Ornette Coleman and the Emancipation of the Individual

Chris Pitsiokos

“The one essential quality is the right to be an individual.” (Coleman 1993)


“There is a law in what I’m playing, but that law is a law that when you get tired of it you can change it.” (Coleman 1993)


—Ornette Coleman


Who but Ornette Coleman could better represent change in music in the second half of the 20th century? The titles of his early albums affirm his—and the labels’—self-awareness of the impact he would have: Something Else!!!!, Tomorrow is the Question, The Shape of Jazz to Come, and Change of the Century, to name a few. Apart from the fact that his music sounds like nothing that came before or after it, his philosophy of music represented a radical departure from the traditional bandleader-sideman relationship, as well as a reimagining of how a composition could be interpreted by a band or other ensemble.


Yet despite it being a statement of the obvious that Ornette Coleman was a bastion of change in music for over half a century, his work is still widely misunderstood and the depth and breadth of his musical philosophy understated, even by some of his most vociferous supporters. There has been some decent writing on Coleman’s music in recent years, especially by Nathan Frink, who wrote an excellent dissertation that provided a sort of taxonomy of Coleman’s music. Frink chose to characterize harmolodics—Ornette Coleman’s philosophy of music—as a “loosely defined group of core techniques and elements that Coleman uses to create his art” (Frink 2016, 95). He certainly identified some features of Ornette’s music: metric fluidity; irregular, non-precomposed harmony; elimination of the soloist/rhythm section; fluid and variable tempi; and more. However, the problem with a taxonomical analysis is it fails to tie things together. Sure, all of the above techniques are used in Coleman’s music somewhere, but to say that these are essential features is misleading, because none of them occur consistently throughout all of his output.


Apart from being misleading, it is also inadequate. The philosophical underpinnings of Coleman’s music—that which often allowed his bands and compositions to stretch traditional harmony, rhythm, and style—ran much deeper than harmony, rhythm, and style, per se. What can be superficially listed as a diverse bag of compositional tools are mere epiphenomena to more important innovations, which are gathered under the umbrella of individualism: his philosophy of musical inclusion, stylistic fluidity, and the avoidance of conditioned music-making that relies on method or memory. The spirit of individualism has certainly been mentioned before as a salient feature of Coleman’s music, but I hope the foregoing discussion gets inside what that individualism really meant to him.


The key reasons Coleman’s music is misunderstood are firstly, the failure to take his words about his own music seriously, and secondly, the insupportable assumption that one can understand his music by looking at the music itself, especially on the page, transcribed. The reasons for the first failure are complicated: They have to do with Coleman’s sometimes confusing language, his lack of musical literacy, and the complicated relationship between race and how 20th-century music was historicized. Once one takes Coleman’s words about his music seriously, the inadequacy of transcription-based musical analysis becomes apparent.


Ornette Coleman had an undeniable lack of understanding of the notational practices of Western music and the vocabulary used to describe it. There is very strong evidence that as of summer 1959, when Ornette Coleman attended the Music Inn—a kind of musical retreat for talented musicians in Western Massachusetts—he did not read a note of music. However, he allegedly had a very good musical memory and learned parts by having people sing them to him (Barenholtz). Charlie Haden mentioned that the first time he visited his house, Coleman’s charts were lying all over the place; while he might have been writing things down, it almost certainly would not have been understandable to someone accustomed to Western notation. Several of the original scores that have been attributed to Coleman over the years were later credited to cornetist Don Cherry, who often helped translate and notate Colemans’s ideas in the late ’50s and ’60s (Iverson).


Gunther Schuller, an early and influential champion of Ornette’s music, offered to give Coleman lessons to bridge this gap in his understanding. He essentially failed, despite the fact that Coleman was a diligent student and faithfully went to lessons each week for around eight months. Schuller recounts the final lesson:

There was one incredible moment when I felt I was making good progress and he was beginning to understand—I felt there was like a light going on in his brain.


Suddenly he stared at me and said, “I think I’m feeling sick,” and he started to groan. He quickly got up and rushed into the bathroom and vomited for about ten minutes—it was unbelievable. Then afterwards he came back and said, “Gee, I’m sorry Gunther, I don’t know what happened, but I realized something I never realized before and it really hurt me.” His eyes were full of terror—if a black man can turn white, he turned white. That’s not just some casual little experience, that was a mind-blowing, earth-shaking experience for him. He never came back for another lesson.


I’m not a professional psychologist, but I think what happened was, he caught a glimpse of what I was talking about in terms of accurate reading and notation and it was so disturbing because it meant everything he had learned up to then was “wrong.” He had the whole transposition thing upside down. Further than that, over a period of years, when I think he was playing in blues bands in Texas, he had for some reason begun to associate certain pitches with certain characters. In other words, certain notes were always upbeats and they could only be upbeats. Certain other notes were always downbeats. I have always said that because he did not learn these things in the traditional way, he became the extraordinarily original improviser that he is, it’s his genius. To this day he has people translate, I don’t know what the word is, transcribe, transmogrify the things he writes down into some kind of normal notation, and nobody really knows whether those people do it accurately or not (Litweiler 1993, 94).

So Coleman had some very peculiar misunderstandings, and many persisted into his older years. Interviews conducted near the end of his life, like those in Stephen Rush’s book Free Jazz, Harmolodics, and Ornette Coleman, affirm this.


Moreover, even when Coleman spoke more abstractly, his words often came across like koans, riddles, or paradoxes. This further mystified critics, writers, and fellow musicians. His lack of musical literacy combined with his inclination towards philosophies of music that are quite deep and complex—so deep in fact that describing his ideas would be a challenge to anyone—led many to dismiss his language. Finally, Coleman viewed himself (correctly) as a “composer who performs” (Coleman 1987). In order to be taken seriously as such, he often attempted to use the language of Western classical music. These attempts further mystified people because of his inability or unwillingness (I suspect it was a combination of both) to use the language in a traditional way.


While there is no doubt that Ornette Coleman’s language and lack of Western classical musical literacy provided an obstacle (for some) to understanding his thoughts on his music, there is another problem looming. As George Lewis points out in his essay “Improvised Music After 1950: Afrological and Eurological Perspectives,” race played an important role in how 20th-century music was historicized. Anthony Braxton observed, “Both aleatory and indeterminism are words which have been coined…to bypass the word improvisation and as such the influence of non-white sensibility.” (quoted by Lewis 1996, 99). In other words, by renaming improvisation indeterminacy, white composers were able to take credit for the innovations of black composers, and in so doing defined the work of these black composers as just having to do with jazz while relegating jazz to the level of a folk art form; denying improvisation’s widespread musical, philosophical, artistic, and political ramifications.


The middle of the 20th century was a time when both the content of music, and the tools used to evaluate and understand it, were rapidly evolving. Composers like John Cage successfully redefined the methodologies used to evaluate their music. Coleman attempted the same kind of redefinition, but with less success. And, while few at this point would analyze Cage’s music as it relates to Western harmony and serialism as a primary way of understanding it, despite the fact that it’s background from which Cage came, Coleman is still evaluated in relationship to jazz, even if as a negation of some of its practices. Such an analysis fails to position him as the vital player in the arena of 20th-century music, art, politics, and culture that he was. Most writers on Coleman’s music fail to robustly consider and describe the works of his that cannot be understood as jazz: his chamber works, orchestral works, and pieces that involved tape collages (the track “Science Fiction”), lyrics (several tracks on the albums Science Fiction and Tone Dialing), and hybridization of genre (anything by Prime Time, especially Tone Dialing). Rather than discussing the underlying philosophy that made all of this cross-pollination possible and successful, many either disregard Coleman’s work after 1975 completely, or regard it as some sort of eclecticism, and leave it at that.


So what is Coleman’s philosophy of music, and how did he apply it? A good place to start is what he says about his own music in liner notes, articles, interviews, and, perhaps most importantly, to his collaborators.


Ornette Coleman defines harmolodics in several different ways throughout his career. His bandmates define it several more ways of their own. My goal here is not to define harmolodics but to identify the underlying feature of Ornette Coleman’s music, by using Coleman’s words as a starting point. The foregoing examples include those in which Coleman uses the word harmolodic(s), and those in which he does not. I personally think that they are the same thing; that they are all examples of what he regards as important in his music.


In an article in DownBeat in July 1983, Ornette Coleman gives a definition of harmolodics:

In my musical concept, not only the sensation of tone to the nerves is released, but the very reason for the use of the tone, which is the logic of ideas put into a single or collective unison (the word “unison” refers to the sound of one’s own voice). For those who are interested in a way or the way of seeking their own unison order, here is a discussion of a group that uses such a concept—the name of this concept is harmolodics.


What is harmolodics? Harmolodics is the use of the physical and mental of one’s own logic made into an expression of sound to bring about the musical sensation of unison executed by a single person or with a group. Harmony, melody, speed, rhythm, time, and phrases all have equal position in the results that come from the placing and spacing of ideas. This is the motive and action of harmolodics(Coleman 1983. 54).

In the first sentence, Coleman explains that the reason, or intention, for the use of a musical tone—defined as “the logic of ideas put into a single or collective unison”—is being released, not just the tone itself. This places an importance on intentions, and how the performer is positioned in relation to the content he is creating. Note in the second sentence of paragraph two, again the emphasis of “one’s own logic.” Each member of the band—not just the bandleader—has a unique logic that should be expressed. The second to last sentence is simply stating that the music should consider all of the parameters, conventionally viewed as discrete, as one. Rhythm, harmony, melody, time, speed, and phrasing should all have an equal place in the music. So while each musician’s identity, voice, and sound is unique, his or her approach to music must be holistic and singular.


Coleman fundamentally differed from some other radical musicians of the 20th century, who were interested in changing the materials and their relationship to each other through structure, rather than the individual’s relationship to the material that he or she is generating. Coleman’s musical philosophy is almost content-blind: according to him, an extraordinarily diverse array of music—even things outside of music, like writing or art—could meet the criteria of “harmolodic.” What is important is the artist’s ability to articulate his own personal voice through sound, or other means. This might seem like a statement of the obvious—clearly successful artists are those who can articulate themselves through their respective medium. What’s different about Coleman’s utopia is that he was not only interested in his own voice. On the contrary, the ability for each of his collaborators to articulate their voices was essential to the realization of his own. As Stephen Rush says about harmolodics, “Everyone’s freedom is respected, honored, and needed” (Rush 2017, 19). Coleman subverted the traditional conception of the composer as the primary arbiter of a unified vision by creating a fertile framework for the voices of his collaborators to flourish. This is true across all of Coleman’s work, even his chamber and orchestral work. Creating such a framework is no small feat (if you put a group of people in a room and tell them “express yourselves” it won’t work).


Coleman sums up harmolodics even more succinctly in an interview at Stadtgarten (a venue in Cologne, Germany) in 1987. He says:

Lots of people ask me what harmolodics is, or how do you play it, and I was trying to explain to a person today that basically harmolodics is a philosophy and a theory that makes sound into logic that has a meaning to human beings.

Note that the “meaning to human beings” is emphasized again. Later in the same interview he says

Every person that has a way of expressing something that means something to them can bring something to sound that never has existed before. (Coleman 1987)

Again, in ASCAP Daily, as quoted in the Beauty is a Rare Thing box set:

The one essential quality is the right to be an individual (Coleman 1993).

Another example:

“Harmolodics has not only the variety to expand, it also allows you to be an individual. I mean, a person doesn’t have to play like myself in order to know he’s playing harmolodic. He can play like himself” (quoted in Litweiler 1993, 149).

Coleman certainly claimed he had a very strong belief in the power of individuals in general—and the members of his bands in particular—to bring something new to sound. The list of examples where harmolodics is defined as having to do with individualism goes on and on. Imagine my surprise that there is so much confusion surrounding the subject, when Coleman remains so consistent. But did he actually encourage this kind of individualism in practice? Listening to a rehearsal tape and interviews with his bandmates indicates a resounding “yes.”


In the documentary Music Inn produced by George Schuller (Gunther’s son), bassist Percy Heath recounts his initial concerns about recording with Coleman:

But Coleman, I say, man when the change comes in the blues, Ornette, I’m gonna make that change and he said, “That’s what I want you to do! Don’t bother about what we’re doing, just do what you do” (Barenholholtz).

Heath was worried that his use of chords would get in the way of the music that Coleman and Don Cherry were making—and Coleman told him to not worry about it and “do what you do.” We know that Coleman was happy with Heath’s contribution, from an interview in 2006 with George Schuller, featured in the same documentary:

Well Percy, um, was the first time I heard the bass doing better than what the piano does for changes. In fact, his timing of the bass was so accurate that….I mean his bass line was the timing more than the timing being the bass line (Barenholtz).

This interaction reveals a common misconception about Coleman’s music—one that was even held by Heath and other collaborators. The misconception is related to his use, early in his career, of the word “free.” While Coleman, early on, and others described his music as free, he used elements of jazz harmony throughout his career. Is this a contradiction? No, in fact it’s completely in line with a common definition of freedom. Most conceptions of freedom include everything as fair game. Percy Heath thought that Coleman didn’t want changes. He was wrong. Coleman just didn’t want people to feel like they had to follow that method if it wasn’t in accord with their inner voice. His conception of freedom included all forms of musical expression, including the use of chords. Is that not the common meaning of freedom—one that is all-inclusive?


As far as my research has gone, Coleman never prohibited himself or those in his band from using elements of classic jazz harmony. His own playing is also often quite tonal and he actively encouraged his bandmates to bring their musical backgrounds to the bandstand. In this way, Coleman differed from many others pushing the harmonic envelope in the 20th century. Composers like Arnold Schoenberg, for instance, devised mechanisms for systematically avoiding anything that might hint at a tonal progression, an agenda that specifically had to do with the materials of the music. Coleman’s primary concern was elsewhere. It had to do with how his bandmates engaged with the material and with the rest of the band. In this way, the intention behind the music—the relationship to it and how it was played—became more important than the music itself. The breadth of his music and the diversity of his collaborators is a testament to the fact that content was secondary to intention.


Yet there is an important distinction to be made here: Coleman did not have an “anything goes” mentality. While he didn’t object to any musical material, per se, he objected to the use of a method that superseded an individual’s creative voice. He wanted each bandmate to reach deep within themselves to access a more personal voice that avoided conditioning, style, method, or even memory. A successful performance of Coleman’s music would be entirely different depending on who was involved; one in which every member would still play in the correct way according to their own personal voice, or, as Coleman called it, “unison.” What one’s personal unison might be is clearly quite complicated, but that’s why Ornette Coleman spent his entire career attempting to inspire his bandmates and himself to achieve it. As the rehearsal tape below indicates, this was not always an easy task, even when rehearsing with musicians he had worked with for years.


Below is an excerpt from a transcript from a rehearsal tape with Ed Blackwell, David Izenzon, and Charlie Haden from 1968. It contains valuable insight into Coleman’s process.

OC: Rhythm and notes have always had a certain formula that they have to go by to create meaning. And we all have become professional enough to know how to use them in our way where that in the sound it makes it sound that we’re going somewhere more than being where we actually are.

Coleman is talking about being in the present, and focusing on that, rather than playing into the future or anticipating what is to come and preparing for it. He insists on this point. The band plays several times for a few bars, and then he stops the band and re-iterates—tries to make himself clearer. He singles out Blackwell and asks him to play by himself. Blackwell does indeed play something that sounds like it has direction. To understand what Coleman means here about going somewhere rather than being right where you are, imagine a musical phrase whose meaning is derived as it relates to, for example, a drum roll crescendo into a cymbal crash. The drum roll is creating a sort of tension that leads to the cymbal crash, and, in fact, its very reason for existence has to do with what follows. You anticipate the crash before the crash comes, because we have been conditioned to hear it that way. In the same way, a dominant chord in jazz always creates an anticipation of resolving to the fourth above it (he gets to that later). Coleman is asking his band to avoid the type of playing that derives its meaning from context, and instead encourages them to play in the moment.


Blackwell plays again, and then:

OC: That’s a method, right […]

Coleman introduces another concept here—what he calls a “method.” His criticism of Blackwell using a method is similar and related to the prior criticism of him playing in a way that leads somewhere, but as it relates to a larger time scale—the course of one’s life as a musician—and one’s tendency to build up musical methods acquired in the past and use them in improvisation, rather than living in the moment of the music and playing what one truly feels.


Then bassist Charlie Haden and Coleman implore Ed Blackwell to play what he just played but without sounding like it’s going somewhere, instead playing it like “it’s right there.”

OC: Yeah…see, that’s a method, right! Now…cut loose the method and play. Just pure rhythm. That’s what I’m talking about. That’s what I want all of us to do. I want us to cut loose the method…


EB: A lot of times, for instance myself, I don’t even know if I try to cut it loose because I’m not even thinking of a method.


OC: But that’s what I’m trying to say. You’ve been playing so long that you think that’s you! That’s what I try to tell you!


EB: That’s how it is isn’t it?


OC: No! Because if it’s a method…if it’s a method that means that you have adapted your thoughts and talents to the method.


CH: He’s talking about trying to break free of conditioning, man.


EB: What you mean conditioning?


CH: What we’re conditioned to do.

Haden, frustrated with the failure of communication, attempts to clarify that Coleman is talking about playing without conditioning. He’s only capturing part of the picture, though. Coleman is indeed talking about playing without conditioning, but also about playing in a way within the music that does not anticipate the near future or logically follow the near past (which also, by the way, is only possible with conditioning). So what Coleman is talking about is placing oneself firmly in the present both on a small scale in terms of musical form and on the grand scale (conditioning).


In the following segment, this one including bassist David Izenzon, the discussion about conditioning and playing in the present continues.

OC: When we’re playing as a group, we trying so professionally that when people think that we’re grooving and stuff I think that what we are doing just like a while ago we started that tune out and […] we all was playing like that like we were going somewhere and we wasn’t even right there. You know what I’m trying to say? Because we can play in rhythm that sounds like we are going somewhere and it sounds complete but that to me it’s a method. That’s not the same thing as what we actually play.


DI: What if we…all of us… changed musical instruments?


OC: David come on don’t be jiving with me!


CH: Yeah why don’t we all get drunk. [laughs]


OC: David. When you play an idea. Isn’t there a certain method you do to let you know…like what’s the difference between playing Cm7 to Fm7 to Bb. It goes somewhere right? And people play and say, “you going somewhere.” Right? Charlie you know that? He play Cm7 Fm7 Bb, you go somewhere right? Ok now, we’ll cut that loose.




OC: […]I still feel in the music that the rhythm section is playing with me like that. You understand what I’m trying to say? Which to me is no more than rhythm section is always function as a fill in for melodies and for horns. A background. Changes and stuff is the background. All that shit is the background. And rhythm. It’s been background more than presence. You with me? Now I’m trying to say, you cut it with the method we’ll have stone presence…..come on Blackwell we gonna try it….I know you think I’m crazy (Coleman 1968).

It might come as a surprise that Coleman had a very similar interaction with Ed Blackwell more than fifteen years before in New Orleans. Valerie Wilmer tells the story in her book As Serious as Your Life. When they were playing in Coleman’s house, Blackwell played a press roll on his snare drum at the end of a 32 bar form:

“Why did you do that?” he asked Blackwell. “Why did you end my phrase?” What he meant was that if he played a line which through its own melodic logic carried over the limit set by the formal 32-bar structure, the other musicians involved should play out the phrase rather than sticking to the form (Wilmer 1980, 60).

So by 1968, Coleman had been badgering Blackwell about this issue for more than fifteen years. It’s no trivial matter he was talking about—breaking habits, and not developing new ones, is no joke.


Although Coleman does not use the word freedom in the 1968 rehearsal tape, his directions to Blackwell shed light on the kind of playing that he was looking for. Coleman never strove to make music that was not playing changes and not playing with a beat. Such a prohibition would represent exactly the kind of method that he abhorred. Whether playing without conditioning is attainable, or whether the pursuit of such a thing is even useful, is another discussion—but it is clear what he was going for, and it seems to have resulted in some pretty amazing music.


What Coleman means by a “method” is subtle. Where does individuality end and method begin? Surely our individuality is colored by our background, training, memory, and prior experiences in music. Methodology might be an aspect of this. He did want his musicians to bring to the table their stylistic background and sound. We see that in his answer to Percy Heath’s concerns, later on when he encouraged the members of the ’70s and ’80s Prime Time band to bring their pop-music backgrounds with them, and in the late Prime Time lineup, when he asks Ken Wessel to play his favorite classical guitar piece in the band (it was Cello Suite #1 by J.S. Bach, recorded on Tone Dialing). John Litweiler quotes Jamaaladeen Tacuma, one of the bassists in Prime Time: “We’d often be in a frame of mind where we would try to play in a certain way to please him, but on the breaks we’d be playing other things we knew and he’d say, ‘Why don’t you guys play like that when we play?’”  (Litweiler 1993, 158-9). In other words, don’t try to dispense with your background as a musician. James Blood Ulmer reflects on his personal transformation upon studying harmolodics: “The harmolodic theory helped bring out things in me rather than change my artistic direction…What Ornette did show me in music was a special kind of freedom that allowed me to experience and project what I felt” (Litweiler 1993, 157).


Coleman’s personal choices and his choice of bandmates reflected a sincere commitment to this philosophy. Not only was he interested in, and capable of, collaborating with musicians across an astonishingly broad range of musical backgrounds, but he also found a compelling musical partner in his son, Denardo, who, at the beginning of their musical collaboration, had very little technical facility to speak of. Coleman started collaborating with him in professional engagements when he was a mere eight years old. One could dismiss the hiring of Denardo as simple nepotism, but he was clearly interested in how a child, who, just in terms of education and experience has less conditioning than an adult, could interact with his music. His interest in playing violin and trumpet also came out of an attempt to approach instruments with which he had less history and conditioning.


In Shirley Clarke’s documentary Ornette: Made in America, Coleman says in a conversation with Denardo:

 I was listening at the tape the other night, and the thing that really makes me….what really makes me want to play music is when I really hear an individual thought pattern placed in an environment to make something actually come about that is not an obvious thing that everyone is doing and umm actually it comes…you do more…I tell you the truth I think you do it much better than I do (Clarke 1984).

Given the fact that Coleman was more preoccupied with each bandmate’s relationship to the material at hand rather than the material itself helps explain why transcription, especially of his bandmates, is not an efficient manner of understanding his music. Sure, the principles are manifested in the music itself and have an impact on the content of it. Punk rock also has a specific sound, set of harmonic principles, motifs, etc. However, a musicologist would be barking up the wrong tree if they tried to understand punk by transcribing it. Another example: Cage’s Ryoanji. The piece is composed by forming glissandi based on the curvature and placement of rocks in a Japanese rock garden. Imagine trying to understand Cage’s intention or trying to figure out how it was made from a transcription of a single performance. Content does not always reveal how something was made. In all three cases you can’t reverse-engineer the music, no matter how hard you try. And, Coleman’s music resists this sort of analysis even more than Cage’s because each composition has manifold interpretations, based on who is involved and what the band is feeling that day. This is evident from the many versions of the same pieces recorded throughout his career.


Apart from that, Coleman himself was critical of notation because it suggested a tempered intonation. After traveling to Africa, he developed an interest in non-tempered instruments: those that did not have fixed harmonic or melodic intervals. He viewed this as a metaphor for the individuality of human beings. Coleman “believes that every human being has a ‘non-tempered’ psyche. As a result, he says, written music impedes natural expression” (Wilmer, 64). When Coleman traveled to Morocco, he found that the musicians he collaborated with there, the Master Musicians of Joujouka, did not use tempered scales but could still play a “unison.” In other words, the intonations of each instrument and the precise notes they played were different, but they were playing a unison, or expressing a unified voice. Amazingly, he also found space within their music for his own identity to flourish. The musicians had created a field that was open to the individual, but, nonetheless, the individualism did not cause a devolution into chaos. To Coleman this was an important principle—it is possible to make a music where the expression of the individual is essential to the whole. One can be individual at the same time as being part of the same “unison” (Litweiler 1993, 151).


While virtually every stylistic aspect of Coleman’s music changed throughout his career, from album to album, or even from piece to piece, the commitment to his principles of individuality, independent of style or method, remained strong throughout.


In the Sound Museum (1996) liner notes Coleman says, “All [sounds] are expressed as equal information for the players to compose improvise without any reference to a style which lies in the judgment of memory” (Coleman 1996). By the late 1960s a new scene was emerging in Britain (including players such as Evan Parker, Derek Bailey, AMM) that also attempted to eradicate idiom. They too were pursuing a music that did not reference a style, but with a very important difference: the individual was often subsumed for the sake of the group. Cornelius Cardew, an early member of the group AMM, summed this up in Towards An Ethic of Improvisation: “This proliferation of sound sources in such a confined space produced a situation where it was often impossible to tell who was producing which sounds—or rather which portions of the single room-filling deluge of sound” (Cardew 1971). It might not come as a surprise that such a philosophy of music would come from Cardew, who was a member of the Communist party. This distinction is crucial to understanding Coleman’s music—the individual, and the ability for the individual to express him or herself, is of paramount importance. Coleman’s groups always succeeded in this. Even in his larger bands—when Prime Time had seven members for instance—each voice in the band is distinct. Blending was not a concern. John Giordano, who conducted some of Coleman’s orchestral music, pointed out that even when working with large orchestras, Coleman encouraged the performers to express themselves on an individual level (Clarke 1984, 53:20). As I mentioned before, the middle of the 20th century was replete with new-sounding music and new ways of understanding music. Morton Feldman spoke of the death of a common practice: a “return to Babel” (Feldman 2000, 16). Each composer was creating his/her own language. However, Coleman’s music was unique insofar as there ceased to exist even a common practice within his band. Each member seemed to have a different approach to the material.


During this period, John Cage’s music moved towards erasing the identity of not only the performers but also that of the composer, by systematically distancing authorship from the aesthetic results of the composition through his use of chance operations. Cage might have liberated sounds, but he did not liberate people. In a critique of Cage’s work, George Lewis points out that an African-American might not be so quick to erase his history, identity, or liberty to choose, considering the centuries of forced silence and historical erasure he endured through slavery and racism in the last centuries (Lewis, 2002, 233). The music of Cage and that of Coleman have some similarities: Their philosophies allowed for a surprisingly wide range of sounds to emerge. This might have to do with their shared interest in distancing themselves from exerting direct control over their media. In Cage’s case the medium was noise. In Coleman’s case the media were individuals. While Cage emancipated noise, Coleman emancipated the individual.


In this way Ornette Coleman’s interest in individualism extended far beyond the bandstand. Harmolodics can be seen as a political and social philosophy as well. He says in the interview at Stadtgarten: “It is ideas that make civilization advance and if people aren’t trying to bring the kind of ideas that they have in their subconscious or their conscious to the surface no one will ever experience the advancement of how each person could grow because without ideas we’d all be lost. I believe that every human being should strive and try to get his ideas into the arena of survival. That’ll be good” (Coleman 1987).


Works Cited


Barenholtz, Ben. Music Inn. Produced by Naomi Bombardi-Wilson and George Schuller, year unknown.


Clarke, Shirley. Ornette: Made in America. Milestone Films, 1984.


Coleman, Ornette and Prime Time. Interview. Stadtgarten, Cologne, 1987.  Available online at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-p0xpvg3qFU


Coleman, Ornette. 1968. Most likely at Artists House in New York, NY. Rehearsal tape. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=39CMByFGkas


Coleman, Ornette. Beauty is a Rare Thing liner notes. Rhino Records R2 71410, 1993.


Coleman, Ornette. “Prime Time For Harmolodics.” In Down Beat, July 1983, pages 54-55.


Coleman, Ornette. Sound Museum: Three Women, liner notes. Harmolodic 541 657-2, 1996.


Feldman, Morton. “A Life without Bach and Beethoven,” from Give My Regards to Eighth Street. Cambridge, MA: Exact Change, 2000.


Frink, Nathan A. “Dancing in His Head: The Evolution of Ornette Coleman’s Music and Compositional Philosophy.” PhD Dissertation, University of Pittsburgh (Pennsylvania), 2016.


Iverson, Ethan. “In the Archives with George Schuller.” Available at https://ethaniverson.com/in-the-archives-with-george-schuller/, year unknown.


Lewis, George E. “Improvised Music After 1950: Afrological and Eurological Perspectives.” In Black Music Research Journal, Vol. 16, No. 1 (Spring 1996), 215-246.


Litweiler, John. Ornette Coleman: A Harmolodic Life. New York: William Morrow & Co., 1993.


Rush, Stephen. Free Jazz, Harmolodics, and Ornette Coleman. New York: Routledge, 2017.


Wilmer, Valerie. As Serious as Your Life: The story of the new jazz. Westport, Connecticut: Lawrence Hill & Company, 1980.