The best thing on this trip was the music of Ornette Coleman. This is the young man who, almost single-handed, has launched one of those periodic revolutions without which jazz would become a sport of musicologists. He is playing the Five Spot to jam-packed audiences every night, rain or shine, a large percentage of them other musicians. It is significant that the top-notchers, Coltrane, Mingus, the Adderly brothers, and the rest, all think he is terrific.
The second string, especially the perennial side men of the bop revolution, think he is a fake. The reason, of course, is that they have a vested interest in their own stale novelties and are terrified of being crowded at the trough. I was a little dubious myself, and recently asked John Lewis during a radio interview, “Is Coleman really good?” He answered simply and flatly, “Yes, he is just as good as they ever come.” If you know music — can read score or whatever — all you have to do is listen. This is jazz that uses every musical resource, dissonance, polyrhythm, twelve-tone scales, polytonality, special tone color effects — everything you can find and pull out of four musical instruments.
Coleman himself, as you may know, plays a plastic saxophone with a special fleshy tone color, and he makes it do tricks like Yma Sumac. He pushes it back and forth to the absolute limits of its range, it gulps and scoops and vibrates — Paul Whiteman would have given a lot of money to have had some of these effects in the concert version of “Oh, By Jingo,” but with Coleman it is never corny, because the end in view is an enriched musical experience, not a trick.
Modern jazz is mostly harmony-oriented, most numbers are really toccatas or chaconnes — “Theme and Variations.” Seldom do you get even the rather thin melodic and contrapuntal interest of the best Dixieland.
Ornette Coleman has restored melody to jazz. Even his new drummer, Blackwell, weaves a constantly varying percussion melody around the other instruments. Hayden’s bass is even more melodic, very seldom is it just pedaling, usually something is happening, vital elements are being built into the melodic structure. Besides, like all the others, he pulls all the color out of the instrument he can get. Midway in the first number I suddenly pricked up my ears and looked at his hands. He wasn’t using the conventional positions at all, but crawling up and down the long neck of the bass like a crab. The results were wonderful. I just hope he doesn’t get a permanent bursitis. People always ask, “What is that thing Don Cherry plays?” He tells them it is a Pakistani yeti whistle or some such tale. It is a triple-curled B-flat horn which must require a superhuman head of wind to blow, especially since he plays it with a flat, dry embouchure that makes it sound like imaginary music.
All this is just to let you know, not that I am “in the know,” but that contrary to what you might have heard, nobody in jazz knows better what he is about than these four men. Most important, it isn’t a lot of scrambled Boulez and Monteverdi. It is jazz, funkier far than jazz has been in a long time. You could not only dance to it, you could roll and bump to it. It is even unconsciously “folkloristic.” The whole group is from the Southwest, and behind them you can hear the old bygone banjos and tack pianos, and the first hard moans of country blues — you can even hear modern Texas dance bands, Johnny Ace and Lloyd Price. I have not spent such nights of pure musical joy and excitement since we used to get together at Farwell Taylor’s or Jack Bryant’s cellar joint and work out the first patterns of the new jazz that came at the end of the war. For years Ornette Coleman wandered up and down the Coast and nobody would hire him. If the Hawk or the Workshop doesn’t get him here soon, I’ll rent a hall myself.