Ornette 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]
Sometime 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.
We 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.”
Rosalynde 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.