When Ornette Coleman was 29, he turned the jazz world on its head. Now that he’s turned 80 this week, the legendary jazz man has an opportunity to make another important and lasting impact on jazz.
Coleman’s life and career are worthy of a biopic, except for one simple thing—he’s clearly not finished. By the time they reach 80, most great musicians are resting on their laurels, but Ornette is still making challenging music and defying convention. He’s changed the structure of jazz improvisation with his landmark works of the late-‘50s and early-‘60s. He showed how multidimensional funk could be with his electric band, Prime Time, in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and now with his current ensemble, he is deftly integrating aspects of electronic and acoustic instruments into a seamless meld.
For his ninth decade, Ornette should lead jazz further into the 21st century by taking control of his recorded catalogue and republishing it. Coleman’s discography is in dire need of revival because the labels that control his output—Sony/BMG, Atlantic, Blue Note and Verve—have either left the jazz party or have one foot out the door.
In the absence of major-label support, artists like saxophonist Greg Osby, bassist Dave Holland, drummer Kendrick Scott, and trio Medeski, Martin and Wood have all launched their own imprints in recent years. Ornette anticipated this development almost 20 years ago when he unveiled his own label, Harmolodic. Now he needs to take this a step further by licensing his older work and giving it a 21st-century presentation.
Coleman’s first history-making recordings, his Atlantic Records work from 1959-1961 were lovingly gathered into a boxed set called Beauty is a Rare Thing, issued in 1993. The work is a treasure trove of new ideas about jazz and the blues, but if people aren’t paying $15 for a CD anymore, by what logic can marketers assume that they will drop $80 for a boxed set? These recordings are vital for any jazz collection and should be given the treatment they deserve. They should be digitized for downloads with packages that sell just the music or with extras such as video commentary by Coleman.
“Lonely Woman,” the first track on his first Atlantic Recording, appropriately named The Shape of Jazz to Come, became a jazz standard soon after its release, despite the fact that many in the jazz community aggressively rejected his innovations. Fifty years later, Coleman has had the last laugh; his music has been the centerpiece of nearly every major jazz festival. The biopic would certainly have a happy ending.
The first chapters of Ornette’s career were tumultuous. He was born in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1930 and grew up hearing the great Texas jump blues bands and R&B honkers and shouters. He wanted to bring that emotion to jazz but in a manner that changed the relationship of harmony, melody and rhythm. Although he had supporters, most notably the trumpeter Bobby Bradford, his innovations were poorly received among musicians in Texas. He moved to Los Angeles where again he found a small coterie of enthusiasts. But the majority of musicians shunned him, refusing to allow him play at jam sessions. He worked as an elevator operator to make ends meet. One of his backers, John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet, persuaded Atlantic Records to sign him, and though controversial even after he moved into the New York jazz scene, Coleman’s recordings for the label sold well.
In the mid-‘60s, Ornette recorded for Blue Note, both as a leader and as a sideman on Jackie McLean’s Old and New Gospel. He also recorded a classical suite and produced his own concert at Town Hall in New York City. He recorded with a larger, more muscular ensemble on some sessions for Flying Dutchman/Impulse! Records and for Columbia Records in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, but that would only hint at his next major band, Prime Time, which redefined jazz funk in the ‘70s, ‘80s and early-‘90s. He released three diverse recordings in the ‘90s before emerging with a small combo that revives some of his early catalog.
The work of Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk, three of Coleman’s peers, has been gorgeously repackaged and presented with the reverence it deserves. Coleman’s work deserves the same attention. If no one will do it for him, then Coleman and his company, Harmolodic, led by his son, Denardo Coleman, who also has played drums on most Ornette recordings since the ‘70s, should take on the endeavor. Such a project could set a precedent for other great jazz musicians or their estates to follow, just as many followed Ornette in starting their own labels. Coleman’s work and his career are beacons of African-American self-determination. Ornette isn’t one to coast on his past accomplishments. As he enters his ninth decade, there is still much for him to show the jazz world.
Martin Johnson is a regular contributor to The Root. Follow him on Twitter.