CELEBRATING
50 YEARS

Maria Golia: Ornette Coleman: The Territory and the Adventure (Reaktion)

A review of a new biography about the saxophonist

Ornette Coleman: The Territory and the Adventure
The cover of Ornette Coleman: The Territory and the Adventure by Maria Golia

Were you an ardent fan of hard bop, circa 1960, with an additional yen for progressive mages like John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk, you might well have thought your brain had been fried when Ornette Coleman famously (add the “in-” if you like) gatecrashed the scene. This makes a goodly amount of sense, and also contains a ripe helping of irony, as Maria Golia labors lovingly to explain in The Territory and the Adventure.

The knock on Coleman—more like a sneaking suspicion—was that he was intentionally tendentious, a Dadaist in jazzman’s clothes. Golia puts her emphasis on Coleman’s blues-based leanings, as though he were but an avant-garde hard bopper. In a way, he pulled from the same pocket of sound as Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker, though there could be no confusion as to whose brand of music was whose. Coleman didn’t wish to alienate with his brace of the blues; he wanted to be understood, even share in a form of communion.

The pre-buzz years make for gripping reading. Coleman cut teeth in tough Texas bars where men cut men. There was quite the olio in play, with Tex-Mex rubbing up against country & western, powerhouse blues, jazz you could dance to. From here—and from within himself—Coleman came. Maybe one of the nicest things we can say about his music is that you can dance to it. He, like Monk, was someone who would have dug that.

The anecdotes dovetail with the burgeoning sound. In high school Coleman converted to vegetarianism, which must have seemed like a life choice played for extreme shock value in mid-century Texas. He balked at school, hating pretension, but believing himself—correctly—to be a highly educated man. A school couldn’t contain his kind of brains. Of course, his alto sax could. One could say that he went to the U of Horn, and we’re not talking steer.

Golia doesn’t take you inside the music. Analysis is provided by quotes from others—Jackie McLean, Martin Williams—and that makes me distrustful of a writer writing a music book. She can also be a little hop-scotch-y with how she leaps around a scene, like when Coleman hits NYC in 1959. You want to be put in the picture here, not dangled over its edges. The writing trends to tepid, blanched; sentences are loaded with multiple uses of the word “most.” There was a time I would have wondered why no one flagged this, but we’re living in an autopilot world. You’re getting a professional account, though, of a heady dude, without cosmic junk and jargon, which is what some Ornette admirers rely on.

Although Coleman made a lot of art in his life, I can’t help thinking that there’s a richer tome to be written dialing in on the time period from, say, the Hillcrest Club recordings in 1958 to the Stockholm dates of 1965. That’s when Coleman was Braque with sound. Those were the blues to round up. A job for another author, perhaps.

Learn more about Ornette Coleman: The Territory and the Adventure on Amazon!

Colin Fleming

Colin Fleming writes fiction and nonfiction on myriad topics—art, film, music, sports, literature—for a wide range of publications. He also talks regularly on the radio for the likes of NPR and Downtown with Rich Kimball. His most recent book, Buried on the Beaches: Cape Stories for Hooked Hearts and Driftwood Souls (Tailwinds), was published in 2019, with an entry in Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 series on Sam Cooke’s Live at the Harlem Square Club to follow in 2020. Find him on the web at colinfleminglit.com (where you’ll also find his unique online journal, the Many Moments More blog) and on Twitter @colinfleminglit. He lives in Boston and has contributed to JazzTimes since 2006.