Wednesday, October 17, 2012

A review of John Litweiler’s
Ornette Coleman: A Harmolodic Life

This article appeared in
Midwest Jazz Summer 1994 (Vol. 1, #2),
an Arts Midwest publication.
Reprinted with permission.

The year 1959 was one of change and breakthrough in jazz. The deaths of Billie Holiday, Lester Young, and Sidney Bechet, key artists of the music’s earlier periods, intensified the pervasive sense that a new era was beginning. In New York, then as now the center of the jazz universe, major developments would set the musical agendas of jazz practitioners for decades to come. Charles Mingus recorded two masterworks, Blues & Roots and Mingus Ah Um, both revealing a novel way for large ensembles to perform complex music without the aid of written-out parts; John Coltrane, with Giant Steps, took vertical, change-running improvisation, an approach traceable all the way back to the first important jazz saxophonist, Coleman Hawkins, to its outer limits and logical conclusion; Miles Davis meanwhile, in the nick of time, nudged Trane toward a new pursuit with Kind of Blue, the modal jazz shot heard ’round the world and perhaps the best-known jazz recording of all time.

These developments alone would grant 1959 the status of an important, ground-breaking year in jazz. However, one event, a portent really, crowded out all others of that crowded year, insuring that the future of jazz really could be read in the tea leaves of 1959. In November, an outfit led by a weird Texas misfit made its New York debut at the Five Spot Cafe, consummating a year when the seeds of much of jazz’s future were planted. The Ornette Coleman Quartet started a two week engagement (it was later extended to two and a half months), and the music was never the same again.

Coleman and his bandmates treated the harmonic aspect of jazz improvisation in a new way, disavowing the standard practice of running a tune’s changes and following conventional song forms, in favor of a new approach where unfettered melodic inventiveness was the guiding force. As Coleman put it to writer Martin Williams: “If I’m going to follow a preset chord sequence, I may as well write out my solo.” In finding a way to chart this unfamiliar territory, Coleman took his place among jazz’s most important innovators, alongside such stellar “establishment” figures as Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker.

Coleman, however, was not immediately given the key to the city. Thanks to the formidable press hype preceding his New York arrival, the jazz community there was quickly induced to take sides. Much of the criticism was downright personal, like Miles Davis’s reaction: “Hell, just listen to what he writes and how he plays. If you’re talking psychologically, the man’s all screwed up inside.” Years later, Ornette told record producer/writer John Snyder that one night during the Five Spot gig, Max Roach punched him in the mouth, then showed up at 4 o’clock the next morning in front of his apartment building, hollering “I know you’re up there, motherfucker! Come down here and I’ll kick your ass!”

Not that rejection was a new experience for Ornette Coleman. The first chapters of John Litweiler’s new biography, Ornette Coleman: A Harmolodic Life, read nearly like a catalog of abuse: Ornette as a teenager in Fort Worth, being held up by his church bandleader as an example of how not to play (“he’ll never be a saxophone player”); Ornette being fired on the spot from various gigs for solo breaks that stopped dancers in their tracks — not with admiration, but with anger and alarm; Ornette, touring with a blues band, meeting local musicians who take him outside, beat him bloody and unconscious, and trash his horn; Ornette, sitting in with Dexter Gordon’s rhythm section in L.A., being ordered by Dex to scram.

Litweiler faced no easy task in pinning down the real story of this enigmatic trailblazer. Take Ornette’s early years: he was born in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1930, according to most references, or 1931, according to his sister Truvenza, in a strict family environment that was either getting by (Truvenza: “we didn’t have a whole lot of money — we didn’t have money to throw away or something like that, but I don’t remember going without anything”) or downright deprived (Ornette: “I didn’t come from a poor family, I came from a po’ family. Poorer than poor.”).

Contradictory and/or off-kilter recollections of this sort permeate Coleman’s life story, and could easily stymie a would-be biographer. Litweiler, unfazed, lets his sources tell it their way — the “truth,” as best as can be discerned, emerges from the divergent accounts. And if it occasionally seems that Litweiler is swallowing some preposterous tales, it must be remembered that in some ways the very idea of Ornette Coleman becoming one of the most influential jazz musicians on the planet is in its own way, well, unlikely.

He certainly didn’t have a very promising start. Coleman, an autodidact, taught himself “wrong” (unfortunately for his self esteem, perhaps, but fortunately for the history of Western music): unaware while learning his notes that the saxophone is a transposing instrument, he came to understand his horn in a very unconventional way. (In fact, Litweiler recounts Gunther Schuller’s harrowing tale of Coleman’s studying with him in the early ’60s, to learn the “standard” approach to music. On the day it dawned on Coleman just how much his musical understanding differed from the norm, he became violently ill, and never showed up for a lesson again.)

While this biography is often fascinating, providing valuable insight into Ornette the man, it is not completely satisfactory in helping to explain his innovations. Litweiler is quite capable of persuasive analysis of Ornette’s musical attributes, as in his comparison of Coleman’s rhythmic approach (on the early release Something Else) with Charlie Parker’s:

The most immediate quality of Ornette’s rhythmic character is his force, his eagerness: He seems to virtually eat up the beat, with an eagerness that recalls the drive of Charlie Parker in Parker’s 1948 “Crazeology” session. If Ornette’s phrasing gives a first impression of spaciousness, like the wide open spaces of Texas, that impression is partly an illusion, for the broken phrases of bebop are reflected in his phrase shapes. In solos such as the fast “Chippie,” his phrases often begin in unpredictable places, and his accenting throughout the album is quite irregular; the beat gets turned around often, and sometimes it seems only an accident when accents fall on beats that are traditionally “correct.” These are features of Charlie Parker’s music, too, at its most radical, even if the rhythmic content of Ornette’s phrases is typically less detailed than Parker’s. While Ornette’s soloing captures much of Parker’s lyric spirit, the conflicts that arise in his solos are unlike Parker’s conflicts — Ornette’s lines are less mercurial, though they sometimes hint at emotion as extreme.

Unfortunately, this sort of probing scrutiny happens too rarely in this book; more often, Litweiler resorts to thin description of the music rather than analysis, an approach often conveying not much beyond superficialities about Coleman’s style and contributions. Litweiler’s commentary about the important Live at the Golden Circle recording, for example, is more along the lines of a brief record review than of a studied examination this book strives to be:

Certainly Ornette’s alto sax improvising is brilliant on these sessions, including his oom-pah-pah waltz variations in “European Echoes” and his fast, optimistic variations on “Dee Dee” (with its superbly simple theme) and “Faces and Places” (with its recurring rolling theme motive in his solo). “Dawn” and especially “Morning Song” are sweet ballads, indeed, among his best ballads. Amid many tempo changes by the group in “The Riddle,” Izenzon offers a witty bowed solo. “Snowflakes and Sunshine” alternates many brief improvisations by trumpet and violin over mostly fast tempos, usually separated by brief interludes of solo drums or bass; each of Ornette’s sections is relatively static in development, and wildly energetic.

If you’re reading this book to get a firm grasp of Coleman’s far-reaching musical concept, harmolodics, you’re in for a disappointment — through no fault of Litweiler’s, however, since neither Ornette nor his followers seem able to offer a clear explanation. Back in my teens, I remember reading the liner notes to Dancing In Your Head, searching for clues to this strange, thrilling music, only to come to a dead end with Coleman’s abstruse explanation of harmolodics: “This means the rhythms, harmonics and tempos are all equal in relationship and independent melodies at the same time.”

Trumpeter Don Cherry, Coleman’s musical companion, offers a bit more enlightenment in the liner notes to the glorious Rhino release of Ornette’s complete Atlantic recordings: the harmolodic concept, he says, “is one of the profound systems today for both Western and Eastern music. [...] When we would play a composition, we could improvise forms, or modulate or make cadences or interludes, but all listening to each other to see which way it was going so we could blow that way. Ornette’s harmony would end up being a melody and the original melody would end up being a harmony. So he could continue on that way to write for a whole orchestra, starting from the first melody which ends up being harmony to the harmonic melodies that come after the main theme.” Cherry goes further in a Down Beat interview excerpted by Litweiler: “If I play a C and have it in my mind as the tonic, that’s what it will become. If I want it to be a minor third or a major seventh that had a tendency to resolve upward, then the quality of the note will change.” At any rate, the chart shown in the book, about which Coleman told interviewer Art Lange “Play this over and over, and you’ll know everything you need to know about harmolodics,” is either reproduced wrong, which I doubt, or is out and out incomprehensible.

By my reckoning, Ornette Coleman: A Harmolodic Life, while an achievement, will not be the last word on this man and his musical revolution, in the way that Brian Priestley’s Mingus biography or Jack Chamber’s Milestones, to give two examples, are definitive. Despite some shortcomings, however, it is recommended reading for those who seek insight into this complex, fascinating, and unconventional figure. Litweiler writes with knowledge and affection for his subject, compiling information from numerous sources, detailing anecdotes that raise eyebrows. The Ornette Coleman who emerges from these pages is an uncompromising, guileless, rugged individualist living in a time when these traits aren’t necessarily universally admired nor richly rewarded. For now, Litweiler’s biography, the first book-length assessment of this — clichés be damned — living legend, is the only game in town.