Ornette Coleman’s Crosscultural Significance

An excerpt from the liner notes of the 10-LP Ornette set "The Atlantic Years"

Ornette Coleman

The release this past spring of the 10-LP Ornette Coleman set The Atlantic Years qualifies as one of the year’s top reissues. In this excerpt from the box’s liner notes, Ben Ratliff discusses the lasting effect Coleman’s innovations had on multiple musical genres.

Ornette Coleman’s early work hit some of his contemporaries—Paul Bley, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Jimmy Giuffre—with great force. This music set off or encouraged subsequent movements in free or experimental jazz, particularly in Chicago and Europe. Coleman’s handling of melodic improvisation and group arrangement has inspired Pat Metheny, Keith Jarrett, Branford Marsalis, Ethan Iverson, and many others in jazz. It has also inspired, perhaps less directly but no less profoundly, all kinds of other self-starters and outliers. The plaintive, aggrieved rasp Bob Dylan used on tour in front of his electric band in 1966 could have come from lots of places, but something tells me it came from here. A lot of post-punk was a loose translation of an impulse that began with this music; there is a post-Coleman aesthetic line in it that includes the Pop Group, the Slits, the Raincoats, V-Effect, the Minutemen, and the ongoing work of Neneh Cherry, daughter of Don Cherry.

That sense of larger stakes—that Coleman’s example could create changes not only within the jazz tradition but within other disciplines too, and even in the way jazz is talked about and heard—pervaded the discourse around these records almost from the start. Coleman had moved from Los Angeles to New York in the fall of 1959. Few on the east coast knew of him before then. His band worked at the Five Spot Cafe from mid-November that year to late January 1960, then again from early April to late July: long stretches of time. If you’d been intrigued by what you were reading about Coleman, you could go down to the Bowery yourself and see what it was all about.

Here is the esteemed composer George Russell talking to the esteemed jazz critic Martin Williams in the June 1960 issue of The Jazz Review:

“If the artist really believes in what he is doing and is capable, the result will be satisfying. Maybe it won’t satisfy us on the basis of our old criteria of good and bad. But our sense of good and bad is reconstructed every time there is valid artistic revolution anyway.”

Do you hear the moral tone there? “Good and bad”? Are they even talking about jazz? Some kind of categorical change is taking place, something to do with form and value and the authority of the artist. The implication is: Ornette Coleman may be evidence of a new way of thinking and we should listen to him even if we doubt him.

During that period, discussions about jazz moved naturally into philosophical and even moral implications. Who is this music for? What is left to be done in it? Can jazz be done in bad faith? (“If the artist really believes…”) Is there anything wrong with being carried away with—we’ll encounter this phrase in a moment—“intensity of statement?” Does communicative power in jazz need to come from the observance of certain rules about tonal organization—and if it doesn’t, does the jazz become something lesser or even corrupt, maybe something akin to what Plato defined in the Gorgias as rhetoric? Does jazz need to be held to the basic principles that came with it in the first place? What are the most important of those principles, anyway?

Here’s more, from Russell, a few lines later in the interview:

“I believe Ornette’s solos communicate powerfully. This is the most important thing. I think there are times in one single solo when he is more interested in intensity of statement than in thematic elaboration, but this is his own aesthetic decision. In fact, it may be in good taste to sacrifice thematic elaboration for the sake of over-all impact.”

Funny, the way Russell praises Coleman’s autonomy, his absolute do-what-he-wants-ness, and then brings up “taste,” which is a much more mediated kind of idea. If I understand him correctly, he’s not really talking about Coleman’s taste; he’s implying that Coleman’s music might inspire you, the listener, to change yours.