Jazz: Beyond the three-minute orgasm

He's been beaten up. His musicians have walked out on him. He's even been paid not to play. Yet Ornette Coleman stuck to his guns and diverted the course of jazz history. By Linton Chiswick
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The Independent Culture
By the mid-1950s, the last murmurs of dissent from jazz's more reactionary quarters had finally died down and modern jazz seemed here to stay. And then along came Ornette Coleman. An unconventional young saxophone player from Texas, Coleman had been bemusing R&B audiences with a strange and individual approach to improvisation. By the time he turned his attention to jazz and formed what would become one of the most revolutionary and synchronistic musical projects of the century, he had been paid not to play, had seen an entire blues band stop and leave the stage after just a few bars of his solo, and had even been beaten up by a hostile Southern audience.

A soft-spoken and pensive man, Ornette Coleman is now 65, and has a new record planned for release at the beginning of October. Accompanied by his son and drummer/ manager Denardo, we meet on a sunny morning in a Kensington hotel, and Ornette is by now ready for anything. Pointing to a beautiful cobalt sky, he explains how a few hours ago his plane deposited him 30 miles from London because it was apparently "too cloudy" to land at Heathrow. Then, in a scene worthy of Fawlty Towers, he was locked from his hotel room and refused entry until he showed identification (which was in the room). "Excuse me if I'm a little paranoid this morning," he remarks, while Denardo drifts into a mellow half-sleep.

Ornette Coleman's gift to modern music was the gift of "organised freedom", and he has since applied it to classical music and electric fusion. Inspired by the first generation of modern jazz musicians and the way they had extended what could be played over a chord, he reasoned that "if you can go forward two feet, you can go forward four feet", and proceeded to discount predetermined harmony altogether.

In the Ornette Coleman Quartet of the late 1950s, the musicians created their own harmony as they went about their business of collectively improvising melodies - he calls this "harmolodics", but at the time it was known as "free jazz".

At first, there were all kinds of problems. Some 5,000 people turned up to a "free jazz" concert in Ohio and refused to buy tickets. ("They were thinking, like, `free candy'! Man, I had a terrible time.") And in the UK, there were other difficulties. Booked to play a date in Croydon, he fell foul of an ill-judged Musicians Union rule that demanded that American jazz musicians could play in Britain only on an exchange basis. The policy did not extend to classical musicians.

"So I said: `How can I get the status of a classical musician?' So you know what the guy said? `Go down to the board, and apply. Write a piece and bring it and show it to us, and we'll evaluate it, and if you pass, you can play and have the same rights as a classical musician'. So I wrote a piece called Forms and Sounds, played it to them and they said: `Ornette, we inform you that you now have the status of a classical musician in London.' I was so relieved, but I still couldn't play jazz."

The tone is playful, but the subject strikes at the very heart of Coleman's career. Upset by mainstream misconceptions about the creative process in jazz ("classical and pop musicians get their image from what they're doing, but I hear musicians who play jazz talking about their condition and their personalities all the time"), he has spent a lifetime arguing the case for spontaneity. The quartet's extraordinarily beautiful and historically crucial canon of nine albums on Atlantic was recorded in less than two years, and its almost Utopian ideal of free collective responsibility represented something close to a vision. At the time, however, the music industry was more interested in talking about rebellion.

With trips to Morocco and Nigeria during the 1970s, he began to extend harmolodics both East and West, working with Joujouka musicians and writing symphonies and chamber music. He now works in the main with his electric fusion group Prime Time. Harmolodics has stayed at the very centre of every project and Coleman is determined to demonstrate the aesthetic advantages of this freedom to a new generation of musicians and audiences.

"We're living in a riff society. It's like when they say: `That's the hook'. That hook has made music require the stamina for three minutes' listening. The hook has created the three-minute orgasm of sound. I'm not discrediting it, I'm just saying that in a musician's life I don't think any musician has said: `I only want to play hooks.' But it's just not so easy being an individual in this society."

In conversation, Coleman promotes his methods of music-making with a crusader's fervour, but is anxious to point out the importance of his son Denardo in allowing him to pursue his beliefs. In an extraordinary relationship that saw Denardo first play drums with his father's band when he was just eight years old, he has since become his manager as well, studying business management and co-founding the Harmolodic Inc record label.

"Since he was a kid, Denardo has played a big, big role in what I have achieved. He's spent so much time supporting me, and actually I think that is what has allowed me to keep ahead. And I've never found a drummer to this day who plays like him. Playing with Prime Time is like taking another dimension than just rhythm and time - it's become equal in music."

In fact, Denardo was a major creative force behind the whole concept of Tone Dialing - Prime Time's new record and a harmolodic tour around a world of musical genres. Hip-hop, funk, Latin music and even 17th-century classical music get an improvised reworking, with the intention of demonstrating "how harmolodics can be applied to any style, and extend what that style means". It is a hugely enjoyable record, and features Coleman's vibrant and emotional, utterly distinctive alto saxophone at its very best.

Coleman remains as busy as he has ever been. He recently finished Architecture in Motion, the world's first harmolodic ballet, and is about to embark on a Prime Time tour, playing music from the new record. The man who turned jazz on its head a quarter of a century ago continues to keep it off balance and unpredictable, setting his own standards of artistic integrity.

"The only motivation I've ever had to play music is to find ways to do it in a different way than I've done it before, and to find out just what compositions, styles and improvisation really mean. Do you realise that all the music you hear in Western civilisation is made from the same identical notes? And yet everyone's playing something different? Now that is amazing."

n `Tone Dialing' is released on 2 October on Polygram Jazz (CD:529224/2)