For such a key figure in the jazz pantheon, Ornette Coleman has arguably been under-represented in print. Certainly this writer’s touchstones have been short-form pieces – Gary Giddins’ extended essay from ‘Visions Of Jazz’; Francis Davis’s ‘No Success Like Failure’; Richard Williams’ ‘The Skies Of America’; Art Taylor’s groundbreaking interview in ‘Notes And Tones’.
So Maria Golia’s forensic, scholarly, original ‘Ornette Coleman: The Territory And Adventure’ is a very welcome book. It’s split into four parts: the first concentrates on the history of Fort Worth, Texas, Ornette’s hometown; the second looks at his famous, controversial Five Spot residency of 1959/60; the third is about his subsequent career and many collaborations; the fourth focuses on the Caravan Of Dreams, Fort Worth’s progressive music venue and frequent site of Coleman premieres during the last 35 years of his life.
Golia – perfectly placed to write this book as one-time manager of the Caravan Of Dreams – expertly outlines Ornette’s place in a distinctly Texan musical heritage, from Scott Joplin’s rags to Kenny Dorham’s pure jazz, the yodels of Jimmie Rogers to the fertile blues scene personified by Henry ‘Blind Lemon’ Jefferson.
We learn about Coleman’s formative years, shining shoes at the Art Deco Blackstone hotel and engaging in ‘cutting contests’ in the band of R’n’B singer and guitarist Wee Clayton, during an era when Fort Worth was a key US entertainment town and designated ‘city of the future’ (and also an era when Bill Jackson – father of future Ornette drummer Ronald Shannon – was supplying the city’s jukeboxes!).
Then we come to Golia’s gripping account of Ornette’s famous Five Spot residency in New York City, and the schism it created in the nascent modern jazz scene. There are a few revelations, including the claim that (subsequent detractor) Miles sat in with Ornette. And there are fascinating detours around Coleman’s NYC sojourn, including the burgeoning friendships with painters Eve Griffin and Bob Thompson.
We learn a lot about the famous August 1965 gig that opened Croydon’s Fairfield Halls, when, according to writer Mike Horovitz, Ornette astonished the crowd by responding to an audience heckle of ‘Now play “Cherokee”!’ with an immaculate version of that old Ray Noble standard, so beloved of beboppers, earning a prolonged standing ovation. It was the perfect riposte to those who said he didn’t know what he was doing.
There’s also a great passage on harmolodic theory, collating all of Ornette’s public pronouncements on the matter, the most telling being: ‘Harmony, melody, speed, rhythm, time and phrases all have equal position.’ Elsewhere there’s valuable material about Ornette’s young fatherhood and relationship with the formidable Jayne Cortez and frequent nuggets about his approach to music: ‘How do you turn emotion into knowledge? That’s what I try to do with my horn.’ And there’s much about Ornette’s final resting place in New York City’s 36th Street.
There are minor issues – as first sentences go, this is not one of the most promising: ‘The individuals who may be said to define an era have distilled its characteristic forces and possibilities into a body of work that in turn informed their times.’ But the book improves, and fast. There are also a few annoying typos (‘Roy Eldredge’) and one or two incorrect recording dates, but in general this is a fascinating, formidable study of Ornette, with all the seriousness and rigour his life and music deserve, if occasionally a little short in the humour department.
‘Ornette Coleman: The Territory And The Adventure’ is published by Reaktion Books.