It’s been almost half a century since Ornette Coleman released his Atlantic records debut. On the cover, there’s a photo of Mr. Coleman hugging his plastic alto sax. Above that, printed in red letters: The Shape of Jazz to Come.
Before making that defiant statement, Mr. Coleman had already endured the extremes of derision and disapproval for his unprecedented way of playing and thinking about music. Fellow musicians would walk off the bandstand when he’d solo. Irate audience members would even physically assault him at times. Still, Mr. Coleman persisted in his belief that improvisation didn’t need to be tethered to chord changes and familiar song structures, releasing his oddly intonated solos into disorienting flights of pure melodic invention.
So, as Mr. Coleman cheerfully recalls, “I became a bandleader, because no one would give me a job.” And he really did change the contours of what listeners came to expect from jazz music. Late in 1959, he brought a quartet featuring bassist Charlie Haden, trumpeter Don Cherry and drummer Billy Higgins to the Five Spot in the East Village. It proved to be a historic, controversial engagement. Miles Davis reacted by questioning Mr. Coleman’s mental stability; Leonard Bernstein praised him as a visionary. Since then, the man who opened the Pandora’s box of avant-garde stylings now called free jazz has continued to challenge and puzzle detractors, admirers and his own sidemen.
Mr. Coleman recently gave a brief, impressionistic account of his youth and early career while speaking in his office, a soundproofed space that doubles as a rehearsal room, set off in a corner of his sparsely furnished, colorfully decorated loft overlooking a drab block in the garment district. “I was born in what is called the South, and segregation and all those kinds of things didn’t allow certain groups to progress,” he said, explaining his migration first to one coast, then to another. He spoke in a soft, congenial lilt and skipped breezily from his childhood in Fort Worth—where he shined shoes for about 15 cents a day to save up for his first sax—to those gigs at the Five Spot, where he’d worked up to about $15 a night. In between, he paid his dues in traveling R&B bands, then ended up in L.A., where he got to see Charlie Parker play and was finally able to assemble a group of like-minded musicians.
When he first saw New York as a young kid visiting with relatives, the city was so big and overwhelming, he said, that “I got so depressed …. I said, ‘I miss Fort Worth.’” Since the 1960’s, though, Mr. Coleman has been a pioneer in what reads like a checklist of revitalized neighborhoods—setting up recording and rehearsal spaces first on Prince Street in Soho, then on Rivington Street on the Lower East Side and most recently in Harlem on 125th Street.
As Mr. Coleman continued his narrative, though, autobiography soon gave way to what seems like his favorite topic: the idiosyncratic musical theories that guide his compositions and improvisation. If the confusion that originally greeted his playing has subsided—songs like “Ramblin’” and the heartrending “Lonely Woman” are now classics—then his pronouncements on the nature of sound and music continue to bewilder even his staunchest fans.
When Mr. Coleman first started to analyze the way he composed, he came up with his theory of harmolodics. “I’ve graduated from that,” he said. “Where I’m at right now, I’m calling it ‘sound grammar,’ and I think I’ll stay with that because it’s universal.”
The rules of sound grammar remain opaque despite his best efforts to explain them. For Mr. Coleman, formal musical concepts such as dominant tones and harmony are at least as much about “gravitation” as they are about scales and intervals. He talks mystically about how “music is the freest form of all grammar” and also about “sound relationships.” “Say like if you say something in your native language, and I say something and we say it together,” he explained. “It makes another word that means twice what it means when we were saying it by ourselves.”
The countless patient explanations he must have attempted by now have not dulled his good humor. When asked if he remembered any specific time when he felt the need to express himself until he was understood, he laughed and said, “Yeah, I’m having that moment right now.”
Like the path of one of his solos, Mr. Coleman’s career trajectory has also been unpredictable at times. Intensely productive periods alternate with interludes of self-imposed retreat, rehearsal and reflection; then he surprises listeners by reappearing and taking bold, new steps. After one silent spell, for instance, he emerged having taught himself to play the trumpet and violin (sawing away at it with careening and percussive gestures).
His latest retreat began in the late 1990’s. “I actually wasn’t playing that much, and I wasn’t making any records,” he said. But the bills and rent kept coming from the Harmolodic Studios in Harlem. “I had to leave because it got too expensive. I wasn’t performing, so I just had to give it up.”
Now, though, Mr. Coleman is on the ascent again. He celebrated his 75th birthday this year with a tour that took him and his latest quartet (featuring two bassists, Greg Cohen and Tony Falanga, and his son Denardo Coleman on drums) to Germany, San Francisco and, most recently, to the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark. He has four or five recent live recordings he’d like to put out—the first new material to hit the shelves in about a decade. He hopes to release one from Ludwigshafen, Germany, and another from Carnegie Hall sometime next year and is working on the packaging design concept now.
When asked if he plans to open a new studio, he said, “Oh, for sure …. I’m looking to do all of that.” When asked where, he replied, “It’s gonna be in New York, for sure.” He said he writes music every day, “every time I get a thought.” Although he’ll honor requests for “Lonely Woman,” he tries to play a new program at every concert. He prefers new material because “it keeps the band I’m playing with on their toes,” and because it keeps him stimulated.
Stepping beyond safe, familiar bounds is still his credo: “Happiness is not based upon security, and security is not based on happiness,” he said. For Mr. Coleman, the shape of jazz that came can never be as exciting as what’s still to come.