Despite the fact that he died in 1979, Charles Mingus' music has an uncanny longevity and his music is more influential today than it has ever been. Mingus biographer Brian Priestley sets the bassist in the context of his times and explains the revolutionary impact his innovations had on the jazz of his day
“His recordings are always surfacing under commercials, films, TV shows, and being sampled in hip-hop and rap records. High school marching bands are marching furiously up and down football fields playing ‘Children’s Hour Of Dream’ from Epitaph.” The words of arranger Sy Johnson in Todd Jenkins’s 2006 book I Know What I Know, graphically describing two aspects of Mingus’s legacy – the recorded and the live. While giving credit to Sue Mingus for encouraging the live performances, Johnson also pays tribute to the strength of the music itself: “Mingus still appeals to the rebels, to the energy and passions of young musicians.”
Frequent are the mentions, in Jazzwise and elsewhere, of players citing Mingus as an inspiration, or reviewers noting his influence on someone else’s work. It’s certainly not only to rebels that Mingus appeals, though that’s undoubtedly a factor in his personality, which we’ll come to later. Energy and passion are just an aspect of the reason why people are drawn to Mingus. Hearing his music is also uplifting because the music is demanding – for listeners and performers alike – and so, when it comes out right, it’s uplifting and fulfilling. But there’s also the attraction that no single way of playing his pieces is the “right” one, since he himself frequently reworked his own themes, and numerous versions of related material resulted.
This is easily confirmed by people already hooked on Mingus, who tend to view “Mingus music” as a separate world unto itself – and it’s true there’s a whole world there to get lost in. But, of course, there are parallels between Mingus and other musicians, specifically the ones who have tried to solve the problem of how to be a “jazz composer”. Not just someone who writes a head and sits back to claim royalties, without doing anything noteworthy to stimulate the contributions of the actual performers. Though such writers often get referred to as composers, perhaps “songwriter” is a more apt description.
“The kind of composer that Mingus triumphantly was, relatively few others aspire to be – and, of those that aspire, few succeed”
The kind of composer that Mingus triumphantly was, relatively few others aspire to be – and, of those that aspire, few succeed. In Mingus’s generation, perhaps only George Russell and Sun Ra can also be said to have attempted compositional methods sufficiently open that the musicians involved are virtually forced to engage their own creativity, rather than just filling an allotted space. When the Mingus approach comes off, the results are not only thrilling but they reflect the players’ personalities, just as much as the composer’s personality. Mingus was quite explicit about this being a desirable outcome – when he was assembling his first distinctive band, sideman Jackie McLean was still young enough to be copying Parker licks. But he recalled Mingus telling him, “I don’t want Charlie Parker, I want Jackie”.
In one way, that isn’t far removed from the achievement of openminded bandleaders not known for their writing, such as the early Count Basie, or even Miles through most of his career – with the difference that Mingus’s written input is highly distinctive. In this, his great inspiration was Duke Ellington, the great patriarch of the Basie generation who showed the world how to give individualistic sidemen their heads yet made the collective results sound “typically” Ellingtonian. Even today, some people still express surprise that the kind of super-precise ensemble work developed in the swing era – and beloved by fans of big-band sounds – was sometimes lacking in Duke’s band. But he valued his players’ personalities more than card-punching precision, and the lesson was not lost on Mingus.
The fact that the bassist was also one of the only people ever to be directly sacked from the Ellington band – a whole decade before their reunion on Money Jungle – didn’t diminish his admiration of the older man. The story of his dismissal is told with flair and humour in Mingus’s autobiographical book, Beneath The Underdog, but it was just part of his long and varied experience as a sideman before becoming a full-time bandleader himself. Such an apprenticeship was more common in those days, but Mingus had a particularly enriching background to draw upon by the time he came to the fore. Naming some of his employers in chronological order of their birth shows an impressive array of influential figures. Not only Ellington and Louis Armstrong, clarinettist Barney Bigard (who himself worked for both the aforementioned), vibists Lionel Hampton and Red Norvo, Art Tatum and Lennie Tristano, Charlie Parker and Bud Powell. Quite a stylistic spread to be exposed to and to learn from, and covering the gamut from “entertainers” like Armstrong and Hampton to “thinkers” such as Tristano and Powell.
That, of course, is still one of the great dividing lines in the jazz world, and it was one of the divides in Mingus’s own musical personality. For much of the first decade of his recording career, his sideman work regularly involved him in the popular music of the day, namely the early R-and-B now often classified as “West Coast blues”. (The West Coast, mostly Los Angeles and briefly San Francisco, is where Mingus lived from shortly after his birth in 1922 for the first 28 years of his life.) The solid grooves of RnB were often mixed, especially by West Coast-based artists such as T-Bone Walker and Charles Brown, with a dash of swing-era “sophistication” that fitted well with Mingus’s previous playing experience. But also the more visceral honking-and-wailing side of the genre, something Lionel Hampton capitalised on, had a direct connection with black gospel, the first music to stir Mingus’s soul as a child.
This “popular” aspect of his background is very much to the fore in Mingus’s own initial recordings. One of the happy by-products of the immediate post-World War II record boom is that he made several sessions under his own name in 1945-46, long before he led his own regular bands. The results clearly show Mingus’s ambition to be a pop songwriter, his jivey dance tunes alternating with ballads that, like Ellington, he recorded more than once for different labels. Mingus later abandoned the songwriting in favour of experiments with poetry and prose readings, but one of the 1940s ballads – namely ‘Weird Nightmare’ – was regularly returned to under different titles, its first re-make (‘Pipe Dream’) showing a love of European classical music that was cemented in Mingus’s teen years. Both that input and the embracing of bebop become clearer in his writing for Hampton in 1947-48 (‘Mingus Fingers’) and in the forward-looking tracks he did after leaving Hampton, including ‘Inspiration’ (aka ‘Portrait’) and ‘The Story Of Love’.
Unfortunately, apart from ‘Mingus Fingers’, these tracks sank without trace when first issued, and probably would have done so even if the small West Coast labels involved hadn’t rapidly gone under. This, of course, was depressing for Mingus but, for us, the fact they were done at all is valuable in understanding the direction – or, rather, directions – which he was coming from. Swing-RnB-Gospel versus Ellington-Bebop-Classical is a volatile mix that few others could handle, and that took Mingus several more years of trial-and-error before he could harness it. It also places him at the very heart of the ongoing debate which claims that honouring the tradition of jazz is necessarily opposed to taking the music in new directions. Mingus did both – sometimes alternately, sometimes simultaneously.
Given this sterile argument has been rumbling on since at least the mid-60s, it’s revealing that, at the time of his 1971 “comeback”, Mingus told an anecdote about a one-off gig 30 years earlier with Roy Eldridge, regarded as the leading trumpeter of the swing era. Unimpressed by the youthful Mingus’s attitude, Roy said, “You young punks out here,… you don’t know about your own people’s music. I bet you never heard of Coleman Hawkins, I bet you never listened to him, I bet you can’t sing one of his solos.” Note that this was long before college jazz courses – long before published transcriptions, even – when the only way to study a famous recorded solo was to memorise it by ear and then transfer it to your own instrument. Note too that there’s no contradiction between this story and Jackie McLean’s quotation, Mingus’s message being that you need to know the tradition, have it at your fingertips, but also do your own thing with it.
“I used to play avant-garde bass when nobody else did; now I play 4/4 because none of the other bass players do.” – Charles Mingus
This explains why, when his compositional approach finally came together in the mid-1950s, his live performances mixed challenging new pieces of his own with Parker or Ellington tunes. It explains too why even some of his most original creations make use of textures or motifs that echo Duke or Bird, without quoting them directly, and why other originals are titled as “portraits” of famous musicians. Not just Ellington and Parker – think of ‘Open Letter To Duke’, ‘Bird Calls’ and several others – but also pieces for Monk, Powell, Gillespie and less likely dedicatees such as Lester Young (the famous ‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat’) and even Jelly Roll Morton. Dedication to both the tradition and advancing beyond it lies behind another Mingus statement from the 1970s: “I used to play avant-garde bass when nobody else did; now I play 4/4 because none of the other bass players do.”
What about the importance of Mingus the bassist? Although that Mingus became overshadowed by Mingus the composer and bandleader, it’s clear he was a monster on the instrument. Since everybody who plays it now tries to make it sound like a horn, and a post-Parker horn at that, it’s hard to remember Mingus was the first to do it. And his desire to break up his rhythms behind other soloists was so influential on people like Scott LaFaro that Mingus himself was actually the reason why no one in the 1970s was playing in 4/4. Quite early in his career, he was moving away from the straight-ahead grooving exemplified by Ray Brown (or by RnB) and seeking a more elastic approach to rhythm playing. Even before he found his heaven-sent drummer Dannie Richmond, Mingus was able to play on the beat or ahead of the beat, to use Latin figures or else 6-to-the-bar instead of 4 and – crucially – to vary his volume and articulation in a way that’s still foreign to most jazzers. Few people listen to the barrier-breaking ‘Pithecanthropus Erectus’ just for the bass, but it’s all there.
Other compelling reasons why that track is historic include the following: The reclaiming of collective improvisation, consigned for the previous couple of decades to Dixieland settings. The collective improvs being based on a modal, non-harmonic background, and lasting for an unspecified number of bars. The use of distorted, RnB-like wailing saxes, particularly shocking in the polite jazz world of 1956, and the deliberate, unprecedented speeding-up during the final, wild, collective ensemble. The doomy feel of the opening theme, unlike anything previously heard, and the menacing exhilaration of the regular switches from 4/4 to 6/4. (Another great example of the latter comes immediately after Booker Ervin’s unaccompanied section of ‘Moanin’’ from Blues And Roots.) Indeed, the emotional atmosphere of the whole piece is “like a cold shower”, to borrow the description of a later appearance, and the fact that ‘Pithecanthropus’ has a storyline – nothing less than the rise and ultimate self-destruction of mankind – shows that Mingus had come a long way beyond the merely conventional.
There was another aspect to ‘Pithecanthropus’ that was unconventional, namely the fact that Mingus’s composition wasn’t written down. Since moving to New York in 1951, he’d been working with top-flight improvisers like Parker, Powell, Miles (briefly) and Max Roach, with whom he formed one of the first musician-run record-labels, Debut. On the other hand, he was also involved in a collective called the Jazz Composers Workshop, with people such as future Berklee tutor John LaPorta and future Miles producer Teo Macero. Finding the latter experience ultimately frustrating because of its over-reliance on written music, Mingus went in the opposite direction in 1955. As a later Mingus sideman, tuba-and-baritonist Howard Johnson, explained to me, few of the first generation of jazzers could read music, so they developed their abilities by ear. “But then”, subsequent generations learned to read and “Pretty soon, no-one could play the other way.” Mingus decided to do it the other way and insisted his sidemen pick up his original material by ear, phrase by phrase, so they could then interpret it more confidently – and more individualistically – than if they were reading their parts.
“With shouted exhortations borrowed from the gospel churches – such as “Oh yeah, I know” and “Going home” – he became the Martin Luther King of jazz”
This was pretty revolutionary in the eyes of most “modern” musicians of the day, though soon to become more widespread in the free-jazz that was just around the corner. But it was timely in another way, for Mingus made this stylistic move just at the moment that the civil rights movement took a giant steps, thanks to Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King. The collective music-making fostered by Mingus’s methods, and the controlled aggression of the jostling saxophones, was very much in tune with the times. And, when he started to encourage his musicians with shouted exhortations borrowed from the gospel churches – such as “Oh yeah, I know” and “Going home” – he became the Martin Luther King of jazz. A valid comparison, despite the fact that sidemen such as Jackie McLean and the great trombonist Jimmy Knepper pointed out Mingus didn’t always live up to his own ideals of non-violence.
One thing that’s noteworthy about the civil-rights aspect of his work is that Mingus, having two mixed-race parents, was relatively light-skinned. Whereas his father had often “passed for white”, as the saying went, Mingus himself could only pass for Mexican – which was indirectly the reason for his genuine interest in Mexican moods and Spanish music. But, having spent so much time living in the black community and working with black musicians, he knew that was where his loyalties lay. So, from the mid-50s onwards, many of his pieces – even if their musical genesis was non-political – received politicised titles. Such as ‘Work Song’, ‘Prayer For Passive Resistance’, ‘Meditations On Integration’, ‘Haitian Fight Song’ (which Mingus said “could just as well be called ‘Afro-American Fight Song’”) and the immortal ‘Fables Of Faubus’.
In the turbulent decade 1955-65, Mingus had a run of extraordinary albums and a regular turnover of remarkable sidemen, especially saxophonists such as McLean, Ervin, John Handy, Yusef Lateef, Roland Kirk and Eric Dolphy. He managed to apply his idiosyncratic methods not only to regular working quartets and quintets but to some quite large groups – from the octet of the UCLA concert through the expanding line-ups of Blues And Roots, Mingus Dynasty, Black Saint And The Sinner Lady up to the 12-piece on Mingus At Monterey. Despite some less successful moments and maybe some unwise decisions, Mingus was riding high during a period generally hospitable to jazz. But, after the “British invasion” of U.S. pop and a consequent gearing-up of the mainstream music industry, he spent most of the late 1960s out of the limelight and barely playing music at all.
It was Mingus himself who, with characteristic openness, put the issue of his mental well-being in the public domain, firstly through revelations in album liners, including having the notes to Black Saint written by his psychoanalyst. Then in Beneath The Underdog, which is framed by the literary device of a session with his analyst, Mingus tells his story of having volunteered for treatment at Bellevue Hospital – not a common course of action, especially then. Of course, it would be a foolhardy and arrogant mental-health expert who would dare to diagnose distressed artists belonging to a persecuted racial minority. Which is precisely why foolhardy and arrogant mental-health experts in the 1940s and 50s did issue their diagnoses of, at different times, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk and Max Roach. Mingus made it clear he didn’t buy their findings – according to the version in his book, the recommendation was for a lobotomy! – and was also clear that his self-awareness fed directly into his art. As he famously wrote in 1955, “My music is alive and it’s about the living and the dead, about good and evil. It’s angry, yet it’s real because it knows it’s angry.”
Mingus could also be charming, for instance when he gave me a long interview in 1972. But the fact that he was hard to be around at times obviously impacted on his nearest and dearest, including his musicians. Many described him as bordering on the abusive, and others found his needling a distraction from what they thought they wanted to achieve. But, discussing him with hindsight, nearly all found the experience of working with him to be positive, not least in forcing them to perform with maximum energy and maximum creativity. So John Handy, who recalled Mingus as being “embarrassing” and “tyrannical” on different occasions, was happy to play his music in the Mingus Dynasty band and the posthumously premiered Epitaph. And, when Handy said that “Some of the lines being re-created are what we improvised on the original records”, this just takes us back to the relationship of composer versus soloist. In other words, the soloist’s ideas wouldn’t have emerged in the first place if Mingus hadn’t set up the musical situation.
Jimmy Knepper went so far as to criticise Mingus on musical grounds, as well as describing the man himself as “inescapable”. But he nevertheless went back to work with Mingus after an estrangement that lasted more than a decade. He did also say that he earned more money playing Mingus music after the composer’s death than he ever did when Mingus was alive. Perhaps Knepper realised that not only were his own sound and his ideas part of Mingus’s identity, but also that Mingus was part of Knepper’s identity. For those of us listeners who find Mingus inescapable, it’s because once you’ve been hooked by him, you’ll never be the same again.
Charlie Parker changed the direction and sound of jazz and remains as influential today as it was revolutionary in his lifetime. Brian Priestley explores the Charlie Parker story...
If a week is a long time in politics, then 50 years in musical development would be almost unimaginable without the aid of recordings. Just think about it.
In early 1955, the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent judgement backing racial integration in schools was just beginning to be assessed. Simultaneously, Ray Charles’s ‘I Got A Woman’ (recorded six weeks before the turn of the year) was entering the R&B chart before crossing-over to the ‘pop’ listings. But, whereas Big Joe Turner’s ‘Shake Rattle And Roll’ crept into the pop chart for two weeks the previous summer, Bill Haley’s cleaned-up cover version was still there six months later.
That tells you a lot about America half a century ago. When Charlie Parker died in March 1955, he was not only alarmingly young. He also missed out on the great Civil Rights movement of the later 1950s and 1960s, and the general shake-up of society which that period brought about (and which many political and religious leaders in the U.S. are currently trying to reverse). Sadly for those interested in investigating the music, he missed out too on the first LP boom and the start of stereo, and he missed out on the era of Americans touring widely in Europe and being filmed for television. His recording output is very lopsided, as we’ll see, and video documentation is virtually nil.
The years between 1945 and 1955 represent a significant gap between the 1935-45 decade when jazz was pop, and 1955-65 when it was respected (and also sometimes popular). Parker did much to create that gap in the first place, but it’s ironic that he didn’t survive long enough to benefit from the renewed interest in jazz from 1955 onwards. He’d turned professional during the second half of the 1930s, that long-distant period when for a variety of reasons jazz (and jazz-derived) music set the tone for much of popular culture. It was called the Swing Era, and there’s been nothing like it ever since. Guys like Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw were the pin-ups of the day, despite the fact they were playing this highly rhythmic big-band music that was heavily jazz-oriented and – what was more unusual for white pop icons in those days – heavily black-influenced.
This surprising change in popular taste was one of music’s first-ever youth movements, and it contrasted with the smooth (or ‘sweet’) sounds of the early 1930s like chalk and cheese. If you wonder why we’re talking about what preceded Charlie Parker, it’s because the music of his teenage years provided the seeds of what he achieved. The fact that several black bands also became, if not rich, then nationally known names (including Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington and Count Basie) was equally important in inspiring younger black musicians to develop a style even more innovative than swing. And, while there may be a separatist agenda here (‘Let’s create something whitey can’t steal’), the ambitious artistry heard from people like predecessors Art Tatum or Coleman Hawkins or Lester Young was enough, in and of itself, to warrant closer examination and further extension by those capable of doing so.
Which is where Charlie Parker came in. The conventional view of the altoist goes something like this. ‘Parker was at least as famous for being a junkie, as he was for his music. Yet we know that we shouldn’t be influenced by this, so the musical verdict is that he was a great innovator, who just happened to create bebop single-handed.’ There are a number of simplifications there, but let’s break them down in reverse. First of all, the idea that any creation within the black music tradition was single-handed is likely to be false, because of the collective nature of the music. The reason musicians such as Dizzy Gillespie and Max Roach were so dismissive of Ross Russell’s book Bird Lives! is that it espoused the ‘great man’ theory at the expense of their own contributions. And you only have to listen to Parker’s recordings to realise that, while he could swing without any backing at all, he drew strength and inspiration from his accompanists in the moment – and from the whole tradition that preceded him. The renowned ‘Parker’s Mood’ could well be Exhibit A here, with Roach’s drumming (more audible in recent remasterings) being crucial after the piano solo.
The tradition of elevating Bird above his contemporaries goes back a long way, and not just with writers. When Down Beat published his first really in-depth interview in 1949 – timed to coincide with the intended opening of a new club called Birdland – they quoted an unnamed musician as saying ‘There’s only one man really plays bop. That’s Charlie Parker. All the others who say they’re playing bop are only trying to imitate him.’
Promoting the idea that bop was his creation and his alone, the interviewer famously describes (only partly in his own words) how he had a flash of understanding about the way he wanted to play, while jamming in Harlem with the obscure guitarist Biddy Fleet: ‘Charlie suddenly found that by using higher intervals of a chord… he could play this thing he had been “hearing”. Fleet picked it up behind him and bop was born.’
Well, that’s how music journalists wrote back then, so fair enough. But a lot of books are still talking in a not too dissimilar way now, which is not fair enough because bebop was not born suddenly. It isn’t merely the passage of time that makes late swing blend so easily into early bop. It’s the music. Many things no longer taken for granted – such as playing four beats to the bar, using 12-bar and 32-bar choruses, having successive soloists take turns on the same chord-sequence, the idea of having chord-sequences at all – all of these survived intact from swing to bop. And the fact that Parker in his interview described the differences between the styles in terms of harmony is actively misleading. Yes, Dizzy Gillespie’s contributions were to some extent about chords, and so were Thelonious Monk’s but – heard with today’s ears, or viewed on paper – Parker’s solos are actually very uncomplicated harmonically.
So, having disposed of the idea that anything he did was done single-handedly, we’ve also seen that bebop wasn’t so different from what immediately preceded it. And, in disagreeing about the accuracy of his own most quoted statement, we’re well on the way to saying that he wasn’t an innovator either. Certainly, the ‘higher intervals’ were no great mystery – all Charlie was probably saying was that it took him till he was 18 or 19 to ‘hear’ them and play them. But they were to be found already in the advanced swing soloists like Tatum, Hawkins, Young, Roy Eldridge, even Benny Goodman on occasion. Parker was, at this level, just another great soloist, the one who grabbed everything that was in the air (from the innovative to the deeply traditional) and absorbed it into his style better than anyone else in the 1940s.
“His sound initially repelled some listeners and seduced others like a veritable Pied Piper”
What was different about his playing, of course, was his sound, which initially repelled some listeners and seduced others like a veritable Pied Piper. The recently reissued, and not particularly recommendable, reissue from a 1952 jam-session (Chet And Bird) has at least two revealing moments. The track probably recorded first includes an opening alto solo that, for a while, has you wondering whether it’s really Parker or the other listed saxophonist (Sonny Criss, who copied some of Charlie’s habits, both musical and non-musical) – but the mystery is solved within the first few notes of the second alto solo because, despite the bootleg quality, you recognise Parker instantly. The other side of the coin is another track from the same set, which begins with the song ‘Indiana’ done very straight, perhaps in answer to a request. Can that really be Bird playing so simply? But, again, you know it’s him even before he employs any of his usual vocabulary, because the tone is so distinctive.
The thing that was so impressive to sympathetic fellow musicians, and so bewildering to those who couldn’t get with it, was his superb rhythmic assurance. While Gillespie, for instance, had already shown an interest in the cross-rhythms of Afro-Latin and Afro-Caribbean music, Parker’s background didn’t include that kind of experience. But he frequently played (over a conventional swing accompaniment) as if he was juggling all the polyrhythmic accents that could be thrown at him by a Latin rhythm-section. Gillespie, in his autobiography To Be Or Not To Bop, even said of Charlie’s early work that ‘Rhythmically, he was quite advanced’ and that ‘After we started playing together, I started to play, rhythmically, more like him.’ Quite a compliment, coming from Dizzy, while Miles in his own book described how easily Parker could unintentionally throw his own accompanists, let alone his listeners.
Significantly, in his 1949 interview, there’s a bit that’s less frequently quoted these days – perhaps it seems less coherent, as he struggles to define the key difference between bebop and swing. Charlie talks (to two non-musician writers, one of whom three years earlier had panned the first-ever single under Parker’s own name) about rhythm. What he says makes perfect sense, if you appreciate the distinct qualities of a swing rhythm-section and a bebop rhythm-section: ‘The beat in a bop band is with the music, against it, behind it… It has no continuity of beat, no steady chugging.’ In other words, the absence of a heavy four from the rhythm guitar or from the drummer’s bass and snare left chord instruments and drums free to make seemingly random responses to whoever was playing the solo line. Charlie seldom told drummers or pianists what to do (unlike Gillespie) but he made this way of playing seem the only way to go for younger musicians.
How far he’s also responsible for turning them on to hard drugs is a subject for debate. But the first heroin epidemic in the U.S. began as early as the 1930s (Dizzy’s book mentions a trumpeter with Jimmie Lunceford, who I take to be Tommy Stevenson, as the first addict he was aware of) and, by the time of the Parker ‘imitators’, the epidemic was so widespread it’s surprising more musicians didn’t die. Of those that did, many were trumpeters, including both black (Fats Navarro, dead at 26) and white (Sonny Berman, whose touring room-mate Ralph Burns once told me of fellow bandsmen’s efforts to disguise Berman’s fatal heart-attack at 22). Rather than artistic reasons, it’s much more likely to have been curiosity and a desire to be in with the in-crowd that initially hooked these victims, and it’s likely to be just the same for Parker himself, in his mid-teens in Kansas City.
K.C. was what’s called a ‘wide-open town’ in the 1930s (it provided the basis for Robert Altman’s 1996 movie Kansas City which, as well as evoking the town’s political corruption, also re-created the all-night jam-sessions that featured people like Lester Young and Ben Webster). Whereas 1920s Chicago and Harlem night-life was built on booze, 1930s Kaycee had a place in its economy for heroin, with many enthusiastic clients among its exploited entertainment workers. No wonder players like Ben and Lester and Basie and Mary Lou Williams (with the Andy Kirk band) moved on as soon as they got the opportunity. And no wonder that the ambitious and adventurous Parker first left his K.C. employer Jay McShann to explore New York on his own, as early as his 19th year. This was when he first discovered he really needed sympathetic musical colleagues, finding few of them except Biddy Fleet, and on returning home he put his all into McShann’s new big-band with whom he made his first brief recordings.
It was when the band went together to New York in 1942, and scored a hit with fellow players, that Charlie was really on his way. Gillespie was one of the few allowed to sit in with the band at Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom, and his rapport with Charlie (built on the fact that they had similar interests but slightly different talents) was pursued through jam-sessions, touring with Earl Hines’s and Billy Eckstine’s bands, and Dizzy’s early small-groups on New York’s 52nd Street and in Los Angeles. Before they parted company there in 1946, Charlie appeared on key recordings with Gillespie and made his own ‘Now’s The Time’ session (for which Dizzy played more piano than trumpet, even on the amazing ‘Ko Ko’). Parker’s choice of trumpeter showed his interest in encouraging young talent and a concern for contrast – the 19-year-old Miles Davis could hardly have been more different from Charlie in his tone quality or his apparent energy levels. The partnership was highly effective but, for Miles, a musical hurdle and a huge psychological challenge.
Parker’s is very much a story of two halves and, by the time he was making his most effective impact in the famous 1947-48 quintet that included Miles and Max Roach, he was no longer trusted by fellow musicians, let alone promoters and producers. As early as his first stint with McShann, he was considered an occasional liability and, during the second, successful band, he was briefly arrested along with singer Walter Brown. He also accidentally set fire to a hotel room and, finally, had to be left behind to recover from a bad trip. Concerned members of Hines’s band, and later of Gillespie’s quintet, tried to make him mend his ways, pointing out that he was letting down the group, the bebop scene generally, and indeed ‘the race’ (as Africans Americans referred to themselves in those times). All to no avail.
“An addict can function musically on heroin in a way that’s not so easy with a huge alcohol intake”
He not only let down but exploited others, and that included musicians and the partners in his four long-term relationships. Those with Rebecca (a high-school sweetheart) and with Gerri (a night-club dancer) were relatively brief – his first wife survived about two years of domesticity, the second probably less than a year. They were both black, but there may be several reasons why first Doris and then Chan Parker (both white in a period when inter-marriage was still highly unusual) each stuck around for about five years. Each of them certainly suffered, but each maintained – in quite separate testimony – that Charlie was at his best musically during their own relationship with him. More significant in supporting the notion that he wanted to go straight, each of them also spoke of his ability to quit heroin repeatedly. Unfortunately, he changed his mind repeatedly, and also developed a fearsome appetite for liquor as a substitute. As Gillespie and others pointed out, an addict can function musically on heroin in a way that’s not so easy with a huge alcohol intake.
As early as 1950, Parker’s career (as opposed to his playing) was starting to slide. Producer Norman Granz continued to record him in a variety of formats such as the ensemble with strings, that became a commercial attraction for a while, but didn’t use him any longer on the lucrative Jazz At The Philharmonic tours, because he was unreliable. Charlie became extremely ambivalent about the success of the strings group because of its stiff and absolutely fixed arrangements, while his quintet with Roy Haynes and Red Rodney foundered because of Rodney’s unavailability (firstly through serious illness, then imprisonment, both brought on by the usual reasons). Charlie lost his New York ‘cabaret card’ – as did others including non-jazzers, because of the authorities prohibiting the employment of those with a criminal record – and appeared around the country with accompanists varying wildly in quality. Sometimes he seems strong and impervious to their deficiencies, occasionally he’s so far from his own high standards that it’s pathetic – in the sense of evoking pity. A lot of it is on disc.
The actual availability of Parker’s music is complicated. Briefly, there’s a lot out there that shouldn’t be, except with a health warning, and a lot of the good stuff can be had in so many different guises that even experienced observers shrug and sigh. The complexity is to do with legalities of one sort or another, plus the fact that all but a couple of Bird’s last sessions were done before vinyl LPs became the norm, and jazz was released on singles. His ascendancy also coincided with the popularisation of portable recording gear, so at times it seems every note he ever played was captured by someone or other – often someone who, like the legendary Dean Benedetti, would switch off their equipment as soon as Parker’s solo was finished.
The plus side is that we have a fuller picture of his professional life, and the variety of circumstances in which he appeared, than with anyone else. Amazing discoveries continue to be made, some of them demanding a certain tolerance of inferior reproduction, as in the 1942 broadcast of the McShann band at the Savoy Ballroom, which took nearly 50 years to surface. Then there was the excellent 1952 airshot with Mingus and local Boston musicians including Dick Twardzik (who died aged 24) and a historic and previously unsuspected set of Gillespie’s 1945 quintet with Parker and Max Roach. But when you see the two surviving fragments of video, showing his total absorption in the music and total absence of any showmanship, you realise why it had to be the intense sound that got to people.
You also realise why bebop’s intensity made it less than popular, and the preserve of a hip elite. And why Gillespie rediscovered showmanship and the power of Latin rhythms, and survived as a result. By the autumn of 1954, Parker was not only attempting suicide (apparently for real) but camping out with friends and often playing for free. Even as jazz was consolidating its bebop revolution (Blakey at Birdland) and becoming safe for college kids (Mulligan and Baker), it’s not Bird but Stan Kenton who’s the favourite of Blackboard Jungle’s fictional teacher in that idealised, racially integrated school. And it’s not Bird but Brubeck who appears on the cover of the non-fictional Time magazine. Time is what Parker needed more of, but now’s the time to rejoice, and weep, for the time he spent among us.
Kind of Blue is frequently cited as the greatest jazz album of all time. Stuart Nicholson tells the story of its making and reveals exactly why Kind of Blue is an album that no one forgets listening to for the first time...
What Miles Davis, had he been alive today, would have made of the sumptuous reissue package Kind of Blue: 50th Anniversary Collector’s Edition is anybody’s guess. Those close to him spoke of his ambivalence towards his past achievements, one moment regarding them with pride, the next as a burden. When, in the 1970s, the great Jimmy Cobb, the drummer on the album that he once described as having been “made in heaven”, was given a rare live tape recorded by the Kind of Blue band shortly before its break-up, he immediately took it around to share with his old boss. “Miles wouldn’t even open his door, telling Jimmy through the intercom to slide it under,” wrote author and critic Eric Nisenson. “Jimmy, who used to be close to Miles and is a very sensitive person, simply left.”
If Davis often gave the impression of running away from his distinguished past during his lifetime, then since his death in 1991 the rest of us can’t seem to get enough of it. Although his prolific creativity ceased when he took a furlough from jazz between 1975 and 1981, his career on records continued unabated as Columbia delved into their vaults to release previously unreleased material. When he made his comeback in 1981, in terms of record releases at least, it was if he had never been away.
Following his death in 1991, there has been a distinct feeling of déjà vu as Columbia embarked on a major reissue series of scrupulously packaged boxed sets of key Davis sessions. With the release Miles Davis/Gil Evans: The Complete Columbia Studio Recordings (Volume 1) in 1996 through to the final The Complete On the Corner Sessions (Volume 8) in 2007, plus The Complete Live at the Plugged Nickel 1965 and The Cellar Door Sessions 1970, each box-set (now highly sought-after collector’s items) dominated the jazz best selling charts and in some cases, such as the Miles Davis/Gil Evans set, remained on the chart for the best part of a year. Add to this The Miles Davis Quintet: The Legendary Prestige Quintet Sessions box set from the Concord Music Group in 2006, and it seems that Davis still has the power to command our attention in a way no other jazz artist, alive or dead, is able to do today. For many, his crowning achievement was the album Kind of Blue, the best selling album in jazz history. In 1999 it topped The Independent’s “50 Best Recordings of the 20th Century” list, in 2006 it topped the Jazzwise “100 Albums that Shook the World” listing, while more recently The Guardian’s “1000 Albums to Hear Before You Die” gave Kind of Blue a half-page box-out, an honour accorded to just 20 or so albums on the whole list. It even featured at No. 66 on the pop station VH1’s “100 Greatest Albums of Rock ’n’ Roll.”
“It has been the base-station from where countless fans have begun their journey into jazz”
No other recording in jazz has come remotely near acquiring the kind of cachet Kind of Blue has accumulated over the decades. It’s an album that has probably been responsible for more Damascene conversions of non-believers into the jazz faith than any other, it has been the base-station from where countless fans have begun their journey into jazz and it’s an album that crops-up in the record collections of classical, rock, pop and Country and Western devotees who would not otherwise give jazz house room.
“I think for the dilettante Kind of Blue is a lifestyle recording,” says Bob Belden, composer, saxophonist, pianist and producer of over 200 CD reissues of Miles Davis’ recorded music, and three times Grammy winner for his work on the Columbia/Legacy Miles Davis boxed set series. “The music is a sound you can ‘use’ as a background to your life, much in the way Frank Zappa described music for a certain type of listener. I’ve heard the recording at least a thousand times, so it’s more of a ‘brain juke box’ top-10 hit for me and I’m sure many others.”
It is all the more remarkable, then, that it was made on the cheap – a few thousand dollars contractual advance to Davis, union scale payment to six sidemen – Julian “Cannonball” Adderley on alto saxophone, John Coltrane on tenor saxophone, Bill Evans or Wynton Kelly on piano, Paul Chambers bass and Jimmy Cobb on drums – nine hours studio time, four reels of tape and a piano tuner’s fee. Recorded on 2 March and 22 April 1959, it has achieved a feat few recordings have ever managed to do by slipping the context of the time in which it was recorded to become a truly timeless masterpiece.
Looking back at the year 1959 today, it doesn’t just seem like a different world, it seems more like a distant planet in some far-off galaxy. It was a year when the US Top Twenty hits were songs like ‘Kookie, Kookie, Lend Me Your Comb’ by Edd Byrnes and Connie Stevens that reached No. 4, ‘Tallahassie Lassie’ by Freddy Cannon that reached No. 3, ‘Dream Lover’ by Bobby Darin that made No. 2, ‘Lipstick On Your Collar’ by Connie Francis that made No. 5, while the Chipmunks’ ‘Ragtime Cowboy Joe’ made No. 9, spending a total of 16 weeks on the chart.
Although it wasn’t all instantly disposable teeny pop, Ray Charles’ ‘What’d I Say’ reached No. 6 and spent a total of 15 weeks on the charts, Nina Simone’s ‘I Loves You Porgy’ made No. 18 and Sarah Vaughan’s ‘Broken Hearted Melody’ hit the No. 7 spot, they were slim pickings. 1959, was, after all the year that saw Wink Martindale’s ‘Deck of Cards’ make No. 7, a song that for some unaccountable reason refused to have the good manners of ‘Kookie, Kookie, Lend Me Your Comb’ and disappear forever.
It was also the year that saw the death of three great singers, coincidentally one each from the worlds of classical music, popular music and jazz – Mario Lanza, Buddy Holly and Billie Holiday – and it saw the release of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder with a Duke Ellington soundtrack, Cocteau’s Le Testament d’Orphée while Ben Hur swept the Grammy award ceremonies.
The USSR put a rocket into space with two monkeys, Fidel Castro became the President of Cuba, Ingemar Johansson defeated Floyd Patterson to win the World Heavyweight crown, the US Postmaster banned Lady Chatterley’s Lover from the mail on the grounds of obscenity and Los Angeles defeated Chicago in the World Series.
In the UK, the British Motor Corporation put on display its new car called the Mini, costing a little over £500, as compared to the new Rolls Royce Phantom V which cost £8905, and Surrey won the cricket championship for a record seventh successive time. In October, Harold Macmillan called a general election, defeating Labour in a landslide, and one of his new Cabinet ministers, now long forgotten, was to have a lasting effect on all of us. Ernest Marples, the new Minister of Transport, launched a nationwide motorway building programme.
“It sounds fresh, newly-minted and contemporary. And it is here the source of its enduring appeal lies”
If the distance from which we stare at Kind of Blue today can be measured in terms of a United Kingdom with no motorways, then the wonder of it all is that the music does not sound as if it has come out of the same time-capsule that contains ‘Tallahassie Lassie’ or ‘Lipstick on Your Collar’; it sounds fresh, newly-minted and contemporary. And it is here the source of its enduring appeal lies.
Yet Kind of Blue did not appear out of a vacuum. Miles Davis had been showing interest in modes as a basis for improvisation for several years through his association with George Russell, and an opportunity to harness their potential presented itself during a trip to Paris in December 1957, where he was booked to play the Olympia Theatre, followed by three weeks at the Club St. Germain with a French group. Invited to provide the soundtrack music for Louis Malle’s L’Ascenseur pour L’Echafaud with his French band, Davis improvised in real-time to the screenplay without any pre-written themes using little, if any, harmonic movement (the prevailing tonalities were mostly D minor and F). The following year on the album Milestones, Davis uses modes proper on the title track, which is a 40-bar AABA song form with a different mode for the A and B sections (Dorian and Aeolian respectively).
In August 1958, Davis collaborated with Gil Evans on Porgy and Bess, which numbers among the great orchestral recordings in jazz and became his best-selling album until 1971, when it was overtaken by Bitches Brew. In this lush scoring of George Gershwin’s opera, Gil Evans gave Davis a scale with which to construct his solo (instead of chords) on ‘I Loves You, Porgy,’ while on ‘Summertime’ his solo is effectively based on one chord. This move towards static harmonies would reach its apotheosis on Kind of Blue, in which pianist Bill Evans played a significant role in midwifeing in the way Gil Evans had done at the Birth of the Cool sessions in 1949 and Joe Zawinul would do on the In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew sessions in 1969.
Bill Evans was no stranger to modes. He can be heard on George Russell’s Smalltet on Jazz Workshop(Bluebird) from 1956, essentially using the Lydian scale as a way of negotiating harmonies on minor classics such as ‘Ye Hypocrite, Ye Beelzebub,’ ‘EzzThetic,’ ‘Ballad of Hix Blewitt’ and ‘Concerto for Billy the Kid.’ The latter tune served as a prelude to Russell’s composition ‘All About Rosie,’ a powerful piece of three short movements that appears on Modern Jazz Concert (Columbia/Legacy) recorded in 1957. It was in essence a mini-concerto for Evans, and is an example of Russell’s Lydian concept writ large, and played a significant role in gaining Evans recognition in musician’s circles.
On Evans’ debut album as a leader, Everybody Digs Bill Evans (OJC), recorded on 15 December 1958, he recorded a solo piano composition called ‘Peace Piece.’ It is based on a repeating two chord pattern that would crop up four months later as the first four bars of ‘Flamenco Sketches,’ the final track of Kind of Blue. But depending on what vinyl album copy of the album you have, you might find that this tune is called ‘All Blues.’ This can be traced back to the original track listing and liner notes of the original vinyl issue of Kind of Blue (Columbia CL1355). Among the memorabilia included in Kind of Blue: 50th Anniversary Collector’s Edition is a facsimile of Bill Evans original handwritten draft for his famous liner notes (they are also reproduced in the end papers of the first edition of Kind of Blue: The Making of a Musical Masterpiece by Ashley Kahn). In them, Evans states in his own handwriting that ‘Flamenco Sketches’ “is a six-eight, twelve measure blues,” and that ‘All Blues’ “is a series of five scales, each played as long as the soloist wishes.” His notes were in turn printed in full on the original issue of Kind of Blue, where the two tunes correspond to Evans’ description.
After the first vinyl pressing, Columbia transposed the song titles on side two, swapping the title ‘Flamenco Sketches’ for ‘All Blues’ and vice versa, ostensibly at Davis’ request to Teo Macero. But Davis would have known ‘All Blues,’ with its ‘Peace Piece’ introduction, was a composition Evans brought to the session. Today, Columbia staffers around at the time are no longer with us, making the full reason for the song title switch difficult to nail-down. On the 1997 CD reissue of Kind of Blue (Columbia/Legacy CK 64935), Evans’ original liner notes were printed in the CD booklet with the sub-heading: “Following are Bill Evans’ liner notes from the original 1959 LP release” but they had been altered to take account of the ‘Flamenco Sketches/All Blues’ song title transposition. It meant Bill Evans’ “liner notes from the original 1959 release” now ascribed “a six-eight, twelve measure blues” to ‘All Blues’ and “a series of five scales, each played as long as the soloist wishes” to “Flamenco Sketches.”
This was simply not the case on “the original 1959 release,” as can be seen, ironically, from the photo of the original sleeve of Columbia CL1355 within the same CD booklet! One wonders what is going on when liner notes by an authority such as Bill Evans are doctored in this way.
Interestingly, Ashley Kahn in his book Kind of Blue: The Making of a Musical Masterpiece describes the recording of both ‘Flamenco Sketches’ and ‘All Blues’ using the transposed song titles with Evans’ brief description altered accordingly, so that ‘Flamenco Sketches’ becomes “a series of five scales…” and ‘All Blues’ becomes “a 6/8, 12 measure blues.” In his text he claims that these descriptions were “From Bill Evans liner notes.” They were not. These descriptions were the reverse of Evans’ original handwritten notes reproduced in his own book. In the UK edition of the book, the handwritten notes were cut at ‘So What’. And just to muddy the waters even further, the first CD release of Kind of Blue in the UK (CD CBS 62066) included the late Benny Green’s liner notes from the first vinyl release of the album in the UK, where he refers to ‘Flamenco Sketches’ as a blues in 6/8 and ‘All Blues’ as a series of scales, even though on the CD, ‘Flamenco Sketches’ is a series of scales and ‘All Blues’ is a blues in 6/8. Confused? Don’t be.
Bear in mind Evans was a prime witness – he was on the session at Davis’ special invitation (he had left the Davis group a few months earlier to form his own trio and had been replaced by Wynton Kelly, who played on one track only). Evans played piano on the four key album tracks, discussed each piece with Davis, played a part in arranging the pieces and was, after all, referring to his own composition ‘All Blues’ (with his own “Piece Peace” introduction) when he described it as “a series of five scales, each played as long as the soloist wishes.” He would, you might think, know what his own composition was called.
Bob Belden has suggested that the song titles as Evans describes them are rooted in sound musical logic. “One could say that the ‘flamenco’ suggested in the title was for the rhythmic element of flamenco dancing and not tied to any particular scale or mode definition. The ‘blues’ of ‘All Blues’ could imply the various types of modes that would, intellectually, construe a kind of ‘indigenous blues scale,’ relevant to the particular cultural attachment. What is true is that no one has ever challenged the changes based on a pure music analysis and offered convincing options as those I have suggested.”
If we go by Evans’ original titles as they appeared on the original vinyl release of Kind of Blue, which Professor Lewis Porter says he believes “were correct” in his book John Coltrane: His Life and Music, then what Evans claimed was ‘Flamenco Sketches’ (identified as ‘All Blues’ on later copies) is a hypnotically swaying minor key twelve bar blues in 6/8, albeit with a simplified first four bars which remain firmly in the tonic key which gives it a “modal” feel. The “rolling” piano introduction is four bars in length, possibly inspired by a vamp Ahmad Jamal uses in a section of ‘Autumn Leaves’ from Portfolio of Ahmad Jamal (Chess) – Jamal was a Davis favourite whose influence surfaces on several Davis albums. This vamp is used between the first and second choruses of the theme, and between soloists. Note how, like ‘Milestones’ from 1958, the piece fades; commonplace now but very rare in 1959.
In contrast, the opening four bars of ‘All Blues’ (if the rhythm of ‘All Blues’ on your copy is ONE-two three-FOUR-five-six, ONE-two-three-FOUR-five-six then you are listening to what Evans claimed was ‘Flamenco Sketches’) follows exactly the opening of ‘Peace Piece,’ albeit with Evans’ left hand (that plays the lowest notes on the piano) given to bassist Paul Chambers – the tune is in a slow four, counted ONE-two-three-four, ONE-two-three-four.
Davis enters on harmon muted trumpet against a piano and bass accompaniment, and then outlines the order of the five modes used for improvisation, and this order is followed in turn by Coltrane, Adderley, Evans and Davis again, although they are free to play on each mode for as long as they want. Here’s how it played out that memorable day at Columbia 30th Street studios, starting with Davis’ solo:
Davis: Mode no.1 – four bars; Mode no.2 – four bars; Mode no. 3 – four bars; Mode no. 4 – eight bars; Mode No. 5 – four bars.
Davis: Mode No. 1 – four bars; Mode no. 2 – four bars; Mode no. 3 – four bars; Mode no. 4 – eight bars; Mode no. 5 – two bars.
Note that Adderley chooses the greatest variation of mode lengths. The distinguished critic of both classical music and jazz, Max Harrison called ‘All Blues’ a good example of ‘primitive jazz serialism’ in A Jazz Retrospect, where “instead of a chord sequence, the improvisations are based on a series of five scales, that is five selections of notes from the twelve available. Davis [actually Bill Evans] constructed fragmentary tone-rows which replace harmony in giving the music coherence.”
These tunes, whatever their correct titles, comprised selections one and two respectively of side two of the vinyl releases. Side one opened with ‘So What,’ which, in the cold light of day is simply a 32 bar AABA songform, where the A sections are “D” Dorian mode and the B or middle eight section is “Eb” Dorian mode – precisely the same form and modes that John Coltrane would later use on his composition ‘Impressions.’ The moody introduction with Bill Evans and Paul Chambers was written by Gil Evans and is followed by a “call” by Chambers’ bass followed by a “response” from the band that has its origins in the way Duke Ellington used bassist Jimmy Blanton to dialogue with his orchestra on his landmark 1940 recording of ‘Jack the Bear.’
Davis’ solo is one of the great moments in jazz. It has been learned by heart by almost every aspiring jazz musician on the planet, it has been set to words by Eddie Jefferson and orchestrated for trumpet section on the George Russell album So What (Blue Note) from 1986. The effect of a whole trumpet section playing the solo is startling, revealing the architectonic quality of Davis’ work. It is an effective technique that has the effect of projecting a great solo onto a larger screen. Examples include Tommy Dorsey’s ‘Marie,’ when Bunny Berigan’s memorable solo from January 1937 became a trumpet section soli in the 1940s, and the Quincy Jones orchestration of Clifford Brown’s solo from ‘Stockholm Sweetnin’’ on … This Is How I Feel About Jazz (ABC Paramount) from 1956 and his orchestration of Nat Adderley’s solo from ‘Hummin’’ from the Cannonball Adderley Quintet’s 1963 album Country Preacher (Capitol) on the Jones album Gula Matari (A&M) from 1970.
‘Freddie Freeloader,’ is an orthodox, straight ahead 12-bar blues, which has pianist Wynton Kelly in place of Evans, and it is interesting how Davis stops the first take of this tune with a whistle because the tempo was too fast – suggesting that he felt a brisk tempo was at odds with the overall mood of the album. ‘Blue in Green’ is a 10-bar theme, unusual in jazz, which the band went over four times, before producing a perfect take. What is interesting is that the piece had a preset chord progression whose duration could be altered by the instrumentalists during their improvisation.
On both the vinyl and CD copies, Davis gets composer credit for ‘Blue in Green’ and ‘All Blues,’ although they were composed by Evans. The three selections from the 2 March session – ‘So What,’ ‘Freddie Freeloader,’ ‘Blue in Green’ – comprised side one of the vinyl release and were recorded on two 3-track Presto all-tube tape recorders – a master plus a safety machine. However, the master machine operating that day was running slightly slower than the industry standard of 15 ips. Unaware of this, the technicians took the tape from this recorder to mix and master Kind of Blue.
For decades, musicians were aware that when playing along with side one of Kind of Blue it was necessary to retune their instruments to a slightly sharper pitch so as to be in tune with the recording. This anomaly was rectified in 1992 with the release of the gold Mastersound reissue of Kind of Blue, using the tape recorded at the correct pitch from the safety machine. The 1997 reissue went a step further, remixing the safety tape (at the correct pitch) and offered the only known alternative take of the whole session, the composition that opens with four bars of Bill Evans’ ‘Peace Piece.’ This additional take is also included on the 50th Anniversary CD (but not on the facsimile vinyl album also included in the set) and adds additional studio chatter and false starts not previously released from the session.
The after-the-fact rationalisation of pitch correction has its critics, especially those who grew up with the slightly sharp version of the original vinyl side one. But Guy Barker, the award winning UK trumpeter, points out that the corrected version is “How it sounded when they played it. I think that is important for us to hear. The danger is that when something is slightly faster, slightly brighter and slightly sharper and that gets taken away the feeling might be, ‘This will be slightly slower, slightly dull and less bright and maybe less exciting,’ so immediately we’re throwing negative language at it. But here the difference is so slight that what it might do, if anything, is slightly broaden the sound and it might be intriguing to hear the true tempo of it, and the true sound of it. I don’t think it’s a bad thing, I think it is good in fact.”
“This is the soul of Miles Davis and it is a beautiful soul” – Downbeat magazine
Kind of Blue (Columbia CL1355) was released in the USA on 15 August 1959, to immediate acclaim. “This is a remarkable album,” said Downbeatmagazine, giving it a maximum five-star rating. “Using very simple but effective devices, Miles has created an album of extreme beauty and sensitivity… this is the soul of Miles Davis and it is a beautiful soul.” Later in the 1959, Columbia released Jazz Track (Columbia CL 1268) which included the original music to L’Ascenseur pour L’Echafaud on side one, while side two comprised ‘On Green Dolphin Street,’ ‘Put Your Little Foot Right Out/Fran Dance,’ and ‘Stella by Starlight’ thus completing the studio recordings of the Kind of Blue band, albeit with the exception of ‘Love for Sale’ (all the tracks are included on the 50th Anniversary set). Once again Downbeat awarded five stars, “The New York date is top notch Davis of recent vintage,” noted reviewer Ralph Gleason, “The other horns stand on an equal basis with their leader.”
What is striking at this remove is the recording quality of Kind of Blue and the fact it was essentially a studio creation whose music had no life (except for ‘So What’ and the blues in 6/8, called either ‘All Blues’ or ‘Flamenco Sketches,’ depending on who you believe) beyond it. Perhaps the near perfection in recorded sound achieved on this album also contributes an element that has added to its timelessness, as Bob Belden explains: “The simple fact is that most of the music from Kind of Blue never made it to the concert stage for further exploration,” he says. “When it did, the emotional element of the music that was the underscoring of the studio session did not exist in a live format. One makes certain sounds in an ambient studio, using a certain kind of dynamic, enabling a different way the inner ear hears the instrument; this is what makes Kind of Blue stand out as a musician’s reaction to an environment, whether it be in front of an audience or in a studio. Fred Plaut was a highly educated and responsive engineer, trained in classical recording techniques, and that was a big difference. Listen to the Frank Laico recorded Milestones compared to the Harold Chapman recorded Jazz Track and then Fred Plaut’s Kind of Blue. A difference in the use of space by the engineer, and dynamics and arrangements for the musicians. Pure professional and artistic choices. And the results are born out in the contrasts of recorded styles.
With Milestones they were recording the hardest of hard bop. Jazz Track [recorded in 1958] was a real masterpiece in that the way the music was arranged and recorded and it became the model for Miles’ recording from that point on. Harold Chapman was a commercial engineer who specialised in vocals. So he could really get a romantic sound out of Miles and Bill Evans and that was partly due to the subdued nature of the music, which partly may have been influenced by the ambient nature of the studio. Conjecture, I admit, but based on experience in a recording environment.
It is also worth noting that the sound of Kind of Blue was an important influence on record producer Manfred Eicher, helping him shape an aesthetic towards recorded sound that has informed over 1,000 albums on the internationally renowned ECM label.
The UK saw Kind of Blue released under licence from Columbia on the Fontana label (an imprint of Phillips) in late February 1960 in mono and May 1960 in stereo. It is interesting to note that during an 18-month period between May 1959 and November 1960, no less than ten different studio albums and several EPs by Miles Davis were released in the United Kingdom during this period through both Columbia and Prestige.
You might be forgiven for thinking critics of the time might have suffered from Davis overload during this period, but not a bit of it. Kind of Blue seemed to have been released at just the right moment in the UK as in the month prior to its release the headline on the front of Melody Maker (30 January 1960) blazed-out “Miles Ahead Of Louis – Miles Davis has done the impossible! For the first time in the history of the Melody Maker Readers’ Poll, Louis Armstrong has lost his title as the World’s Top Trumpeter.” And in the following month’s Melody Maker’s Critics’ Poll most critics chose either Davis or Armstrong, with Davis coming in second place only to Duke Ellington as Musician Of The Year, Davis winning in the Small Combo category and coming joint first (with Armstrong) in the Trumpet category. So there must have been high expectations by the time Kind of Blue was released in the UK. Indeed, some British fans had probably already read American reviews of the album in Downbeat which had appeared in the 1 October 1959 edition. The reviews from the main gatekeepers of UK jazz culture of the time were uniformly enthusiastic, bearing out Davis’ growing reputation in the polls and despite the number of Davis releases during this period. In Jazz Journal, Kennedy Brown offered this prescient review: “My advice is to rush out and buy this disc immediately. It is one of the best jazz discs I have heard so far this year. For that matter it is one of the best jazz discs of any year. It is also possibly the best record to date by Miles Davis… It’s my opinion that this disc confirms the stature of Davis as the greatest soloist since Louis Armstrong. This disc is also a pointer to the way that jazz can-and-will-develop.”
In its main competitor magazine, Jazz Monthly, Charles Fox also demonstrated insight into the album in his opening remarks, going on to enthuse: “The more years that roll by, the more blasé one tends to become about new records. Yet… I was again swept off my feet by ‘Blues in Green’ [sic] and ‘All Blues’ [the version that begins with ‘Peace Piece’]…” In Melody Maker, the response was just as positive, with the headline, “Magnificent Miles Davis” with Bob Dawbarn’s review claiming that: “On this superb record which provides yet more proof that, far from standing still, Miles is getting farther and farther ahead of his contemporaries.”
Yet for Davis, having completed what today is probably considered one of the greatest jazz albums of all time on 22 April, it was business as usual. On 29 April he closed at Birdland after playing a week with his sextet alongside the Gil Evans Orchestra before heading for Chicago where he closed at the Sutherland Lounge on 18 May. He played the Blackhawk in San Francisco in June, and Jazz Seville in Los Angeles (where the band was reviewed in the 6 August edition of Downbeat magazine), the Canadian Jazz Festival, The Regal in Chicago and the Lick Festival in France in July. In August he was at the Playboy Jazz Festival in Chicago, the Berkshire Music Barn in Lennox, and on Thursday 13 August the sextet opened a two week stay at Birdland.
At the time, according to Downbeat’s New York editor George Hoefer, New York was “like a volcano.” A number of youngsters between 14 and 20 had been killed in gang rumbles, and an attempt to arrest a drunken woman attracted a crowd of hundreds in Harlem and almost sparked a riot. As Downbeat noted: “With teen-age and racial troubles at boiling point, police are reported to be tense, worried, and, in the case of some, frightened.”
It was into this torrid atmosphere that Miles Davis stepped after completing an Armed Services Network broadcast from Birdland on the night of Tuesday 25 August, towards the end of his two week residency. As he emerged into the hot, sultry night-air of Broadway at 52nd Street, Downbeat reported he had an exchange with Patrolman Gerald Kilduff that resulted in a ferocious attack with nightstick, assisted by Detective Donald Rolker with some witnesses claiming the issue was over Davis escorting a white woman to a taxi. Downbeat said “something close to a dozen witnesses interviewed by New York newspapers said Det. Rolker was drunk… Almost all witnesses, including alto saxophonist Julian Adderley, made accusations of police brutality, saying the beating was excessive and unnecessary.”
Photos of Davis after the beating are shocking, indicating considerable blood staining on his suit with his head swathed in bandages. The shameful story made headlines around the world: “This Is What They Did To Miles” recoiled Melody Maker in their 12 September edition. Davis was arrested, charged with assault and disorderly conduct released on $1,000 bail with his temporary Cabaret Card taken from him. Later Al Manuti, president of the American Federation of Musicians demanded an enquiry into police brutality. Subsequently, the assault charge was reduced to one third degree assault enabling Davis to have his Cabaret Card back. But during the interim he had been unable to work without a Cabaret Card and the Kind of Blue band broke-up. Months later all charges were dropped.
The disgusting Rodney King-like beating Davis suffered at the hands of the New York Police Department makes a tragic sequel to what is one ofm the greatest artistic achievements of the 20th century. It had a profound – maybe traumatic – effect on the trumpeter. One biographer, Jack Chambers, suggests it resulted in his music plateauing since he did not get back into his creative stride until 1964. Indeed, during that time he wrote no new music, tried no new settings and did not experiment further with modes. Seventeen years after the event, in an interview in 1976 with Sy Johnson in Jazz Magazine, Davis bitterly raised the issue of his beating apropos nothing at all:
Davis: “I mean, a policeman grabbed me around the neck.”
Davis: “Because I was black...”
Johnson: “Is it gonna be OK?”
As the distinguished American commentator Martin Williams noted, “ Kind of Blue was an influential record both in and of itself and because it paralleled other, independently conceived events in jazz. But for a while it seemed a rather isolated event for Davis himself – one might say it was more immediately important to John Coltrane’s development than to Davis, and for the next few years the repertory of ballads and standards was resumed to a great extent.” It would not be until he was joined by pianist Herbie Hancock, bassist Ron Carter, drummer Tony Williams and saxophonist Wayne Shorter that Davis’ career regained creative momentum. The tragic postscript to Kind of Blue, played out on the sidewalk outside Birdland that fateful night in August 1959, didn’t just leave physical scars, it ran deep.
This article originally appeared in the December 2008 / January 2009 issue of Jazzwise. Subscribe to Jazzwise.
ORNETTE COLEMAN changed jazz forever by challenging the notion of what it is as music, and as life. At the age of 81, he spoke to KEVIN LE GENDRE about his musical philosophy and his restless search for new sounds
A copy of the American Bill Of Rights with its edge curled upwards by a creeping flame is an image that might raise an eyebrow among more than one elected official in governments on either side of the Atlantic. Torching the amendments that outlaw the abridging of free speech, allow the right of people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects, and, of course, bear arms, is a most molotov provocation.
Such is the sleeve of Ornette Coleman’s 1972 album, Crisis. Even viewed through a pre-9/11 prism, the sight of the U.S. constitution blackened by fire is one of the most audacious statements one could make, stopping short of striking a match under the stars and stripes.
Yet although the combination of jacket and music conveyed profound dissent at western iniquity and imperialism, none more so than on a piece such as ‘Trouble In The East’, the album is essentially humanist, the work of a man who, beyond any facile flower child clichés, seemed genuinely beholden to the idea of pacifism and altruism. Just a few years before the release of Crisis, Coleman recorded Denardo At 12, the debut of his little drummer boy son in the company of seasoned men, tenor saxophonist Dewey Redman and bassist Charlie Haden.
On the back of the record he made this declaration, complete with little love for the conventions of syntax: “What? Is progress in a society of 200,000 people education wisdom health and wealth for all without any one person suffering from the evil of his neighbour.
“To achieve this blessing must be the goal – for such a life we must not use death as a weapon of destruction to attain these things. So the question is how when and what must the ‘I’ in society do to learn the way. Work give and pray that it is done with love.”
“The recognition of the importance of his opinion-splitting oeuvre has resulted in adulation”
That was in the late-1960s. Almost 50 years later, as the first decade of the second millennium drew to a close, in the era where the zeitgeist has added the word ‘mass’ to Coleman’s uncannily prescient construct “weapon of destruction”, those sentiments have been returned to its purveyor with a credit crunch defying interest. The recognition of the importance of his opinion-splitting oeuvre has resulted in adulation if not outright hero worship that few artists enjoy in their lifetime.
Ornette Coleman stood on stage at the Royal Festival Hall in the summer of 2009, looking decidedly humbled by the standing ovation as cries of “We love you!” rang out, and although that emotional discharge can often seem unnecessary if not trite, it would take the hardest of hearts to say that there wasn’t genuine cause for such adoration.
The gig was part of the prestigious Meltdown festival curated by the saxophonist. This was not an honour to be taken lightly. This was an endorsement of Ornette Coleman’s place in the pantheon of modern music, irrespective of genre. This was notice that he had affected culture beyond the confines of jazz. His work has a universal reach.
Previous recipients of the Meltdown creation put this into context. Coleman joined the likes of David Bowie, Robert Wyatt, Patti Smith and Ray Davies, all of whom are fêted for the fact that they have carved out an artistic vocabulary that has given several generations new ways of viewing all the possibilities of lyric and melody.
Coleman was one of the first improvising artists to receive a Meltdown curatorship, and it was a choice that made sense. Beyond the swathe of classic albums, of which 1961’s This Is Our Music is an obvious pick and 1988’s Virgin Beauty and 1997’s Colors less so, there is an echo of his work in that of others that stretches across the jazz spectrum. A very small sample of names that came to prominence between the 1960s and 80s and have drawn water from his creative well would include such as Carla Bley, Evan Parker, David Murray, John Zorn, Don Byron and Branford Marsalis. They more or less cover anything from mainstream to avant-garde.
Coleman thus stands as a binding force among disparate schools of jazz.
Even more obvious Ornettophiles were the wave of young American players who gathered loosely around the Fresh Sound New Talent label in the late-1990s – Seamus Blake, Chris Lightcap and Mark Zubek – and then the Brits who appeared a few years later, namely Polar Bear, Led Bib and The Blessing, who came complete with a name as OC song title.
What makes Coleman even more important is the fact that his work permeated the more open minds in the rock world that were drawn to sonic unorthodoxy and imaginative song form. Think Lou Reed, Yoko Ono, Jerry Garcia and Patti Smith, a self-confessed fan of 40 years who once performed with Coleman in Bologna, Italy and played again with him at Meltdown.
Asked why his father had impacted on the above, Denardo Coleman opined. “I think rock musicians like the electricity of his spirit, his unconventional attitude, and the uncompromising stance for his art.”
Electricity of spirit effectively nails it. There is a quality of hard thrash, nerve-ending jumpiness, a hot-wired impulsiveness that makes it credible if not logical that any pop group seeking intensity would relate. Rock loves Coleman for good reason. He can get wild and cerebral.
Although some of his best work is defined by deep seated tenderness and introspection, the highpoint of which is a piece such as ‘Lonely Woman’ or ‘Peace’, the saxophonist has exhibited, going right back to early works such as The Shape Of Jazz To Come, a kind of feverish, febrile energy both in his improvisations and compositions.
That meant blistering tempos, emphatically jockeying between double, treble time or higher tempi, bumper car stop time, and voluminous, note-heavy unison statements slammed into two or three bars that might break sharply from an established pulse. All were defined by an overriding sensation: violence. Coleman’s great sleight of hand is to leaven that aggression with focus and joy, as if a smart thug had ended up in a joker’s top hat, but the extreme energy, its explosive charge, is undeniable and wholly irresistible.
It’s there in ‘Focus On Sanity’. It’s there in ‘Kaleidoscope’. It’s there in ‘T&T’, which is especially compelling for the utterly subversive way that it fragments a New Orleans marching band groove, presenting percussion as a pulsating melodic voice, the impression being tthat Coleman, trumpeter Don Cherry, bassist Scott LaFaro and drummer Ed Blackwell are probing and pulling at but somehow not tearing form.
Explosions of notes, the showering of extra eighths and sixteenths at speed that imbued bebop with its vitality; the soaring flight of Charlie Parker over the contours of a melody; the overall rhythmic thrust and acceleration of this mid-1940s modernism in black music – Coleman’s early work often took that as a wheel and span it into a faster frenzy.
Denardo Coleman ascribes the rush of sounds in his father’s music to the sheer agility of his mind. “I don’t think Ornette thinks about the speed of the music as how really fast it is, but how instantly the ideas keep coming and that instant communication can happen in split seconds. For him it’s music in the moment fuelled by ideas.”
In the process, boundaries between genres can become wholly blurred. When Coleman made his debut in the late-1950s, jazz was at a conceptual crossroads. The pursuit of harmonic advance was making the music ever more urbane and nuanced, its embrace of impressionistic, Satie-derived voicings ushering it towards the finesse of classical music while the desire to dismantle structural certainties such as tempo, key and chord changes, to create a ‘free’ or new music was also gathering momentum. Both models seemed to be vastly removed from the simplicity of quintessential black pop such as blues.
“Robert Johnson? Mmm, yeah, it’s still real, that music’s still up there.” – Ornette Coleman
However, as astute artist-cultural critics such as Archie Shepp pointed out, early incarnations of that naïve, crude folk music were ‘free’ in that uneven numbers of bars and fluctuating meters often reined before counts of four, 8, 16 and 32 crystallised as the norm. If Coleman headed to the future of the avant-garde he tailed back to pop before anybody knew what to call it, and this time traveller’s paradox was sensational. From his early days in Fort Worth, Texas, he played blues and knew the aesthetic of that music well, its roughness, its rugged nature, its raucous energy, and as he shifted towards the jazz world, intrigued by the harmonic hurdles of complex forms such as bebop he didn’t reject the relative simplicity of the other idiom. The blues is still not something Coleman turns his nose up at. Speaking on the phone from his New York home in between rehearsals for his forthcoming London Jazz Festival gig his voice rises in admiration at the mention of a Delta music legend. “Robert Johnson? Yeah! You’re right on it, there! Mmm, yeah, all that’s still active, it’s still real, that music’s still up there.”
If his love of the blues is clear enough it plays second fiddle to his desire to talk about what underpins it in the best case: everyday experience. That is the essence of the blues as form of communication but Coleman’s way into that is through metaphysics rather than material concerns. Seamlessly, he switches from Johnson to philosophical reflections similar to thoughts he stamped on record sleeves some 40 years ago.
“The human world is concerned with what it hasn’t been rather than what it can become. The thing that’s so amazing is that music is nothing but the soul of human beings without any fear. That’s what life is to me, because of music. There are some things that I really believe in; one is the quality of humans, I don’t know how human beings were before I was born but since I’ve been born I know that it’s not knowledge that we’re all trying to find, it’s the freedom of life.
“Money, race, and wealth doesn’t allow anybody to trust anybody,” the 81 year-old continues, barely pausing. “I don’t think, right, every human being is looking for trust. I don’t know how to say this, I have never yet understood why a human doesn’t have anything but a name, I mean human is a much more complete word than any word I’ve ever heard.
“The human race gets so involved with each other’s attitudes that human gets lost all the time. I don’t understand why human beings have to do all this other stuff and end up in a sad situation. The human race has to go to something to achieve anything, knowledge or whatever, but what about something coming to you without you knowing it?”
“I don’t think of it as music, I think of it as emotion” – Ornette Coleman
Which begs the question, where do Coleman’s ideas for music come from and what governs his choices with regard to form? Talking specifically about music seems to mean little to him, given his contention that any sound that he makes is fostered by what is in his head and heart at any given moment in time. “Well, I don’t think of it as music, I think of it as emotion. I really do,” Coleman says swiftly as if the idea is bustling for space in his mind among several others. “And it’s better that way. All I know is that I breathe and think.”
Concerts see Coleman take speed of thought to extremes. To hear him play a complete tune in 15 or 20 seconds with a head that could have something like 25 or 30 notes popping manically all over ten or 11 bars is to hear the image of slapstick clowning guided by an engineer’s precision. Hip hop and film scores do interlude. Jazz does composition. Coleman does composed interludes that squeeze maximum data into minimal space.
Exactly how such a concentrated self-definition translates into sound is a fascinating question. Music appears to be coming to Coleman as if on tap. The veteran Jamaican double bassist Coleridge Goode, a key associate of compatriot saxophonist Joe Harriott, whose highly original early1960s work drew parallels with Coleman’s, saw the American when he played the Fairfield Hall in Croydon in 1965 and upon meeting him at his hotel in Queensway was astounded to find that he was “writing music while he talked.”
Be that as it may, Denardo Coleman points out that his father’s pieces are highly detailed and need great preparation. “Yes, lots of structure, meaning we spend hours rehearsing and working on parts. But most of the time is spent going deeper into sound and music. Getting into the DNA of sound. So when improvising, you really know how to tell a story instantly. Then when we are all telling a story collectively.”
“He has somehow unlocked his instincts and framed them with strictures set by both others and himself”
Suggesting that Coleman is simply pulling amazing ideas and sounds out of thin air would be a slight on his talent, but what underpins virtually all of his recordings is not just the zest of spontaneity but the rarely achieved alliance, the balance of spontaneity, craftsmanship and discipline. He has somehow unlocked his instincts and framed them with strictures set by both others and himself. In the sleeve notes that he penned for his 1960 masterpiece This Is Our Music he makes the most meaningful declaration in this regard. “I can’t talk about technique because it is ever changing. That is why for me the only method for playing any instrument is the range in which it is built. Learned technique is a law method. Natural technique is nature’s method. And this is what makes music so beautiful to me. It has both, thank God.”
These days Ornette Coleman remains mindful of the continual need for newness of timbres as well as interesting narrative structures in his arrangements.
“A musician shouldn’t be working too long on scales because a scale is to words, the words in music, what a telephone is to making a call,” he says emphatically. “I think the best is to find a way to materialise your ideas without being restricted by keys, chords or resolutions.
“You’ve got the 12 notes in western music, but since music is a sound that’s made by so many different things, so many different notes, it’s endless. Turkish music, different folk music, all of these are expressed differently. What’s so amazing is when you say music you get a different imprint than when you say words.”
Coleman has found a way of cooking the basic ingredients of sound into something that becomes high art, without, crucially, losing its intensely communicative, from-the-heart sensibility, and he has also managed to bring a sense of majesty, an anthem-like quality to dozens of the entries in his songbook. That has had an untold influence on many a jazz instrumentalist who pursues an essential ideal: to be lyrical. Two of the most obvious stars in the contemporary jazz firmament to have benefited from this are Keith Jarrett and Pat Metheny. They are both bound by the use of Ornette’s sidemen in the early stages of their career – Billy Higgins, Dewey Redman and Charlie Haden – and their engagement or rather absorption of the saxophonist’s spirit and aesthetic is really made explicit by compositions which essentially come off as sophisticated folk songs, of which a lot of Jarrett’s Impulse! and some of his early Atlantic recordings are prime examples.
Listen to El Juicio [The Judgment] and you can hear Coleman’s spirit not just on the tribute ‘Piece For Ornette’ but on several other numbers, notably ‘Toll Road’ and the title track, which is especially interesting for the way it moves from the dot-dash rhythmic energy of a ‘Ramblin’’ to the graceful solemnity of a ‘Lonely Woman.’
Going one better than working with Coleman’s associates, Metheny would record with the man himself on the 1985 set Song X, which ranks as one of the most interesting albums of a decade during which black pop was rebooted as a radical new form called hip hop and black art music splintered into all kinds of difficult to define shapes.
By the time the saxophonist came to Song X he had covered an enormous amount of ground stylistically. From the first flowering of his acoustic quartets in the late-1950s and 60s, he went on to record symphonic works such as 1972’s Skies Of America, travelled to Morocco to play with the fabled Master Musicians Of Jajouka, the results of which ended up on 1976’s Dancing In My Head, and formed Prime Time, an electric band in which robust, bulky, dense, guitar-heavy funk and rock tonalities were to the fore. Its impact on future generations of serious composers and irreverent groovers was clear. That intense and wideranging body of work made the essential point that the saxophonist did anything but remain locked in an ivory tower. “When you say minor thirds that’s intellectual information, but you don’t have to know a note to make a sound,” Coleman states. “Sound has a specific order and that’s what’s amazing about civilisation. When I visited Nigeria everybody was playing an instrument and making their own notes, which you don’t find too much here, unless it’s folk music. I’m a human folk musician. I guess we all are in that sense.”
Inclusive as Coleman is with regard to music, he nonetheless retains an essence of himself, that utterly distinctive core that can be identified in just a few bars of blowing, among all these new colours, and that sense of individuality amid open mindedness is one of his greatest achievements. The placing of his songs in new contexts emphasises how much was already in them, and how some of the tumbling, bouncing non-Western rhythms, often implicit rather than explicit, reflect America’s position as part of the Americas, a geographical space in which Europe and Africa had collided to create something unique. “To me, it just sounds like a pulse,” says Denardo Coleman of this rhythmic richness. “But there is so much music in one single pulse, you just don’t get that from other music or other musicians.”
Uncannily, some of the highlights of Song X make the Spanish or Caribbean resonances of Ornette’s aesthetic explicit, just as Jarrett did, none more so than the mesmerising ‘The Good Life’. What is nonetheless important here is the juxtaposition of elements woven into what is essentially a raggedy calypso. In a magical moment close to the halfway mark Ornette quotes a snippet of ‘Skip To My Lou’ before the rhythm section breaks down to allow Denardo Coleman to lay down bold percussive lines. Then Metheny produces high pitched, ray gun effects on his guitar synth that are wholly congruous in the sonic framework. Natural and supernatural tones gel.
“My father is playing with a continued exploration of the deeper spiritual effects of sound in mind” – Denardo Coleman
Why? Because Ornette Coleman has often bridged the gap between ‘unplugged’ and ‘plugged in’ sounds. One of his greatest achievements as a saxophonist is to create a kind of tonal incandescence that frequently suggests rabid distortion and an extremely physical, loud, tearing, scarring sound that prompted one of his most simpático partners Don Cherry to evoke a “whinnying horse” when discussing Coleman’s tone. Lengthy, tremulously sustained notes that have the effect of ripping through the air carry much weight in his improvisations and arrangements and they are complemented by an immensely forceful punch on his short note led phrases that sends a current around the music. But that’s a key thing: Coleman did of course “amp up” when he recruited guitarists and bassists such as James ‘Blood’ Ulmer and Jamaaladeen Tacuma for Prime Time but even in his acoustic setting there was something electrifying about his sound. Pat Metheny noted: “His long running efforts to deal with the challenges of electricity have produced some of the few efforts in that area to transcend the wires and knobs and buttons and ascend to true soul music.” Fair enough, but if we turn that around for a moment it could feasibly be argued that Coleman’s acoustic music transcends a lack of wires and knobs and buttons to create a sonic squall that somehow equals the thunder and lightning borne of amplification. “The ideas are all based on the same concept,” comments Denardo Coleman, who has played for many years in both acoustic and electric groups with his father. “It’s like eating, every single person on the planet does it. So no there is no difference. The difference is in taste, some like their music acoustic, some electric, some people like eating fried bugs, some people don’t. My father is playing with a continued exploration of the deeper spiritual effects of sound in mind.”
Certainly the 2009 Meltdown performance confirmed that Coleman has not yet finished his research and the anticipation around his forthcoming return to the South Bank is hot to say the least, because the memory of that event still burns bright. Before signing off at his last Royal Festival Hall gig he told the audience “Follow your own heart”, and in those few words he seemed to say more about Ornette Coleman the musician and the man than dozens of critics have done in the last 50 years. On the one hand, it was a simple dictum of self-belief, which, in his case, once came at considerable cost, but on the other it conveyed a deep humanity, a need for emotional honesty that is often a sub-text to the saxophonist’s work.
Tied to his musical gifts is enormous compassion, that may appear misplaced in a world where focus on the self and profit by cynical means are sadly pervasive. However Ornette Coleman’s steadfast faith could also be a weapon of mass salvation for the world in a time of crisis. “There’s one thing that will never fail you, that’s love,” Coleman says softly but firmly. “That sure is what it is.”