Ornette Coleman's Time

With a little help from the Grateful Dead, jazz's eternal iconoclast is finding a new audience

Alto sax player Ornette Coleman performs at the North Sea Jazz festival in the Congresgebouw in The Hague, Netherlands on July 14th, 1987. Credit: Frans Schellekens/Redferns/Getty

He's probably the last guy you'd expect to see at a Grateful Dead show — the last guy you'd expect to see at a big arena rock show, period. But the veteran jazz saxophonist, composer and iconoclast Ornette Coleman specializes in the unexpected. And for Coleman — a soft-spoken man who has confounded and dumbfounded the jazz world for three decades with his fiercely personal playing and fearless exploration of music's outer spaces — wading through the rowdy sea of blue denim and rainbow tie-dyes at New York's Madison Square Garden during one of the Dead's fall-1987 shows was just business as usual.

Coleman, together with his son and drummer, Denardo, and fellow jazz revolutionary Cecil Taylor, was there at the invitation of the Dead's bassist, Phil Lesh, a student and fan of avant-garde music in general and Coleman and Taylor in particular. Guitarist Jerry Garcia, too, is a Coleman devotee. And Coleman himself was aware of musical similarities between the Dead and his own group, Prime Time — each group has two guitarists and two drummers (Prime Time has two bassists as well), and each emphasizes both melody and look-Ma-no-limits improvisation.

But the saxophonist was not prepared for the display of Deadhead ecstasy. "I was so overwhelmed by the audience," Coleman says with undisguised awe in his lisping, boyish voice. "They have total dedication. They're 100-percent Dead fans. They could have done anything up there and those people would have screamed."

Indeed, Coleman says it was refreshing for him and Taylor, long considered pariahs by the jazz mainstream, to see "a successful band playing in a way where whatever they decided to do, that audience wasn't going to walk out. I thought, 'Well, we could be friends here.' Because if these people here could be into this, they could dig what we're doing."

That's not just wishful thinking. Ornette Coleman — recently voted Best Jazz Artist in the Rolling Stone Critics Poll for the second year in a row — has scored his biggest commercial success ever with Prime Time's 1988 album Virgin Beauty. The LP, on CBS's Portrait label, went to Number Two on Billboard's jazz chart and has sold more in its first year of release than any previous Coleman record. More than a few Deadheads invested in Virgin Beauty solely because of Jerry Garcia's presence on three tracks. But it's a safe bet they were pleasantly surprised by Prime Time's infectious propulsion and the emotive strength and striking warmth of Coleman's sax statements.

"His playing has a real purity about it, a real beauty," says Garcia, whose percolating guitar style fits nicely into the deceptive density of Prime Time's simmering polyrhythms and layered melodies. "I think it's very accessible. But the setting against which it occurs is real dense. Ornette's music is strangely simple and difficult at the same time. The notes are not difficult. But the harmonic relationships that linger behind them are really deep."

Those "relationships" form the core of Coleman's controversial musical ideology, which he calls harmolodies. For Coleman, melody, key and meter are interchangeable in composing and improvising. "The melody can be a rhythm note," he says. "It can be a key note. The time can be the melody. It's like the difference between spelling cat with a k or a c. It still sounds the same. To me, that is the tool in harmolodies, how to convert sound into your own language."

Denardo Coleman, 32, who has played drums with his father for over twenty years and now functions as his producer and manager as well, puts it more concisely. "Harmolodies is the theory of music that allows the individual to find their own voice — the understanding that there are many different ways to get someplace. There's no single way to find your way home."

Jerry Garcia simply describes it as music for "people who can dig that there is more than one possibility. That's what Ornette always represented to me. No matter what direction you go in, there's always going to be other possibilities."

Ornette Coleman has been preaching his Gospel of Unlimited Possibilities in the face of strong, often venomous criticism since 1959, when he made his New York debut at the Five Spot with a legendary quartet featuring trumpeter Don Cherry, bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Billy Higgins. Coleman remembers with bemusement an old magazine cartoon showing a waiter in a restaurant dropping his tray of dishes: "And the woman at the table said, 'Oh, listen, darling, Ornette is playing our favorite song.'"

Nevertheless, Coleman's music — admittedly complex, often violent, yet always deeply moving — proved to be a major force in the "free jazz" movement of the Sixties (which was named after Free Jazz, a 1961 Coleman album) and the New York "loft scene" of the Seventies. He sired a nation of jazz freedom fighters in such Coleman-band alumni as Haden, Cherry, saxophonist Dewey Redman, guitarist James Blood Ulmer and drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson. One of his biggest disciples is popular jazz guitarist Pat Metheny, who has recorded numerous Coleman tunes and who repaid a debt of inspiration by inviting the saxophonist to collaborate on the powerful 1986 album Song X.

Coleman has also left a significant, if more sútle, imprint on rock & roll. His improvisational daring and tonal fury were an influence on both the Velvet Underground and San Francisco "jam bands" like the Grateful Dead. (Coleman actually performed at the Fillmore West in 1968.) In the late Seventies, when he switched from a standard acoustic lineup to Prime Time's electric mesh of alto saxophone, twin guitars, interlocking basses and rampaging drums, Coleman set the stage for the punk-jazz uproar of the Eighties, And there's more than a little Coleman in avowed rockers like Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid, who played with Ronald Shannon Jackson, and the Dream Syndicate, who cut a version of Coleman's "Low Rider." Not bad for a guy who's supposed to sound like breaking china.

"All I wanted to do was write music that people would like," says Coleman, who turns fifty-nine in March. "I always told people I was commercial, because I was the only person doing what I was doing. Nobody did it but me. There's not two Coca-Colas; there's only one Coca-Cola. I thought of myself on that level.

"Obviously," he adds with a chuckle, "I was cryin' in the wilderness." Nonetheless, Coleman's music has always had the power to touch people. After one show on the 1986 Song X tour, Coleman noticed a young man in a wheelchair sitting in the theater long after everyone else had left — "still transfixed, as if we were still playing." Thinking the young man was unable to wheel himself out, Coleman went to help him. "I said, 'Man, ain't this somethin', you got left behind.' And he said, 'No, man, what you did up there was unbelievable. It was great.' He was just sitting there, feeling good. It's amazing what music will do for people — to people."

YOU DO NOT HAVE TO UNDERSTAND THE INTRICACIES of harmolodics to enjoy the liberating properties of Ornette Coleman's music. Before cutting his guitar parts for Virgin Beauty, Jerry Garcia got extensive if puzzling instruction in the subject from Coleman. "Finally," Garcia says, "he said, 'Just go ahead and play, man.' And I thought, 'Oh, I get it now.'"

Saxophonist Branford Marsalis, an ardent admirer who covered Coleman's stark 1959 classic "Lonely Woman" on his latest album, Random Abstract, thinks that Coleman's music speaks eloquently for itself and the theorizing is mostly a smoke screen. "In the beginning," says Marsalis, "Coleman was dismissed as a heretic simply because he couldn't explain what he was doing. I figure he thought that if he explained what he did, people would quit fucking with him."

In fact, Coleman believes so strongly in the practical applications and aesthetic potency of harmolodics that he's written an entire as-yet-unpublished book explaining the concept in detail. He dates his first harmolodic revelation to a late-Forties road trip in Louisiana. "I started going to church and taking the horn. Have you ever gone to church and heard somebody who don't know how to sing at all Yet it sounds so beautiful. The church was singing, and sometimes they would be singing in the key of Z! Meanwhile, I'm playing with them. And I thought, 'If I'm able to do this now, why can't I play like this outside?'"

As for people fucking with him, Ornette has long since gotten used to that. He's had over thirty years of practice. "Oh, Lord, when I went to L.A., I found out I was in the wrong world!" he exclaims. He had arrived on the L.A. jazz scene in the mid-Fifties after apprenticing with local jazz and R&B bands in his native Fort Worth, Texas. "Musicians were saying I didn't know how to play, that I was always screwed up. It was like if you're in a room and everyone says, 'Isn't that person beautiful, isn't that other person beautiful, but isn't that person ugly?' I sometimes felt people were looking at me like that. But I never felt that I didn't have any value. They put that mark on me."

Even in jazz, a genre in which the biggest stars are often treated like second-class citizens by the music business, Ornette Coleman's problems in recording, presenting and selling his music are legendary. In 1962 he produced and recorded his own concert at New York's Town Hall, using $2000 of his own money. The hall was only half-full thanks to a snowstorm, a subway strike and a cab strike. The engineer Coleman hired to record the concert committed suicide shortly thereafter. ("I thought, 'Hmmm, that recording must really be something,'" he remarked later.) And if that wasn't enough, a few weeks after the show, Coleman was evicted from his apartment.

Coleman, though, has a definite talent for making the most of adversity. Prime Time's electrifying studio debut, Dancing in Your Head (recently reissued on CD by A&M), came about when Coleman and the band were stranded and starving in Paris while on a European tour in 1975. Coleman got an offer to play on an album by someone he describes as "the Bob Dylan of France." In return, he received a few hours of recording time in a Paris studio, during which he and Prime Time — featuring Ronald Shannon Jackson, bassist Jamaladeen Tacuma and guitarists Bern Nix and Charles Ellerbee — cut the LP's monster centerpiece, the twenty-seven-minute "Theme from a Symphony."

But it would take two more years for Dancing in Your Head to actually be released. "The thing that I have always felt — I think I got it from my mother — is patience," Coleman says. "I always said, sooner or later, somebody's going to try and figure out if I'm doing anything worthwhile. And when they find out if it works for them, they'll stick with me."

Denardo Coleman, who as son and sideman has witnessed many of Coleman's travails and triumphs firsthand, says, "He had such a strong dedication to what he was doing that you could really feel close to him. You got to share the same vision. And he didn't let anything stand in his way."

Ornette Coleman's diligence in pursuing his vision is reflected in the stunning consistency of his execution, beginning with his 1958 vinyl debut, Something Else!, and continuing through landmark Atlantic releases like The Shape of Jazz to Come and Change of the Century, the early-Seventies symphony Skies of America, his mostly unissued recordings with the master pipers and drummers of the Moroccan village of Joujouka and Prime Time recordings like 1979's Of Human Feelings and, of course, Virgin Beauty. In 1987, Coleman celebrated the continuing vitality of his work with the double album In All Languages, which featured both Prime Time and the reunited Five Spot quartet, in some cases playing different versions of the same tune.

"Aren't all interviews written with the same alphabet?" Coleman asks. "Well, all melodies are written with the same identical notes. That means it's the human being that's bringing another sound to these melodies. I have a record called 'Sleep Talk' [from Of Human Feelings]. Somebody said to me, 'That sounds like Stravinsky, Rite of Spring.' The person played it for me, and you hear the ghost of it. It's a different structure, but it's still the same notes.

"What I'm saying, if you take an instrument right at this very moment and play it, it's not impossible that you will play something that no one has ever heard before. Because you have expressed yourself at that moment."

And that, in a nutshell, is the essence of Coleman's music, harmolodic or otherwise. Like Charlie Parker, like John Coltrane, like Cecil Taylor and all his other great jazz brethren, Coleman has devoted his life to the pursuit of that moment, over and over again.

"I was a Jehovah's Witness once," he says, "and they had a saying: 'You should only work on the one thing that you want to do forever.' That really appealed to me."

In his liner notes for the 1966 LP The Empty Foxhole, Coleman wrote of his son, Ornette Denardo Coleman Jr.: "Young Master Ornette knew the music as if he had written it himself. This kind of cooperation is a leader's dream. Music will never fall short of an honest effort when it has love, talent and sincerity in its performance."

That was the album on which Denardo, whose mother is the black poet Jayne Cortez, made his recording debut. He was only ten years old, but he sounded as if he'd been playing for twice as long.

"Denardo is the only drummer that I have heard who can play time and rhythm and ideas independently with anyone," Ornette Coleman says today with both a musician's admiration and a father's pride. "He can give them the beat and still be himself. I've always felt I was taking up too much of his time. I keep telling him, 'Look, I have some material I've written that I'm saving up for your record someday.' And he goes, 'Yeah, I know, I know.'"

In fact, Denardo is in no hurry to leave Ornette's side. "My role in the cause has become greater," he says, referring not only to his prodigious drumming but also to his duties as manager and producer. "I have actually seen it grow from something that was acknowledged only on a critical level to being on the verge of reaching a mass audience. That's where my satisfaction lies."

Denardo has played a sizable part in his father's escape from the jazz-cult ghetto. For one thing, he was raised on more than harmolodics. He also dug the popular black music of the Sixties, and he developed an early interest in electronic percussion and studio technology. You can hear the results of both in the bracing sonic clarity and tight, danceable locomotion of Virgin Beauty's "3 Wishes" and "Happy Hour." "

He is very much responsible for the subtlety of that record," Ornette says. "He could hear the differences. That's why we called this Virgin Beauty, because that's what this is all about. Someone who had never done something like this making a contribution to something that's been going on forever."

"I always thought people my own age could get into what we are playing," Denardo says. "And I think I have a good idea of what people my age listen to. I also have a good idea of what the other side is, in terms of pure music. And I believe there are ways to bring them both closer together."

Some Coleman purists are already grumbling. In a recent issue of the respected jazz monthly Cadence, a reviewer dismissed Virgin Beauty as "pretty mundane and also pretty boring." Coleman, though, has a different notion of purity.

"The thing that happens with musicians," he says, "is that when a human being has something inside of him or her that is not resolved, they play, but they still hold something back. I've always gone through that. So in a way, I've never showed everything inside me. There was always some disturbance inside me, yet I always tried to cover it up just by playing. On this record, I didn't have to do that.

"I'm sure I'm not the only person to feel that holding back and then the release of letting it go. I knew John Lennon very well. There was a big difference between his hit songs and when he sang 'Mother' or 'Imagine.' You could hear his humanity coming through."

Besides, Coleman isn't interested in just preaching to the converted. "I always thought the only reason I wasn't 'successful' was because I was not getting exposed to people other than the ones who already knew me. I have always wanted to go to the mainstream. But I didn't want to sacrifice what I was doing to get there."

The mainstream, it seems, is coming to Coleman instead. "Well, you know, I ain't no baby," he says, laughing. "It's about time."