Ornette Coleman’s interview with Art Taylor for the book Notes and Tones throws some interesting lights on the origins of his particular approach to the free jazz movement, or at least how that approach found its way to Atlantic Records by way of an encounter between Coleman and Nesuhi Ertegun at Tanglewood in 1959. The mere fact that it happened at Tanglewood says a lot about both of these men, since it implies a certain convergence between the experimentation of those composers who followed in the wake of Anton Webern and those looking for new ways to play jazz. However, beyond any attempts to account for that convergence, there are underlying questions of technique that come up among those who accuse Coleman of playing three different instruments (saxophone, violin, and trumpet), none of them particularly well.
Coleman does not evade that criticism in his interview with Taylor. When Taylor asked him why he took up violin and trumpet, Coleman gave about as direct reply as one might expect:
I started tying to play the violin and trumpet because I didn’t want to be known as the best saxophone player, or the best this or that, just to have a gig.
This struck me as being honest without being evasive. It reminded me of a quotation from Edgard Varèse that I cited when I was writing a preview for the coming season of the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players:
I am not a musician: I employ rhythms, frequencies and intensities.
This seems like a fair thing to say about Coleman, going all the way back to The Shape of Jazz To Come, the Atlantic recording to come out of his first session in their studios on May 22, 1959. No one would accuse Coleman of having a refined sound in that session. Indeed, the coarseness of his sound is particularly apparent when one of his solos is followed buy one taken by Don Cherry, who had no trouble sounding smooth, even on cornet. Nevertheless, there were any number of remarkable features in how Coleman could deal with the basic physical qualities of raw energy, particularly those qualities of rhythm, pitch, and amplitude that were of such interest to Varèse. (Where rhythm is concerned, I find it extremely significant that Coleman and Cherry could play exactly the same rhythmic pattern as precisely as they did.)
Ultimately, I accept Coleman rejecting the idea of being best at anything. I am not interested in whether he is better than Thelonious Monk, and more than I care whether he is worse that Albert Ayler. All that really matters is that, when I listen to any of his tracks, it helps to prepare myself with the proper mindset. I have never encountered any evidence that Coleman knew about (let alone was inspired by) Varèse; but I find it helpful to know that I can approach listening to Coleman’s jazz in the same way that I would approach listening to performances of most of Varèse’s compositions.