How Ornette Coleman Freed Jazz with His Theory of Harmolodics

The term free jazz may have exist­ed before Ornette Cole­man’s The Shape of Jazz to Come arrived in 1959. Yet, how­ev­er inno­v­a­tive the modal exper­i­ments of Coltrane or Davis, jazz still adhered to its most fun­da­men­tal for­mu­las before Cole­man. “Con­ven­tion­al jazz har­mo­ny is reli­gious­ly chord-based,” writes Josephine Liv­ing­stone at New Repub­lic, “with soloists impro­vis­ing with­in each key like balls ping­ing through a pin­ball machine. Cole­man, in con­trast, imag­ined har­mo­ny, melody, and rhythm as equal con­stituents.”

This phi­los­o­phy, jazz crit­ic Mar­tin Williams wrote upon hear­ing Coleman’s debut, was nec­es­sary to free jazz from its for­mal con­straints. “Some­one had to break through the walls that those har­monies have built and restore melody.” Melody was every­thing to Coleman—even drum­mers can play like melod­ic instru­men­tal­ists. In a 1987 inter­view, he described how Ed Black­well “plays the drums as if he’s play­ing a wind instru­ment. Actu­al­ly, he sounds more like a talk­ing drum. He’s speak­ing a cer­tain lan­guage that I find is very valid in rhythm instru­ments.”

Cole­man con­nect­ed his musi­cal the­o­ry back to the ori­gins of rhyth­mic music: “the drums, in the begin­ning, used to be like the telephone—to car­ry the mes­sage.” Inter­view­er Michael Jar­rett ven­tures that Coleman’s ensem­ble record­ings are more like a “par­ty line,” to which the sax­o­phon­ist agrees. Music, he believed, was a rad­i­cal­ly democratic—“beyond democratic”—form of com­mu­ni­ca­tion. “If you decid­ed to go out today and get you an instru­ment,” he says, “and do what­ev­er it is that you do, no one can tell you how you’re going to do it but when you do it.”

This approach seemed irre­spon­si­ble to many of Coleman’s peers. Alto sax­o­phon­ist Jack­ie McLean described the gen­er­al reac­tion as “spend[ing] your whole life mak­ing a three-piece suit that’s incred­i­ble, and this guy comes along with a jump­suit, and peo­ple find that it’s eas­i­er to step into a jump­suit than to put on three pieces.” Col­lec­tive impro­vi­sa­tion, how­ev­er, can­not in any way be described as “easy,” and Cole­man was a bril­liant play­er who could do it all.

“I could play and sound like Char­lie Park­er note-for-note,” he has said, “but I was only play­ing it from method. So I tried to fig­ure out where to go from there,” Loos­en­ing the con­stric­tions did not mean that Cole­man lacked “req­ui­site vir­tu­os­i­ty,” as Maria Golia writes in a new Cole­man biog­ra­phy. Instead, he “pro­posed an alter­na­tive means for its expres­sion.” (In Thomas Pynchon’s V, a char­ac­ter says of a Cole­man-like sax­o­phon­ist, “he plays all the notes Bird missed.”) This emerged in exper­i­men­tal impro­vi­sa­tions like 1961’s land­mark Free Jazz, an album that “prac­ti­cal­ly defies superla­tives in its his­tor­i­cal impor­tance,” Steve Huey writes at All­mu­sic.

The album fea­tures play­ers like Black­well, Don Cher­ry, and Eric Dol­phy in a “dou­ble-quar­tet for­mat,” with two rhythm sec­tions play­ing simul­ta­ne­ous­ly, one on the right stereo chan­nel, one on the left. Com­posed on the spot, “there was no road map for this kind of record­ing.” But there was a the­o­ry that held it all togeth­er. Cole­man even­tu­al­ly called the the­o­ry “Har­molod­ics,” a word that sums up his ideas about the equal­i­ty of rhythm, har­mo­ny, and melody—a com­po­si­tion­al method that freed jazz from its depen­dence on Euro­pean forms and returned it, in a way, to its roots in a call-and-response tra­di­tion.

Cole­man described his long-sim­mer­ing ideas in a 1983 man­i­festo titled “Prime Time for Har­molod­ics.” The title ref­er­ences the band, Prime Time, he formed in 1975 that fea­tured two bassists, two gui­tarists, and—like his ensem­ble on Free Jazz, or like the Grate­ful Dead—two drum­mers. Jer­ry Gar­cia joined the band for its 1988 album Vir­gin Beau­ty, expand­ing Coleman’s fanbase—already sig­nif­i­cant in var­i­ous rock circles—to Dead­heads. (See Prime Time in Ger­many in 1981 below.) Har­molod­ic play­ing could be dis­so­nant, aton­al, and cacoph­o­nous, and it could be sub­lime, often in the same moment.

Simul­tane­ity, rad­i­cal democ­ra­cy, inti­mate communication—these were the prin­ci­ples of “uni­son” that Cole­man found essen­tial to his impro­vi­sa­tions.

Ques­tion: “Where can/will I find a play­er who can read (or not read) who can play their instru­ment to their own sat­is­fac­tion and accept the chal­lenge of the music envi­ron­ment?” For Har­molod­ic Democ­ra­cy — the play­er would need the free­dom to express what Har­molod­ic infor­ma­tion they found to work in com­posed music. There is always a rhythm — melody — har­mo­ny con­cept. All ideas have lead res­o­lu­tions. Each play­er can choose any of the con­nec­tions from the com­posers work for their per­son­al expres­sion, etc. Prime Time is not a jazz, clas­si­cal, rock or blues ensem­ble. It is pure Har­molod­ic where all forms that can, or could exist yes­ter­day, today, or tomor­row can exist in the now or moment with­out a sec­ond.

In har­molod­ic impro­vi­sa­tion musi­cians con­tribute equal­ly on their own terms, Cole­man believed. “From Ornet­te’s point of view,” writes Robert Palmer in lin­er notes to the Com­plete Atlantic Record­ings, “each con­tri­bu­tion is equal­ly essen­tial to the whole. One tends to hear the horn play­er as a soloist, backed by a rhythm sec­tion, but this is not Cole­man’s per­spec­tive. ‘In the music we play,’ he said of the per­for­mances col­lect­ed in this box, ‘no one play­er has the lead. Any­one can come out with it at any time.’ ” Jer­ry Gar­cia remem­bers feel­ing con­fused when first record­ing with the sax­o­phon­ist. “Final­ly,” says Gar­cia, “he said, ‘Oh, just go ahead and play, man.’ And I thought, ‘Oh, I get it now.’”

But of course, Gar­cia was the kind of musi­cian who could “just go ahead and play.” This was the essen­tial ele­ment, and it was here, per­haps, that Cole­man dif­fered least from his fel­low jazz artists—in his sense of hav­ing just the right ensem­ble. “You real­ly have to have play­ers with you who will allow your instincts to flour­ish in such a way that they will make the same order as if you had sat down and writ­ten a piece of music,” he writes. “To me, that is the most glo­ri­fied goal of the impro­vis­ing qual­i­ty of play­ing – to be able to do that.”

In “har­molod­ic democ­ra­cy” no one ever takes the lead, or not for long, and there are no “side­men.” Rather than fol­low­ing a chord chart or band­leader, the musi­cians must all lis­ten close­ly to each oth­er. Con­ven­tion­al riffs and pro­gres­sions pop up, only to veer wild­ly in unex­pect­ed direc­tions. “Its clear that [har­molod­ics] is based on tak­ing motifs,” says avant-garde gui­tarist Marc Ribot, “and free­ing it up to become poly­ton­al, melod­i­cal­ly and rhyth­mi­cal­ly.” Rather than aban­don­ing form, Cole­man invent­ed new ways to com­pose and new ways, he wrote, to play.

I was out at Mar­garet Mead­’s school and was teach­ing some kids how to play instant­ly. I asked the ques­tion, ‘How many kids would like to play music and have fun?’ And all the lit­tle kids raised up their hands. And I asked,‘Well, how do you do that?’ And one lit­tle girl said, ‘You just apply your feel­ings to sound.’ She was right — if you apply your feel­ings to sound, regard­less of what instru­ment you have, you’ll prob­a­bly make good music.

Cole­man formed a label called Har­molod­ic in 1995 with his son and drum­mer Denar­do. In 2005, he record­ed the live album Sound Gram­mar in Ger­many, which would go on to win a Pulitzer Prize two years lat­er. The record became the first release on his new label, also called Sound Gram­mar, and rep­re­sent­ed a refine­ment of the har­molod­ic the­o­ry, now called “sound gram­mar,” in which Cole­man re-empha­sizes the impor­tance of music as the ur-form of human com­mu­ni­ca­tion. “Music,” he says, “is a lan­guage of sounds that trans­forms all human lan­guages.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How Ornette Cole­man Shaped the Jazz World: An Intro­duc­tion to His Irrev­er­ent Sound

Philoso­pher Jacques Der­ri­da Inter­views Jazz Leg­end Ornette Cole­man: Talk Impro­vi­sa­tion, Lan­guage & Racism (1997)

When Jazz Leg­end Ornette Cole­man Joined the Grate­ful Dead Onstage for Some Epic Impro­vi­sa­tion­al Jams: Hear a 1993 Record­ing

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness.

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    Nice arti­cle. One point — the music on Free Jazz does in fact have a road map. A tut­ti theme punc­tu­ates four episodes high­light­ing duets between Ornette and Dol­phy, Don Cher­ry and Fred­die Hub­bard, Char­lie Haden and Scot LaFaro and Bil­ly Hig­gins withEd­ward Black­well. That struc­ture is evi­dent in the short­er ver­sion of “ Free Jazz,”entitled “First Take.” ( I’m author Miles Ornette Cecil — Jazz Beyond Jazz, Rout­ledge 2008)

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