Ornette Coleman is one of the most influential artists in jazz and considered an American icon and legend. There are not many musicians that emerge who dramatically changed the way we listen to music. Ornette Coleman was of the major innovators of free jazz as well as a great saxophonist and composer. Coleman’s bluesy, playful music revolutionized jazz by ignoring regular harmonies and rhythm. He even created his own theory “harmolodic” and applied it to rock instrumental in his group Prime Time. The musician’s new style helped to regenerate jazz by allowing for the genre to go into a new direction and be placed for his music to be placed in a group of major 20th century composers. This paper will discuss how Ornette Coleman borrowed from the world of jazz to influence concert hall compositions. Ornette Coleman was a revolutionary saxophone player who expanded contemporary boundaries of music.
He gained those remarkable skills by teaching himself how to play saxophone at the age of 14 and by playing with musicians in local rhythm and blues bars while growing up in Fort Worth, Texas in the late 1940s and early ‘50s. Some of his legends include Charlie Parker and two local musicians in Fort Worth Ben Martin and Reed Connors. Coleman loved Charlie Parker and bebop and thought of it as the most advanced collective way of playing a melody and at the same time improvising. Parker taught Coleman many lessons especially about the quality of what he could play and knowing the audience (Ratliff 63). The musician decided to travel to L.A. and played in various establishments. He eventually made his way to New York with his first band having a good sense of melody and ideas of playing without any preconceived chord changes (Ratliff 55). People thought of him as a genius and others denounced him as a charlatan. His music was considered controversial for instance in his quartet they had no chordal instruments such as the piano.
Listeners said his music was radically rejecting jazz traditions, but a few praised him and said the music was an extension of the historical practice (Martin,Waters). As he was traveling in R&B jazz bands across the country, he switched back and forth between alto and tenor sax. Resistance was normal for Coleman, and he was use to being fired. In 1950, he wrote an unpublished book that deals with a theory that melody has nothing to do with harmony, chords, or key centers. In 1958, he formed his own band that was established on a mode of playing which no one player had the lead but anyone could come out and play at any time. Beginning in 1959, Coleman and his quartet went to New York and developed the concept of free jazz (George-Warren and Pareles).
Free jazz and improvised music did away with any of the strict forms of jazz and classic music such as tonality, chord changes, formal shape and structure, etc. Coleman was put into the category along with Cecil Taylor and Albert Ayler, and they abolished the traditional hierarchy of instrumentation in jazz, classical rock, and pop allowing for any instrument to be equal in improvising. Many performers were encouraged by these individuals to go beyond the regular technique to develop “extended” techniques (Cox, Warner 252). Coleman’s group debut in New York was unlike anything anyone had ever heard. The bassist or drummer did not function in a conventional rhythm sense, and there was no piano to provide chordal harmonies. When Coleman played with his group, they did not have any idea what the end result would be.
The group was even able to get the attention and approval from conductor-composer Leonard Bernstein and composer Virgil Thompson along with other writers and painters (Europe Jazz Network). Each player in his group contributed what he felt in the music at any moment, and each member is not told what to do but play what they hear in the piece themselves. He also stated that in a sense that there is no start or finish to any of his music, but there is a continued expression, continually evolving strands of thoughts that link all of his compositions together (Coxer, Warner 254). Other things that summarized Coleman’s style of music include: fragmented, pointed melodies, melodic connections based on motive structure and large-scale gestures and abstract relations among pitches, little or no use of conventional harmony and voice leading, but solos often have loose shifting tonal centers, variety of melodic rhythm, nasal insistent tone, loose rhythms, use of middle and upper range on instrument, passionate expression, and deviation from standard intonation (Martin, Waters 271).
Coleman started to explore different music possibilities by mixing and extending elements of honky-tonk, blues, funk and bebop in areas of harmony, rhythm and the melodic structure. His musical styles alienated him from the jazz world that musicians walked off the stage when he showed up for a show. His new innovations later became known as “harmolodic”, which helped change jazz by pointing it in a direction away from the musical styles of bebop, but also established a place in a group of major 20th century composers such as Charlie Parker, Harry Partch, Charles Ives, and John Cage (Europe Jazz Network). From 1962 to 1965, Coleman withdrew himself from the spotlight and taught himself to play the trumpet and violin. He began to turn his attention to writing compositions for various musical forms such as woodwind quintets, chamber orchestras, string quartets, symphonic works and vocal works.
This is the point in his life where his music began to affect the concert hall. The first public performance of one his pieces was the string quartet piece Dedicated to Poets and Writers. Performances of some of his works are scarce and have not been performed or recorded. The release of his two pieces Saints and Soldiers and Space Flight performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra cleared the way for his most famous piece Skies of America symphonic suite. The piece is scored for jazz ensemble and orchestra and debuted in 1972 at Newport in New York Festival and recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra (George-Warren and Pareles). This work stands as Coleman’s harmolodic manifesto. There are some themes that people can recognize. Coleman enters the scene halfway through the piece with his saxophone during “The Artist in America”. His modulations have a fresh, sometimes abrupt sound as a result of movement of the melody and the chords. There are a number of different chord changes which are considered correct even though it does not sound correct.
Throughout the piece the works of Charles Ives comes to mind with the jumble of melodies and heavy densities. The entire work introduced his “harmolody” theory in which harmonies, rhythms, and melodies function independently and equally (George-Warren and Pareles). The theory relates to the use of similar melodic material in different clefs and keys, producing a texture of predominately parallel motion (Martin, Waters 271). He wanted to be like famous musicians George Gershwin, Duke Ellington, and Charles Mingus so that he could help break down boundaries between “modern jazz” and “serious concert” music. Coleman translates his ability as an improviser into orchestral terms. With his orchestral works, he was able to create a peculiar timbre and certain licks unlike any other composer writing orchestral works. During the 1970s Coleman’s musical horizons continued to expand. He formed the group Prime Time which incorporated rock and funk rhythms and melodic fragments similar to R&B music along with its harmonic possibilities.
The free jazz/classical composer now created dance music that combined elements of jazz, funk, R&B, and rock with an unusual mix of instruments two guitarists, two drummers, two bassists, Coleman on the sax, violin, and trumpet. This group’s music included multi-layered melodies, polytonal and polyrhythmic textures which were defined as harmolodics. This style shaped more music other than jazz, and Coleman’s music influenced affected many rock musicians during the 70s especially Frank Zappa (Europe Jazz Network). While Coleman influenced rock musicians, he continued to diversify his music and became interested in African cultures. He traveled throughout Africa with Prime Time and created a new album Dancing in Your Head featuring field recordings with the group while they were working with tribal musicians in Morocco. In the 1980s Coleman revised and completed Skies of America after being commissioned by Caravan of Dreams, an arts center that opened in his hometown of Fort Worth, Texas. Coleman continued to write for all instrumentation and group sizes.
He continued compositions for the concert hall such as the Meet the Modern series and The Sacred Mind of Johnny Dolphin. His group Prime Time eventually mixed ac (Martin and Waters)oustic and electric instruments. In 1993, his most monumental recordings from Atlantic were released in a box set entitled Beauty Is a Rare Thing. He went on to be inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters and was featured by the New York Lincoln Center which hosted a festival of his works featuring a performance of the Skies of America by the New York Philharmonic and surviving members of his band Prime Time (Europe Jazz Network). One of the greatest jazz artist and composer of all time is Ornette Coleman who influenced music for the concert hall and popular music genres such as jazz and rock and roll.
His music for the concert hall was innovative and creative as stayed true to his artistic style and capabilities. One of his most influential pieces for the concert hall was Skies of America which helped blend many different styles of music into an orchestral work. Individuals were influenced by his pioneering work in creating free jazz and the use of improvisation styles as well as his newly created harmolodic theory. Coleman was not afraid to step out on the limb to perform and create music without boundaries and that did not follow the traditional Western theory practices. He did receive a lot of criticism for his approach but affected and changed many by his abilities.
Cox, Christoph and Daniel Warner. “Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music.” Change of the Century. New York: The Contiuum International Publishing Group, 2004. Europe Jazz Network Musicians . 20 February 2010 <http://www.ejn.it/mus/coleman.htm>. George-Warren, Holly and Jon Pareles. “Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock And Roll.” Ornette Coleman. Boston: Simon & Schuster , 2001. Martin, Henry and Keith Waters. Jazz: the frst 100 years. Belmont: Thomas Schirmer, 2006. Music, The Jazz Ear: Conversations Over. “Ratliff, Ben.” I Know Who You Are Ornette Coleman. New York: Henry Holt and Company, LLC, 2008.
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