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Take this chance to catch Ornette Coleman’s jazz

Jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman is directing the Meltdown festival at London’s Southbank this month. Roger Huddle explains why Coleman’s music is legendary

Issue No. 2154

In 1959 Ornette Coleman was the shape of jazz to come

In 1959 Ornette Coleman was the shape of jazz to come

There are moments of extreme beauty, moments of anger, bitter ­sorrow and sweet love. There are rhythms that thrill, surprise and fill you with joy.

The music of Ornette Coleman is rooted in the black American experience, but it weaves in and out of the tradition with a very individual and personal voice.

Ornette Coleman is one of the great innovators of jazz.

His artistic singlemindedness would not bend to the racism of the post-war US, the dominant structures of jazz or the bloodsucking owners of record labels and night clubs where the music was played.

In his remarkable book, Four Lives in the Be-bop Business, poet and critic AB Spellman writes, “In the jazz circles of New York in the fall of 1959, there was an unusual feeling of apprehension in the air.

“There was a musician coming, Ornette Coleman, whose singular ear had developed a style of playing that had already been described… as the first truly original concept of saxophone playing since Charlie Parker.”

Ornette called his music “harmolodic”, meaning it was freed from tonal limitations, rhythmic predetermination or harmonic rules.

Most critics prefer to call it “free jazz”, though is an easy term to misunderstand.

What he developed was a musical form that allowed all the musicians freedom of expression and movement, but remained inside a structure.

It relies on each player having the skill and empathy to be able to play with the others, with no single musician dominating.

It was in 1959 that Ornette released The Shape of Jazz to Come, the album that introduced his new music to the world.

He was recording with a quartet that understood what he was trying to achieve and wanted to be part of it.

He was accompanied by Don Cherry on trumpet, Charlie Haden on bass and Billy Higgins on drums.


Since then his music has traced the struggle for civil rights in the US.

Ornette refused to alter his music to what might be more popular or sell better.

But he also refused the position that “they” had placed jazz into – the club, the bar and entertainment circuit.

Along with the growing black art movements of the period he insisted that jazz was not just entertainment, but an art form.

He demanded recognition as an artist.

Ornette has composed music for a wide range of performances, from jazz quartets right up into a full orchestra – as in his magnificent Skies Of America in 1972.

He is still innovating with albums such as 2006’s Sound Grammar – and he gets better and better.

His recorded output has consistently changed and explored emotions though various line ups, although he prefers putting himself between two drummers, two bassists and two guitars in a band that he calls Prime Time.

He is a true giant of music.

Ornette will be playing material from The Shape of Jazz to Come and music inspired by it at his Meltdown shows in London.

The Meltdown

The artists picked to appear in Ornette Coleman’s Meltdown festival show the range of his musical interests.

They include hip-hop act The Roots, jazz saxophonist David Murray, Cornelius, The Master Musicians of Jajouka and Bachir Attar, Patti Smith, The Silver Mount Zion Memorial Orchestra, Gwo-Ka Masters, Jamaaladeen Tacuma, Baaba Maal, Yo La Tengo, Bobby McFerrin, Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra, Carla Bley, Robert Wyatt, Yoko Ono Plastic Ono Band, Sean Lennon and Moby.

The festival runs from 12 -21 June 2009 at the Southbank Centre in London. For details go to »

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Tue 2 Jun 2009, 18:21 BST
Issue No. 2154
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