Systems vs. Artifacts #1- THE RADICALISM OF ORNETTE COLEMAN: At The Vanishing Point Of Form


Here is the English version of the text published in “El Estado Mental.” My thanks to Alex Sánchez and the editors for inviting me to contribute to the magazine, and to Barbara Mingo for the translating the piece to Spanish. The link to the published article:


It is impossible to hear the music of Ornette Coleman today as it must have sounded to someone in the 1950s. This point was made amply clear to me while listening to the Dean Benedetti tapes of Charlie Parker’s alto solos (released by Mosaic Records in 1990). The sound quality on many of those recordings isn’t very good, in some cases only Parker and the drummer are audible; without the harmonic framework provided by the piano and bass, I was struck by how much Charlie Parker’s blues-inflected phrasing could sometimes sound like Ornette Coleman’s. Which suggests why, when listening to Ornette’s early albums now, it’s hard to understand the controversy that occurred in the jazz world over his recordings and performances from the late 1950s- the music is melodic, swings like crazy, utilizes compositions that relate to the jazz lexicon, and gives soloists space to improvise over a tight rhythm section before returning to the opening head to conclude a piece. What’s the issue? What component was missing from Ornette’s music that caused such an intense division between the jazz cognoscenti- the musicians, critics, and audience- when he first appeared on the scene, and which, in many ways, lasts until this day? It relates to the piano.

One of the primary functions of a pianist in mainstream jazz, aside from participating as a soloist, was to indicate the repeating cycle of a composition’s chord changes for an improviser. The tunes were often popular songs of the day; even the harmonic patterns of Bebop compositions were frequently based on chord extensions of well known pieces (for example, Dizzy Gillespie’s “Groovin’ High” was based on the song “Whispering,” by Vincent Rose, John Schonberger and Richard Coburn); everybody knew them. But, aside from his first album, Something Else!!!!, and a few recordings and performances made much later in his career, Ornette Coleman did not work with piano players. The question is, “Why?”

Looking back, it is clear that by the late 1950s a paradigm shift was necessary for jazz to continue to thrive artistically. In order to expand the music and challenge the improviser, there had been increasing attempts to confront its harmonic foundations. In general, the chord structure either became more and more complex (the direction John Coltrane took with his album, Giant Steps) or it was simplified in an attempt to give the soloist fewer harmonic restrictions (as Miles Davis did with Kind of Blue). But none of these strategies really altered the music’s basic framework, which utilized a repeating set of 32 bar chord changes and AABA forms (or other similar chord patterns and forms).

Ornette Coleman came up with an altogether different solution to this potential impasse, one that seems to be rarely understood- he saw that the necessary creative direction would not be about harmony, it would be about form. Ornette’s elimination of the piano’s conventional role in jazz helped him to develop an open ended harmonic structure, one that did not follow reiterating chord changes. Though it’s hard to appreciate now, this new system was incredibly disorienting for most musicians and listeners that were used to hearing a soloist improvise over predetermined and clearly delineated harmonic patterns. It is this- Ornette’s structural innovation- that’s at the heart of the controversy over his music, not the question of harmony. The near inability to truly hear the radical nature of his work today indicates that the issue wasn’t the surface (the melodies and rhythms), it was the shape (the improvisational framework). If harmony was the real problem, as is often stated, then Ornette’s music would not be so distinctly connected to to the sound of “conventional” jazz when we listen to it now, with the ears of the 21st century.

The problem so many listeners had with his music when he first appeared on the jazz scene was that- by replacing the standard predetermined form of chord changes with a spontaneous, linear harmonic structure, created by the improvisers at the time of performance- Ornette Coleman essentially removed the “vanishing point” for jazz. In a sense, he initiated a structural revolution similar to Cubism’s impact on painting. Many artists, critics, and observers who followed the traditions of representational art felt threatened by the Cubist revolution started by Braque and Picasso, one that eliminated the primacy of the vanishing point for perspective. The same was true for many jazz musicians, critics, and listeners who were confronted by Ornette’s ideas in the late 1950s; and like Braque and Picasso, he shifted the paradigm in a way that no one could have anticipated. Ornette side stepped “the issue of harmony” by showing that freedom in form could liberate expression. He was the first to break through with this realization and after him breakthroughs by other musicians started coming, including those by jazz artists who had already established themselves before Ornette’s arrival: Cecil Taylor (Air, 1960), Joe Harriott (Free Form, 1960), Max Roach (We Insist!, 1960), Jimmy Giuffre (Fusion, 1961), Mal Waldron (The Quest, 1961), Sonny Rollins (Our Man In Jazz, 1962), the Archie Shepp – Bill Dixon Quartet (released by Savoy in 1962), Jackie McLean (Let Freedom Ring, 1962), Andrew Hill (Black Fire, 1963).

It took jazz roughly half a century of development before Ornette Coleman created a revolution in its architecture Now, more than 50 years after this innovation, I feel that the creative issue has again become structural. Since 1960 it’s been commonplace for many improvisers connected to the jazz tradition to use a “head>open form>head” construction for their material, but I believe this framework no longer creates or sustains a real challenge for improvisers in the 21st century; that methodology has been mined for too long. One solution to this problem has been the development of freely improvised music, with the premise that all materials should be spontaneously generated. Yet, over decades of activity, even this practice of music has created traditions that should be confronted and breached. And though there have been other compositional methods with great impact on the scene- Cecil Taylor’s long forms, post-modernist strategies (perhaps best exemplified by John Zorn’s Naked City), the collage organization that Anthony Braxton’s utilized with his quartet during the 1980s- none of them have been as fully embraced as Ornette’s formal innovation.

Today, aesthetics have integrated unique and international resources with an unprecedented access to historic recordings and archives. In this environment the “head>open form>head” platform is no longer enough, just as the continued use of traditional chord changes (“head>fixed harmony>head”) in jazz by the late 1950s was no longer enough. In both cases, after nearly five decades of investigation by master improvisers and composers, these structural formats have seemingly run the course of their innovations. As then, it is now- bending the frame is no longer enough. Once again it’s time to shift the paradigm, and I believe this shift will come in a way that no one expects, just as it had with Ornette Coleman. And as then, it won’t come from looking at the surface, it will come by looking at the shape.

-Ken Vandermark, Wormer, the Netherlands, September 14, 2015