I saw him only once but at least I saw him, at Bonnaroo of all places. I knew enough to be curious, but I was working in production and I was late and got stuck at the back of the crowd and I could hardly see and I don’t remember what it sounded like but it was a hot year — we slouched under a searing heat with sun-blistered hearts and drooping faces — and halfway through the set Ornette Coleman collapsed and was rushed off stage. We thought maybe he had died but I heard over the two-way radio that he was alive and being treated for heat stroke. They released him from the hospital a few hours later.
Ornette Coleman has died now, for real, eight years after that Bonnaroo thing, and it’s a shitty reason to write about him but I’m going to do it anyway. If you studied jazz in college you heard about The Shape of Jazz to Come, maybe a few sentences about the man himself, maybe just the assertion that nobody really liked his music. Then you went on to Brazilian and modal and all the rest of the stuff that falls squarely within traditional boundaries.
That was me, anyway. I was told that Coleman was controversial, that his music served a theoretical purpose and was a good intellectual exercise, but that in practice it was useless. No audience wanted to hear it and no musicians wanted to play it. These are the same arguments that are made against serialism, atonality, anything else that represents a challenge to the listener. Anything you can’t christing sell. The Second Viennese School, Burroughs, Derrida, Pollock, Marx – in the U.S., especially. These were not just creative thinkers with unusual ideas, they held dangerous ideas, and a dangerous idea that cannot be sold is a treasonous threat, so we’re told, and I’ve no reason to believe that will ever change.
A recurring problem in music, perhaps the recurring problem in music is that of authenticity: how it’s measured, how it’s constructed, how it’s manipulated. The arguments among fans and critics about quality—about which album is better or which artist or which genre—that’s all part of the scheme. If something sells, or if some entity wants something to sell, then it’s christened as “popular”, then we debate whether it deserves to be popular or whether it has any artistic value. But everyone forgets that recorded music was invented to be sold—there is no higher law that could overrule this—and so the sales drive the medium, and anything beyond that is tacked on after the fact to justify the mechanisms of the whole damn thing. We see great artists and we hear great music because that’s what we’re given. The only factor that propels music towards “great” or away from it is if we are willing to put money down, if young emotions get tweaked in a certain way that generates cash. And the only time we hear something is if someone has invested a good amount of money betting that we will like it.
How many times have I been so moved by a new band that I’ve immediately bought something from them? Too many times to count. I believed I was nurturing talent and supporting hard work. But these things are irrelevant. They have to be. The only truth is product, and it really is pointless to have feelings about how it’s made.
A fun thing to do, if you’re ever around people that are heavy into music, is to watch what happens whenever Ornette Coleman (or Stockhausen, or Penderecki, or Yeezus) is brought up. Everyone desperately wants to say something but no one knows what to say. So the responses devolve into “I like it” or “I don’t like it” and then all attention is diverted to the question of “is this music or not?” and before you know it, you’ve wasted an entire evening.
I’m perversely drawn towards anything people express disdain for, if for no other reason than to determine if the thing in question will earn my own disdain. If it wasn’t for this, I never would have known how enjoyable Ornette Coleman’s music is, and I’d probably have assumed he was the dissonant traitor my professor said he was.
In every age and across every medium there are always antagonists whose tendencies rocket towards the unknown, the otherwordly, the intensely visceral. They are in conflict with society because they are artists and all art is born of discontent. When humanity is fully satisifed we will have all passed from existence.
Naming a record The Shape of Jazz to Come was an affront, a hard slap to the face, just like Young, Gifted, and Black, just like There’s a Riot Goin’ On and Fear of a Black Planet—these titles were designed to intimidate as much as celebrate, to foster dispute and to affirm that this statement was, in fact, the exact kind of statement the artist wanted to make, and if you didn’t like it you could go to hell. Rhetoric dictates thought as much as it expresses it, and this is one way powerful thoughts are disseminated: through bold statements made without concession.
If you skip all the academic bullshit and sit down and listen to the damned thing, you’ll wonder what everyone is so upset about. It’s very melodic, very organized, very listenable, so what’s the big deal? It breaks in unexpected directions, it feels rough in that great way that seasoned improvisers know how to pull off. There’s nothing remotely experimental about it to my ears—and there’s a word that may be the most misused in music writing. As I’ve seen with Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and Kid A and a thousand other albums, critics mark these works as “experimental” and place them in a strange category where we are expected to find oddities when, in fact, they’re all very pleasant to listen to. Is Yankee Hotel Foxtrot strange as hell? Yes, but the songs themselves are perfectly traditional in structure, just the same as “Lonely Woman” is.
So you’ll probably like The Shape of Jazz to Come, or maybe you won’t. I doubt you’ll hate it, especially since it’s very likely influenced an artist or song you already love. Any noise you read to the contrary is just that: feelings of uncertainty coupled with an irrevocable need to say something. This is, perhaps, irrelevant to Ornette Coleman’s legacy. But he was a proud participant in refusing to be cowed by any standard that was not his own.