I can’t think about this music and remain detached. It takes me back to a period from the late 70s through to the early 90s when I was discovering amazing new music on an almost daily basis. Music from each and every genre and era. Music seemed to be everywhere. Late-night TV, radio (mainstream and underground), the pub circuit (a time before poker machines ruled), uni refecs, the music press, friends ready to pass on a hot tip – music was everywhere. Each and every public library seemed to have an unseen geek spruiking the cassette rack with choice cuts.
The best “new” music was often similar enough to things I’d heard before, but avoided going where one might expect. Something like a joke that plays with your assumptions, only to overturn them with a surprising punch line. It usually didn’t take itself too seriously and took the liberty to create tension, only to refuse to resolve it until it was damn ready. It might puzzle on an intellectual level but be intriguing enough to inspire you to persevere with it.
Reading too much into the text?
Music wasn’t just an accoutrement – it mattered. It got you through the rest of your crumby day, or week, or year. On the down side, the music press was a major conduit between player and audience and the gate-holder critics would usually over-intellectualise the hell out of it all (read any 60s or 70s era Downbeat or early Rolling Stone article if you don’t believe me). Being misunderstood was the price (willingly) paid in order to promote one’s music through a very powerful print media (remember, this is before the internet came along).
One such music-maker was Free Jazzer Ornette Coleman. Coleman was wry enough to invent a fictitious (or at the very least, vague and highly incoherent) theoretical basis for his music called “Harmolodics.” This arguable piss-take was instigated, in my opinion, merely to satisfy journalists’ desire to map out socio-political and musical certainties worthy of their (as they saw it) formidable intellects, and, in doing so, to mock their ignorance of music-making process. Besides, saying that music making is fun, and asking the question “Who wouldn’t want to be paid to have fun for a living?” doesn’t make for good copy. If you read enough of Coleman’s comments about this topic, you’ll be reminded of Bob Dylan’s mid-60s interviews – performances of sorts in their own right – where he wielded his formidable wit like some kind of (to use his own-maybe-words) “diabolical weapon” (2004).
I first became aware of the name Ornette Coleman when I bought Pat Metheny’s Bright Size Life (1975) album at the age of 15. The last track “Round Trip” (1968) was written by Coleman and Metheny’s playing on this one was a bit more “out there” than usual, so I wondered who this Ornette Coleman guy might be. Years passed and then the album Song X (1986) came out – a collaboration between Metheny, Coleman and his son Denardo, the (soulful) Charlie Haden and (master of the cymbals) Jack DeJohnette. The music, although something like a slickly-produced pressure-cooker of sound, reminded me mostly of “Dixieland” Jazz, that is, as filtered/distorted through the cut and paste lens of a William Burroughs “novel.” I was hooked and resolved to investigate further.
I’d initially set out to buy The Shape of Jazz To Come (1959) since it featured the famous track “Lonely Woman.” The record store only had the follow-up Change Of The Century (1960) in stock so I got that instead. Lucky for me. From the first note I soon forgot about Song X (still a great album in my opinion), surprised to hear a record that was so much earthier, heartfelt, soulful and folky (!?). Change Of The Century was full of really sensitive ensemble playing (particularly Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins’ [much more than a] rhythm section). It didn’t seem to want to destroy the lexicon of jazz music at all (as I’d heard). It felt instead, like a continuation of jazz’s heritage, but one that faced the reality of its time. The heads of the tunes would sound familiar enough to any bebop fan, but it was the “in-the-moment” risk-taking of the soloing that made me realise that jazz, blues, “rhythm n blues,” folk music and “rock n roll” are all very close cousins.
Ornette’s words: then and since
Coleman’s published thoughts regarding his art changed markedly over the years. When I first bought Change Of The Century, I was delighted to read the liner notes where Coleman spoke honestly and openly – instead of incoherently as he’d done in a perplexing 80s article I’d read just previously – about so many of the traits I’d picked up on simply by listening with an open mind (for eg., the collective group improvisation harking back to early New Orleans bands, as opposed to, the adversarial Kansas City “cutting sessions”-influenced soloing approach popular at the time. Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation By The Ornette Coleman Double Quartet released later the same year, takes this approach a step (or rather, leap) further).
Although his thoughts, as featured in the liner notes, may have been radical enough in 1960, their shock value would soon fade as more and more people eventually “got it” and “free jazz” risked being reduced to just another musical category. It’s possible therefore that Coleman felt the need to keep confusing journalists in later years: (a) in order to keep them engaged and (b) “in-the-moment.” In particular, it’s worth noting that tolerance of ambiguity is a co-factor of creative practice and the present-orientated playful frame of mind that Coleman describes his group engaging in in the liner notes (Apter, 1991; Tegano, 1990). So playing with “journos'” minds could be seen as way of letting them in on the “feeling” of the music, as opposed to its “meaning.”
It might also have been the schadenfreude in Coleman delighting in the fact that some writers can’t let go until they’ve wrung every last supposed secret out of a musical phenomenon. Keep them bamboozled, they’ll keep writing about you, and you reach a new audience through that channel. Musicologist Dr Stephen Rush’s (2017) book on the matter of Harmolodics may, or may not be, a case in point. Coleman is dead now and we’ll never know for sure. Have a read for yourself (below) and you be the judge. But don’t forget to listen to Change Of The Century (also below), because the music itself is the primary artefact – the primary text. And it sounds and feels just as good whether or not you understand it simply “in-the-moment” or later on, conceptually.
You can listen to Ornette Coleman’s “Change Of The Century” in high-definition by signing up to the first “artist-owned” music subscriber service TIDAL (Here). Until then you can listen to the lo-fi version below. Enjoy.
Apter, M. J. (1991). A structural phenomenology of play. In J. H. Kerr & M. J. Apter (Eds.), Adult play: A reversal theory approach (pp. 13-29). Amsterdam, Netherlands: Swets & Zeitlinger.
Dylan, B. (2004). Chronicles: Volume one. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
Rush, S. (2017). Free Jazz, Harmolodics, and Ornette Coleman. Philadelphia, PA: Routledge.
Tegano, D. W. (1990). Relationship of tolerance ambiguity and playfulness to creativity. In Psychological reports, 66, 1047-1056.