Ornette Coleman – The Sound of Emancipation

Ornette Coleman

Saxophone player, Ornette Coleman’s roots weren’t in the jazz sounds of New Orleans, Chicago, or Harlem. Coleman learned his craft in the blues joints and in the gospel meetings of his hometown, Fort Worth, Texas.

The uninformed might state that it was musical ignorance, lack of musical skill, or lack of discipline which caused Ornette to push away from the existing forms of music. In fact, while working as an elevator operator, Coleman studiously poured over music composition and theory books. In 1959, he attended the Lenox (Massachusetts) School of Jazz to further his studies.

Using this knowledge as a basis, Coleman spring boarded off of John Coltrane’s first steps of freedom. Coleman brought the guttural growl of the blues and the passion of gospel into Coltrane’s shimmering sounds. In an effort to complete the emancipating efforts, both Coltrane and Coleman began playing with only bass and percussion behind them. By leaving the piano out of the musical equation, there was no harmonic framework to stifle the soloists’ flight. Furthermore, by allowing, even encouraging, the drummer and bass player to enter into their own realm of independence, the experimentation towards musical freedom was complete. The only connection the three players had was that they were playing onstage at the same time. In this way, it hinted at its early jazz collective improvisational roots.

Once again, the question of the musicality of free jazz could be raised. “If you can’t at least hum the melody, and if you can’t dance to it, and if it doesn’t make you feel good, can it accurately be called music?”

It can be argued that contemporary American visual artists like Jackson Pollack were challenged with the same naïve skepticism. “If it’s not on your house, and if it doesn’t look like a bowl of fruit, and if it doesn’t match your living room, can you really call it art?”

The history of art and music have always been about consolidators and innovators. They have been about those who worked within the existing standards to create the finest examples of an era; and those who threw out the existing standards and pushed away from the conventional thinking to give painful birth to that which was the anti-norm. It was out of the anti-norm that additional levels of experimentation, possible acceptance, and ultimate consolidation of style took place.

Coleman and Coltrane’s best efforts of free jazz were in the early and mid 1960s. Coltrane’s willingness to incorporate the public into his experiments, his good-natured personality, and his embracing of eastern religion at a time when the Beatles were doing the same made Coltrane financially successful with a certain level of public acceptance. At the time of his death in 1967, John Coltrane was encouraging young jazz musicians to make discoveries in the areas of African, Indian, and world music.

In contrast with the guru-like status enjoyed by Coltrane, Coleman preferred academic acceptance to public acceptance. His best efforts came with avant-garde ensembles in the recording studio or concert hall. His technique has been called “playing from the fingers instead of from the ears,” describing the more gritty, physical less cerebral, quality of his sound. Beginning in the mid 1980’s, a new awareness and acceptance of Coleman’s efforts had begun.

The measure of artists ought never to be their status on the hit parade of public opinion. Coleman and Coltrane never had a song in the Top 100 of the Billboard charts. Yet, the questions they raised, the struggles they felt, the experiments that they brought to the ear should be accepted and appreciated for what they are: the doors of sound through which new experiments can take place and the basis for new theories of music.

Coltrane and Coleman’s songs never reached the “dance-able, hummable” stage. Yet, like the most frantic of Jimi Hendrix’s psychedelic guitar solos, that was never their goal. Their goal was to find vehicles for those inner emotions that could not readily be packaged in a love song, protest song, work song, or spiritual. Those emotions beyond both angst and ecstasy were the force behind their sounds. And to the listener willing and brave enough to be taken there, free jazz could be a magic carpet ride unlike any other experience.

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Study Units

An Overview

Ch. 1: Understanding Pitch

Ch. 2: Understanding Musical Pulse

Ch. 3: Understanding Volume

Ch. 4: Understanding Tone

Ch. 5: Understanding Melody

Ch. 6: Understanding Harmony

Ch. 7: Understanding Rhythm

Ch. 8: Understanding Bass

Ch. 9: Understanding Countermelody

Ch. 10: Understanding Structure

Ch. 11: Understanding Instrumentation

Ch. 12: Understanding Tempo

An Overview

Ch. 1: 19th Century: Pre-Foster

Ch. 2: Folk Music by the People

Ch. 3: Popular Music in its Infancy

Ch. 4: Stephen Foster – “Father of American Popular Music”

Ch. 5: The Importance of Stephen Foster

Ch. 6: Scott Joplin – “King of Ragtime”

Ch. 7: The Player Piano – Automated Music

Ch. 8: John Philip Sousa – “The March King”

Ch. 9: John Philip Sousa – Recording Artist and Activist

An Overview

Ch. 1: John Lomax – Recording American Roots Music

Ch. 2: Woody Guthrie – “Father of Modern American Folk Music”

Ch. 3: Leadbelly & Pete Seeger: End of the First Wave

Ch. 4: The Kingston Trio – Beginning of the Second Wave

Ch. 5: Joan Baez – “First Lady of Folk Music”

Ch. 6: Peter, Paul & Mary – Balancing the Message

Ch. 7: Robert Zimmerman – The Beginning of an American Icon

Ch. 8: Dylan in New York City

Ch. 9: Dylan after Newport

Ch. 10: The Importance of Dylan

Ch. 11: Folk Music in the 21st Century

An Overview

Ch. 1: The Roots of Country

Ch. 2: Bristol Beginnings

Ch. 3: The Grand Ole Opry

Ch. 4: Cowboys and the Movies

Ch. 5: Western Swing

Ch. 6: Bluegrass: Hillbilly on Caffeine

Ch. 7: Honky-tonk: Merging Two into One

Ch. 8: The Nashville Sound: Country-Pop

Ch. 9: Rockabilly – Country meets R&B

Ch. 10: Country Feminists Find Their Voice

Ch. 11: The Bakersfield Sound

Ch. 12: Austin “Outlaw” Country

Ch. 13: Neo-Traditionalists at the end of the 20th Century

Ch. 14: Mainstreaming Country in the ‘90s

Ch. 15: Redesigning Country in the 21st Century

An Overview

Ch. 1: What is Jazz?

Ch. 2: Before It Was Jazz

Ch. 3: Jazz is Born!

Ch. 4: Early Jazz Musicians

Ch. 5: Louis Armstrong

Ch. 6: Chicago and Harlem – Hub of 1920s Jazz

Ch. 7: Big Band – Jazz Swing!

Ch. 8: Big Band Musicians and Singers

Ch. 9: Jump Blues and Bop

Ch. 10: Cool Jazz

Ch. 11: Hard Bop

Ch. 12: Free Jazz – Breaking the Rules

Ch. 13: Fusion – The Jazz-Rock-Funk Experience

Ch. 14: Third Stream and World Jazz

Ch. 15: New Age & Smooth Jazz

Ch. 16: Summary – Jazz Lives!

An Overview

Ch. 1: Blues – The Granddaddy of American Popular Music

Ch. 2: Where Did the Blues Come From?

Ch. 3: What Are the Blues?

Ch. 4: How to Build the Blues

Ch. 5: Classic Blues – The Early Years

Ch. 6: Delta Blues – Authentic Beginnings

Ch. 7: Blues in the City – Migration and Power

Ch. 8: Blues in Britain – Redefining the Masters

Ch. 9: Contemporary Blues – Maturity and Respect

Ch. 10: The Relevancy of the Blues Today

Ch. 1: Timelines, Cultures & Technology

Ch. 2: Pre-Rock Influences

Ch. 3: Rock is Born!

Ch. 4: Rock is Named

Ch. 5: Doo-Wop

Ch. 6: Independent Record Labels

Ch. 7: Technology Shapes Rock ‘n’ Roll

Ch. 8: The Plan to Mainstream Rock ‘n’ Roll

Ch. 9: Payola – Rock ‘n’ Roll’s First Scandal

Ch. 1: Crafting Sound in the Studio/Producers and Hit Songs

Ch. 2: West Coast Sound: Beach, Surf, and Teens

Ch. 3: The British Invasion: Two Prongs – Pop & Blues

Ch. 4: Motown and the Development of a Black Pop-Rock Sound

Ch. 5: Soul Music: Gospel and R&B in the Deep South

Ch. 6: The Sounds of Bubble Gum Pop-Rock

Ch. 7: The Arrival of Folk-Rock

Ch. 8: Psychedelic Rock ‘n’ Roll

Ch. 9: Early Guitar Gods of Rock

Ch. 10: Rock Festivals: The Rise and Fall of Music, Peace, and Love

Ch. 11: Anti-Woodstock and Shock Rock Movements

Ch. 1: Technological Breakthroughs

Ch. 2: Electronic Dance Music

Ch. 3: Hip-Hop & Rap – An Introduction

Ch. 4: The Beginnings of Rap

Ch. 5: Old School Rap – Up From the Streets

Ch. 6: Rap’s Golden Age

Ch. 7: East Coast – Political Rap

Ch. 8: West Coast – Gangsta Rap

Ch. 9: The Fragmentation of Rap – Pop, Party & More

Ch. 10: Further Fragmentation – Different Directions

Ch. 11: The Importance of Rap

Ch. 1: Musical Stage Productions in America before the 1800s

Ch. 2: Minstrel Shows and Melodramas

Ch. 3: Stage Presentations in the Late 19th Century

Ch. 4: Early 20th Century: Revues and Operettas

Ch. 5: The Arrival of the Modern American Musical

Ch. 6: Great Partnerships in Book-Musicals

Ch. 7: Musical Theatre Composers in the mid-Century

Ch. 8: Fresh Voices on the Stage in the 1960s

Ch. 9: Two Dominant Forces at the End of the Century

Ch. 10: New Voices at the End of the Century

Ch. 11: New Voices, New Sounds in the New Century

Ch. 12: Musical Theatre Glossary

Ch. 13: Is it “Theatre” or “Theater”?

Study Units also have “Playdecks” – containing hundreds of chronologically organized audio examples of music in the study units, and “Study Qs” for unit chapters.

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