Ornette Coleman stands before Jackson Pollock’s Number 13 (1949), one of the more poetic splatter paintings, ferociously dense yet airily light. He ponders it for several minutes, tracing his index finger over its subtler patterns. “These don’t look like strokes,” he finally says in his hushed, gentle tone. “They look like signals or messages, like a letter he’s writing in the form of art, like some advanced Braille.” He laughs and looks some more. “It’s not something that you’ve seen before that you can name. It’s something that he created as he did it. The act of creation is the creation.”
The same can be said of Mr. Coleman’s music, and it’s a serendipitous convergence that brings the two together. A major exhibition of Pollock’s works on paper is going on at the Guggenheim Museum. A rare concert by Mr. Coleman’s quartet takes place this Friday at Carnegie Hall, as part of the JVC Jazz Festival.
Mr. Coleman has often been called the Jackson Pollock of the alto saxophone, and he smiles at the comparison. In the liner notes on his 1959 album, Change of the Century, he described his music as “something like the paintings of Jackson Pollock.” The cover of Free Jazz (1960) featured a reproduction of Pollock’s White Light.
In the late 40’s, Pollock shattered the barriers of modern art, abandoning figures, conventional color schemes, even the boundaries of a canvas. A decade later, Mr. Coleman did the same to modern jazz, abandoning chord changes, standard rhythms and the divide between the soloist and the band; in his music, everybody improvises all at once, yet it somehow holds together.
So it’s a tingling sensation to follow this modern icon, now 76, wearing a porkpie hat and a self-designed suit that Jasper Johns might have painted, as he shuffles through the Guggenheim, musing on Pollock’s works.
Gazing at Green Silver, another 1949 “all-over” masterpiece, he says, “See? There’s the top of the painting, there’s the bottom. But as far as the activity going on all over, it’s equal.” He pauses and shakes his head, impressed. “It’s not random. He knows what he’s doing. He knows when he’s finished. But still, it’s free-form.”
Sort of like your music?
“Well, like music, not just my music.”
But most musicians put the melody up front, the chords in the background.
“But that’s only because somebody told them that’s how it should be.”
Mr. Coleman has long found abstract art a congenial setting. He made his New York debut at a Bowery bar called the Five Spot in November 1959 (one month after the first Guggenheim opened). A group of neighborhood artists—Larry Rivers, Franz Kline, Robert Rauschenberg, Willem de Kooning—had persuaded the bar’s owner to bring in progressive-jazz musicians.
Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane played there for months on end. But it was Mr. Coleman who set off a storm. The city’s cultural denizens divided into factions. Fistfights broke out over whether Ornette was a trailblazing genius or an eccentric fake. The same reception, of course, had greeted Pollock at the start of his earlier revolution, some gasping that he’d unlocked the future, others scoffing that he just couldn’t paint.
“I paint sometimes myself,” Mr. Coleman said. “I know what’s behind wanting to paint. You want to touch something you can’t see. This term ‘abstract art’—what it means is something that causes you to see more than what you’re looking at.”
He pauses to focus on a drawing from 1946, looking at it intently from one side, then from the other side. “Mmm, mmm, mmm. Man, that’s good!” he says. “What’s the title of this?”
The placard says Untitled.
“Ah,” he replies with a smile. “That’s a good title.”
Fred Kaplan is a columnist for Slate.