Ornette!!!!

In Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks, the upstanding dandy Thomas Buddenbrook dismisses his wife’s elitist devotion to music as a “rather tasteless snobbery.” Gerda remonstrates that the insipid pop ditties Thomas prefers merely requite a need for mindless gratification. No fool, he is reduced to silence, unable to “comprehend why melodies that cheered him up or moved him were cheap and worthless, or why music that seemed harsh or chaotic should be of the highest musical value.”

Mann was writing in 1900, when the Schoenberg scandal was just getting started and Buddy Bolden had yet to organize his first band. But, of course, nothing has changed. It is no fun to face the disbelief of friends, family and students when arguing the virtues of sounds that scrape against their nerves like jagged razors. Almost every jazz lover has had to confront that kind of incomprehension, whether defending against accusations of polyphonic chaos, swing-era compromise, bebop decadence or avant-garde fakery. Jazz is so isolated from the lives of most Americans that it is routinely written off as a citadel of snobbery.

For my generation (coming to jazz in the 1960s), the Rubicon was ferried by Ornette Coleman. His music, take it or leave it, was Something Else!!!!, The Shape of Jazz to Come and the Change of the Century. Above all, it was free, though one couldn’t be sure if the key word in Free Jazz was an adjective or an imperative, as in “Free Huey!” Within a few years, the most controversial and divisive figure in American music since Elvis had won the acceptance of musicians and critics. Insiders asked what all the fuss was about. For on a fundamental level Coleman’s music was sublimely obvious. Bing Crosby once summed up Louis Armstrong’s genius, “When he sings a sad song you feel like crying, when he sings a happy song you feel like laughing. What the hell else is there with pop singing?”

Ornette is direct in that way: He mourns, he chortles, he sighs, he rages, he exults, he shoots the moon. He doesn’t, however, swing from here to there; instead he bounces on the rhythm, as though it were a trampoline. His phrases don’t resolve with anticipated cadences. Instead, they proliferate in spiky fragments that somehow cohere in a melodic plot—a plot of many melodies. Above all, his sound isn’t smooth, rough, cool or hot. It is prickly, raw and gorgeously fresh, as invigorating as a freezing shower after a sauna. That freshness has never abated. Even if he hadn’t electrified or symphonized its context, his timbre would have remained sui generis—a voice apart.

But who were we kidding, we Ornette-o-philes who attend every infrequent appearance, cheer every infrequent recording? Clearly, his music is resistible. I recall the jolt of first hearing him in the mid-’60s: “W.R.U.” on Ornette! In the jazz world, that album was old news, but in the civilian precincts of popular culture, it was more than a little terrifying and thoroughly intoxicating. Every time I thought I understood something about jazz, I came across a recording that humbled me into willing submission. Even so, this, more than Coltrane or Taylor or Dolphy, was utterly unlike anything in my experience—the brashness, the unbroken rhythm, the loopy fragmented melodies.

Gunther Schuller’s liner notes provided several phrases that helped me to process the music—“innermost logic,” “sonority investigations,” “splintered lines” and, chiefly, motivic development as related to the masterpiece “R.P.D.D.” I took it as a personal gift from Coleman that he followed “W.R.U.” with “T. & T.,” a short piece that is all melody and drums—and that any dolt can understand. In return, I worked enthusiastically at taking in the long pieces, teaching myself to follow the improvisations in increments. It was like grappling with a hard novel or poem. Autodidacts live for these kinds of challenges.

I would listen repeatedly to a few minutes of a solo until I knew that section, and then add a few more minutes and then a few more, until I could follow the solo in its entirety. In the course of trying to understand Ornette, I soon made the same breakthrough I had experienced with Charlie Parker, whose music seemed an incomprehensible rush of notes until one day I found myself absentmindedly singing one of his solos and realized it was all melody—fast, volatile and rhythmic, but melody all the same.

Perhaps what I’m saying is that I loved Coleman before I liked him—love being harder to quantify but necessary to spur me onward. The homework you make for yourself is never work. In high school, my peculiar obsession with jazz prompted a teacher to suggest I hold a seminar to talk about the music. I saved Ornette for last, as an example of the futuristic cutting-edge, figuring I would play a minute of “R.P.D.D.” so that my audience could hear the unmistakably brittle sound. To my surprise, they protested when I lifted the needle; they wanted more.

The other day I played my daughter a couple of selections from Ornette’s new CD, Sound Grammar, which won’t get as much attention as Dylan’s very fine Modern Times but is every bit as great an event—for me, it is hands-down the record of the year. She instantly identified with the groove on “Turnaround” (initially recorded for 1959’s Tomorrow Is the Question!) and, though confused by shifts in dynamics, thought “Jordan” beautiful and moving. But she soon lost interest, wanting to hear the rest some other time. Buddenbrook would love her and resent me. Yet I don’t see the need to choose: Render onto pop its quick-fix pleasures, but render unto art the rewards of effort and empathy.

Art Blakey, recasting Picasso, observed that jazz washes away the dust of everyday life. Ornette washes it away with an astringent. He clears the palette, neutralizes prejudices and begins at the beginning. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen him over the past four decades, yet his music always invigorates me—every performance, without exception. In this I am not alone. The classical composer Hale Smith felt the same way, and once suggested that we responded the way we do because of Ornette’s quarter-note pitch, which instantly raises his performance to an inimitable, matchless plateau—like visiting a much-loved city.

An indication of Coleman’s genius is that Sound Grammar provides as thrilling and timeless an entry into his music as the most revered of his old classics.

Originally published in November 2006

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