No, your eyes are not deceiving you. The picture on this page is indeed of Ornette Coleman playing alto saxophone while sitting on a red Harley-Davidson motorcycle. Arthur Elgort took that photograph 30 years ago. (You can see more of his images of jazz musicians in the feature on pg. 42 of our December issue.) When I asked him about it recently, this is what he had to say:
“I got along with Ornette, and people say, ‘That’s a miracle,’ because he could be difficult. He came to my studio [on Crosby Street in Manhattan] for a Rolling Stone shoot, I think. He had his son”—Denardo, also his drummer and manager—“with him the whole time and he’d ask his son, ‘Can I do this?’ and he’d say, ‘Yes, you can, it’s okay.’ So I had him sit on my Harley, which he liked. We didn’t run it, it was just a prop. First I shot it with no hat, but I had a hat there and I said, ‘Try this hat on, I want to see how you look,’ and he looked more like a jazz musician. He loved it. At least his son did.”
More like a jazz musician indeed. The hat is the droll coup de grâce of an image that brings together two great American products—jazz and motorcycles—in an almost comically unnatural way. That Ornette asked, “Can I do this?” makes sense because you wouldn’t expect the great harmolodist, the High Priest of Free Jazz, to do such a thing. At least, not at first. Upon further reflection, though, an obvious question presents itself: Didn’t Ornette make a specialty out of not doing what others expected of him?
The same year Elgort took this photo, Ornette’s band Prime Time (featuring Denardo) released Virgin Beauty on Portrait Records. Some critics were put out by the music’s relative commerciality—“relative” being the operative word—and the guest spots by Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia. They hadn’t thought their avant-garde hero would make such a move toward the mainstream. But Ornette, as usual, was thinking differently. “I always told people I was commercial,” he told Rolling Stone’s David Fricke at the time, “because I was the only person doing what I was doing. Nobody did it but me. There’s not two Coca-Colas; there’s only one Coca-Cola. I thought of myself on that level.” Having seen Prime Time live in Boston on the Virgin Beauty tour, I can assure you that no one on that Berklee Performance Center stage was making artistic compromises in pursuit of sales.
When it comes to doing what people don’t expect, the singers and players profiled in this issue of JazzTimes can tell you a thing or two. I’m thinking in particular of Cécile McLorin Salvant and Donny McCaslin, who in their different ways continue to break new ground in their work and leave us listeners wondering what they could possibly do next. That inner impulse to go for the choice that isn’t obvious—to say, “Yes, I will sit on the Harley, because why shouldn’t I?”—is both rare and necessary, and it deserves to be treasured.