Ornette Coleman died today.
I don’t have any idea how resonant his death is in American culture. I don’t know what pictures the words “Ornette Coleman” conjures up in your mind, if any. But I hope to add a little to that picture.
In 1959, Coleman released The Shape of Jazz to Come.[fn1]
Sometime in the 1990s, I bought the album. I don’t really remember much about it, except that I didn’t really love it. I don’t know if it was Coleman’s harsh tone, the surface-level cacaphony coming from my speakers, or that I just didn’t understand what he was doing. I probably listened to the first couple songs, put the album back (in alphabetical order, of course) with my other CDs, and didn’t listen to it again.
The Shape of Jazz to Come introduced free jazz to the world. Until its release, bebop was the dominant (and, some believed, the quintessential) style of jazz. Bebop was characterized by its fast tempos, and its intricate harmonic structure; the chords (over which musicians played the head and then improvised) generally changed every two beats or so, and inventive players found ways to play both within and without the chordal structure.
Coleman dropped the chords. Perhaps hyperebolically, he once said, “If I’m going to follow a preset chord sequence, I may as well write out my solo.”
So when he composed, he just wrote a melody, and then the band improvised together. Mostly, he played in quartets without a piano, so there was quite literally no harmonic base—instead, he had drums, bass, trumpet, and he played the alto sax. The players listened to each other, reacted to what the others played, but ultimately, played whatever they heard.
A few years ago, I gave Coleman another listen, and I was blown away. I hadn’t originally noticed how melodically he played. While you never knew what direction he would go, his improvisations always made sense in retrospect. There’s an excitement to his playing, a tightrope being walked simultaneously by four or more people. There is always a real risk that they won’t pull off what they’re trying to do, and that risk heightens the reward when they do, in fact pull it off.[fn2]
His innovations have become fundamental to almost everything I listen to—while not all contemporary jazz derives from Coleman’s inventions, most avant-garde jazz does. So thank goodness for Ornette Coleman, and thank goodness for free jazz.
N.b.: If you haven’t listened to it, you really should try The Shape of Jazz to Come.
Cross-posted in a different form at By Common Consent.
[fn1] As an aside, 1959 was a really good year for jazz albums.
[fn2] In fact, this is a wonderful guide to understanding and appreciating Coleman’s music.