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Ornette Coleman, Traditionalist

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There will be a funeral service for the saxophonist, composer, bandleader and iconoclast Ornette Coleman in Manhattan at 11 o’clock tomorrow morning, June 27. Coleman died on June 11 at the age of 85. Rifftides noted his passing that day. The service at The Riverside Church, between W. 122 St. and W. 120 St., will be open to the public.

Thoughts of Coleman took me to a day in the 1960s not long after the release of his album Free Jazz. I was living in New Orleans. The alto saxophonist Al Belletto (1928-2014) and I were having one of our Saturday listening sessions. I put Free Jazz on the turntable, placed the needle and waited for his reaction. Al reached musical maturity in the Crescent City’s traditional jazz community. His quintet of young beoppers achieved a good deal of national success in the 1950s and early sixties. Many musicians of his age and background were mystified by or indignant about Coleman’s departures from the harmonic and rhythmic norms of early jazz, swing and bop. If Belletto had paid attention to the free jazz movement that Coleman to a large extent initiated, he never mentioned it in our get-togethers.

A few minutes into Free Jazz, Belletto was nodding his head and smiling. He said that the interaction in what Coleman and his double quartet were playing had the spirit of “what the old guys used to do” in post-funeral parades and jam sessions. Coleman had lived in New Orleans for six months in 1949 and 1950 and spent time with young modern jazz strivers—drummer Ed Blackwell, clarinetist Alvin Batiste, cornetist Melvin Lastie, pianist Ellis Marsalis and others. As far as I know, he and Belletto never met. How much traditional New Orleans jazz Coleman heard in addition to the approaches he absorbed from Batiste and company, we may never know. But the collective improvisation of Free Jazz connected immediately to a New Orleans musician who recognized tradition when he heard it and didn’t let preconceptions or labels affect his hearing.

For our weekend listening, let’s hear the title track of Free Jazz. On the left channel are Coleman, alto saxophone; Don Cherry, trumpet; Scott LaFaro, bass; and Billy Higgins, drums. On the right channel: Eric Dolphy, bass clarinet; Freddie Hubbard, trumpet; Charlie Haden, bass; Ed Blackwell, drums. December 21, 1960 in New York City.

For commentary, I defer to the final two paragraphs of the original liner notes by the late Martin Williams.

Jazzmen have tried spontaneous group improvising without preconceptions before, of course—and almost invariably fallen into playing the blues within an acceptable key. It is surely a most telling tribute to the importance of this music that all of these young men, of different experience in jazz, were able to contribute spontaneously and sustain a performance like this one.

On the other hand, the man who isn’t bothered about ‘newness’ or ‘difference,’ but says only that, ‘He sounds like someone crying, talking, laughing,’ is having the soundest sort of response to Ornette Coleman’s music.

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This story appears courtesy of Rifftides by Doug Ramsey.
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