How Ornette Coleman Created the L.A. Underground

Ornette Coleman, jazz musician Coleman blowing the trumpet. | Photo: Matias Nieto/Cover/Getty Images.

On Thursday morning in Manhattan, 85-year-old Randolph Denard Ornette Coleman, Jr. died of cardiac arrest. The Pulitzer Prize-winning composer was nominally referred to as a "jazz saxophonist," but with Coleman, terminology was useless, a mere prelude to a career who's breadth and significance was unquestionably titanic, contentious and pervasive. Like "Beyonce" or "Bruce," one only had to say the word "Ornette" and everyone knew who you were talking about. And not just in rarefied jazzbo circles, but "cool" people like Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, Jerry Garcia and William S. Burroughs, they all knew Ornette.

The quiet, genial Texan -- born in a single shotgun shack next to the Fort Worth rail-yards at the dawn of the Great Depression -- managed to survive into our technologically obsessed era, whose children could no longer conceive of the years of itinerant wandering, poverty and personal danger he endured to arrive the pinnacle of musical controversy in November 1959, when his groundbreaking free-jazz quartet decamped from Los Angeles to New York's Five Spot Cafe. Their advance press photos showed something dangerous afoot. These were lean, sere young California punks in thin ties and dark shiny suits: skeletal trumpeter Don Cherry's smirk and sharp specs; drummer Ed Blackwell's tilted head and bookish smirk; Coleman's cropped whiskers and steely glint. Then there was the baby-faced white-boy bassist Charles Haden, who looked like he didn't belong but whose piercing stare said, Yeah, I do. The titles of their first two albums on L.A.-based Contemporary Records shrieked hyperbolic proclamations of youth: "Something Else!!!!," "Tomorrow Is the Question!"

Ornette Coleman performs at The Bell Atlanic Jazz Festival in Battery Park on lower Manhattan, New York June 1, 2000. | (Photo Scott Gries/ImageDirect).
Ornette Coleman performs at The Bell Atlanic Jazz Festival in Battery Park on lower Manhattan, New York June 1, 2000. | Photo: Scott Gries/ImageDirect.

And the music? It had a harmonic base in bebop but it took frequent unusual turns --"wrong" chords, "wrong" notes, flights and streams of dizzying immediacy. Coleman's strident tone approximated the full emotive spectrum of the human voice: mourning, wailing, crying, whooping, shouting, growling. Sometimes it sounded so playful and whimsical as to be a put-on. Other times it sounded like emotion too raw to be played in polite cafe society. It was the voice of rising tumult. Most shocking to practiced ears, they eliminated chords and harmony into the realm of a purer -- some would deem it visceral -- type of improvisation that seemed more connected to pre-jazz folk idioms than the modernistic innovations of Charlie Parker or Louis Armstrong. In atomizing the patterns of songs during their solos, the musicians who played for Coleman were forced out of their comfort zones and into the arsenals of their imaginations, drawing on every creative muscle they had ever built. It was an exhausting liberation. Haden likened the experience to having handcuffs removed. To Blackwell, Coleman's approach seemed closer to the concept of improvisation than what others called actual "jazz," telling journalist Valerie Wilmer: "When Ornette starts a tune, there's a certain place he intends to get, but there's no certain way to get there, and a lot of cats are not aware of how that happens."

One of Coleman's most lasting collaborations was with a young trumpeter from Dallas who Don Cherry was meant to replace. Bobby Bradford had met Coleman in Summer 1952 at a mutual friend's wedding in East Austin. He had already heard rumors of this oddball vegetarian who wore Cuban heels to boost his height, fried his hair into curls and sported heavy, handmade clothing that defied the Brazos heat index. But when Coleman mounted the bandstand to jam with some mutual friends, Bradford found his "stone bopper" ears challenged to their core. Coleman seemed to be playing against the songs. With his sax, he emitted pig squeals, horse whinnies and traffic honks; he played in the wrong key; he didn't ride the chord changes the rest of them relied upon; he scrunched and twisted his face in grotesque grimaces while he played, utilizing his instrument like a woodchipper through which to feed time-tested standards. Looks were exchanged from the bandstand to the buffet: What the hell is that? He's playing a lot of wrong notes! But Bradford found himself energized by Coleman's moxie: "He was the first player I ever met who was prepared, willing and able to get up on a bandstand and play a free improvisation not based on a chord sequence."

A year later, in one of those fortuitous L.A. moments of fate and convergence, Bradford found himself sitting across from Coleman on a Pacific Electric trolley heading downtown from the black bohemia of Watts, where both lived some thirty blocks apart. Coleman had just gotten married to a vivacious young poet named Jayne Richardson and was living with her parents. Bradford offered to help get Coleman a job working in the stockroom at Bullock's flagship department store downtown at 7th and Hill Streets. Coleman invited Bradford to come and practice some new original tunes he had written with teasing little titles: "Chippie," "Jayne, " "The Sphinx." In these early songs, Bradford says, he still heard the river-bottom pull of the blues as well as Charlie Parker's ubiquitous influence, but with tiny blossoms of Coleman's freeing approach sprinkled throughout. "All he could say [about his music] was, 'It's just emotion, it's just feeling.' He couldn't give you a technical explanation."

After months of practicing, Coleman and Bradford along with a pianist named Floyd Howard and Coleman's old friend from New Orleans Ed Blackwell on drums, finally felt ready to take it to the stage. Unfortunately for them, in Postwar Los Angeles there was no locus of cultural or entertainment activity. The pressurized kinetics that birthed a vibrant musical hub like Central Avenue was replaced with an amorphous club infrastructure that spread itself out across L.A. County toward Hollywood, the beach cities and the Valleys. Their very first gigs were in some of the so-called "most dangerous areas" of the city, including the gay and transvestite bars that dotted an eight-block, vice-ridden area located around Fifth and Main Streets downtown that the locals called "The Nickel." It was in the Nickel that you could slip into to buy a tin of Prince Albert tobacco, cop a matchbox of seedless weed, ogle the transvestites, or even commune with prostitutes, "if you wanted to do something kinky in L.A.," Bradford recalls. "For some reason where there's kinky shit there's always good music." Bradford remembers being struck by the racial mixing of both bands, club owners and the audiences of the Nickel and adjoining East L.A.: "Being from the South, it doesn't take a minute to get used to that, because you're used to playing places where you'd think, 'Why does this race thing matter so much? What's the problem?'"

A photo taken on June 30, 1983 shows US jazz saxophonist and composer Ornette Coleman performing in Rome. Ornette Coleman, whose 1959 album 'The Shape of Jazz to Come' is considered one of the most groundbreaking in the genre's history, died on June 11, 2015 in New York, at the age of 85. AFP PHOTO / ANSA. | Photo: AFP/Getty Images.

In December 1954, after Bradford was drafted into the Korean Conflict and had to leave for basic training in Pleasanton, California. Coleman continued to haunt practically every open jam session in L.A. He was shunned or eighty-sixed at popular jazz spots like the California Club and The Haig by stars like Max Roach, Curtis Counce and Dexter Gordon. But playing in tiny forlorn dives had drawn a small underground of like-minded players to Coleman's music, which at the time had no name save for the term "abstract." Leonard Schneider, an intense young Jewish kid who had failed at mainstream shtick in the Catskills, came west with his stripper wife, changed his name to "Lenny Bruce" and quite purposely began playing in places that he deemed "toilets" because they allowed him to improvise -- in a sort of jazz-like patter -- material both raunchy and topical. Unsurprisingly, Bruce found a kindred spirit Coleman, as did Bruce's saxophonist friend Joe Maini, who in turn brought Coleman to a jam session at another strip joint on Cahuenga Boulevard called Duffy's. It was here and in other far-flung boits from the San Gabriel to the San Fernando Valleys that Coleman continued to attract an underground of musical admirers: saxophonist Herb Geller and his pianist wife Lorraine, vocalist/pianist Bob Dorough, bassist Eugene "The Senator" Wright, composer/arranger Bill Holman, bassist Don Payne, pianist Joanne Grogan and her future husband, saxophonist Charles Brackeen, pianists Paul and Carla Bley.

Ultimately, Coleman's lasting legacy in lay in South L.A., where he met and played with a new generation of players who brought with them a burgeoning restlessness with the calcified ways of musical professionalism. Suddenly, getting a coveted chair in a studio orchestra wasn't the toppermost goal; expressing the immediacy of one's circumstances was. They included Don Cherry and his friends, saxophonist George Newman and drummer Billy Higgins; flautist Hadley Caliman; woodwindist Eric Dolphy; alto saxophonist Earl Anderza; trombonist Roy Brewster; tenor saxophonist Walter Benton; and pianists Kenny Drew and Horace Tapscott. In 1965, Coleman introduced and old Fort Worth friend then living in Watts, a saxophonist named John Carter, to Bobby Bradford. The two would return to Coleman's first L.A. recordings on Contemporary as a jumping-off point for their own brand of West Coast avant-garde jazz. Their partnership that would last for the next twenty-five years until Carter's death in 1991.

The example of the local musicians inspired by Ornette Coleman in turn has, more than half a century later, inspired the current musical community of a very different Los Angeles, a wired infrastructure unloosed from corporate gatekeeping. To look at the independent music scene in 2015 -- the ascension of rapper/producer Flying Lotus and the young Inglewood saxophonist Kamasi Washington in particular -- is to see a resurgent ant colony flourishing underneath a decayed castle. And Los Angeles has Ornette to thank for it.

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