“Ornette at Prince Street”: A Glimpse from the Archives
by Brent Hayes Edwards and Katherine Whatley
Ed Blackwell, Dewey Redman, Ornette Coleman, Charlie Haden, May 1971.
©Val Wilmer/CTSIMAGES. All rights reserved.
Despite the significance of the six years Ornette Coleman spent at 131 Prince Street, the history of his SoHo period remains surprisingly murky. Even the major Coleman biographies offer very little in the way of documentation of the loft Ornette came to call Artist House, whether with regard to the dates the space was active, the range of concerts and events held there, or its links to the burgeoning downtown arts scene or to the emergence of “loft jazz” in musician-controlled venues scattered across lower Manhattan in the mid-1970s.1 There is even widespread confusion about the seemingly simple matter of what Ornette called his performance space, with the name often garbled in a rustle of near approximations: “Artist’s House,” “Artists’ House,” “Artists House.”
There was some sporadic coverage of the goings-on at 131 Prince in New York newspapers, above all in the Village Voice. But as with other “lofts” including Ali’s Alley, Studio Rivbea, the Ladies Fort, Studio We, and Environ, some of the most thorough coverage is to be found in the foreign jazz press, especially from Western Europe and Japan. The lavishly illustrated article translated below is a tantalizing depiction of Ornette’s space that may be one of the first journalistic accounts of 131 Prince Street in any language.
“Ornette at Prince Street” was published in the October 1969 issue of Swing Journal in Tokyo. Indeed, the author of the article, Kiyoshi Koyama, served as the editor-in-chief of the periodical from 1967-1981 (and then again from 1990-1993). Swing Journal is a particularly rich source of information about jazz in downtown New York in the 1970s in part because Koyama himself visited the city nearly every year. As a journalist, Koyama explained recently, “My style is to meet a musician and see his home, and find out how they live. That shows me another side of the musician. That’s interesting to me. That’s why I visited Ornette’s place, too. You can find a different side of a musician from the one on stage.” The men had met in October 1967 when Coleman performed in Japan for the first time. After the concert, Koyama invited Ornette over to his tiny apartment and introduced him to sushi (Ornette said “he liked it, but he didn’t like the black seaweed,” Koyama recalls with some amusement).2
Though brief, the article provides a number of invaluable details regarding 131 Prince Street. As Koyama reports, Ornette had acquired the space in April 1968 and undertook major renovations, which were still underway the following summer when Koyama visited. In fact, Coleman bought shares in the co-op that purchased the seven-story building giving him rights to not one but two floors, each of them a cavernous 3500-square-foot open space only divided by six thick wood pillars. “Originally,” as Barry McRae has noted, Ornette “took the second and third floors of the building but later agreed to take over the first (ground) floor for his own work.”3 Koyama had the opportunity both to observe a rehearsal of Coleman’s group in the unfinished ground-floor space and to go up to the living space in the third-floor loft.
As Koyama recounts, he visited 131 Prince only a few days after the Impulse! Records recording session for one of the great rarities of the Ornette Coleman discography, a single released only in Europe that included the tracks “Man on the Moon” and “Growing Up.” Interestingly, this record — recorded on July 7, 1969, and apparently made in anticipation of the Apollo 11 moonshot, which was scheduled to launch a few days later on July 164 — is itself something of an artifact of 131 Prince, since it captured the collaboration between Coleman and the other composer in the building, Emmanuel Ghent, who lived with his wife Natasha and their three daughters on the fifth floor. A French Canadian composer as well as a practicing psychoanalyst, Ghent became known in the 1960s for a series of chamber works using multi-tempo rhythmic relationships among the players (he invented a device called the “coordinome,” which transmitted a separate metronome click track through earphones to each of the performers so that they could play in different tempi). With the assistance of a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1967 — coincidentally the same year Coleman was awarded the first Guggenheim for jazz composition — Ghent started working at the Columbia Princeton Electronic Music Center and then, in 1969, began a ten-year residency at the electronic music studio of Bell Telephone Laboratories. His work at Bell took advantage of their groundbreaking GROOVE Computer System, which was designed to allow real-time control over both musical and lighting effects.5
According to the session records filed with the American Federation of Musicians, on July 7 Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry, Dewey Redman, Charlie Haden and Ed Blackwell recorded two tracks at Town Sound Studios in Englewood, New Jersey, working with audio engineer Orville O’Brien. On one of the tracks, “Man on the Moon,” Ornette’s quintet plays against the backdrop of a pre-recorded selection of electronic music made by Ghent,6 and Coleman takes a long solo feature in the middle section of the tune. As Ben Young has observed, “Man on the Moon” is notable first of all because it features an extended ensemble improvisation at the close of the track (indeed, the tune contains as much tutti improvisation as any Coleman recording since the double quartet of the classic 1960 LP Free Jazz).7 The record may have been simply an occasional piece, or it may have served as a promotional tool for Ornette at 12, the full-length album Impulse! released about the same time.8
Here is the text of Koyama’s article in full:
Although Koyama writes that the third-floor space was “still being remodeled” in July 1969, the loft nonetheless appears comfortable, even sumptuous, in the accompanying photos (by Takahashi Arihara) of Ornette by the billiard table and composing at a table.
The photos of the rehearsal on the ground floor make it clear that the space remained raw and unfinished. This was still the case nearly two years later in May 1971, when Valerie Wilmer took what may be the most iconic photo of Ornette at 131 Prince, sitting at a table and smiling at Dewey Redman in the midst of a rehearsal with Ed Blackwell and Charlie Haden. It is a memorable image not only because it seems to capture the warmth and commiseration of the men’s working relationship, but also because seems to imply a link between that collaborative spirit and the setting — as though that relaxed intensity was engendered by, or flourished in, the stark, open atmosphere of a prototypical loft, airy and unadorned.
Note, too, that Koyama does not mention the phrase “Artist House” in his article. While there was certainly activity on the ground floor of 131 Prince Street in the early years — including the best known of the handful of albums recorded there, Friends and Neighbors: Ornette Live at Prince Street, which was made on 14 February 197011— Coleman started using the name Artist House only in the spring of 1972.
The ground floor was renovated sometime in the second half of 1971, and the following year Artist House began to offer a steady program of advertised concerts and art exhibitions. Between 1968 and 1972, though, 131 Prince was a space defined above all by its informality. The loft was a gathering space without anything like a name — an artist’s house before “Artist House,” in other words. In the early years, Ornette’s loft served as the intermittent rendezvous of an underground coterie, less a public than a loose-knit personal and professional network that came together for performances only open to those in the know. There were rehearsals there, impromptu jam sessions, even makeshift concerts, but they do not seem to have been advertised, even in a semi-underground fashion (with crude flyers pasted to lampposts, say, or rudimentary newspaper ads).
At the same time, and perhaps paradoxically, these happenings were not exclusive, and people did often hear the music and wander in off Prince Street. (When one looks closely at the Valerie Wilmer photo, one notices that there is a man sitting casually on the floor behind Ornette, listening to the rehearsal.) In this sense, activities at 131 Prince in the early years were not unrelated to activities in the lofts and studios of an entire generation of artists living and working in lower Manhattan, although of course not all their networks overlapped. In the words of the influential theater director Robert Wilson, “in the ’60s and early ’70s artists performed for ourselves. Our audiences were other artists: dancers, composers, painters, sculptors, architects, designers. From the mid ’70s to mid ’80s this work began to find a larger audience and the spirit was slowly dissipated.”12
The Revolutionary Ensemble (Jerome Cooper, Leroy Jenkins, Sirone), Artist House, June 1974.
©Raymond Ross Archives/CTSIMAGES. All rights reserved.
Things certainly did change when Ornette decided to turn the ground floor of 131 Prince into a formal concert space and art gallery. In July 1970, Ornette asked his cousin James Jordan to come to New York to help manage his affairs, and over the next year and a half Jordan was crucial to making 131 Prince into more of a public venue, first by cleaning and renovating the downstairs loft and then by booking a regular calendar of events, providing minimal accoutrements for audiences — cushions, pillows, and rented folding chairs — and advertising in the Village Voice and other periodicals. A number of reviews from the period noted the difference when Ornette began having concerts in his “gallery-performance loft on Prince Street”; one Voice article described the loft, “decorated with striking tapestries,” as a “sentient environment in itself.”13
This is not to imply that the all “lofts” were necessarily on a path to becoming formal institutions. On the contrary, many were conceived and organized in ways that were directly opposed to the model of the commercial nightclub. Some, including Artist House, made a conscious decision not to serve alcohol, for instance, much less seek a liquor license. Likewise Ornette’s loft was presented as an art gallery as much as a music venue, and there were openings for shows by downtown painters and sculptors including Grace Williams, Joe Barnes, and Viviane Browne as well as African diasporic artists such as the Nigerian painter and fabric artist Z. K. Oloruntoba, and thematic shows with titles such as “Decorative Textiles and Costumes of Third World Societies.”
Kiyoshi Koyama visited 131 Prince Street again a few years later, after it had been renovated and was functioning as Artist House. In February 1973 the US State Department sponsored a “USA and All That Jazz Tour” for a group of foreign jazz journalists, providing a select group of writers with an introduction to various jazz spots in cities around the country. In New York, in addition to paying a visit to the eminent eighty-six year old composer and pianist Eubie Blake, the group was also given a private reception at Artist House on February 27 in which Ornette sat for an extended group interview.14 In an unexpected surprise, Ornette arranged to have the South African pianist Dollar Brand (Abdullah Ibrahim) perform a solo concert for the journalists. Another of the writers in the group, Richard Williams, later described this occasion in lush and evocative detail:
On March 3, the day before he returned to Tokyo, Koyama went out to dinner alone with Ornette. In what may well have been an oblique and belated gesture of reciprocation for his introduction to sushi in 1967, Coleman took his Japanese friend to a renowned soul food restaurant called the Little Kitchen on 10th Street and 1st Avenue in the East Village. The restaurant — a sort of speakeasy after the fact: would-be diners had to buzz to request entry — was located in a walk-up railroad apartment that was almost laughably cramped, with hardly enough room for a dozen diners, a jazz trio in a corner, and a tyrannical Southern woman in a red wig known as Princess Pamela who presided capriciously over the scene, barking orders at her cook, occasionally belting out a blues or a Tin Pan Alley song.16 Koyama recalls that Ornette asked him whether the journalists had enjoyed themselves at the reception. “Of course we enjoyed ourselves,” Koyama reassured him. “Even though we only spent a few hours at your loft, many of them said that the time there was the most memorable part of the trip.” Ornette looked pleased and said, “I’m glad about that.”
Five years earlier, the first time Koyama visited New York, he had given Coleman a Japanese sutra, a gift that the musician found deeply moving. “Ornette reacted as though it were a treasure for which he had been searching for years,” Koyama recounted later. “His eyes lit up and, without asking what it was, he carefully put it in his inner pocket of his suit jacket. Then he said, ‘The next time you come to my house, I’ll give you one of my Bibles.’” (Reflecting back on this enigmatic promise, Koyama recently mused, “Unfortunately I didn’t ask him what he meant by this.”) It seems that the topic was still on Ornette’s mind in 1973: during their dinner at the Little Kitchen, Ornette asked Koyama how he could obtain a Japanese sacred text, explaining that had had become very interested in world religions.17 The two men spent much of the evening discussing spirituality.
These brief encounters in 1969 and 1973 provide only modest glimpses into the history of 131 Prince Street. Coming a year after he obtained the space and then a year before he lost it, Koyama’s visits are a reminder that the entire span of Ornette’s tenure was actually quite brief. In the end, advertised concerts and exhibitions were held at Artist House only until the early summer of 1974. Ornette lost the ground floor space later that year after a still-mysterious legal conflict involving noise complaints from residents in the area. He sold the third-floor loft slightly later. (Whereas Coleman was evicted from the ground floor after refusing to participate in legal proceedings, the court allowed him a grace period to sell the third floor, which he did with the help of his manager and record producer John Snyder.)18 Although the space became legendary and served as a direct influence on musicians who opened “loft” performance spaces in subsequent years such as Rashied Ali — whom Ornette allowed to organized at least one concert at Artist House before Ali opened his own space, Ali’s Alley, on Greene Street — in fact the active life of Artist House was by any measure a short one. Nevertheless Koyama’s reminiscences of these fleeting encounters are a unique and indispensable record of two moments in the course of what can only be considered a remarkable experiment: the effort by one of the great musicians of the twentieth century to create a sort of open house for artists — a big room that was at once an atelier, a beachhead, and a retreat for creative work in the midst of a rapidly transforming city.
Ornette’s Myna bird. Bob Thiele
Notes1See John Litweiler, Ornette Coleman: The Harmolodic Life (New York: William Morrow & Co., 1993), 132, 137-38, 154-55; Barry McRae, Ornette Coleman (London: Apollo, 1988), 56; Peter Niklas Wilson, Ornette Coleman: His Life and Music (Berkeley: Berkeley Hills Books, 1999), 52.
2 Katherine Whatley, interview with Kiyoshi Koyama, Tokyo, Japan, July 2015. (This interview was conducted in English.)
3 McRae, Ornette Coleman, 56.
4 It is usually assumed that the title “Growing Up” is a reference to Coleman’s son Denardo, who began performing as a drummer with his father’s ensembles with the 1966 album The Empty Foxhole and the 1968 Ornette at 12. However, Ben Young’s research in the American Federation of Musicians archives has revealed that on the original union contract, the title is listed as “Going Up,” which would imply the tune could be another acknowledgement of the flight of Apollo 11. Whatever the original conception, all subsequent information after the first union contract lists the title as “Growing Up.” Ben Young, “Man on the Moon,” unpublished memo, 8 September 2015.
5 Amanda MacBlane, “Obituary: Computer Music Composer, Psychoanalyst Emmanuel Ghent, 77,” New Music Box (April 7, 2003), available online at http://www.newmusicbox.org/articles/OBITUARY-Computer-Music-Composer-Psychoanalyst-Emmanuel-Ghent-77/. Accessed 15 October 2015.
6 On 17 January 1972, Ghent presented a “concert of electronic music” at the original location of the Kitchen on Mercer Street that included a selection called “MOONWALK,” described in the program notes as “a collage of studies for MAN ON THE MOON by ORNETTE COLEMAN together with tape sounds by Emmanuel Ghent in the record of that name.” Program notes, the Kitchen, 17 January 1972, Emmanuel Ghent papers, courtesy of Valerie Ghent.
7 Ben Young, “Man on the Moon,” unpublished memo, 8 September 2015.
8 Ornette Coleman, Man on the Moon / Growing Up (Impulse! 45-275, 1969). Two other Coleman LPs on Impulse! were recorded earlier (and apparently licensed for release): Ornette at 12 (Impulse! AS-9178, 1969) in the studio on 16 July 1968, and Crisis (Impulse! AS-9187) at a concert at NYU on 22 March 1969. It is not clear whether Ornette at 12 and Man on the Moon / Growing Up were released simultaneously or, if not, which came out first. Crisis, however, was not released until 1972, for reasons that remain unknown. Ben Young’s research in the Impulse! session ledgers indicates that there was also another Coleman recording session for Impulse! on 24 July 1969 at A&R Recording in New York, in which the same band that performed the 22 March concert at NYU is listed as having recorded a number of the same tracks from that concert (“Broken Shadows”; “Comme Il Faut”; “Space Jungle”). It seems possible that either Impulse! or Coleman himself wanted higher-fidelity studio versions of some or all of the pieces the quintet (with Don Cherry, Dewey Redman, Charlie Haden, and Ornette’s son Denardo) had played in concert. Ben Young, “Man on the Moon” (part 2), unpublished memo, 21 November 2015.
9 While the identity of this woman remains unknown, she was not “Ornette’s new wife.”
10 Kiyoshi Koyama, “Ornette at Prince Street,” Swing Journal (October 1969), translated from Japanese by Katherine Whatley.
11 Ornette Coleman, Friends and Neighbors: Ornette Live at Prince Street (Flying Dutchman FDS-123, 1970). According to Barry MacRae, this release may not have been authorized by Coleman. See McRae, Ornette Coleman, 56. Most significant with regard to the history of Artist House is that the photographs by Bob Thiele included in the gatefold LP of Friends and Neighbors — in which one can see the pool table as well as the ornate screen also on view in the Swing Journal images — make it obvious that the concert was recorded in Ornette’s third-floor living space, not on the ground floor, which would become Artist House.
12 Robert Wilson, quoted in New York Noise: Photographs by Paula Court, ed. Karen Tate (London: Soul Jazz Publishing, 2007), 200.
13 Melinda Abern, “Up from the Pseudo-Bohemian Cellar: New Jazz Clubs and Centers,” Village Voice (January 4, 1973): 34.
14 Kiyoshi Koyama, "America and All That Jazz" (part 2), Swing Journal (June 1973), translated by Katherine Whatley. According to this article, the journalists on the tour included Eric Childs (Australia), Richard Williams (England), Dan Morgenstern (then an editor at Down Beat, and one of the organizers and tour leaders), and others from France, Brazil, and Mexico.
15 Richard Williams, Introduction, Jazz: a Photographic Documentary (London: Studio Editions, 1994), 7-8. Williams also mentions this occasion in a post on his blog: see Richard Williams, “131 Prince Street,” blogpost, http://thebluemoment.com/2013/07/08/131-prince-street/. Accessed 20 August 2015.
16 Koyama, “Conversation with Ornette” (2008), unpublished essay, translated by Katherine Whatley. After customers had begged her for years for her recipes, Princess Pamela finally released a cookbook, Princess Pamela’s Soul Food Cookbook (New York: Signet, 1969), which interspersed recipes for “Fried Chicken—Southern Style,” “Black-Eyed Peas & Ham Hocks,” and “Scrapple” with her “earthy observations on life,” such as: “I won first prize with my bakin’ / and every woman ask for my pecan pie recipe / and every man for my home address.” On the Little Kitchen, see also “Food writers looking for remembrances of Princess Pamela,” EV Grieve (April 11, 2014), http://evgrieve.com/2014/04/food-writers-looking-for-remembrances.html; Tom Bass, “Pork Chops at Prince Pamela’s,” Bass Cave (November 2010), http://basscave.blogspot.com/2010/11/pork-chops-at-princess-pamela.html.
17 Koyama, “Conversation with Ornette.” Koyama goes on to conjecture that Ornette’s interest in religion may have been part of the motivation for his trip — only a month earlier, in January 1973 — to Morocco, where he famously played with the Master Musicians of Joujouka.
18 Brent Edwards, phone interview with John Snyder, 5 October 2015.