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.