The Territory and the Adventure
By Maria Golia
The letter name for a musical note was just a distraction to Ornette Coleman, the composer and multi-instrumentalist who rattled the jazz world with his unorthodox ideas about melody, harmony and group improvisation in the 1950s. “‘C’ is just a name,” he told one of his students, Daniel Paul Schnee, as Maria Golia quotes him in her fittingly unconventional new book. “You could call it ‘Tokyo’ or ‘wisdom’ or ‘sandwich,’ but that doesn’t signify the sound.”
In his lexicon of indefinite definitions, the free-sounding, pitch-twisting eruptions of sound he created were “territories” for his bandmates and their listeners to explore. As Schnee recalled in an essay Golia quotes, Coleman thought of his music as “a territory in which to create variations or new directions into other territories related to the melody, as well as your own ideas as new territories to work in.” Conceived of as territory, music is indeed more like Tokyo than like the letter “C.” Shaped by individual knowledge, it can be a form of wisdom, too. And with musical ingredients combined in layers of textures and colors, Ornette Coleman’s work was, in a sense, a musical sandwich.
Golia, the author of three previous books (on Egypt, photography and other nonmusic subjects), has made no attempt to write an exhaustive, intimately detailed biography of Coleman or an in-depth musicological study of his ever-challenging art. There are already fine books of both kinds, including “Ornette Coleman: A Harmolodic Life,” by the jazz writer John Litweiler, and “Ornette Coleman: His Life and Music,” by the musicologist and bassist Peter Niklas Wilson, among others. Golia serves her subject fittingly by taking a nontraditional approach, applying the concept of territory to Coleman’s time on earth. “Ornette Coleman: The Territory and the Adventure” is an atlas in prose, a guide to the territories of varied sorts — social, racial, aesthetic, economic and even geographic — that Coleman came out of, traveled through, lived near, occupied, left behind or transformed.
The starting location in Coleman’s story is Fort Worth, the partly Southern, largely Western, formerly Mexican city in the heart of Texas where Randolph Denard Ornette Coleman was born in 1930. Golia, who once ran a performing arts center in Fort Worth, handles the area’s complex history deftly, touching on both the horrors enacted by the Texas Ku Klux Klan and the vibrant life-affirming force of Baptist and Pentecostal churches in the African-American community where Coleman’s family lived. The open emotionality and penetrating physicality of the Sunday morning music Coleman experienced when he was young — sounds that moved the soul by way of the body — had a lasting impact on his music. “As I search my experiences now, looking for areas to call upon for thematic material … I go back often to the scenes of my early childhood,” Coleman said in an interview Golia quotes. “I wish I could capture the raw power of my baptizing pastor.”
The first album he recorded, for the small Los Angeles label Contemporary Records in 1958, was titled “Something Else!!!!,” and the punctuation was superfluous; Coleman’s music was conceptually exclamatory. Although the instrumentation was that of a standard bebop quintet — alto saxophone (Coleman), cornet (Don Cherry), piano (Walter Norris), bass (Don Payne) and drums (Billy Higgins) — the music seemed to defy every principle of jazz composition. There were no discernible chord patterns and no section breaks for solos, and there was little in the way of melodic or thematic development. Coleman, who had been gigging a bit in California but making his living as an elevator operator, appeared to spring from nowhere, fully formed, to make music that was like nothing else, formless.
It’s impossible now to feel the shock listeners must have felt when they first heard “Something Else!!!!” and the half-dozen other albums Coleman made for Contemporary and then Atlantic between 1959 and 1961. The records made clear their mission as a collective manifesto, with titles like “The Shape of Jazz to Come” and “Change of the Century.” However he might have felt about the letter names of musical notes, Coleman understood the value of a good title.
Coleman’s aesthetic gave intuition and spontaneity priority over harmonic structure, compositional form and pitch. Jazz writers and the record labels called the music “the new thing” or “free jazz.” (Coleman himself would be referred to solely by his first name, in the manner of “Miles” or “Dizzy,” a badge of jazz-world citizenship.) The music was not wholly new, though, nor as free as it seemed. As Golia points out, the blues was at least as great an influence on Coleman as church music.
She covers the territory of the Texas blues with acuity, discussing a variety of early blues artists who occupied cultural ground Coleman passed through in his youth: Blind Lemon Jefferson, the Texas-born guitarist and singer revered for his moaning, pitch-bending songs of mourning; the multi-instrumentalist T-Bone Walker, another Texan, exemplar of the blues as high-flying release; and artists at the intersection of blues and jazz such as Eddie Durham, the swing-band arranger and innovator of the electric guitar, and Louis Jordan, the singer and alto saxophonist who made “jump blues” a jukebox craze. Coleman, whose first band was called the Jam Jivers, would carry multiple strains of the blues into his kinetically emotive, electric-energy music. In fact, to hear his once-controversial early music today is to be struck not by its weirdness, which time has dissipated, but by its bluesy earthiness. What once seemed obtuse and alienating now comes across the way Coleman probably always heard it, as bluntly emotional and unpretentious as the blues.
Among the blues artists who intersected with Coleman most significantly was the leader of the group Trudy Coleman and Her Orchestra, Ornette’s older sister Trudenza. A gutsy blues belter, Trudy Coleman was a protégée of Big Joe Turner, the “Boss of Blues,” who gave her the nickname “the boss lady.” She was 10 years older than Ornette, “knew her way around Fort Worth” and “was there to protect him,” Golia writes, and she arranged for him to do some of his first professional work, in Turner’s band.
Golia covers a lot of territory in tight, direct language that illuminates Ornette Coleman’s life and work without emulating its fire and originality. She’s strong on the impact of women in Coleman’s career, including not only his sister Trudy but also the poet Jayne Cortez, a leader of the Black Arts Movement in Los Angeles, with whom Coleman had a son, the musician Denardo Coleman. She evokes the post-Beat scene in Greenwich Village, where Coleman had his moment as the locus of cultural debate; and she captures the cross-pollination of arts in the lofts of SoHo a decade later. She walks through his late years as a much lauded elder of the avant-garde collecting awards and honorary degrees with brisk courtesy. Most impressively, perhaps, she devotes a sizable section to Coleman’s cryptic and elliptical philosophy of music, which he called Harmolodics, without straining to defend it with academic triple-talk or dismissing it. Obviously enamored with her subject, Golia avoids matters that might not reflect as well on him, such as his various fallow periods or the quality of his violin playing and his painting. But that comes with the territory.
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