Basic instinct: How Meltdown found its mojo

He invented his own theory of jazz, can't stand pianists and once asked to be castrated. Expect things to get a little crazy when Ornette Coleman curates this summer's musical wig-out on London's South Bank

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:

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.

3. 'Ramblin''

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.

4. 'Intersong'

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. PJ

Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

Arts and Entertainment
Chris Pratt stars in Guardians of the Galaxy
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

Arts and Entertainment
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

    The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

    What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
    Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

    Finding the names for America’s shame

    The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
    Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

    Inside a church for Born Again Christians

    As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
    Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

    Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

    Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
    Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

    Incredible survival story of David Tovey

    Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little