The ‘new wave’ is now at least six years old and the time has come to take stock. In the four articles of which this is the first, we shall attempt to do this, giving the bulk of our attention to solo and collective improvisation. There are two reasons for this emphasis. Firstly, jazz has always been advanced primarily by the improvisor, though it may not always be. Secondly, the idea of spontaneous creation, both in solos and in response to another’s playing, is the greatest contribution jazz has made to Western music.
‘People have forgotten how beautiful it is to be natural, even in love.’
When bop was born, the jazz musician began to reflect more upon his playing, to study more, to enlarge his vocabulary as a soloist and to think more about group improvisation. Since that time, development in these directions has been continuous, though in the last few years there has been a second period of exceptional progress. Many musicians have taken part, but Ornette Coleman has pre-eminence, both historically
He was born in 1930, into a working class family in Fort Worth, Texas. He began playing alto and tenor saxophones during his adolescence and was almost entirely self-taught. Since then, he has struggled to work as a musician, and until he made his first record in 1958, he was virtually unknown. In 1959, he took his group from Los Angeles to New York for an extended engagement at the Five Spot club, where he made his first impact upon the jazz world. He has continued to live in New York, working only intermittently.
Before he formed his quartet, Coleman had met few musicians who understood and sympathized with what he was trying to do, and had spent most of his time playing in rhythm-and-blues bands. Thus, he had neither an academic training nor extensive experience with the jazz establishment, and he appeared as a naïve and largely intuitive innovator with remarkable strengths and undeniable weaknesses.
Coleman thinks of his music in terms of spontaneity, naturalness, freedom, self-expression and communication. He feels that musical theory is only the means by which these ends are achieved, and that many jazz musicians have become far too involved in the mechanics of making music, forgetting the important things. ‘Let’s try and play the music’, he has said, ‘not the background’.
For Coleman, rhythmically organized melody is the actualization of music, while harmony is the background, of secondary importance. As a soloist, he rejects the idea that extemporization must always relate to the chords on which the theme is based, feeling that he should be free to play any note in any context. Harmonic improvisation has been the standard practice since bop, and most musicians have brought overall cohesiveness to their work in this way. Coleman feels that it limits his choice of notes too much. His method has since been termed ‘pantonality’, distinguished from ‘atonality’ in that rules of harmonic and melodic serialization are not observed.