60 Years Ago In 1959 Ornette Coleman Released The Shape Of Jazz To Come.

On June 11th 2015, that Ornette Coleman passed away, aged eighty-five, and that day, music had lost a true legend, whose album Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation lent its name to a musical genre, free jazz. It’s the genre that Ornette Coleman became synonymous with. However, two years earlier, this nascent genre had no name.

Ornette Coleman released his Atlantic Records’ debut in 1959. The Shape of Jazz to Come hinted that jazz was changing. However, it wasn’t until the release of Ornette Coleman’s fourth album for Atlantic Records, Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation that the genre was christened. Suddenly, free jazz was born. It was being hailed the most exciting development in jazz, and Ornette Coleman was one of its most innovating practitioners. His story began in 1930.

It was on March 9th, 1930, that Ornette Coleman was born Randolph Dernard Ornette. He was born and brought up in Forth Worth, Texas, where his musical skills were apparent from an early age. A true multi-instrumentalist, Ornette played saxophone, violin and trumpet and composed music. His trademark sound is blues-based, with a crying, keening timbre. Growing up, Ornette played in his high school band, but was thrown-out, for jamming during a rendition of Washington Post.

As a teenager, Ornette formed a band, with fellow students Prince Lasha and Charles Moffett. Then in 1949, he started playing with Silas Green, in his R&B show. It was during a show in Baton Rouge, that Ornette was assaulted and his saxophone destroyed. This resulted in Ornette changing to alto-saxophone. After the Baton Rouge assault, Ornette decided to leave Silas Green’s band.

After leaving Silas Green’s band, Ornette joined Pee Wee Crayton’s band. When he wasn’t making music, Ornette worked a variety of jobs, including lift operator. Still, he was determined to make a living playing music. Other musicians, however, didn’t understand Ornette’s style of music.

From his high school days, Ornette had a unique musical style. Schooled in R&B and bebop, Ornette’s approach to chord progression and harmony was very different. It was much more fluid. He played what heard in his head, which coupled with his blues’ influence, may have resulted in the rawness in Ornette’s playing. For some musicians, they thought Ornette was out-of-tune. That wasn’t the case. Unlike them, Ornette was a visionary, an innovator, a musician who’d become one of the giants of free jazz.

Even though many musicians didn’t understand Ornette Coleman, he was gradually building up a group of influential supporters. This included pianist Paul Bley, who later collaborated with Ornette. Paul however, didn’t feature on Ornette’s 1958 debut album Something Else. Released on Contemporary Records, Something Else featured Don Cherry on trumpet and Walter Norris on piano, as be bop combined with free jazz. Ornette released his sophomore album in 1959s. Tomorrow Is The Question was also released on Contemporary Records. All of sudden, people were taking notice of Ornette Coleman. They were “getting” Ornette’s unique sound and approach to jazz. 

So it was no surprise that in 1959, Ornette Coleman signed to what was then, one of the biggest record labels, Atlantic Records. They had a huge roster, and released an eclectic selection of music. This included everything from blues, R&B, soul and of course, jazz. Ornette Coleman was their latest signing.

Atlantic Records was home to Ornette Coleman between 1959 and 1962. During that time, he entered the studio ten times, and these sessions produced nine albums which include some of the best and most innovative music of Ornette Coleman’s career. He was one of the founding fathers of free jazz, who came of age at Atlantic Records.

The Shape Of Jazz To Come.

Having served his musical apprenticeship, Ornette Coleman was more than ready to sign to a major label. On his first two albums, Ornette Coleman pioneered this new musical genre. Some likened it do avant garde. Others thought that what Ornette Coleman and his band were playing had an experimental sound. However, after his first session with ‘producer’ Nesuhi Ertegun, he had the answer to this conundrum.

On 22nd May 1959, Ornette Coleman made his way to Radio Recorders in Hollywood, California. Joining him, were the other three members of his quartet, drummer Billy Higgins, bassist Charlie Haden and Don Cherry on cornet. They recorded eight tracks with Ornette Coleman recorded eight tracks. These tracks followed a different format to what most musicians were used to. 

Each of the eight compositions Ornette Coleman’s quartet record a brief thematic statement. After that, there were several of minutes of free improvisation. Then they revisit the main theme. While this may sound similar to bebop, there’s a big difference. Advocates of free jazz abandoned the use of chord structures. Having listened to Ornette Coleman’s quartet pioneer this nascent genre, Nesuhi Ertegun had an idea for the album title.

After thinking about the session he had just ‘produced,’ Nesuhi Ertegun realised that it was important that the album title gave record buyers: ”an idea about the uniqueness of the LP.” It Nesuhi Ertegun realised, was a game-changer. This new sound was about to change jazz

Ornette Coleman’s Atlantic Records’ debut was The Shape Of Jazz To Come. It was released in October 1959, and initially, divided the opinion of critics. 

Some critics and cultural commentators hailed the music on The Shape Of Jazz To Come as innovative and inventive. Lonely Woman, the album’s opener was seen as a future classic. That proved prescient. Nowadays, Lonely Woman is a jazz standard. These critics that forecast this, and realised the importance of The Shape Of Jazz To Come knew that something important was happening.

So did some of Ornette Coleman’s peers and contemporaries. They realised that potentially, this new musical movement could be the biggest innovation since bebop. Especially when Ornette Coleman began a two week residency at the Five Spirit on November 17th 1959. It became the hottest ticket in town. Ornette Coleman’s residency was extended, and eventually, last two-and-a-half months. It seemed Ornette Coleman was well on his way to becoming one of the major players in jazz. Not everyone agreed.

The lack of chordal structure proved controversial. Up until then, a pianist and guitarist gave compositions chordal structure. Not on The Shape Of Jazz To Come. That was jazz’s past. Another criticism was the harsh timber of Ornette Coleman’s saxophone. However, this wasn’t surprising. He eschewed the finest saxophone, instead, preferring a plastic Grafton saxophone. This he believed gave his music, a “harmolodic”  sound, which was a fusion of harmony, movement, and melody. There was a reason for this. 

Harmonic accompaniment, Ornette Coleman believed, wasn’t important. Instead, he focused merely on improvising melodies and variations on themes and motifs. Proof of this could be found on The Shape Of Jazz To Come, which in 1959, was recognised as an important, innovative and inventive album. It was also an album that changed jazz. At the forefront of this new musical movement was Ornette Coleman.

It was ironic that Ornette Coleman’s contract with Atlantic Records was over when Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation was released in September 1961. It was a game-changer where the soloists were allowed the freedom and opportunity to improvise No longer were musicians constrained, they were allowed the opportunity to take the music wherever they wanted. This was revolutionary music. So it was fitting that the album cover featured Jackson Pollock’s  painting The White Light. 

Just like so many landmark albums, Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation divided opinion. Critics either loved or loathed the album. There was no middle ground. Most reviews were filled with praise and plaudits. Some critics saw no merit in Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation. To them, it was forty minutes of their life they would never see again. However, since then, Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation is regarded as one of the most innovative and influential free jazz albums. For Ornette Coleman, who had left Atlantic Records, it must have been a bittersweet moment. 

His latest album would lend its name to a genre, free jazz. Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation was also being hailed one of the most innovative and influential albums in the nascent free jazz genre. 

Despite over fifty albums bearing  Ornette Coleman’s name being released, the albums  he released at Atlantic Records included some of the best music. Ornette Coleman released a total of nine albums for Atlantic Records  between 1959 and 1975. These albums find one of the founding fathers of free jazz at his most inventive and innovative. 

Freed from the constraints of bebop, Ornette Coleman and his band embark upon what was akin to a series of musical adventures. During these adventures, they push musical boundaries to their limits, and sometimes way beyond. They challenge what was conventional thinking, and create music that’s ambitious, groundbreaking and innovative. This new genre of music free jazz, was the future of music. It was far removed from the blandness of the Cool School, and the constraints of bebop. Ornette Coleman was at the vanguard of this new musical movement.

That’s not surprising. Ornette Coleman was one of jazz’s most innovative and inventive musicians and composers in the history of jazz. Bold, and unafraid to produce cutting-edge music, Ornette Coleman produced music that was challenging music, music that challenged musical norms. Realising musical rules were there to be broken, Ornette Coleman set about breaking these rules. However, Ornette Coleman knew when to break the rules. 

By breaking these rules, Ornette Coleman created some of the most inventive, influential and innovative music in the history of jazz. This was music that fused various musical genres and influences. Bebop, free-jazz, blues, avant-garde and experimental music all influenced Ornette Coleman’s music. These genres and influences were thrown into the melting pot of one of the most creative and inventive musicians of the twentieth century. Sadly, Ornette Coleman died on June 11th 2015, that Ornette Coleman passed away, aged eighty-five. Music had lost a true legend, whose album Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation lent its name to a musical genre, free jazz. 

Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation was  Ornette Coleman’s Magnus Opus, and was recorded during what was the most productive and fertile period of his career. However, The Shape Of Jazz To Come which is also a free jazz classic, and is a tantalising taste of what was to come from a true musical pioneer during his time at  Atlantic Records, where Ornette Coleman recorded some of the best and most innovative music of his long and illustrious career. 

60 Years Ago In 1959 Ornette Coleman Released The Shape Of Jazz To Come.



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