Coleman, Cafeterias, and Choirs

orig_Ornette_Coleman_01Ornette Coleman died today.

I don’t have any idea how resonant his death is in American culture. I don’t know what pictures the words “Ornette Coleman” conjures up in your mind, if any. But I hope to add a little to that picture.

In 1959, Coleman released The Shape of Jazz to Come.[fn1] 


SHape of JazzSometime in the 1990s, I bought the album. I don’t really remember much about it, except that I didn’t really love it. I don’t know if it was Coleman’s harsh tone, the surface-level cacaphony coming from my speakers, or that I just didn’t understand what he was doing. I probably listened to the first couple songs, put the album back (in alphabetical order, of course) with my other CDs, and didn’t listen to it again.


The Shape of Jazz to Come introduced free jazz to the world. Until its release, bebop was the dominant (and, some believed, the quintessential) style of jazz. Bebop was characterized by its fast tempos, and its intricate harmonic structure; the chords (over which musicians played the head and then improvised) generally changed every two beats or so, and inventive players found ways to play both within and without the chordal structure.

Coleman dropped the chords. Perhaps hyperebolically, he once said, “If I’m going to follow a preset chord sequence, I may as well write out my solo.”

So when he composed, he just wrote a melody, and then the band improvised together. Mostly, he played in quartets without a piano, so there was quite literally no harmonic base—instead, he had drums, bass, trumpet, and he played the alto sax. The players listened to each other, reacted to what the others played, but ultimately, played whatever they heard.


A few years ago, I gave Coleman another listen, and I was blown away. I hadn’t originally noticed how melodically he played. While you never knew what direction he would go, his improvisations always made sense in retrospect. There’s an excitement to his playing, a tightrope being walked simultaneously by four or more people. There is always a real risk that they won’t pull off what they’re trying to do, and that risk heightens the reward when they do, in fact pull it off.[fn2]

His innovations have become fundamental to almost everything I listen to—while not all contemporary jazz derives from Coleman’s inventions, most avant-garde jazz does. So thank goodness for Ornette Coleman, and thank goodness for free jazz.


So why post about Ornette Coleman on a Mormon blog? Mostly, because I love his music. But also because the rest of this post has been swimming through my head for the last couple years, and it’s time to get it out.

Cafeteria remodelWe have a number of metaphors for the way we practice our religion, and how we pick what to emphasize. The most common is the cafeteria[fn3]—we go through and pick and choose what parts we follow and what parts we discard. As Patrick Mason points out, that picking and choosing is a necessary part of religion, because all religion—including ours—is “internally plural.”

choirRosalynde Welch responded with an alternative metaphor, one that does away with the pejorative implications of religious cafeterias and that has a deep Mormon resonance: a choir. Choral arrangements are built around harmony, both literally and, in her telling, figuratively: singing in God’s choir allows us to be in harmony with our fellow-saints. Her choir is not limited—it’s a choir of 10,000 voices, replicating all of the timbers and dialects with which God speaks.

I love Rosalynde’s metaphor, while, at the same time, I find myself pushing back a little. In part it’s because I don’t love choral music, and in part it’s because I find it—even with its 10,000 parts—too restrictive. My preferred metaphor is the free jazz ensemble.

See, in a choir, you sing the music that is written.[fn4] And I’m not convinced that our lives are written. Instead, I believe that we’re improvising as we go along.

Improvisation—even free jaz improvisation—doesn’t mean we can do whatever we want. What it does mean is it is our job, as the players, to listen to everyone around us, to figure out what they’re doing, and how we fit in. While there is no tight structure, there is a loose structure, and we’re responsible for making sure that the what we create makes sense.

We each pick and choose what notes and rhythms and timbre we’re going to use, and those notes and rhythms and timbres we choose tonight may well differ from the ones chosen by our coreligionists (and, in fact, to make the performance interesting, they should differ). But we all ultimately draw from the same palate of notes.

The music of our free jazz lives and religion isn’t always easy to listen to. It can be dissonant—tremendously so, even—and sometimes what we try doesn’t work. But there’s always tomorrow night, another chance to try to play with and against each other, to try to walk the tightrope and create something collectively that’s greater than what we could have created individually.

N.b.: If you haven’t listened to it, you really should try The Shape of Jazz to Come.

Cross-posted, in a different form, to What We Pay for Civilized Society.

[fn1] As an aside, 1959 was a really good year for jazz albums.

[fn2] In fact, this is a wonderful guide to understanding and appreciating Coleman’s music.

[fn3] A metaphor we imported from Catholicism, though the alliteration makes it works better there. (Seriously, the sound of “Cafeteria Mormon” lacks that je ne sais quoi of “Cafeteria Catholic.”)

[fn4] Or, at least, that’s what I did when I was in my high school choir, and in the various ward choirs I sang in at BYU.


  1. I did not expect an Ornette tribute on a Mormon blog, even BCC, so this is a delightful surprise. Thank you for posting this.

  2. Jason K. says:

    Awesome, Sam. I do love choral music (obviously), but like you I’ve long believed that life involves improvisation. Perhaps it’s worth saying that good improvisation takes a lot of practice. If an album like The Shape of Jazz to Come (and I love the chutzpah of the title) is going to sound like something other than a bunch of middle schoolers caterwauling, the musicians involved need to have invested a lot of time expanding and refining the musical language their improvisations can draw upon and also learning how to listen extremely carefully in real time to what their fellow musicians are doing. I think that the Mormon emphasis on education–learning out of the best books–covers the first, because the more supple our understanding of the world around us, the more able we’ll be of adding something beautiful to the ongoing music of our church community. The persistent scriptural calls to charity cover the second. If we’re not listening closely to the music the people around us are playing, our own contribution, no matter how lovely it sounded in the practice room, will be clanging cymbals and tinkling brass.

  3. John Mansfield says:

    How about “Smorgasbord Mormon”? It works phonetically, Scandinavian like the current church president, and suggestive of a bit of overeating.

  4. I love the idea of Free Jazz Mormons, including or especially with Jason’s gloss. But of course this is a radical dangerous idea, as jazz itself. How many will hear “surface-level cacaphony”? And reject it?

  5. Jason K. says:

    I think that Free Jazz is actually a pretty solid way of thinking about Paul’s ecclesiology in 1 Cor. 12-14. We tend to miss how radical his vision in those chapters is, and I for one am not terribly surprised that something more hierarchical than what he was talking about emerged in fairly short order.

  6. jazz=emperor’s new clothes

  7. I forgot that Coleman preceded John Coltrane in the Free Jazz movement by a couple of years. But more to the point, free improvisation is always based on superb musicianship and mastery of standard musical forms. So for me, the connection with “Cafeteria Mormonism” can either be a good or a bad thing, depending on where you are in your spiritual development, If you’ve got the basics down, then speculative theology and learning to look at scriptures in new and different ways can enrich our spirituality and take us in new directions, but all founded on that “sure foundation, a foundation whereon if men build they cannot fall.” (Hel 5:12) Nice post, and great way to tie Coleman and Mormonism together.

  8. Amen! I also picked up my first Ornette CD in the ’90s (Song X” with Pat Metheny) and had a similar reaction. It’s ironic that now 25 years later whenever I teach improv to students, free jazz is a critical part of the instruction. It is foundational. It dims their fears of mistakes and inspires them to new sounds and new ways of listening closer to others they play with.

    I love your likening true religion to free jazz.

  9. Thanks everyone!

  10. With some exceptions (the Bad Plus’s occasional foray and the dabbling you see in late Mingus and Coltrane), I don’t like free jazz generally. Yet, I love “The Shape of Jazz to Come.” Because I am vain and would prefer not to consider the possibility that these preferences are the result of musical sophistication deficit, I have concluded from these two foregoing facts that free jazz has enormous potential, but in reality, it’s only really great in the hands of a master like Coleman. How then should I view the metaphor of free jazz Mormons?

  11. J. Stapley says:

    zgubler, that sounds not unlike Zion.

    Solid stuff, Sam. Thanks.

  12. Thanks, J. I think that’s entirely right: if we use free jazz as our metaphor, it leaves us as individuals with a tremendous responsibility to figure out how to practice our religion in a way that’s sympatico with our coreligionists. Our lives together create a musical tapestry, and we have to interact with our friends in a way that makes it work.

    The reason I like it better than the idea of the cafeteria is that, in free jazz, our choices affect our neighbors, and we need to take into account what they’re doing. And the reason I like it better than the choir is that it recognizes that we’re not working on a strict script. Like those metaphors (and, for that matter, any other, it breaks down at some point. But in the meantime, I find it a useful way to think about the way I live within Mormonism.

  13. deacon blues says:

    God bless Ornette, Bird, Duke, Satchmo, Beethoven, Henry David Thoreau, and all others who march to the beat of a different drummer. Remember, He is the God of the living, not the dead.

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