It might be hard to imagine in any other art form, but Ornette Coleman has been the most controversial figure in jazz for 50 years. A beacon of bohemian defiance, he's reviled and adored in equal measure. At the beginning of his career, he was physically attacked by fellow musicians offended at his departures from the norm. When he became a success, he grew so disturbed by women trying to proposition him after shows that, according to a biographer, he once asked his doctor to castrate him. (When the doctor demurred, he settled for a circumcision instead.)
Yet, while Coleman remains, at 79, the great avant-garde eccentric, he's been part of pop culture for decades, recording with Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead, with Bruce Springsteen for Jonathan Demme's film Philadelphia, and with the Oscar-winning composer Howard Shore for David Cronenberg's Naked Lunch. Shortly after his European debut at Croydon's Fairfield Halls in August 1965, the super-group Cream formed around the idea of becoming rock's own Ornette Coleman Trio: Eric Clapton was given the Coleman role, their bassist Jack Bruce recalled recently, but neither Bruce nor drummer Ginger Baker ever bothered to tell him. Ian Dury's punk anthem "Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll" is built on the thrumming bass riff of Coleman's "Ramblin'".
Next week, Coleman returns to London in triumph as the director of this year's Meltdown festival (Friday to 21 June), in what a South Bank spokesperson has referred to as "serious music for serious times". With a black president in the White House, the appointment of Coleman – who was born in racially segregated Texas, and worked as a shoe-shine boy in order to buy his first saxaphone – represents a logical and optimistic move after years of relatively safe pop curators. The exciting, wide-ranging list of Meltdown guests includes, as well as numerous names from jazz, Patti Smith, Moby, Baaba Maal, Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the first ever UK performance of the Plastic Ono Band, with Yoko Ono (who first appeared with Coleman as part of a Fluxus art event in the early 1960s), Sean Lennon and Antony Hegarty. Coleman has long been a hero for artists beyond the mainstream, for the formal integrity of his art; the courage of his outsider stance; and his freedom from corporate control.
But if many things have changed since the release of Coleman's landmark "arrival"album The Shape of Jazz to Come in 1959 (the subject of one of his two Meltdown concerts, on 19 June), the essentials of his music have altered barely at all. "You either get it or you don't," says the jazz composer Carla Bley, who appears at Meltdown on 20 June with Charlie Haden's Liberation Music Orchestra. "I first heard Ornette in Los Angeles, before he went to New York and got famous. I liked his music immediately, and I still do."
There's no mystery about it: if you like soul and African music, you'll get something out of Coleman, but a regard for conventional jazz or well-tempered classical music might be a hindrance. Like the emergence of jazz itself, he's both primitive and modern. His music is also all about melody. "He's up there with Monk and Mingus as one of the best tune writers I've ever heard," says Robert Wyatt, another guest. "His music is a visceral joy."
For most naysayers, it's a perceived lack of musical accuracy that's the problem, for Coleman likes to bend notes and vary pitch to communicate emotion. But this, of course, is what most music in most societies has always done. As Coleman didn't attend a conservatoire, but struggled to teach himself as much musical theory as he could, he's alert to snobbery and racism. "No one has to
learn to spell to talk, right?" he has said. "I decided, if I'm going to be black and poor, the least thing I'm going to do is to try to find out who I am. I created everything about me."
Like stubborn American "mavericks" such as Harry Partch, who made microtonal music from home-made instruments, or Conlon Nancarrow, who composed for the already obsolete player-piano, Ornette Coleman is his own monument, part of the rough-hewn Mount Rushmore of modern American music.
But while Coleman the free-jazz pioneer was the quintessential outsider, his idiosyncratic approaches to bandleading, business and world music were ahead of their time...
Harmolodics: everyone comes to the front
Coleman's great, all-encompassing musical theory is called harmolodics, and nobody seems to understand it except him. But applied to the dynamics of a group's performance, it does make sense. "In most jazz settings," he once told me, "there has always been the person who stands in front and the other guys who back him up, like a singer. But in harmolodics, everyone comes to the front." In this context, where there's no clear distinction between foreground and background, groups as diverse as Cream, the Velvet Underground, the Grateful Dead and Captain Beefheart's Magic Band have all shown the Coleman influence. At Meltdown, most acts can be squeezed into harmolodics, from hip-hoppers The Roots to the Plastic Ono Band and Patti Smith.
Boho independence – doing it your own way
As someone who has always operated on the fringes of the mainstream music business, financing and promoting his own work, and charging extremely high fees for rare public performances, Coleman has acted as a model of DIY independence for generations of radical musicians, including Meltdown acts such as Yoko Ono and Yo La Tengo. In New York, he pioneered the use of artists' lofts as performance spaces, contributing to the changing ecology of Manhattan. When his gentrified SoHo neighbours started to complain about the noise, Ornette moved to the Garment District.
Weird world music and wailing vocals
Coleman's music always sounded weird, as if it came from another culture (or like Sun Ra, from outer space). A visit to Morocco in 1973, where he first heard and recorded the Master Musicians of Jajouka (for the album released as Dancing in Your Head) , provided an affirmation of his instincts: "It's a human music," he said. "Not about losing your woman and, you know, baby will you please come back... It's a much deeper music." The Master Musicians, who also played on the soundtrack to Naked Lunch, appear at Coleman's two Meltdown concerts, on 19 and 21 June.
As Coleman's saxophone imitates extremes of emotion in the human voice, it has been an important influence on singers. Jazz great Bobby McFerrin, and Baaba Maal from Senegal are among the Meltdown vocalists.
Meltdown, South Bank Centre, London SE1, 12-21 June: meltdown.southbankcentre.co.uk
Mind blowing: five essential Ornette Coleman tracks
1. 'The Blessing'
From his 1958 debut for LA's Contemporary label, Something Else!!!!, "The Blessing" sets out the early Coleman stall: gloriously melodic, slightly cartoony and noirish bop. The band is a compromise quintet, one of the very few Coleman outfits with a pianist.
2. 'Lonely Woman'
The classic Coleman Quartet on its first Atlantic album, The Shape of Jazz to Come (pictured right). It's Coleman's most celebrated composition: a shatteringly intense, keening melody where the rhythm section plays fast while Ornette's alto sax screams, slowly.
Charlie Haden's famous bass riff, later to become the origin of Ian Dury's "Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll", powers a galloping hillbilly-blues. Like all Coleman's music, it shows the influence of his Texas R&B band roots, when he played rough taverns and dances around Dallas and Fort Worth. From Change of the Century.
From 1991's Naked Lunch soundtrack album: Ornette on sax, Barre Phillips on bass, with the London Symphony Orchestra arranged and conducted by Howard Shore. It's one of Ornette's most tender compositions, a dreamy, almost unbearably fragile lament.
5. 'Sleep Talking'
A lyrical, conversational alto-sax feature from Ornette's last album, the Grammy-nominated Sound Grammar, from 2006. Recorded live at an Italian concert, it features the same, twin double basses plus drums quartet with which he appeared at 75th birthday concerts in London and the Cheltenham Jazz Festival. PJReuse content