Sunday, October 08, 2006

The Ornette Coleman Debate Meme

With a hat tip to the wonderful be.jazz blog comes this entry in response to this insidious essay by Darius Brubeck. Mwanji Ezana sums up many of my own reactions nicely. Suffice to say that Brubeck lost this debate a long time ago. More than enough has elapsed since 1959 to make that abundantly clear to anyone who uses their ears fearlessly. The comments are well worth checking out.

There are a couple of points I'd like to highlight:

The opening tale of beboppers on the Whitehouse lawn in 1979 takes a strange turn from anecdotal to depressingly over-invested with significance. Given the current political climate it's hard to imagine any curiosity for creative musical expression via the executive branch. Let alone any hospitality toward jazz that wasn't a pretext for a staged photo op of some sort. This passage sets a particularly chilling tone:
What I find intriguing about this story is that it is not "hip-versus-square"’ bebop comedy, but an example of the hip irony, empathy, complicity and pragmatism of the "‘old guard"’ of professional musicians. I also think this story resonates for 21st century jazz educators who, like jazz musicians at the Whitehouse, must take a pragmatic approach to gaining and exploiting prestige -– not selfishly - but on behalf of their programs, their students and institutions and, of course, on behalf of jazz as a legitimate academic discipline worth supporting with funds as well as acclaim. I suspect that playing "avant-garde"’ on the Whitehouse lawn these days would be an audacious act of protest and still not the best tactic for increasing the level of NEA support for jazz.
This seems to place "prestige" as an artificial "virtue" that threatens to destroy the very essence of what makes human expression so valuable. At least the White House lawn circa 1979 was under an administration that valued Dizzy Gillespe and Cecil Taylor. The notion of "playing by the rules" to appease the sensibilities of the present administration - one that is disinterested in extending NEA support at best - is not something that serves artistic growth and progress. The nuances of improvised music would be completely lost - if not wasted - on those who find the Geneva Conventions "quaint" and defend the practice of torture.

Dave Douglas made an interesting comment at a Tiny Bells Trio concert I attended in 1999. He mentioned that they were performing a new work that had been commissioned by a particular entity. He added that he found it funny that someone would pay him to do something he would have done anyway. That is a trait of a true artist -one that often undermines the economics of one's craft. My concern with NEA - and other government/institutional funding sources - is that one has to "fall in line" precisely to the point where one cannot pursue the creative work they would have "done anyway." I would rather have Dave Douglas do what he has to to make Greenleaf a success than whoring for whatever crumbs the NEA might spare for jazz "support."

Another passage that was of particular interest given my intense focus on alternate intonation:
What do we hear then, if not "‘harmolodics"’, that makes him so identifiable? First of all, his controversial pitch - and we'’re used to that now. Since 1960 we'’ve also heard plenty of music from other cultures using various tuning systems. Non-standard tuning is also a signifying sound used by jazz musicians laying claim to a non-western identity.
Here the fact that Darius Brubeck doesn't get Ornette Coleman as a point of personal prejudice and complete misunderstanding is exposed with blinding clarity. Music does not divide into "western" and "non-western" musics. To do so places "western" music - and its accompanying harmonic/intonation/rhythmic practices - as the standard against which all other musics are understood. Ornette Coleman understands that music is music. It is not a game of "prestige" used for flaunting how well one has internalized the established rule structures (and such flaunting can and does take the form of deliberately "breaking the rules" vis a vis serialism/atonal practices). Rather than hearing "non-standard tunings" as some kind of game where the object is to "lay claim to a non-western identity" Brubeck should open his ears and hear "non-standard tunings" as harmony.

One of the things that makes Ornette Coleman's music so compelling is the harmonic logic that unfolds linearly in his melodic lines. I think that the way he hears the sequence of intervals is what has allowed him to untether his music from chord changes and advance the harmonic state of jazz. This is why he is great and revered - prestige that is earned and deserved as opposed to calculated and without merit.

Brubeck also includes several of the now standard dismissive attacks on how Ornette Coleman chooses to articulate his theories in interviews. Here again, he seems to wish Coleman was wearing the same strait jacket that so many jazz educators and "professional musicians" have put on as matter of choice. It seems to me that Coleman has hit upon an aesthetic and philosophical stance that is deeply transcendent and frustratingly beyond the realm of words. Though "understanding" it isn't nearly so difficult if you listen honestly and with an open mind.


John said...

wow, what a trip. I didn't know that Mingus quote (in the Brubeck piece). Gutsy of him to observe that Coleman made everything around him sound bland. I'd even go along with his observation that Coleman is a "primitive," if we remember Jerome Rothenberg's dictum that "primitive = complex."

What's most telling is that Coleman, while hugely influential as a composer and bandleader, has had almost no influence as a player -- nobody SOUNDS like him. And he really is just a gorgeous voluptuous melodist. The idea that other people play his music "better" -- that's foreign to me!

I don't get Coleman's theorizing either, but it's irrelevant. The music is there.

I have criticisms of Coleman's music too -- I think he doesn't live up to his notion that he's getting rid of "background" and "foreground" in music -- or, he does rarely at best. But so what -- what's there is frequently gorgeous.

The other really telling thing is -- look at the people he launched! Cherry and Haden and Ulmer and Shannon Jackson -- wow. All of them magnificent leaders and composers in their own rights.

Thanks for your post.

peter breslin said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you. I find it astonishing that someone would be so entirely dense as to "revive" a so-called debate that was settled years and years ago. And Branford Marsalis's suggestion that there's some sort of strange "ownership" or "earned" something or other regarding music is absurd. Listen to "Blackzilla" and tell me it isn't a pale and meandering rip off of "that wild 'Trane shit."

anyway, thanks again,

peter breslin