Jazz’s influence on music has been monumental, with this being especially true for metal. The musicianship and improvisation of jazz has informed much of the more technical aspects of metal (Atheist being a prime example), while numerous progressive metal bands have incorporated elements of jazz within their compositions. Due to both this and the affinity for jazz among several members of our staff, we decided to implement a new segment titled “The Jazz Club,” where a few of us will gather around with cigars and whiskey and discuss a current jazz band/artist, album and/or event that we believe is an essential point of interest for jazz fans.
For this installment, we decided not to discuss an album, but rather the legacy of saxophone legend Ornette Coleman, who passed away on June 11th at age 85. A recipient of numerous accolades for his contribution to jazz, Coleman provided the impetus for the emergence of avant-garde jazz, particularly with albums such as The Shape of Jazz to Come (1959) and Free Jazz (1961), the latter of which spawned an entire subgenre of jazz bearing the same name. Editors Scott Murphy & Nick Cusworth and staff members Simon Handmaker & Ahmed Hasan sat down recently to discuss Coleman’s immense impact, touching down upon his convention smashing style, how his passing will affect the state of jazz and the parallels between his playing and the realm of metal.
Scott Murphy: So in preparation for this discussion, I checked out some books that discussed Coleman and jazz in general, and found a particularly moving quote from jazz critic Stanley Crouch’s 2006 book Considering Genius – Writings on Jazz:
“Ornette Coleman is that magical combination of the primitive, the great thinker, the virtuoso and the brave singer of songs. We are lucky to have him among us.”
Ahmed Hasan: It’s particularly sad how the second half of it no longer holds true. The thought of his passing lingered in my mind as well as I discovered his music for the first time over this past week.
SM: Completely agree; while this quote came from piece written in 2002, it had me thinking how Coleman was one of the last “great” jazz musicians from the genre’s golden age. Furthermore, his acclaim was no relegated to the past, as his album Sound Grammar won the Pulitzer Prize for music in 2007. Admittedly, this is also a bit dated, but considering that Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, etc. all passed long before, it just seems to me like a huge blow to the genre. No lie, I was genuinely wondering just days before he passed whether or not he would be putting out a new album anytime soon, as it was a distinct possibility.
Simon Handmaker: I think that quotation is an excellent summation of what his music is. I’m currently listening to The Shape Of Jazz To Come, which I had on earlier to prep myself, but decided to spin again, and what continues to strike me is how much he managed to combine virtuoso-level playing with a genuine sense of emotion and energy.
Nick Cusworth: That quote is important because Ornette really was the connective tissue through so much of jazz history. When talking about Ornette and his importance to the genre, you kinda have to first understand how much of a seismic sonic shift this was for the entire genre. The time that The Shape of Jazz to Come came out (1959) falls right around when so many of the jazz greats were starting to move away from traditional bebop into other forms. Miles and others were working out the modal stuff, and Ornette was leading the charge of evolving the strict formats and constrictions of bebop while maintaining that virtuosic playing and feel in the form of free jazz.
AH: I also recall reading about Miles’ initial disapproval of Ornette’s style of jazz. Calling an album The Shape of Jazz to Come is very, very bold in retrospect, and it’s interesting to imagine how the reactions from the rest of the community played out.
SH: Yeah, I was actually about to bring that up. An album this outlandish in style especially at that time with that title is really ballsy.
NC: I didn’t actually know that Miles felt that way, but it makes sense. Though it’s telling that he eventually dabbled in similar kinds of free jazz and other experimentations later on.
SM: Miles eventually came around and endorsed Coleman, though, but he was definitely not alone with his initial reaction. A lot of people thought Coleman was perverting Jazz and had no concept of form (which, in all fairness, is somewhat true, in the sense that he rejected form, not that he was unaware of it). For example, after one show, he was beat up outside of the club and the crowd threw his sax away.
SH: I mean, this is a perversion of form in a lot of ways. I’m actually reminded of the new Mastery album, VALIS, when I pay attention to the structuring of this album.
AH: Listening to the record for the first time, however, I could very much feel where the detractors were coming from. Even as big stylistic changes go, this was a particularly radical shift.
NC: To be fair, many people said the same thing about Miles and others when they were at the forefront of bebop a decade earlier. Jazz history is pretty much a history of people (often critics) being upset that musicians would dare to experiment and change things, when really that’s jazz’s primary defining feature: that willingness to explore and evolve the way we hear and think about music.
SM: For sure, it is telling how history eventually wrote itself. But I still feel that free jazz has not rid itself of controversy. I recently saw a comment directed at The Shape of Jazz to Come that called the album “nigger noise.”
SM: Given the nature of the internet, this was most likely trolling, but still, when I talk to most people I know about jazz, they mention how much they love Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett, not their admiration for Coleman or free jazz.
SH: Just like how a lot of rap fans profess their love for Macklemore and Eminem, I guess.
SM: This is not a critique, necessarily. Like Ahmed said, it is not hard to see why people have a hard time getting into free jazz at first…or ever.
NC: Unlike other records from around the same time that are kind of your standard “entryways” for people to get into jazz (Kind of Blue, Maiden Voyage, etc.), this is pretty much an album to immediately ensure someone will be intimidated, confused, or made angry by jazz because it’s “incomprehensible noise.” When you’re pushing outside of people’s comfort zones and what they come to expect, you’re going to get pushback.
AH: “Incomprehensible noise” is a good way to describe the expected initial perception of it, and I found it interesting how it took reading the story behind ‘Lonely Woman’ for me to well and truly enjoy the song.
NC: The truth is that I still can’t say I “love” the music of Ornette Coleman, but I sure as hell am glad that it exists.
SH: Free Jazz didn’t grab my attention nearly as much as TSOJTC, but I’ve been loving both of them. It really does remind me of my childhood in St. Louis, and while I didn’t have as fond of an appreciation for it then, this jazz is a lot of the stuff I heard in my earlier years as a wee little lad.
NC: That’s the thing though. If you’re expecting “form” in the traditional sense of jazz, which often means specific chord progressions and traditional 8, 12, or however many bar structures, then this is going to give you very little to hold onto. Most people cannot find a thing to “hold” onto here because of it. It sounds like being lost in the wilderness musically, even though there are distinct melodies present.
SM: I guess that that is another thing I like about Free Jazz – the lack of something to “hold” onto. I have listened to the album numerous times, but I still pull something new from it each times due to how much it defies expectation. What Coleman plays makes sense after the notes have rung, but during the experience, it feels very unpredictable, fresh and invigorating.
SH: Yeah, its very existence is a process of discovery.
AH: As I made my way through TSOJTC, I increasingly noticed how Ornette’s sax mingling with Don Cherry‘s trumpet often seemed to hint towards underlying progressions that just, well, weren’t there; though instead of perceiving the songs as the musical conversations they are, I occasionally found myself mentally filling in potential progressions to match the music, which made for a very new listening experience.
NC: You’re definitely right about the progressions that aren’t there, Ahmed, and I think much of that comes from a more traditional bop style of playing and basically lifting it and placing it into a different musical environment.
SM: Beyond just bending typical measure structures, another key component of Coleman’s style was his affinity for blues vocals, something that truly enhances the idea of jazz playing as story telling. What draws me so much to free jazz playing is how conversational, emotional and earnest it feels. It is much easier for me to decipher words from his seemingly “meaningless” honks and screeches.
NC: Yeah, if you listen to Free Jazz that’s pretty much what you’re listening to: a musical conversation, which is ideally what the best of any jazz should be.
SM: Him playing a white plastic sax is also something that interests me; I am not ware of any other “great” jazz musician that relied on plastic so heavily. I also think that it looks wicked sick.
SH: Do you think that “perversion” of the traditional instrument played into his experimentation at all and his reputation as sort of a rogue character in the scene around the time The Shape Of Jazz To Come was released?
AH: That’s interesting, Simon. I get the feeling he likely had a very distinct persona to match his musical exploits.
SM: If I remember correctly, his reason for using a plastic sax was initially financial (cheaper option), but he kept it due to some advice from a fellow musician and his affinity for the unique timbre is gave his playing.
AH: I recall reading something about Don Cherry’s choice of trumpet also being rather intriguing?
SM: Mhm, he used a pocket trumpet, which Miles Davis also bashed at first, interestingly enough, but he later praised him.