Jazz for Modernists 3 – Ornette Coleman (1930-2015) (Part 2)

Jazz for Modernists 3 – Ornette Coleman (1930-2015) (Part 2)

This entry is part 1 of 7 in the series James Thomas on Jazz



August 29, 1965. Croydon. England. Shortly before the Beatles endured relentless screaming at the Hollywood Bowl, the Ornette Coleman Trio greeted a smaller, more ‘listening’ audience at Fairfield Halls, a much-appreciated venue on Greater London’s southern fringes. This was Coleman’s first British date, part of a major European tour lasting until May 1966 (including, later that spring, a four-week residency at Ronnie Scott’s and concerts in other major cities). The trio’s European trip dovetailed with a period of revolutionary experimentation in popular culture, that transitional period when London was in full swing, California was ‘a-dreamin’’, Byrds’ guitarist Jim McGuinn (on ‘Eight Miles High’) imitated John Coltrane and the Beatles transformed themselves from the slightly anxious individuals of Help! to the dandified aural astronauts of Revolver.

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By 1965, Coleman’s freedom-searching, boundary-shifting music was not simply a badge of uber-beatnik identity or confined to the margins of experimental jazz and the classical avant-garde, but had infiltrated the previously ‘straight-ahead’ forms of R & B and folk music. The shift from beat, folk and R & B to psychedelic rock privileges (in addition to pot and LSD) a new awareness of Eastern and Indian music among such luminaries as George Harrison, Brian Jones, David Crosby, Jeff Beck, Donovan, Ray Davies and Jerry Garcia. True. The importance of Indian sounds and imagery is paramount. But not only had Eastern-style modes already featured in jazz (check out John Coltrane’s modal 1961 classic ‘India’, but the ‘free’ music of Coleman, Coltrane, Cecil Taylor and Albert Ayler contributed other important elements to the development of psychedelic and ‘progressive’ music from 1965 onwards.

Coleman’s influence on British jazz dates to 1959. Whilst not all his Atlantic LPs were released immediately in Britain, copies of non-UK albums were shared by American GIs, imported by specialist shops and played on more daring European radio stations. Despite hostility to Coleman’s new approach within some modern jazz circles, British jazz from 1960-1965 was familiar with notions of freedom. Joe Harriott, independently of Coleman, recorded Free Form (1961) and Abstract (1963) with other West Indians: Coleridge Goode (bass) and Shake Keane (trumpet, flugelhorn), and British-born Pat Smythe (piano) and Phil Seamen (drums). By 1966, Harriott was also experimenting with Indian music, soon to record Indo-Jazz Fusions I & II with composer and multi-instrumentalist John Mayer. Around 1960, Coleman-loving New Departures poets Peter Brown and Michael Horowitz invited Ronnie Scott’s house rhythm section (including pianist Stan Tracey and bassist Jeff Clyne) to live performances combining spoken word and jazz. These led to the New Departures Quartet, featuring legendary Scottish saxophonist Bobby Wellins, which released an LP in 1964 for Transatlantic Records.


Coleman’s blues-drenched radical music was also an (often overlooked) influence on the emerging British R & B scene, particularly on musicians working with Alexis Korner and Graham Bond. Although partly a reaction to the conservatism of ‘trad jazz’, from the late ’50s British R & B had incorporated modernist and mainstream jazzers. Bond’s alto work with tenorist Don Rendell was compared to Coleman. Though Bond actually preferred Eric Dolphy, Coleman was a major inspiration to the other members of the Graham Bond Organization: bassist Jack Bruce, drummer Ginger Baker and saxophonist Dick Heckstall-Smith. Bruce later claimed he and Baker had envisaged Eric Clapton’s role in Cream mirroring Ornette’s in his trio. Bruce, with Heckstall-Smith, future Colosseum drummer John Hiseman and guitarist John McLaughlin, would record the Ornette-inspired Things We Like LP in August 1968, three months before Cream’s final performance at the Albert Hall.

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By August 1965, then, Coleman was a key figure within several interlocking contexts: the New Departures poetry crowd, freer modern jazz, avant-garde improvisational music and the trajectories of various pioneering musicians (Bruce, Baker, Heckstall-Smith, Syd Barrett, proto-Soft Machine) looking to push R & B into unchartered waters. These people shared Ornette’s fluid, egalitarian philosophy of freedom in which each instrument could potentially represent any human voice. The British debut of the Coleman Trio, early in the counter-cultural ‘underground’, was a symbolic opportunity to affect and engage with the experimental zeitgeist. Organized by Michael Horovitz, pioneering improvisational music promoter Victor Schonfield (who’d met Ornette in New York in 1964) and Pete Brown, the Croydon concert was part of Horovitz’ Live New Departures series of multi-media performances, poetry readings, concerts and happenings. Due to unsatisfactory British Musical Union laws, Coleman composed a piece of classical music to qualify him as a ‘serious’ musician and therefore bypass regulations prohibiting performances by American jazz musicians.

The resulting twenty-four-minute ‘Forms and Sounds for Wind Quintet’, performed by the Virtuoso Ensemble, provided an interesting interlude between pianist Mike Taylor’s quartet (featuring John Hiseman, bassist Tony Reeves and sax player Dave Tomlin) and the Coleman Trio. The Trio, with drummer Charles Moffett and bass virtuoso David Izenson, then perform stunning versions of seven tracks including ‘Sadness’ and ‘Doughnut[s]’ from the recently released Town Hall, 1962 LP and the John Cage-inspired ‘Silence’ (where Coleman answers with witty aplomb a heckler requesting Ray Noble’s tricky standard ‘Cherokee’). The Croydon concert, now available on CD, was released in 1967 in Germany as the double box set An Evening with Ornette Coleman (see first photo). An exceptional testimony to Coleman’s unique genius and an intriguing source of future musical adventures in British music, critic Barry McRae called it ‘some of the greatest jazz ever presented in this country’ (“Ornette Coleman – Live”, Jazz Journal ,October 1965).

Some of those adventures up to 1970 can be traced here. In October 1965, Mike Taylor’s quartet recorded Pendulum, one of the rarest items in British jazz. Released on Columbia in June 1966, it reveals Taylor’s huge potential as a pianist somewhere between free jazz and lyrical post bop. Like Pete Brown, Taylor would collaborate with Cream, writing music for ‘Passing the Time’, ‘Pressed Rat and Warthog’ and ‘Those were the Days’ from Wheels of Fire (1968). Jack Bruce would feature on his second LP Trio (1967). A friend of the equally troubled Graham Bond and a heavy user of LSD, Taylor was found drowned in 1969. Another important 1966 release was Challenge (Eyemark Records) by the Spontaneous Music Ensemble, formed by drummer John Stevens and saxophonist Trevor Watts. Recorded in March, the album included two direct tributes to Ornette and Eric Dolphy (‘2.B. Ornette’ and ‘E.D’s message’). SME, who enjoyed a residency at London’s Little Theatre, signed to Island records for their second LP, Karyobin (1968), featuring some of the earliest recordings of leading British alto player Evan Parker.

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An important link between Ornette and British psychedelia was Steve Stollman, brother of Bernard, founder of US avant-garde label ESP-disk, one of whose earliest releases was Coleman’s Town Hall, 1962 LP. Stollman was in London in early ’66 to promote ESP. With Barry Miles and John ‘Hoppy’ Hopkins, founders of International Times, he helped organize the Spontaneous Underground ‘happenings’ at the Marquee, one of which (Trip, 13 March 1966), featured Pink Floyd Sound and the free improvisation trio AMM. Formed by Eddie Prévost (drums), Lou Gare (saxophone) and Keith Rowe (guitar) and soon to be joined by oboist Lawrence Sheaff and avant-garde composer Cornelius Cardew, AMM were part of Mike Westbrook’s big band before reaching the ears of Victor Schonfield in late 1965. Alongside Donovan, an African vocal group and ESP’s British signings the Peter Lemer Quintet (whose 1967 LP Local Colour featured baritone saxophonist John Surman), AMM played the first Spontaneous Underground event, the so-called ‘Giant Mystery Happening’ (30 January, 1966). Performing with Pink Floyd on several occasions in 1966-7, they inspired the sonic guitar experiments of Syd Barrett, who attended the recording of their debut AMMUSIC (May 1966). Whilst not the only inspirations for Pink Floyd, AMM or any other British improvisational or psychedelic act, Coleman was a key influence on Barrett and organist Rick Wright, while Eddie Prévost remarked in 2002 that ‘the music of Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler gave us permission to disobey’ (George McKay, Circular Breathing, 2005, pp. 196).

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This refusal to ‘obey’ musical rules helps explain Coleman’s influence on British music in the late 1960s. The Trio’s 1966 gigs at Ronnie Scott’s and elsewhere divided the jazz world in much the same way as Bob Dylan’s almost contemporary British tour did amongst folkies. Melody Maker’s Benny Green, disparaging of the saxophonist’s chromatic playing and anticipating Withnail and I, remarked: ‘Like a stopped clock, Coleman is right at least twice a day’ (John Fordham, Jazz Man: The Amazing Story of Ronnie Scott and his Club, 1995, p. 121). Disappointingly, Thelonius Monk was another critical attendee at Ronnie Scott’s. However, others left with positive impressions, including future Yes drummer Bill Bruford and a young Ian Dury.

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The boundaries between jazz, rock and improvisational performance were breaking down fast. Coleman’s next London concert in February 1968 (at the Albert Hall) featured Yoko Ono (whom he’d met in Paris) simulating what (in a recorded rehearsal at least) sounds like her nascent passion for John Lennon. The revolutionary atmosphere of 1968 in Britain was probably more suited to incendiary free jazz and improvisation than 1967. In addition to Jack Bruce’s first solo LP, 1968 saw Heckstall-Smith, Hiseman and Tony Reeves appear on John Mayall’s Bare Wires LP and the formation around this trio of Colosseum, arguably the first progressive jazz-rock band. Fusion was also happening within Folk: Ornette was familiar to the groundbreaking acoustic guitarist Davy Graham and future members of Pentangle and Notting Hill’s Third Ear Band (featuring Dave Tomlin on violin). Alongside Coltrane, Ayler, Roland Kirk and Sonny Rollins, by the end of the decade Coleman’s example had not only inspired experimentation, but also cemented the saxophone within ‘progressive’ rock. Among major British players in this field were: George Khan (ex Peter Lemer Quintet, Pete Brown & the Battered Ornaments), Barbara Thompson (Colosseum), Elton Dean and Lyn Dobson (Keith Tippett Group, Soft Machine), Ian McDonald and Mel Collins (King Crimson), David Jackson (Van der Graaf Generator) and Phil Shulman (Gentle Giant).

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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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September 23, 2015 By : Category : Front Page,General,Inspiration,ModJazz,Music,USA Tags:, , , , , , , ,
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