Ornette, Redux

I don’t usually do this sort of thing, but I wanted to revisit Ornette Coleman and yesterday’s article about him, for several reasons.

Firstly, the response from people was very quick, positive and voluminous, so thanks to everybody for their comments and support, this was both gratifying and a little surprising. I say surprising because I wrote the piece pretty quickly, wanting to get it out in one day in the interests of timeliness in this case, and for this reason I felt it was far from my best work. There were also distractions and interruptions while I wrote it here at work, which caused me to leave some things out, maybe a good thing. I didn’t have time, nor was I up for writing a lot of detailed critical analysis on Ornette’s music, maybe just as well – I mean, the man just died here and I wasn’t writing a thesis. Partly I wrote the piece as a cathartic aid to help myself get over the surprisingly palpable shock of Ornette’s death and also assumed that a lot of readers would already know what he did and what his music accomplished and so on. There were lots of more detailed obituaries yesterday and today which covered this and, moreover, there has been reams of stuff written about Coleman’s music over the years, some of it worthwhile, some of it quite misleading. Mostly I wanted the piece to be personal and brief and also to say that while Coleman was an innovative, avant-garde figure, his music was not “weird” or as inaccessible as it’s often made out to be. I may revisit the article and flesh it out with a little more information and commentary on Coleman’s music or maybe not, I don’t know yet.

At any rate, I possibly learned a few things from the wide response, if I interpret it correctly. That maybe it’s better to write more personally and with less detail and fact – as the marvelous writer Terry Teachout once said in an interview, “You don’t have to write everything you know” – or words to that effect. And that it’s not just what or how you write that touches people, but also about whom you write and when – clearly there are a lot of people out there who care a great deal about Ornette Coleman’s music and mourn his passing, hardly a surprise, but more than I thought. And it also helps to have friends who spread a piece around through the social media. I don’t want to mention him by name because he might prefer it that way, but one friend in particular notified me quite promptly that he posted the piece on his Facebook page, which he does from time to time with articles he particularly likes or wants to see more widely read. I greatly appreciate this, because I’ve stayed away from Facebook and other forms of social media, partly because I’m a Luddite, but mainly because they seen time-consuming and this blog already takes up a lot of time. I’ve noticed the power of the medium though, anytime a piece of mine really gets a lot of response, it’s usually because of these efforts, so thank you, Citizen Mysterioso.

There was something I did intend to mention in yesterday’s piece but omitted in haste, so I’ll do so here. Earlier I wrote that reams of stuff of varying value about Coleman has been written over the years, but one of the best things I’ve read on the subject is a book called The Battle of the Five Spot: Ornette Coleman and the New York Jazz Field, by Canadian bassist, author and jazz scholar David Lee. I first read it when it came out in 2006 and someone gave me a copy of the newly revised edition last Christmas, so I read it again with pleasure. Don’t let the slenderness of the book fool you, it’s packed with information, thought and insight into the cultural debate surrounding Coleman’s controversial 1959 residency at the Five Spot, contextualizing this in terms of social change and issues of power within that artistic community. It applies the French philosopher and social critic Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of the “artistic field” to Coleman’s music and its struggle for acceptance. I’m making it sound like heavy going, but Lee writes very clearly and concisely and I highly recommend the book to anyone who wants to learn more about Ornette Coleman. I believe it’s published by Wolsak & Wynn, available here:


One more thing……As I said I would, I spent a couple of hours last night listening to some of Ornette’s records, among them Change of the Century, his second album for Atlantic, done in 1960 with his quartet of Don Cherry on trumpet, Charlie Haden on bass and Billy Higgins on drums. The first track is “Ramblin'”, one of his better-known and most often-covered and accessible compositions, based on a long-meter blues form. It has a lovely, vocal hoedown quality with a wide, rolling beat and demonstrates that while Coleman did away with chords and regular bar-lines, his music (at least in the early going) retained elements of tempo, form and tonality, but these were looser and more open-ended than in previous jazz styles, allowing the musicians greater freedom.

I’ve posted the track below so people can hear it. I’ve listened to it countless times, but noticed something about it last night for the first time which perked my ears up. After the saxophone and trumpet solos, Charlie Haden plays a bass solo which begins at exactly the 4:00 mark in the link below. It’s one of the earliest examples of the signature style we’ve come to expect from him – a very down-home solo using both drone effects and strummed double-stops to achieve a folkloric effect – simple, but very soulful and eloquent. I noticed for the first time an abrupt change in sound just as Haden’s solo starts. This could just be the result of the sudden drop in dynamics or could be a bad edit, from splicing part of another track on to this one, a fairly common practice in recording. But that’s not what I’m talking about…. what I noticed for the first time was the very sparse, chiming cymbal accompaniment to Haden’s solo and how much it sounds like Connie Kay, or at least like the finger-cymbals Kay liked to use with the Modern Jazz Quartet, often struck with small metal rods. I’m not saying it is Kay, but then again, I’ve never heard Billy Higgins sound anything like this either, and then there’s the strange transition at the beginning of the solo to wonder about. I’m not trying to make too much out of it and it doesn’t really matter, but it did get me to thinking about the close relationship between Ornette Coleman and the MJQ in those early days, not an association one would normally make.

Not only did Coleman’s long engagement at the Five Spot Café split the New York jazz community into pro and con, it did the same thing with the MJQ. John Lewis, the group’s pianist and musical director, was one of the earliest, most prominent and staunchest of Coleman’s supporters, saying that his music was the first really new thing in jazz since Charlie Parker. (Interestingly, two of Coleman’s other prominent early supporters were also, like Lewis, composers with a background in classical music – Leonard Bernstein, and Gunther Schuller.) Lewis didn’t just support Coleman with words, he actively helped him, giving him a residency/scholarship at the summer jazz school Lewis ran in Lennox, Massachusetts – which gave Ornette greater exposure and acceptance – and securing Coleman a contract with Atlantic Records, the label which Lewis and the MJQ recorded for.

The MJQ’s other main star, Milt Jackson, was just as firmly in the anti-Coleman camp though, along with other prominent bebop musicians such as Miles Davis. Jackson didn’t care for anything about Coleman’s playing or composing, though he did take part very effectively in the MJQ’s recording of Coleman’s signature composition “Lonely Woman” in 1962.

The group’s bassist Percy Heath joined Lewis in a pro-Coleman stance, in fact Heath played on most of Tomorrow Is the Question!, Coleman’s second album for Contemporary, done in Los Angeles in early 1959. This was well before Ornette even arrived in New York, but created much advance interest in the saxophonist. Heath also played on some of The Avant-Garde, a session with John Coltrane and trumpeter Don Cherry, along with other members of Ornette’s band – Charlie Haden (who replaces Percy on two tracks) and drummer Ed Blackwell – which was not released until 1966. Heath’s recorded alliance with the avant-garde was brief, but at the very least showed a supportive openness to the new music on his part.

As for Connie Kay, well, he was a quiet guy and didn’t have much to say about Coleman and the new music one way or the other. There is the business of the cymbal work behind Haden on “Ramblin'” though. I’m just speculating here, but I wonder if John Lewis was present at the session and suggested that Higgins try a Kay-like cymbal manoeuvre behind the solo, or if Higgins was interested in this sound and borrowed Kay’s finger cymbals here, or maybe took a couple of pointers from him in their use. Or, given the apparent splice, maybe Kay actually stepped in and played them behind Haden. All of these are a little far-fetched, but entirely possible, stranger things have happened in jazz. It doesn’t really matter, the credits say Billy Higgins and whoever is playing, this part of the track and the rest of it sound wonderful, as does the whole album. We’ll never know and it’s not important, just one of the impossibly arcane little things that interest me, and possibly only me, so thanks for your indulgence.



© 2015, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.

3 thoughts on “Ornette, Redux

  1. Hello Steve–I enjoy your blog and especially with Ornette Coleman, the way you do him justice without writing sentimentally. Thanks for the kind mention of “Five Spot”!

  2. Hello, Steve
    thank you for your article and for your blog in general.
    I’m pretty sure the sound you’re referring to that happens during the bass solo of “Ramblin” is Mr. Higgins playing on the upper tube of the hihat stand, not on finger cymbals.
    Hihats stands from that time period (1959) had a nice , almost bell-like (think: bicycle bell) sound. It has been a common practice for drummers since Papa Jo’s and Big Sid’s days to play the ride pattern on the hihat while touching the cymbals with the left hand to control the open/close sound. (Those old hihat machines could be a bit clumsy to control with the foot.)
    So when you hold your left hand stick in the so called traditional grip, the stick almost automatically touches the upper part of the tube. A lot of drummers used this metallic sound for comping-style accents while playing the ride pattern on the hihat.
    That’s one of the reason I play an old 1964 Rogers Swivomatic Hihat stand. With new hihat stands the metal doesn’t sound at all, they’re all too heavy.
    Funny thing is that Mr. Higgins isn’t playing the cymbals in this part, just the stand.
    The soft cymbal sound you’re hearing is just from vibrations the stand transfers to the hihat cymbal.
    (Connie Kay told me by the way, that he was driving Big Sid Catlett around town after gigs when he was still very young, so there’s that connection).
    I’m 100% sure that it is Mr. Higgins playing during the bass solo; Connie Kay had a very different way of phrasing.
    I do know this recording by heart since I first heard it when I was 14 years old.
    And yes, it did change my life.

  3. Nice follow-up, Steve.

    Here’s one of my favorite of Ornette’s recordings, “Doughnuts”–from “Ornette Coleman Trio at the Golden Circle, Volume One” in 1965. A great extended solo, with magnificent support from two underrated players, bassist David Izenzon and drummer Charles Moffett. Whether or not one has an affinity for Ornette’s music, it’s hard not to “get” this one.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.