Shaping Creativity: Ornette Coleman

In 1959, Ornette Coleman changed music forever when he released The Shape of Jazz to Come.  Coleman had always been a black sheep among jazz musicians because of his avant-garde styles of composition, improvisation, and harmony.  Listening to him play, you will easily see why.  He used a cheap, plastic saxophone, giving him a rough timbre, was not accompanied by chord-based instruments, and did not play within chord changes.  Nobody wanted anything to do with him back in 1954.  However, he still managed to find Don Cherry, Billy Higgins, and Charlie Haden.  These three, along with Coleman, were revolutionary and would make history.  The sessions they recorded together were compiled into the album The Shape of Jazz to Come.

The most famous off of this album is “Lonely Woman”, which is one of the few compositions by Coleman that has become a standard.  This tune alone perfectly demonstrates the ideas expressed throughout the album.  The first twelve measures of the head generally use the D harmonic minor scale, then there is a crescendo into half note minor third harmonies that lead into the first ending where the notes are major thirds apart and again using the D harmonic minor scale.  These type of harmonies show up as well in his tune “Peace”.  In “Peace”, the Cherry’s trumpet and Coleman’s saxophone both play in unison for the first six measures, but then begin to harmonize within minor thirds of each other.  The next time they harmonize they do the same.  This major third harmony is prominent in the development of the album’s avant-garde feel, but even more important is what the bass plays under it all.

In “Lonely Woman”, the bass, played by Charlie Haden, sets a tone right from the start of the record.  While the drums, played by Billy Higgins, are doing a fast Latin groove, Haden plays an odd bass line, and then moves into dyads, two notes being played at the same time.  These dyadic intervals range from major second, minor second, major thirds, minor thirds, major fourths, and major fifths.  Later in the song, under the solos, he plays purely major fifths, making it seem almost like power chords.  This adds so much to the avant-garde, gloomy feel of this song, and this album.  Similarly, on “Peace”, he plays major fifths again around the second ending of the head.

While this all contributes to the style and feel of Coleman’s album, much more went into it that I could not include in this post.  All in all, Ornette Coleman is a symbol not just of the avant-garde movement of the ’60s, but also of the artist withstanding controversy.  I believe that no matter how much people may hate your music, you should still make it.  This is what Ornette Coleman did, and he left his mark on music for the rest of history, even winning a lifetime achievement award.  No matter what style of music you play, you should never be afraid to stray from the traditions because it could bring you further than you may expect.

Note: many musicians are not jazz musicians, thus not knowing the language of jazz.  If you don’t know jazz terminology, use this glossary.

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