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Ornette Coleman: The Territory and the Adventure
by Maria Golia,
(Reaktion Books, £16)
“HOW do you try to turn emotion into knowledge? That’s what I try to do with my horn.” Thus was the testimony of the revolutionary alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman.
He was born in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1930, and the titles of his early albums reveal his intentions and musical trajectory: Change of the Century, The Shape of Jazz to Come, Tomorrow Is the Question, Free Jazz.
These were epochal recordings with fellow musical subversives such as trumpeter Don Cherry, bassist Charlie Haden, drummers Billy Higgins and Ed Blackwell.
In New York in 1959 they set pre-existing jazz patterns on fire and provoked both vituperation and admiration. “Ornette’s music was conceived to hit you right between the eyes,” declared trumpeter Bobby Bradford, while John Coltrane exclaimed: “Well, that must be the answer!' after hearing Ornette’s quartet at the Five Spot venue.
Maria Golia’s book describes the Ornette phenomenon with insight and eloquence. It’s laden with musical and social insights, and she is particularly strong in her finely written first section. She describes Ornette’s early years in Hillside, a poor black neighbourhood in segregated Fort Worth, a “hardscrabble town” where he grew to musicianship within a musical church-going family. His father was a mechanic, his mother a hotel maid and his elder sister Truvenza sang the blues.
Golia tells how Ornette’s early musical years in the 1950s were spent around New Orleans and Baton Rouge, where a group of Jim Crow listeners beat him and mashed up his saxophone, and later Los Angeles, where he befriended the great tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins. They would play duets on the Pacific shoreline, with the pounding waves as their rhythm section.
The author provides an acute analysis of the sources of Coleman’s “harmolodics,” the structure of musical and social-cultural ideas that drove his sound. “There are as many unisons as there are stars in the sky,” he said, and dreamed, in music as in life, of everyone in the world singing and all of those voices getting together in unison.
Golia describes Coleman’s time in Morocco in 1972 and his meeting with the musicians of the Joujouka community, who inspired him for the rest of his life: “The voices of the individual and the collective were so closely bound, they could scarcely be told apart,” she writes.
That’s exactly how I remember the last time I heard Coleman, accompanying the Joujouka virtuosi with his saxophone, trumpet and violin at the Royal Festival Hall in 2009. “I don’t try to please when I play,” he asserted. “I try to cure.”
He was uncompromising about releasing the power of music: “Sound is as free as the gas that passes through your gut,” he insisted. “In music, the only requirement is for it to be heard.”
Yet in her final chapter Golia tells how Coleman’s city, a decade after his death, has been appropriated by some of the most backward figures of the Trump era, entirely contrary to everything about his message.
The Fort Worth-based Bass family, whose oil and gas fortunes made them one of the richest and most powerful in America, sold their interests to ex-secretary of state Rex Tillerson, CEO of Exxon Oil, with Steve Bannon manager of their downtown properties.
Coleman’s insurgent and prophetic notes still signal and forewarn of the best and worst of America and 90 years after his birth, the sound of that truth still lives on. Play the Tomorrow Is the Question album to remind yourself of it.
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