Jazz for Modernists 2 – Ornette Coleman (1930-2015) (Part 1)

Jazz for Modernists 2 – Ornette Coleman (1930-2015) (Part 1)

This entry is part 2 of 7 in the series James Thomas on Jazz

Jazz for Modernists 2 – Ornette Coleman (1930-2015) (Part 1)

(Don Cherry & Ornette Coleman at Five Spot Café, New York, November, 1959)


On June 11, 2015, the world of jazz (and beyond) lost one of its most revolutionary figures of the past sixty years: Texas-born composer, saxophonist, occasional violinist/trumpeter and all-round visionary Ornette Coleman (1930-2015). Like John Coltrane and pianist Cecil Taylor, his major North American contemporaries in the foundations of what became known slightly problematically as ‘free jazz’, Coleman’s influence was enormous, his legacy both undeniable and at times controversial. This brief article (the first of two) does not attempt to cover his life or major works, though it examines recordings from 1958 to 1965. Readers looking for reliable general appreciations of Coleman can consult other recent obituaries:

Instead, through an overview of his earliest UK releases, coupled with some fascinating nuggets of information about key listeners, I will outline Ornette’s importance for British music during the first half of that decade. In part two, I will examine in more depth his importance for the specific shift in our beloved modernist world towards the experimentations of the counter-culture and underground scenes of the middle and later sixties.

1959. A pivotal year for jazz in Britain. The disbanding of the Tubby Hayes – and Ronnie Scott-led Jazz Couriers; the second UK tour by the Modern Jazz Quartet and the opening of Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club at 39 Gerrard Street. It also signalled the first official British release of an Ornette Coleman LP: Tomorrow is the Question! (Contemporary/Vogue), described by blogger ‘London Jazz Collector’ as “Perhaps tame by future “free jazz” standards, but adventurous and uncompromising in its time”. This is a fair appraisal of a record which, like its predecessor Something Else! (1958), still provided (minus piano) a fairly conventional bop rhythm section to Coleman’s (and trumpeter Don Cherry’s) non-chordal harmonic and melodic improvisations. By the time his quartet had divided opinion with its residency at New York’s Five Spot (November 1959), Coleman’s first Atlantic LP, The Shape of Jazz to Come had appeared in the States (though its official UK release was not until 1966).


With Coleman’s quartet now featuring Cherry, Billy Higgins (drums) and dapper bassist Charlie Haden, The Shape of Jazz to Come is considered a major staging post on the journey from bebop to free jazz. Critic Piero Scaruffi writes: “The idea was to make every member of the band a soloist equal to the others and to free the improvisation from musical constraints: basically, each individual was only bound to the mood of the other individuals, not to the technical aspects of the music that they were playing” (http://www.scaruffi.com/history/jazz15a.html). The music, though, was still rooted in the blues and even pre-blues forms (field hollers, laments). This is perhaps not surprising, as Coleman had paid his dues in various rhythm and blues combos in Texas and on the West Coast during the 1950s. For this reason alone (to say nothing of his band’s sartorial elegance c.1960-1962), the quartet’s LPs on Atlantic are required listening for today’s open-minded modernists. Take ‘Lonely Woman’, from Shape, for example, or ‘Ramblin’’ from its follow-up Change of the Century (1960). Both tracks are infused with blues feeling. The first is an impression of a rich white woman wearing “the most solitary expression in the world”. Of the second, Coleman wrote in the sleeve notes: “Ramblin’ is basically a blues, but it has a modern, more independent melodic line than older blues have, of course”. Perhaps music writer Richard Williams summed it up perfectly last week, reminiscing about his first encounter with the 1961 LP This is Our Music. Rightly hailing the “impossibly cool” cover appearance of the quartet (now with drummer Ed Blackwell), he wrote: “Nothing about it, the raw timbre of the horns, the lack of conventional chord sequences bothered me in the slightest. What it had, apart from undoubted modernity, was the “cry” that went back to the origins of the blues”.


Early receptions of Coleman’s music in the UK jazz press (Melody Maker, Jazz Journal, Jazz Monthly etc) were not always complimentary. Alun Morgan, in Jazz Monthly (June 1959), for example, remarked that he “appears to be handicapped by his own bad fingering in places and frequently produces two simultaneous notes an octave apart (in Claire O’Neal, Ornette Coleman, 2013, p. 22). However, for some young ‘in-the-know’ jazz musicians, this rejection gave him an appealing outsider status. Composer and double-bassist Gavin Bryars remembered “as a kid in Goole hearing the Ornette Coleman Quintet on the radio, 1958 or 1959, and thinking it was fantastic. I also loved it because it was being so much reviled by the jazz press, I thought this must be great” (Ben Watson, Derek Bailey and the Story of Free Improvisation, 2004, p. 82). The views of Morgan and Bailey encapsulate the divided opinions Ornette Coleman engendered throughout his career.

One important audience for this new music comprised intellectuals, poets and beatniks associated with Michael Horovitz’ New Departures, a new poetry journal emanating from Oxford. A student at Brasenose College, Oxford University, Horovitz, alongside Liverpool poet Pete Brown and David Sladen, played a key role in introducing readers to beat writers such as Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs. In June 1965, he would also be one of the brains behind The International Poetry Incarnation at the Albert Hall, often claimed to be the birthplace of the British ‘Underground’ counter-culture and (less plausibly) ‘Swinging London’. In volume 4 of New Departures (1962), a number devoted to jazz, Coleman’s work was appraised seriously alongside contemporaries Eric Dolphy, John Coltrane and Cecil Taylor. Dolphy, who played UK dates in 1961, had appeared as part of a double quartet on Coleman’s extended improvisation Free Jazz (1961), which was initially only available in Britain on import. However, specialist jazz record shops in major cities were not slow to meet the demand for the new experimental forms of jazz. Furthermore, the case of London-based West-Indian sax player Joe Harriott, whose Free Form (1961) was recorded just before Free Jazz, shows that British modern jazz was undergoing its own revolutionary changes.


Between 1962 and 1965, despite a self-imposed two-year break from live performance and recording, Coleman was gaining significant attention in Britain on the fringes of beatnik and mod circles. In Cambridge, where the New Departures crowd would stage readings and ‘happenings’, future Pink Floyd members Rick Wright, Syd Barrett and their entourage were fans. In Syd Barrett and Pink Floyd: Dark Globe (2010), Julian Palacios paints a vivid picture of free-jazz-loving ‘hip undergraduates’ rubbing shoulders with Vespa-riding mods, Barrett seemingly with a foot in each camp. In Canterbury (and later Mallorca), Australian beatnik Daevid Allen shared his love of Ornette with Robert Wyatt, Kevin Ayers and Mike Ratledge (who in 1966 would become Soft Machine). Wyatt, who in Jonathan Green’s essential Days in the Life: Voices from the English Underground, describes his mod youth in the early sixties, recently paid generous tribute to his hero: “His voice is immediately unique, as if he were the last surviving speaker of an ancient language”.

By the time of his first UK concert, at Fairfield Halls, Croydon, August 29, 1965, hastily organised by Horovitz, Brown and promoter of experimental music Victor Schonfield, Coleman’s music enjoyed currency not only among jazz and improvisational avant-gardes, but also the more searching elements of the rhythm and blues/nascent rock world. Two further Atlantic LPs (with bassists Scott LaFaro and Jimmy Garrison) had appeared in Europe: Ornette! (1962), recorded just five weeks after Free Jazz in January 1961 and Ornette on Tenor (1962), the latter of which Richard Cook and Brian Morton say “hooks Ornette back into the raw R&B of his Texas roots” (The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 2000, p. 300). His new trio, featuring Charlie Moffett on drums and David Inzenzon on bass, had recorded Town Hall Concert (in December 1962) and a June 1965 soundtrack with free tenor player Pharaoh Sanders for the film Chappaqua (though director Conrad Rooks would ultimately use music by Ravi Shankar). The Kinks (minus Ray Davies) had seen the new Coleman trio perform in Greenwich Village in February 1965, while bands from the emerging American rock underground (Grateful Dead, Velvet Underground, The Fugs) were incorporating elements of his free improvisational styles into their own blues, folk and European-based music. Part two of this article will return to Ornette Coleman’s influence on the psychedelic and underground British music of 1965-1970.

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James Thomas

James Thomas was born in Bristol just the wrong side of 1970 (1971). His first encounters with the 1960s were his two-year-old elder brother’s reminiscences of the Moon Landing (since deleted by the BBC) and an afternoon in 1975 listening to the Beatles with his parents. He remembers 2-Tone and the ’79 revival, but was the one in his primary school still wearing flares until he persuaded his mum to buy him a black Harrington jacket (a stylish-enough copy by Burtons) and asked a hair stylist to make him ‘look like Suggs’. In the 1980s he became obsessed with almost every aspect of the 1960s, whether it were Star Trek, the length of George Harrison’s hair in March 1965 or the first colour TV broadcast of a cricket match (he thinks it was 1968). After being side-tracked by progressive rock (an ongoing guilty pleasure), James came to his senses in 1986 on seeing footage of Booker T and the MGs and Otis Redding on a programme celebrating the 60th anniversary of television. A flirtation with ‘indie pop’ (in the bowl-cut and anorak days) led to too much introspection, but also a new interest in the psychedelic sounds of the 1960s that seemed to go hand in glove with a liking for The Pastels and The Razorcuts. A summery afternoon in the jazz tent at Bristol’s annual (and long gone) Ashton Court Festival in 1989 opened his mind to the sounds of Lee Morgan, Horace Silver, Art Blakey and most forms of modern jazz. In 1990, James attended his first proper 60s club night, the revered Kaleidoscope Pop! in Leeds. On his return from the North in 1992, he developed a new commitment to Mod culture. He recalls early Untouchables Brighton New Year rallies and in 1994 moved to London. A real education for him (in so many ways...) was a period in Barcelona (1997-2002) where he helped out with the Magic in the Air club for a year or two and where his IQ was permanently reduced by a record dealer who made him clean vinyl for four weeks in a windowless room. After a decade or so in the West Country, he is now living again in London, where he plans to write about jazz, meet like-minded people and study the history of the cravat.

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July 8, 2015 By : Category : Front Page,ModJazz,Music,Picks,Reviews Tags:, , ,
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  1. Rob’s Roundup

    2 years ago

    […] Molloy and Scott Fraser Simpson. Other articles include part 2 James Thomas excellent new series ‘Jazz for Modernists’. James Clark collectors corner is the UK Atlantic Soul record releases. Enjoy Pete Feeley and […]

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