Ornette Coleman in Paris, 1966: An “ironic essay in dignity in the face of insanity”

By on June 14, 2015

The celebrated career of Ornette Coleman — the legendary alto saxophonist and composer died on this past Thursday, on June 10, 2015, age 85 — went through many phases over the decades, and he often would drop out of public performances and woodshed from time to time, but when this short documentary, The Ornette Coleman Trio, was being shot in Paris in 1966, he was actually making one of his periodic comebacks, after having stepped away from the music business for a few years.

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The Ornette Coleman Trio is a wonderful document from that era, and we’re lucky to have it, showing Coleman — who was one of the most powerful and contentious innovators in the history of jazz — and his group (David Izenzon, bass, and Charles Moffett, drums ) recording the soundtrack music for the Belgium film, Who’s Crazy?, directed by Richard “Dick” Fontaine. This short Belgian-made documentary film was made in three days and offers a portrait of the trio that becomes an “ironic essay in dignity in the face of insanity.”

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Just a few years before this documentary film footage was shot, Coleman had retreated from performance and separated himself from New York’s emerging free-jazz scene, of which he was without a doubt one of the leaders of the movement, taking jazz in entirely new directions.

Coleman’s free jazz style — which was often non-melodic and played at such a rapid tempo with such quickly maneuvering improvisation that musicians walked off the stage in defiance when he played, and some destroyed his instruments, while others actually physically attacked and beat him — made him something of a jazz pariah. Along with fellow avant-garde jazz pioneer, pianist Cecil Taylor, he received a lot of harsh criticism along, but neither of them bent under the pressure to conform.

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When he decided to come back into the public eye, he revealed that he’d become interested in classical music; in 1965, at the Village Vanguard jazz club, he was playing trumpet and violin as well as alto saxophone.

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“The Empty Fox Hole” session, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, September 9, 1966 (photo by Francis Wolff)

Coleman would disappear again, in just a few short years after this film was shot, and the years between his final Blue Note sessions of April-May 1968 and the comeback release of Science Fiction, on Columbia in 1972, still remain shrouded in mystery and obscurity, often called his “hidden years.”

As far as film footage goes, nothing seems to have been recorded of his pre-1959 work, and footage is so scarce as to be non-existent, but there’s a lot of different film shot during his run of records for the Atlantic label, when he produced some of the most incredible works in the history of jazz recordings, with classics like The Shape of Jazz to Come, Change of the Century and This Is Our Music.

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Ornette Coleman, William S. Burroughs, and Buckminster Fuller (left to right)

In 1984, director Shirley Clarke released her documentary Ornette: Made In America, which captured Ornette’s evolution over the previous three decades. It’s comprised of documentary footage, dramatic scenes, and some of the first music video-style segments ever made. We also see his boyhood chronicled in segregated Texas and his subsequent emergence as an American cultural pioneer and world-class icon. Coleman is shown returning home to Fort Worth, Texas in 1983 as a famed performer and composer.

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Among those who contribute to the film include William S. Burroughs, Brion Gysin, Buckminster Fuller, Don Cherry, Yoko Ono, Charlie Haden, Robert Palmer, Jayne Cortez and John Rockwell.

Clarke’s work was largely unavailable for years, but the Milestone DVD company restored her films and released them on DVD and blu-Ray, including Ornette: Made In America.

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NPR‘s obit this week called him “an American icon and iconoclast — a self-taught musician born poor and fatherless in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1930, who went on to win the Pulitzer Prize, the Japanese Praemium Imperiale, two Guggenheims, a MacArthur, honorary doctorates and a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master honor,” adding that he “faced rejection and even assault for an unorthodox, free style built on Texas blues. He wound up in Los Angeles, working as an elevator operator and trying to get a hearing in jam sessions. He finally made his first recording as a leader in 1958, Something Else. Some praised Coleman for returning jazz to the kind of collective improvisation its earliest players used. Others heard only cacophony.”

The New York Times said:  “Mr. Coleman widened the options in jazz and helped change its course. Partly through his example in the late 1950s and early ’60s, jazz became less beholden to the rules of harmony and rhythm while gaining more distance from the American songbook repertoire.” (You can read his New York Times obit here. )

There’s just too much to say about Ornette Coleman to fit in one blog, seriously. He changed jazz, that’s about as succinct as you can be about his contributions to the genre: there’s pre-Ornette Coleman, and post-Ornette Coleman. Period.

R.I.P., Ornette Coleman, Night Flight salutes you.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.