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A snippet from a beautiful piece that appeared in April 2008 and somehow escaped my notice until recently:
…No musician has ever roiled the jazz establishment quite as much as [Ornette] Coleman. Musical history is filled with jeering audiences and critics, but not many musicians have inspired personal violence. In Louisiana, in 1949, Coleman was summoned from a bandstand and beaten bloody by a mob which also destroyed his saxophone. A decade later, when he arrived in New York to play at the Five Spot, in Cooper Square, the drummer Max Roach came to listen and, as Coleman tells it, ended up punching him in the mouth. But musicians with a grounding in the classical avant-garde were more encouraging: Leonard Bernstein declared him a genius, Gunther Schuller wrote a concerto with him in mind, and John Lewis, the pianist and musical director of the Modern Jazz Quartet, touted him as the most important jazz figure since Charlie Parker.
The object of this furor is a preternaturally gentle man who speaks, with a modest lisp, in visionary metaphors and bold assertions. Those assertions came initially, between 1958 and 1960, in a series of provocative album titles: â€šÃ„ÃºSomething Else!!!!â€šÃ„Ã¹; â€šÃ„ÃºThe Shape of Jazz to Comeâ€šÃ„Ã¹; â€šÃ„ÃºChange of the Century.â€šÃ„Ã¹ His double-quartet album, â€šÃ„ÃºFree Jazz,â€šÃ„Ã¹ ornamented with cover art by Jackson Pollock, made him, along with Cecil Taylor and John Coltrane, the most radical and divisive member of a movement that set aside fixed meters, harmonies, and structures. His phrase â€šÃ„Ãºfree jazzâ€šÃ„Ã¹ became the war cry of an entire generation.
Although Coleman performs to packed stadiums at European festivals, he remains unknown to most Americans. Perhaps the chief impediment to greater popularity is the very quality that centers his achievement: the raw, rugged, vocalized, weirdly pitched sound of his alto saxophone. Considered uniquely, radiantly beautiful by fans, it is like no other sound in or out of jazz. Within the space of a few notesâ€šÃ„Ã®a crying glissando, say, or a chortling squeakâ€šÃ„Ã®Colemanâ€šÃ„Ã´s sound is as unmistakable as the voice of a loved one. Even now, in a far noisier and more dissonant world than 1959, listening to Coleman can be a bracing experience for the uninitiated. Colemanâ€šÃ„Ã´s attitude toward intonation is unconventional. The classical composer Hale Smith once spoke to me of Colemanâ€šÃ„Ã´s â€šÃ„Ãºquarter-tone pitch,â€šÃ„Ã¹ by which he meant that Coleman plays between the semitones of an ordinary chromatic scale. The core of Colemanâ€šÃ„Ã´s genius, Smith felt, is that, however sharp or flat he is from accepted pitch, he is consistent from note to note. Coleman hears so acutely that even when he is out of tune with the rest of the musical world he is always in tune with himself…
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Gary Giddins – The New Yorker
Copyright The New Yorker