golia accords it the proper reverence in her tome: “For Ornette it was less a matter of influence or of wishing to emulate modern composers than of furthering his creative process through music scored for a variety of instruments while exploring – and challenging – different forms. Skies of America called for passages of improvisation on behalf of a 96-piece orchestra and interludes of Prime Time’s free jazz. His symphony, like his Town Hall concert, carried the Whitmanesque message: I am large. I contain multitudes.” That same urge was illustrated when he expanded all his instrumentation into a blistering funk-oriented band along the lines of Miles’ groundbreaking Bitches Brew experiments, as well as when he traveled to Morocco to perform and record with their mesmerizing master musicians.
The extent of Ornette’s influence is impossible to track fully because it’s ongoing but also because it did not come solely from Ornette. The force he so skillfully channeled is a human constant: the need to communicate experience. He and artists like him awaken something in others that is present but seldom attended to, an ember that grows hotter when fanned. Ronald Shannon Jackson referred to Ornette and his fellow trailblazers as suns – not planets, but light for other planets.
Golia celebrates that light, and the embers fanned by his spirit, both eloquently and informatively. You don’t have to be a jazz specialist or expert, or even like jazz at all, to become enamored of his soft-spoken greatness as an artist. She reminds us that since 1959, reviewers have done their poetic best to describe Ornette’s sound, a wail of self-possessed originality, but she also reminds us that words, no matter how precise, inevitably fall short when trying to embody or evoke music. Writing about music has famously been described as akin to dancing about architecture. But Golia does some great dancing here nonetheless.

Once, during a 2006 visit to a museum exhibition of Jackson Pollock’s large free-form paintings, Ornette described abstract art as something which causes you to see much more than you’re actually looking at. He has also remarked that Pollock’s paintings look the way his music sounds. “Likewise,” Golia observed, “his is a music that makes you hear more than you think, or can ever really say. The caption beneath a Pollock canvas that Ornette especially admired that day read “Untitled.” “Ahh,” he said, turning that over in his mellow musical mind, “that’s a good title.”
Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films.He is the author of the book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos, 2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, and is a frequent curator of film programs for Pacific Cinematheque. His latest book is Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, published in November 2018. His new book, Tumult! The Incredible Life and Music of Tina Turner, is forthcoming from Backbeat Books in 2020.

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