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Striking a chord with Ornette Coleman

Apartheid in the US is usually associated with the southern states but it was alive and well in Fort Worth, Texas when Ornette Coleman was born there in 1930.


Ornette Coleman. Foto de Craig Howell /Flickr . Licencia Creative Commons License

Sean Sheehan


Where people lived, what bus they travelled on, school or hospital attended, all depended on skin colour.

So did the kind of music listened to and, after World War II, Black US-Americans with a liking for jazz found bebop hitting the spot.

Ornette Coleman listened attentively, took to playing the alto sax and changed the course of jazz.

In her biography of Coleman – a book with superbly reproduced photographs – Maria Golia singles out a moment in 1948 when, in an all-white club, he was in a band playing a popular standard:

“I could hear all these other notes I could play to the [chord] changes …so I just started playing all the things I could think of to the changes without touching the melody. And then a guy hollered out, “Get on the melody, get on the melody!” And then I realized…I was already playing the melody [from the outside] and this guy didn’t realize it.”

Ornette Coleman lost his job that night but he found a new sound and it wasn’t bebop. It was time for him to move on and, after a spell in Los Angeles, New York’s jazz clubs beckoned.

By the late 1950s and not yet thirty, he had released three albums but his music divided critical opinion.

Detractors were aghast at what they saw as a cavalier attitude to chord sequences and his willingness to let the bass and drums improvise with melody and harmony.

Fans compared him to Charlie Parker but, as one writer put it in his obituary, others heard an ‘eldritch wrongness’ in his music.

In the mid-1960s, he travelled around Europe and to Africa in 1972, discovering new music and absorbing diverse influences.

As a vegetarian in Texas and someone who never took up the drug habit in the New York clubs, Ornette Coleman did his own thing with graceful ease.

This comes across strongly in the story of his life as told by Maria Golia and she is good at contextualising the different phases of his musical career.

There is admiration for someone who untied the chains of poverty and racism that held so many in confinement and an anecdote she tells about another jazz musician, Louis Armstrong, also says something about Ornette Coleman.

Armstrong was arrested in Memphis for sitting next to a white woman, his manager’s wife, on their tour bus.

Photo by Sean Sheehan

After a night in jail, he found himself performing to an audience that included the cops who had locked him up – so he dedicated his opening number to them: “I’ll be glad when you’re dead, you rascal you”.

Golia does not try to put into words the luminous music that Ornette Coleman played, leaving the reader to appreciate its quality by listening.

“Ornette Coleman: the territory and the adventure” by Maria Golia, is published by Reaktion Books.


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