February 18, 2007


The father of harmolodics (Greg Burke, 2/18/07, The LA Times)

SINCE the 1950s, Ornette Coleman has hacked his own trails in improvised music. It was lonely out there in the wilderness, but he never looked back. What made him do it?

"My mother and my father were both born on Dec. 25," the sax-violin-trumpet virtuoso says quietly, crouched on a couch in his Midtown Manhattan loft, a week before last Sunday's presentation of a Grammy lifetime achievement award that brought him his biggest prime-time recognition, just before the age of 77. Christmas? Coleman implies significance in his parents' shared birth date: He was an ordinary Earth child, while they seemed like gods, "and that's exactly how far away I was to them." His father died before Coleman could know him; he was raised by women, the only male in the family.

"They wasn't interested in nothing I could do or say," he says. "To this very day, I feel like an outsider just breathing. Because let's face it, you'd be seeking, trying to find something that you could enjoy, or something that you could do that would make you feel normal. But you can't take that cure. There's no medicine for that."

Family was Coleman's dry nurse; Los Angeles was his next desert -- he emigrated from Fort Worth in 1953 at age 23. It was here, amid a smog of hostility and conservatism, that he inspired a few allies (trumpeter Don Cherry, bassist Charlie Haden, drummers Ed Blackwell and Billy Higgins) to boost his transition from blues and bop to the "harmolodic" music he heard in his head -- joyous, jagged, chordless, free. It was here he made his first albums, for Contemporary Records. It was here that his unorthodox blowing got him kicked off a lot of bandstands while he supported himself with odd jobs.

"I was at the point where it was nothing but work," he says. "But not professional work. You know -- like knees and hands." And it was from here in 1959 that he fled like a bat out of hell to New York, where he instantly polarized the jazz world and made grave imprints on the heaviest contenders in his field, along with a whole generation to follow.

Coleman's freedom and democracy found ready ears amid the 1960s' racial struggle and countercultural mapmaking. In addition to John Coltrane and Don Cherry's album "The Avant-Garde" (recorded 1960) and Sonny Rollins' LP "Our Man in Jazz" (1962) -- both featuring Coleman sidemen and both launching years of reconsideration by the two tenor colossi -- numerous explosive projectiles by Roscoe Mitchell, Anthony Braxton, Evan Parker and others would never have made waves without Coleman's initial harmolodic splashdown.

His influence, though, has been more conceptual than specific.

Amazing how closely fatherlessness tracks with the pursuit of bad ideas.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 18, 2007 9:39 AM
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