Saturday, 21 November 2009

Ornette Coleman and The Battle of The Five Spot

On 17th November 1959, 29 year-old Ornette Coleman began a 2 week residency at the Five Spot jazz Club in New York that shook the jazz world. In what became known as 'The Battle of the Five Spot', Coleman and his quartet threw down a free-jazz gauntlet to the then jazz establishment and brought the avant garde to jazz.

Given that surrealism and abstract expressionism had already found their way into painting and that modernism and atonality had already found its way into classical music, what is surprising is that it had taken so long for the avant garde to reach jazz.

1959 was an extraordinary year for jazz with Coltrane, Brubeck, Miles Davis and Mingus all releasing ground-breaking albums within 12 months of each other. But it's Coleman's Five Spot gigs and the release of his provocatively entitled album 'The Shape of Jazz to Come' that turned the jazz world on its head.

In 1959 the New York 'jazz establishment', led by Miles Davis, the Modern Jazz Quartet, Dizzie Gillespie, Thelonius Monk, Dave Brubeck and others had taken jazz music as close to the mainstream as it had ever been. In 'Kind of Blue' Miles Davis had crystallized the achievements of the new, post-bebob wave of composers and improvisers and produced an album that was both technically ground-breaking but accessible and pleasant to listen to.

Miles Davis had served his apprenticeship playing as a sideman for Charlie Parker [seen here on stage with him] and other distinguished band leaders. He was conservatory trained, he had risen through the ranks and been accepted by and risen to the top of the New York jazz scene in 1959 when he released his seminal album. The album itself featured possibly the greatest line-up (the famed septet) ever in the history of jazz including Coltrane, Adderley, Bill Evans and others.

All in all, it's hard to escape the idea that jazz in November 1959 was feeling a little pleased with itself - it was organised, it had become a respected art form and its leading proponents were hip, chic and for the most part black - their success achieved in the face of the endemic racism still prevalent in the US at that time.

When Coleman blew in from Los Angeles, self-taught, a self-appointed leader paying none of dues expected of a new talent arriving in New York and categorically dismissive of the measured strictures of the modal jazz that Davis had perfected, it's little wonder that his anarchic improvisational style rattled so many cages and attracted the attention of the media in equal measure.

Coleman was born in Fort Worth Texas in 1930 and his early musical career, right up to November 1959 in fact, was characterized by rejection and even outrage. He became deeply unpopular in all but a few of the jazz clubs of his adopted home of Los Angeles because when he would 'sit in' (as was the custom) with established musicians playing at jazz clubs the other musicians would frequently walk off the stage and audiences clear the room.

He was beaten up outside an LA club and his saxophone smashed up. He was so broke that all he could afford was a white plastic sax to replace it - he persevered with the instrument even when he achieved success and it became one of his trademarks.

It was his apparently structure-less improvisations and atonal sound that caused such outrage. Apart from brief melodic introductions ('heads') and their occasional reprise Coleman relied on instinct and intuition to guide his improvised breaks. There was no reference to chord or scale sequences, he and his band just went where their musical instincts took them - the song was over when Coleman signalled that it was time to reprise the melody.

His residency at the Five Spot in East Village in November 1959 brought this new sound to the attention of everyone who mattered in jazz – musicians and critics alike – and to the achingly hip and happening in-crowd that made Grenwich Village their home in the late fifties – be it Norman Mailer or James Baldwin, Miles Davis or Leonard Bernstein – everyone who mattered was there.

Coleman did have powerful friends. In Los Angeles he had been discovered by Paul Bley and by John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet, himself at the height of his influence and fame. New York Times critic Martin Williams persuaded the Termini Brothers to book Coleman at their Five Spot Club which they had brought to prominence as New York’s hippest Jazz club during the course of the 50’s.

Part of the reason for the Joe and Iggy Termini's [shown here tending bar at the Five Spot] success was that they allowed stars to perform there who had lost their cabaret licenses because of drug convictions so that Billie Holiday and Thelonius Monk were regulars in the late fifties in spite of a ban imposed by the authorities. Monk apparently never used drugs but took a bust for a friend when their car was stopped by the police - it was his subsequent seven month residency at the Five Spot that cemented both his and the clubs positions at the heart of the New York jazz scene.

The word-of-mouth, illicit nature of many of the gigs at the Five Spot only added to its cachet and it is entirely fitting that it should have been the venue for one of the most daring and outrageous new sounds in jazz for a while.

Coleman’s quartet (Coleman on alto sax, Don Cherry on trumpet [shown here on stage at the Five Spot in 1959], Charlie Haden on bass and Billie Higgins on drums) was initially booked for a two week residency. This meant playing two sets a night and alternating with another band, in this case the 'Jazztet'.

Coleman’s playing created instantaneous controversy. Miles Davis, Red Garland and Coleman Hawkins were initially openly hostile to Coleman. Dizzie Gillespie said 'I don't know what he's playing but it's not jazz'. Davis' comments, 'the man is all screwed up inside', were the ones that the press picked up on but drummer Max Roach took his outrage far enough to follow Coleman backstage one night and punch him in the mouth.

The Termini Brothers knew when they were onto a good thing. The initial two-week engagement was extended to ten weeks to the end of January 1960. In April 1960 the quartet came back for a second residency that lasted four months.

The press couldn't get enough of the controversy that Coleman was causing. Time Magazine caught the excitement caused by the controversy in a review a week after the gigs started. The general feeling was that while everything that had come before had been felt to be cutting edge, modern, progressive and hip, Coleman's first set at the Five Spot made it all sound like lift music.

John Lewis (of the Modern Jazz Quartet) persuaded Atlantic Records– one of the pre-eminent jazz record labels of the era – to offer Coleman a recording deal which resulted in the release of three hugely influential albums in quick succession – 'The Shape of Jazz to Come', ‘'Change of the Century' and 'Free Jazz' - all three part of the extraordinary outpouring of landmark jazz recordings of 1959/1960.

It didn't take long for the musical establishment that had been so hostile to Coleman to come round - most of his critics ended up accepting, praising and even playing with Coleman over the subsequent months and years. His acceptance came partly through the recognition that Coleman was both deadly serious about his music and also very knowledgeable about and respectful of the music of his peers. Many were disarmed by his effusive praise of them and their work.

In his Downbeat Magazine Blindfold Test in 1960, Charlie Mingus, unpromted, had this to say about Coleman:
Now aside from the fact that I doubt he can even play a C scale in whole notes—tied whole notes, a couple of bars apiece—in tune, the fact remains that his notes and lines are so fresh. So when [the jazz dj] Symphony Sid played his record, it made everything else he was playing, even my own record that he played, sound terrible.

Coleman's career went on and continues to be rich and varied. He dropped out for a while in the sixties to learn violin and trumpet. He composed vast orchestral works and was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 2007. As for The Five Spot, it's notoriety and influence peaked in 59/60, the Coleman residency ranking alongside Monk's epic 1957 engagement as the highest points of the clubs fame.

The Coleman stint at the Five Spot was obliquely featured in Thomas Pynchon's novel 'V' - Pynchon geeks seemingly in agreement that the character McClintic Sphere, though taking Thelonius Sphere Monk's middle name, is in fact Ornette Coleman with his 'ivory carved sax' and the events described in the novel being the 'Battle of the Five Spot'

The long term impact of Coleman's breaking open of the jazz world in 1959 was that jazz once again became a dangerous, revolutionary and subversive art form which required a certain commitment to follow where before it had been drifting towards a cosy relationship with the mainstream where it ran the risk of being neutered.

The reaction to Coleman in 1959 is reminiscent of the reaction to the punk explosion of 1976. Then, the rock and roll old-guard - The Who, The Stones and of course the prog rockers - despaired at the apparent lack of musical skills of many punk bands - they missed the point. Punk smashed to pieces the smug, self-satisfied middle class club of main stream rock and brought music back to the counter culture. Coleman did the same, only unlike the Sex Pistols, he really could play as well.

My Top 5 Ornette Coleman tracks from '59/'60

Tomorrow is The Question!
Una Muy Bonita
Lonely Woman


The most comprehensive account of this episode is by David Lee - 'The Battle of the Five Spot: Ornette Coleman and the New York jazz Field'. In the book, adapted from his masters dissertation, he replays the events that unfolded at the Five Spot in 1959/60 and analyses them with reference to the 'cultural field' theories of French Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. As a jazz fan you can skip those bits and just read about the fun stuff ...

Other Reading

John Litweiler - 'Ornette Coleman: The Harmolodic Life'



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