Soliloquy of Chaos

Ornette Coleman in Copenhagen, 1965

William Pym

“He broke the rules. He was making a new kind of music. You could call it punk, or call it art . . . but his playing is not about attitude or aesthetics.”

As a teenager in 1940s Fort Worth, Ornette Coleman supported his family playing tenor saxophone on the radio and in regional clubs, honing woozy gutbucket rhythm and blues suitable for partying and abandon. “I was in the South when minorities were oppressed, and I identified with them through music,” Coleman told the philosopher Jacques Derrida in a 1997 conversation published in Les Inrockuptibles magazine. “One day, I walked into a place that was full of gambling and prostitution, people arguing, and I saw a woman get stabbed—then I thought that I had to get out of there. I told my mother that I didn’t want to play this music anymore because I thought that I was only adding to all that suffering.” His sense of belonging in that scene ended there, with that epiphany. “It was like I had been re-baptized,” he said. The sadness, exhaustion, and mania of the tavern scene echoed the pain and tragedy Coleman sensed in Texas culture, and he felt trapped there, unable to grow or create an environment where others could grow. By playing the Blues, he could only propagate the blues. He could not explore a way to leave the blues behind.

“I told my mother that I didn’t want to play this music anymore because I thought that I was only adding to all that suffering.”

On November 30, 1965, Coleman opened his set at Copenhagen’s Tivoli Koncertsal with his 1959 composition “Lonely Woman,” already something of a standard, and the only tune in the set that the audience would have heard before. “Lonely Woman” is, here, a loud lament: pure, desperate blues. Over steadily carved arco bass from David Izenzon and energetic bouncing and splash from drummer Charles Moffett, Coleman draws out the horn phrasing, making it reach, ending elongated stamina blasts with boozy, hard curls. The audience, 1,600 Danes in an auditorium nestled in the grounds of a sprawling, fanciful nineteenth-century amusement park, are transported to the clubs of postwar Fort Worth. Coleman plays his past to them as he introduces himself. He shakes his memories of intoxication, sorrow, and delirium before they become reverie, and picks up the pace; Moffett follows, and Coleman puts some nimble bebop into his playing, quotations of other moments, people, and places. When the improvisation runs out of gas and dies down—it’s clear that the length of this up-tempo passage had not been agreed upon ahead of time—Coleman returns to the yearning, stretched figures of the main theme, now stronger than before. The song collapses in exhaustion, and the audience erupts into applause. Moffett plays a few rolling, ecstatic hits and the crowd starts clapping percussively. The precise syncopated reaction is jarring, and the first audible clue that this is not an American audience. There is an intense energy in the room.

Tambour, by Terry Adkins, 2013, mixed media, 59 × 18 × 18 inches (150 × 46 × 46 cm), courtesy of the Terry Adkins Estate and Lévy Gorvy, New York, © Estate of Terry Adkins.

Listen to a sampling of Ornette Coleman’s music.

Coleman drops into “Clergyman’s Dream” without letting the audience carry the moment. It’s a workout. Izenzon plays nimble pizzicato, chasing the horn line around, looking for the key and the phrasing. Moffett keeps an up-tempo ride pattern going. Coleman hits a peak and lays off. Izenzon takes a short solo; Moffett takes a long solo. One has the sense that everyone has settled into the space. Coleman rejoins and they celebrate for a good while longer. The tune lasts twenty minutes. “Sadness” follows, a shifting of weight. Coleman goes for a stroll, taking some time and space to think. It’s an aside, and blue, but without the overwhelming bodily pathos of “Lonely Woman” at the top of the set. The sadness in question feels like the hardness of estrangement rather than the softness of despair. It’s only a few minutes long. “Falling Star” closes things out. For this valediction to his Copenhagen audience—forty minutes after greeting them for the first time—Coleman plays the violin and trumpet, two instruments he had never played on record.

Jazz-obsessed Danes had intensely anticipated Coleman’s Tivoli performance for two reasons. These fans had of course been listening to his records and reading about him for seven years, waiting to hear him play and see him for the first time in person, not just as a black and white photograph. But the 1965 European tour was also part of Coleman’s comeback, coming as it did after a two-year-plus hiatus from recording and performing. He had released a run of eight LPs between 1958 and 1961 that led listeners from warm invitation to total provocation, and by 1962 had become a star of as broad popular appeal as any jazz musician on the New York scene. He was a darling in the press, seen as a lion of the avant garde, and Atlantic Records stoked this fire with album titles of modish futurism: The Shape of Jazz to Come; Change of the Century. There was a lot riding on Coleman in the New York jazz scene in 1962. After a self-produced performance at New York’s Town Hall that December that flopped financially, Coleman effectively retired. He often described New York as a “production center,” a place to be because it was where jazz was happening, but he wasn’t enamored of the New York hustle and the way jazz was produced and consumed. He was worn out. He established some distance from promoters and middlemen, and this artist, who had worked steadily for the past fifteen years, took a break from work. Coleman was not seen or heard until January 1965, when he booked three weeklong spots at the Village Vanguard with Moffett and Izenzon, the last combo he’d worked with at Town Hall. It was here that Coleman played violin and trumpet for the first time in public.

Omohundro, by Terry Adkins, 2002, brass and copper, 60 × 29 × 8 inches (152.4 × 73.7 × 20.3 cm), private collection, courtesy of the Terry Adkins Estate and Salon 94, New York, © Estate of Terry Adkins.

Coleman nominally taught himself to play these new instruments to further his ambitions as a composer for larger groups. It was part of the narrative of what he’d been up to during his time off in 1963 and 1964. “I’d written some string quartets and I had trouble getting guys to play them,” he told an interviewer from Danish national radio following the broadcast of the Tivoli concert. “I figure if I can do it myself it’d be much easier to show someone else how to do it, rather than to just ask them if they know.” This statement has a veiled meaning—Coleman had experienced some “trouble getting guys to play” while booking his London show three months earlier, hitting nasty bureaucratic hurdles designed by the British Musicians’ Union that looked a lot like Jim Crow laws. But he had also spent much of the past two years alone composing, studying, and apprenticing to the theorist and composer Gunther Schuller. 1965 was the blossoming of his recorded work as a composer, a period that would culminate with 1972’s Skies of America, a conceptual symphony on which Coleman hardly appears.

Coleman’s chamber and big band works are serious, but they are not as singular and advanced as his saxophone playing. Charles Mingus, taking the mantle from Duke Ellington, was doing more subversive, complex work with composition, arrangement, and formality. Coleman’s compositional works are not the definitive examples of their form, nor are they brimming with content. The first show of the 1965 European tour in London—a fraught, compromised affair, as described above—opened with “Forms and Sounds for Wind Quintet.” This piece can be heard on the first side of the double LP The Great London Concert, released by Arista/Freedom in 1975. It is crisp, not earth-shattering.

But when Coleman took up the violin and trumpet to close the Copenhagen concert, he showed how much he’d thought about rules and history during his years away. He broke the rules. He was making a new kind of music. You could call it punk, or call it art—it’s both those things, in a 1960s New York pocket with John Cale or Charlotte Moorman—but his playing is not about attitude or aesthetics. None of that matters. His playing on “Falling Star” is a proposal. It opens on violin with a taxonomy of sawing motions: a midtempo rock, like pedaling a sewing machine or cutting a piece of wood; a forceful steamer, like vigorously brushing one’s teeth; a manic, urgent grind, like trying to buff some grime off a table. Coleman moves up and down the fingerboard and flashes across the strings, two, three, or four at a time, and while it would be reductive to call the playing atonal, it definitely crunches and approaches noise. It barely holds together. Coleman pauses to rest and tries out some short, squirrelly lines that fall off or twang. It’s a wild ride. Izenzon bumps his way in and plays a smooth, strange solo of low timbres. Coleman saws back into the foreground, really loud for a few bars. Moffett takes the lead and Coleman steps away from the mic and doodles an offhand, faint lead line on the E string. The structure has been abandoned, and the trio’s soloing becomes pliable. Bursts of applause and hollering from the audience at disparate times suggest a wonderful lack of consensus about what is going on.

His playing is not about attitude or aesthetics. None of that matters. His playing on “Falling Star” is a proposal.

Native Son, by Terry Adkins, 2006/2015, cymbals, armature, and additional technical components, 20 × 96 inches (50.8 × 243.8 cm), photo by Elisabeth Bernstein, courtesy of the Terry Adkins Estate and Lévy Gorvy, New York, © Estate of Terry Adkins.

Coleman switches to trumpet and suddenly he’s talking again. The manic scrabble of his violin-playing is put into perspective, as Coleman speaks fluently, clearly. You can hear him communicate with ease, even as he plays the instrument clumsily at times. As one listens, the essential difference between stringed and blown instruments is revealed. His interaction with the violin seems now like a bout, Coleman fighting to express himself with his hands rather than his voice. When he plays trumpet it’s a party. He squeaks and squashes notes at times, blithely; his epically long semitone runs slither; he picks melodies out of the air. Moffett’s all in, playing triplets, marches, barroom rhythm and blues. Izenzon sits back and works on a walking bassline, only really joining in when he feels like he’s in sync with the others. He plays clean and true. Coleman runs through every idea he has for the trumpet, which lasts several hard, sustained minutes. He puts the trumpet down, Moffett plays a furious solo over a nostalgic high-hat click, Izenzon starts doing some curious harmonic stuff that he’s clearly been working up to in the background of the whole number, and Coleman dives in with a slashing epilogue on violin, for good measure. They punch out together. The crowd goes crazy. “Let’s play the music and not the background,” Coleman is quoted as saying in Martin Williams’s important 1970 essay collection The Jazz Tradition. Broadcasting live to both a room and a nation full of white people, in “Falling Star,” they played the music.

“Let’s play the music and not the background.”

So what was the proposal of “Falling Star”? The Copenhagen set has a tight narrative momentum that climaxes, on that final tune, in an atomization of sound, a disintegration of human expression from what it once was into how it might be.

The Copenhagen recording unfolds as a crystal-clear journey, more so than the better-known, deeper sets he would play in Stockholm a few days later (on wax as the canonical two-volume At the “Golden Circle” Stockholm, released by Blue Note almost immediately afterward), or the London concert the previous August, which was more of a showcase than a vibe. For all the critique above about Coleman’s softness or inefficacy as a composer, the Copenhagen concert reads as prose, a story properly told. The set is both clever and guided by the heart, carrying listeners in a straight, smooth line. “Falling Star” is an emphatic, futuristic climax, and a grand conclusion to a soliloquy that began at the center of black American culture post-Reconstruction. It asks for a way of speaking without the accent of history. It wishes to leave the past behind.

Coleman wanted to play jazz as a conversation that starts on new terms with the listener, inspiring elevated discourse and new understanding. Playing at the heart of the civil rights era, he wanted a chance to drive a new American conversation, wanted a chance to be heard, and for others to be heard, without the leaden shackles of the past. He asks, simply, for a common language. It is a pure message, and it is a convocation. “I do know that in the emotion of human beings, sound is growing: in revolutions, in purpose, and most of all, in freedom,” Coleman told the critic Nate Chinen in 2007. “A person can say a word . . . without you knowing what it means, and speak to you in a way that you get a meaning from it.”

“I do know that in the emotion of human beings, sound is growing: in revolutions, in purpose, and most of all, in freedom.”

Coleman didn’t want to “add to all that suffering” by soundtracking the sorrow of his surroundings. He sought the opposite: as wide and as speculative a conversation with as many kinds of humans as possible so that sorrow may end. “What are your plans for the future?” asks the radio host Per Møller Hansen after the Copenhagen concert. “To try to develop a larger audience,” Coleman replies. “I like to play for many, many people.”

Coleman’s original fears from his youth about the difficulty of uplift in entrenched societies—the very fears that led him to the explosion of “Falling Star” on a winter night in Copenhagen in 1965—remain unresolved today. Being heard and being heard on one’s own terms is everyone’s right, and there’s no freedom, no progress, without it. Coleman leaves the Danish crowd with an invitation to use one’s ears, and one’s voice, in new ways, so that there is a parity in communication. It’s an elegant proposal. How extraordinary that this American conversation is still taking shape more than fifty years later.


This essay first appeared in the Music & Protest Issue, vol. 24, no. 3 (Fall 2018).

William Pym is a writer, teacher, and art dealer based in Kent, England. His polemical essay collection on the vicissitudes of the global art scene since 2000, entitled That Way, was published by At Last Books, Copenhagen, in spring 2018.

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