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Flashback: Ornette Coleman Sums Up Solitude on ‘Lonely Woman’

A painting the saxophonist saw on his lunch break inspired his most famous composition — which in turn may have planted the seed for the Velvet Underground

In a 1997 interview with philosopher Jacques Derrida, the late saxophonist and sonic trailblazer Ornette Coleman recalled the origins of his most famous composition. “Before becoming known as a musician, when I worked in a big department store, one day, during my lunch break, I came across a gallery where someone had painted a very rich white woman who had absolutely everything that you could desire in life, and she had the most solitary expression in the world,” he said of his time working as a stock boy at L.A.’s Bullock’s in the early-to-mid–Fifties. “I had never been confronted with such solitude, and when I got back home, I wrote a piece that I called ‘Lonely Woman.'”

Recorded 60 years ago today, on May 22nd, 1959, and released that October on Coleman’s classic LP The Shape of Jazz to Come, “Lonely Woman” remains otherworldly and enchanting. The mournful horn lines — played by Coleman, on a plastic alto sax, and Don Cherry, on pocket trumpet — have the feel of a ballad-like lament, but drummer Billy Higgins’ uptempo ride-cymbal pattern gives the piece a quiet urgency. Add in Charlie Haden’s droning, almost raga-like bass lines, the perfect match for Coleman’s blues-steeped soloing and piercing tone, and you have a blend that sounds like nothing else inside or outside of jazz.

Due to Coleman’s revolutionary approach to improvising, which did away with the predetermined song forms that had defined earlier eras of jazz, his band stirred up serious controversy when it turned up in November ’59 for a two-week residency at New York’s Five Spot. Established jazz artists weighed in, and the reactions weren’t generally favorable — “I don’t know what he’s playing, but it’s not jazz,” Dizzy Gillespie said the following year.

But one artist who wasn’t repelled was Lou Reed, then attending Syracuse University.

“When I was going to college I would go down into New York and I would trail Ornette’s quartet around — Billy Higgins, Charlie Haden, Don and Ornette,” he told Mojo’s Sylvie Simmons in 2005. “I would follow where they went, I couldn’t afford to go in so I would listen through the window and I heard ‘Lonely Woman,’ and that changed my life. The harmonies. That was it. There’s not a day goes by when I’m not humming ‘Lonely Woman.'”

He even seemed to credit the Coleman band with the germ of the Velvet Underground’s sound. “I thought, you put Hubert Selby with Burroughs or Ginsberg lyrics against some rock with these kind of harmonic [ideas] going in … wouldn’t you have something?”

Reed would eventually start a literary magazine at school called The Lonely Woman Quarterly, and in this clip you can even hear him singing Coleman’s famed tune. Later, in 2003, Coleman would appear on Reed’s solo album The Raven.

Eventually, “Lonely Woman” — and Coleman’s work in general — gained wide acceptance, and the piece became a sort of alternative jazz standard, covered by everyone from the Modern Jazz Quartet to John Zorn’s Naked City.

In 1995, speaking to Howard Mandel for The Wire, Coleman also told the story of seeing the painting that inspired “Lonely Woman,” and discussed how that led him to an epiphany about the nature of art. “I said, ‘Oh, my goodness. I understand this feeling. I have not experienced this wealth, but I understand the feeling,'” he explained of the woman in the paining. “I went home and wrote ‘Lonely Woman,’ and I said, ‘From here on I’m going to support artists no matter what they do — because that artist sent a signal out. That’s not just a painting — it’s a condition.’ I relayed the condition to myself, wrote this song, and ever since it has grown and grown and grown.”

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