Ornette Coleman

updated 10/13/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/13/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

A half hour before his long-heralded jazz summit with guitarist Pat Metheny, Ornette Coleman is in a mild state of panic. Backstage at New York City's Town Hall, he has just put his iron away after pressing out a black-and-white silk suit—"They tell me silk keeps away evil," he says—when he discovers he has packed two mismatched shoes. Unhappily he decides a pair of white loafers will have to do in place of his usual black patent leather pumps. Then he picks up his battered alto saxophone and fingers it quizzically, as if handling a musical instrument for the very first time. Suddenly the dressing room echoes with a plaintive melody, like the wailing of a restless baby. Several minutes later Coleman stops abruptly in mid-tune and laughs. "Tonight," he predicts, "will be total bedlam."

For Coleman, 56, a battle-scarred visionary who rarely appears in public, the hoopla surrounding his collaboration with Metheny—in concert and on their recent album, Song X—conjures up memories. When Coleman first arrived in New York in 1959, toting a plastic saxophone that he liked for its tone, he was hailed as the renegade leader of a jazz revolution. He has been fearlessly exploring the outer limits of improvisational music ever since. But while his stubborn defiance of jazz conventions has made him a legend in avant-garde circles, it has also consigned him to the outer darkness of the music business.

Early in the Town Hall concert, a few Metheny fans, offended by the raw-edged insistence of Coleman's music, walk out in a huff—thereby missing an evening of raucous exuberance in which Metheny's spacious pyrotechnics will perfectly complement Coleman's free-flowing blues riffs. Later, alone in the spotlight for a thunderous standing ovation, Coleman bows his head like an embarrassed child. Then, as the band launches itself into a furious free-jazz firestorm titled Endangered Species, he takes off on his horn toward uncharted musical galaxies.

Not that Ornette sees himself as an alien. "Let's face it, most human beings have all worn diapers," says Coleman, hunkering down one Sunday afternoon to a meal of salmon croquettes, fried chicken, "a little turkey dressing on the side, please," strawberry soda and a sugar doughnut. Wilsons, an Uptown soul food restaurant, is packed with families dressed in their best, and Coleman, dapper as usual in a burgundy leather jacket, is in fine form. "If we've all had our diapers changed," he says, "we can't be that much different from one another, right? That's why I'm not worried about how I will be remembered. The only thing to worry about is the present, not the past or future. Because when the future comes, it's still going to be the present."

Coleman talks the way he plays, in bursts of spontaneous energy, his speech colored with a Texas twang. He is a kind and gracious man whose lopsided grin hides the hardship and humiliation he has experienced for much of his life. One of his earliest memories is the sound and smell of boxcars packed with cattle being shipped to the slaughterhouses near his home in Fort Worth. Another is the image of his father, Randolph, dressed in a baseball suit. Coleman was only 7 when his father died, and he doesn't remember much else about him. His mother, Rosa, who worked as a seamstress, was a no-nonsense disciplinarian. "She was always telling me, 'Do this, do that,' " recalls Coleman. "I never was bad. I just didn't understand what adults were doing. One day a teacher spanked me because I told her she was wrong. I was hurt, because I knew I was right. So I started playing hooky from school. I stayed out for six weeks one time, and when my mother found out, she beat me for days."

Coleman got his first saxophone when he was 14, and he taught himself to play by mimicking songs from the radio. In high school he started performing professionally to help support his mother and sister. In those days Fort Worth was a hustlers' town teeming with juke joints. "Most of the places I worked, the music was just a cover for gambling," says Coleman. "Whenever there was a raid, people would grab a girl and start dancing to look legitimate while the Texas Rangers chopped up the gambling table with an ax. I'd be playing some real honky-tonk, and before I knew it, people would be fighting and cutting each other up. One day I told my mother, 'Please, I don't want to play this music. It's making people kill each other.' She said, 'What you mean, you want somebody to pay you for your soul?' That's when I decided I better do some other kind of music."

Coleman dreamed of hooking up with a touring big band but at age 19 settled instead for a gig with "Silas Green from New Orleans," a black carnival troupe featuring half-naked dancers and minstrel comedians. But playing ragtime and shake dance music for drunken audiences from Georgia to Oklahoma was not what Ornette had in mind. "When we got to Mississippi," he says, "they fired me for trying to make the band too modern."

Taking refuge with a musician friend in New Orleans, Coleman traveled to Baton Rouge one night to sit in with an R & B band. But some in the audience didn't take kindly to his playing or to his unfashionable long hair and beard. When a tall black man asked him to step outside, Coleman naively obliged. Behind the building he was greeted by several bruisers looking for blood. "One guy jacked my horn out of my arms and threw it down," he says. "Then they kicked me in the stomach and the behind. Finally I blacked out, and when I regained consciousness my lips were all cut and bleeding. I went to find a policeman, but when I told him what had happened he said, 'Look, if those fellows don't finish you, we will. So you just better get out of town.' "

In 1951 Coleman signed on with an R & B group bound for Los Angeles. When the band broke up, he found himself marooned again in a strange city. "I was starving," he says. "My mother was sending me loaves of bread in the mail." There was, however, at least one reason for hope. At an informal jam session with other out-of-work musicians, Coleman caught the eye of Jayne Cortez, a young cellist. He married her in 1954, and she gave birth to a boy, Denardo, two years later. By that time Coleman was earning his living as an elevator operator at Bullock's department store and trying desperately to find established musicians who would listen to his music. One night he went to see the legendary saxophonist Charlie "Bird" Parker and couldn't even get in the door of the club. "All my toes were outside my shoes, and I didn't have a dime," Coleman says. "I stood outside and waited for him, but he treated me just like I was another fan." Another time he asked to sit in with a band featuring drummer Max Roach and saxophonist Sonny Rollins. "When it came time for me to solo, I started playing the way I always played, and they all got up and walked off the bandstand," he says. "I was so hurt I started crying. They made it seem as if I was some illiterate guy that didn't know any music, and that wasn't true."

Despite Coleman's outcast status, some musicians were struck by the urgency of his playing. Bassist Charlie Haden was appalled when he saw Coleman driven off a bandstand one night and jumped at an opportunity to jam with him privately. "I went out to Ornette's house one Sunday, and there was music everywhere—on the chairs, on the bed, on the table," Haden says. "He picked up a sheet at random and said, 'Here are some chord changes, but you don't have to play them. Just play what you hear.' Man, I had so much fun I couldn't believe it. It was spontaneity like I had never experienced before. Each note was a universe. Each note was your life."

Recognition, at least, came when John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet granted him an audience in 1959. "When he talked about his music, I couldn't understand him at all," recalls Lewis. "But when I heard him play, it reminded me of some of the literary work of James Joyce and Dylan Thomas. In the midst of phrases that seemed incomprehensible, there were snatches of complete lucidity. A lot of contemporary classical composers were trying to achieve the same thing, but it came naturally to Coleman." Lewis persuaded Atlantic Records to underwrite Coleman's appearance that summer at the School of Jazz in Lenox, Mass., where his music was showcased for New York critics. The rave response paved the way for his clamorous debut that fall at the Five Spot Cafe in New York.

Coleman's arrival in New York, with a band including Haden, trumpeter Don Cherry and drummer Billy Higgins, split the hip community into two hostile camps. New York Philharmonic conductor Leonard Bernstein called Coleman a genius. Trumpeter Miles Davis questioned Coleman's sanity. "Hell, just listen to the way the guy plays," Davis said. "If you're talking psychologically, the man is all screwed up inside." The band played to packed houses at the Five Spot for five months, and passions ran so high that fights sometimes broke out in the audience.

With titles like The Shape of Jazz to Come and Change of the Century, Coleman's early albums gave notice of a spreading insurrection against mannerism and cliché. But as Coleman's influence grew, so did his frustration with the music business. "I would see people standing in line to hear me, and yet I was still poor," he says. "Obviously something was wrong." He began asking big money for club dates and recording sessions, and when he was turned down he went underground.

Divorced in 1964, after Jayne insisted on going home to L.A., Coleman made several triumphal tours of Europe in the '60s and early '70s but maintained a low profile in the U.S., performing rarely and releasing few records. Meanwhile he mastered the trumpet and violin and wrote a number of classical compositions including Skies of America, an eight-movement symphony. "People had been telling me I notated my music all wrong," Coleman says, "but then at the British Museum, I saw the original manuscripts from Beethoven, Mozart and all those guys, and it looked like chicken scratches. So I just didn't buy any of this business where some people were telling me what I wrote couldn't be considered classical music."

In 1973 Coleman's music took another turn when he visited the impoverished mountain village of Joujouka, Morocco, where Berber tribesmen maintain an ancient musical tradition. "I heard a saint went there once and said, 'If you follow me, you will never do anything but play music,' " Coleman says. "So for six thousand years all they've done, 24 hours a day, is play music." Coleman's cousin James Jordan accompanied him on the trip. "Coleman disappeared one day, and the next time I saw him he was sitting by this huge bonfire with hundreds of musicians," Jordan recalls. "They had dressed him in a white robe and a turban, in honor of his being accepted by the tribe as a master musician. He played with them all night, and it was eerie. Coleman was so comfortable with the music he found on that mountain, it was almost as if he had undergone some kind of reincarnation."

Back in the U.S., however, Coleman was less warmly received. Several years earlier he had converted a factory space in New York's SoHo district into a live-in loft and jazz performance center. But other tenants in the building, who objected to the loud music and Coleman's open-door policy toward his friends, took legal action to force him out. "I wasn't running a big gambling establishment or trying to kill white people or anything like that," Coleman says. "I was just doing my work and trying to share it." Evicted, Coleman lived in various cold-water flats and fleabag hotel rooms until 1981, when he took over an abandoned school on Manhattan's Lower East Side. Just as he was beginning to settle in, Coleman was the victim of two brutal robbery attempts in the building. In September 1982, two teenagers tied him up and left him for dead after hitting him on the head with a hammer; then, six months later, he was surprised by two more young muggers, who stabbed him in the back with a crowbar.

Recovered now from his injuries, Coleman nurses a fantasy of turning the school into an "arts embassy" for musicians from around the world. In the meantime, he has fixed up one classroom as a spartan bedroom and another as a rehearsal hall for his band, Prime Time. Coleman's son, Denardo, 30, plays drums in the band and also handles bookings and management. Rehearsing the group one night for a tour, Ornette looks like a gentle schoolteacher saddled with a classroom of unruly charges. Indeed the music sounds at first like undifferentiated clatter. With patient listening, a pattern of Joujouka-style tribal rhythms and interwoven melody lines emerges. Once again Coleman is leading jazz to new frontiers, this time with a music that simultaneously embraces and transcends both funk and New Wave rock. "Most of what passes for music these days involves lining people up like trained seals and having everybody turn left or right at the same place," Coleman says. "I'm more interested in having the individual put his character in the notes and bring them alive. When that happens, the music doesn't need a punch line."

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