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Avant-Garde Roots Music: Ornette Coleman

In 1959, when Ornette Coleman arrived in New York and opened on the Bowery with the quartet that included Don Cherry, Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins, there was no talk of a harmolodic system. He spoke of playing with natural raw feeling instead of technical obsession, yet Coleman proved to have the most comprehensive grasp of improvised order outside of preconceived form that we have heard in the jazz avant-garde. Coleman brought a conception to the music that Wallace Roney explains perfectly: “Ornette wanted to get the same kind of freedom he heard in Charlie Parker but discovered that the only way he could do that was to move away from chords and count on his melodic imagination to get him where he wanted to go.”

Most of Coleman’s greatest recordings are either on Atlantic or Blue Note and were made by 1965. With Cherry, Freddie Hubbard, Eric Dolphy, Haden, Jimmy Garrison, Scott LaFaro, David Izenzon, Higgins, Ed Blackwell and Charles Moffett, he laid down what remains the heaviest body of purely avant-garde jazz. Just a few years ago, when the saxophonist performed with Haden and Higgins at Lincoln Center, it was obvious that Coleman is still the boss and that when he has actual jazz musicians up to the task of playing his concept with absolute authority, his vision of group improvising is far, far beyond that of those who claim to have extended upon what he brought to the Five Spot in 1959.

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Originally Published

Stanley Crouch

Stanley Crouch (1945–2020) was one of the leading American cultural critics of the late 20th and early 21st centuries—and one of the most controversial. A poet, educator, and aspiring jazz drummer in the 1970s, he became a writer for the Village Voice and an artistic consultant to Jazz at Lincoln Center in the 1980s. In subsequent years, he regularly wrote essays, columns, and reviews for a variety of publications, including (from 1999 to 2003) JazzTimes. He was the author of 11 books, including the 1990 collection Notes of a Hanging Judge: Essays and Reviews, 1979-1989 and the 2000 novel Don’t the Moon Look Lonesome.