New York City, November 17, 1959: Ornette Coleman began a two week residency at the Five Spot, a club in the Bowery far more on the vanguard of jazz than the Village Vanguard. The club’s first show had featured pianist Cecil Taylor, and Thelonious Monk had recorded two exceptional albums there just a year earlier — but no precedent prepared its audience for Coleman that evening.
Miles Davis and John Coltrane were there. Also Leonard Bernstein. Coleman and his band had just arrived from Los Angeles, somehow overstepping the traditional dues paid before landing any such gig. The twenty-nine year old leader earned his reputation a different way: clearing audiences and stages in Los Angeles with his shockingly unconventional playing. He’d been beaten up outside one club, his saxophone smashed on the street. And like a badge of honor, he appeared on stage for his New York City debut with the only instrument he could afford, a white plastic horn.
Coleman was not entirely unloved in Los Angeles — his music had caught the ears of John Lewis (of the Modern Jazz Quartet) and avant garde pianist Paul Bley. And it was a music writer at The New York Times who procured for Coleman’s quartet unprecedented residency at the Five Spot.
They alternated two sets with the Art Farmer/Benny Golson Jazztet, and one of the biggest controversies in jazz was sparked. Coleman’s quartet, which featured Don Cherry on the pocket trumpet and cornet, Charlie Haden on bass and Billy Higgins (and later Ed Blackwell) on drums, played entirely without the conventional structure of jazz: no chord progressions, and no tonic. Coleman’s compositions opened with simple “head” arrangements and had no other form. It was, in the phrase he later coined with an album title, free jazz.
Dizzy Gillespie said it was “not jazz.” Miles Davis said, “the man is all screwed up inside.” Max Roach followed him backstage and clocked him. But in the very same way the punks of ’77 drew rock and roll back to its basics, Coleman’s music altered the course of jazz, and many of his critics later changed their tune. Some even performed with him.
John Lewis had already used his clout at Atlantic Records to secure Coleman a contract and sales of his first album, The Shape of Jazz to Come, were propelled by the residency and the press it received (it had been released in October). The Five Spot loved controversy because it brought in business — Coleman’s residency was extended twice and he played there nearly through the end of 1960.
The music of Ornette Coleman — who passed away yesterday at the age of 85 — eventually grew far beyond the iconic quartet on those Atlantic albums. On his 1966 LP The Empty Foxhole he played the trumpet and the violin as well as the alto saxophone, and he ten-year-old son Denardo played drums. Coleman composed a concerto grosso in 1972 called Skies of America which was performed by the London Symphony Orchestra on the album. Five years later he debuted an electric band, later called Prime Time, on Dancing in Your Head. In 2006 his album Sound Grammar received the Pulitzer Prize for music — on that album he quoted from a pair of standards by Richard Rogers and Stephen Foster, something he had rarely — if ever — done on record. He also quoted Stravinsky’s Rites of Spring. Coleman had previously recorded a standard, Monk’s “Misterioso,” for the soundtrack to Naked Lunch, but nearly all of his recordings were of his own original compositions.
Coleman had been more or less retired for several years, and reportedly in poor health. His family announced his death from cardiac arrest yesterday, and he is no doubt being remembered by jazz fans around the world. We have already sold all the albums of his we had in the shop.
His life story was a testament to the virtue of perseverance. Coleman often responded to even his harshest critics with sincere praise for their work, and eventually saw his own music accepted into the mainstream. Ironically, one of his songs became itself a standard (“Lonely Woman”). One of our favorites is this one from his third Atlantic album, This Is Our Music. The album’s title may have referred to his quartet, but we like to believe it refers to all of us. There’s a genuine universality to Coleman’s music. No schooling or training is required to appreciate its underlying dignity and beauty.
“Beauty is a Rare Thing”