The Battle of the Five Spot
Ornette Coleman and the New York Jazz Field

David Lee
(The Mercury Press; Toronto)

Appearing suddenly in a prestigious venue for modern jazz, Coleman was just such a newcomer, an un-consecrated avant-garde figure. He became a clear target for the opposition that Bourdieu identifies, and the focus of the conflict “between artistic generations, often only a few years apart,” that Bourdieu describes. Seen in this light, perhaps we can better understand the vehemence of so many of Coleman’s detractors among jazz musicians. Miles Davis, for example, was the reigning jazz star of the time. One can read in his comments on Coleman a bitterness at being displaced--sent down the ranks, as it were--from his prevailing, pre-eminent position. To do such a thing, Coleman’s shortcomings must be more than just musical shortcomings; the man must be “all screwed up inside.”

Milt Jackson, vibraphonist in the popular and respected Modern Jazz Quartet (which ironically, he co-led with Coleman’s advocate John Lewis), stated that the music was “nothing--there’s no such thing as free form.”(22) Drummer Max Roach, a bebop pioneer and a successful leader and innovator in his own right, objected to the music so strongly that one night he followed Coleman into the Five Spot kitchen between sets, punched him in the mouth, and later harangued him from the street outside his apartment.(23)

It is worth noting that despite their initial revulsion, many of these musicians made sincere efforts to come to terms with this new music. Within a few years of Coleman’s Five Spot debut, many of those who had rejected Coleman, perhaps with some qualifications, now accepted him, though often with some reservations. It seems possible that professional jazz musicians’ thorough grounding in conventional harmony and the chord changes of the song form did not equip them for hearing--much less playing--this new music, and they needed time to rethink Coleman’s approach in terms of their own. Admittedly, once musicians have been schooled and experienced in navigating the more rigid constraints of the song form, it is perhaps not completely fair to expect them to immediately absorb the style pioneered by Coleman, with its shifting tonality, free rhythms and restless, dancelike exchange of voices.

By the following summer, Roach’s antagonism had eased enough for him to play with Coleman at the rival Newport festival that Roach and Charles Mingus had organized.(24) Both the drummer’s and Mingus’ subsequent recordings introduced “free” elements that had not been heard before in their music; the same is true for Miles Davis, and certainly for John Coltrane. By 1962, even Coleman Hawkins and Shelly Manne felt permitted—perhaps even obliged—to insert a freely-improvised tenor saxophone–drums duet into an album of jazz standards.(25)

Among musicians newly exposed to Ornette Coleman, there was a pattern of resistance, then acceptance. The resistance stage can be easily understood in terms of the impact of an avant-garde newcomer on the jazz field. In a “self-contained universe,” where the most valued currency is symbolic capital, the avant-garde is in a high position, possessing a uniquely precious capital that cannot be shared until it is more widely understood.

Milt Jackson, an active member of the bebop generation in the 1940s when they were the jazz avant-garde, was still “modern,” but was associated already with the Modern Jazz Quartet’s “cool,” sedate brand of modernism, successfully marketed to predominantly-white bourgeois audiences in concerts and the pricier nightclubs. It seems feasible to surmise that Jackson would not disdain or resist his relegation to the jazz field’s “old guard.” Such positioning would present no professional disadvantage, and would classify him along with artists he considered to be more rightfully his peers. Jackson’s career was built primarily on his reputation as the finest vibraphonist in jazz, and Coleman’s music was making no claims on that particular territory. With these factors taken together, it was just as easy for Jackson, having made his statements on Coleman’s music, to withdraw, claiming no further investment in the controversy.

Davis, however, was the leading figure in what Bourdieu would term the consecrated avant-garde. He had followed the protocols of apprenticeship, establishing his musical credentials working with such artists as Coleman Hawkins and Charlie Parker, who had long since been accepted into the canon of the jazz tradition. He had just recorded his ground-breaking, modally-influenced recording “Kind of Blue,” and his group included musicians such as Bill Evans and John Coltrane, who were already becoming major influences in their own rights. In every way a perfect example of Szwed’s “high modernism,” Davis was musically innovative in a modernist sense: modestly extending conventional norms, commercially successful, handsome, aloof and always fashionably dressed--an African-American “hipster” of the model given such exalted symbolic capital in Mailer’s “The White Negro.”(26) It is no wonder, then, that Davis--who unlike Milt Jackson, had a considerable professional investment in being seen as the music’s cutting edge--criticized Coleman so bitterly.

Any objections to Coleman’s music that were in fact, “strictly musical” could possibly be related to Spellman’s examples of jazz musicians who felt they must prove themselves “capable of playing classical music to show that playing the blues was a matter of choice.” The music of Coleman’s quartet presented a similar challenge: to say that because one disliked it, one was unwilling to play it carried the unspoken implication that one was unable to play it. (27) As Coleman himself put it, his music challenged jazz musicians to question the practices they had worked so long and hard to master:

When I arrived in New York… from most of the jazz musicians, all I got was a wall of hostility… I guess it’s pretty shocking to hear someone like me come on the scene when they’re already comfortable in Charlie Parker’s language. They figure that now they may have to learn something else.(28)

Other musicians on Coleman’s side echo this view. “When we played, there were those who really loved it, the growth and the spirit of it,” said Don Cherry. “And then there were those who didn’t like it because they felt it was jeopardizing their position in life.”(29) Buell Neidlinger described the musicians at the Five Spot as “scared to death Ornette was going to be the thing and that they couldn’t make it.”(30) It is perhaps instructive that Neidlinger presents the problem as an imperative: if this music is “going to be the thing,” then they are offered no alternatives. Similarly, Coleman asserted that having heard his music, “they may have to learn something else.”

For its detractors, it was easy to turn their backs on Coleman, but demonstrating that they could master his idiom--in order to prove that they were ignoring him as a matter of choice--was not so easy. Despite the wide margins for error that were apparent in this new freedom, the Coleman group had a repertoire of pieces, to be played without reliance on chord changes, that they had thoroughly rehearsed. The leading names in jazz, generally skilled sight-readers thoroughly schooled in musical theory, and with enormous knowledge of conventional jazz performance practice, could learn the tunes, but the group’s way of playing them was something unique and new.

Possibly this reveals something more about the intrinsic value of the symbolic capital possessed by each member of the jazz field. If a member could not countenance the procedures of the incoming avant-garde, they were fortunate if, like Milt Jackson, they could move gracefully from an understated position in the modernist camp to the mainstream jazz canon which stood ready and willing to embrace and enshrine them.(31)

Not all jazz virtuosi were that lucky. Their inability to come to terms with Coleman’s style meant that they effectively lost rank within the jazz field. The awful truth, as revealed in the acclaim bestowed on Coleman by the field’s mediators, was that the positions of these musicians was no longer determined solely by the merit of their accomplishments--the extent to which, in the course of their careers, they had improved on the music they had been given. The paradigm of jazz performance had shifted, and it was made clear that an artist’s future prospects would be judged on how much, or how little, it resembled that of the incoming avant-garde, who had now been boosted to the peak of the field’s hierarchy.

In other words: in terms of symbolic capital, if the most valuable currency within the field was possessed by those musicians seen as the most au courant, then after decades of working their way up through the hierarchy, the most respected artists in jazz were now clearly being sent back down. As Bley suggests in his remarks about the Jazztet, before Coleman’s advent, the jazz virtuoso who had best mastered the song form occupied the field’s most honoured position. Post-Coleman, it could be seen as a default position--the high modernist agenda now strongly suggested that musicians who continued to play within the song form did so only because they were not sophisticated or imaginative enough to grasp, much less embrace, the new style.

In these terms, it is possible that Coleman’s fiercest detractors among the era’s jazz musicians were reacting not to him or to his music, but to what they saw as a devaluing of their entire body of work and a threat to their status within the jazz field, a threat that menaced the integrity of the field as a whole. This threat came from both inside and outside the field.

Although many of the jazz musicians who objected the most strongly to Coleman’s music eventually modified their positions, most historical accounts have recorded only those objections expressed on a strictly musical basis, and expressed in strictly musical language. There were another set of objections, raised by members of the jazz field who felt that Coleman was a pawn being manipulated by forces determined to dominate the field.(32)

The Mediators of the Jazz Field

For all these mixed reactions, Paul Bley has said that jazz critics of the time:

performed a yeoman service in quickly identifying Ornette’s validity to the skeptics… The critics did more than their job of acquainting the public with the music. They acquainted the musicians with the music. They acted as liaisons between the avant-garde and the musical community.(33)

Bley differentiates clearly between the avant-garde and the “musical community” at large, emphasizing the distance felt by jazz musicians between their music and Coleman’s (if Coleman indeed began the “free jazz” revolution of the 1960s, he also began the still-ongoing problem of differentiating between “jazz” and “improvised music”). However, not everyone felt that the mediation of the critics was a good thing.

In a letter to Down Beat late in 1959, John Mehegan condemned the part that critics were playing in the public reception of the music:

What [Coleman] is doing certainly has nothing to do with jazz and, I’m afraid, very little to do with music in any form…. His reputation is completely the result of artificial promotion by a small group of king-makers…. The frightening thing here is that a small group of writers can “launch” a young musician on a path that can only end in personal defeat and bitterness for the persons involved.(34)

Mehegan’s letter is valuable less for its vehement objections to Coleman’s music as for the precise placement of the author’s non-musical objections in the laps of “a small group of king-makers.” Even if Coleman’s detractors could accept the sincerity of Coleman himself, they could not accept the exercise of power they saw in judgements of jazz critics, however well-intentioned might be the latter’s “yeoman service.”

Leonard Feather voiced similar reservations when, for 1960’s first issue of Down Beat, he subjected Ornette Coleman to a Blindfold Test. In this regular Down Beat feature, a musician would be asked to identify and comment on recordings by unnamed jazz artists. Over the years the Blindfold Test served as an entertaining, if highly unscientific, litmus test of a musician’s ability to recognize different artists and styles, a test which evoked unpredictable responses from jazz artists in all genres.

In Coleman’s case, the allegedly rootless avant-gardist astutely identified most of the artists that he heard, and criticized their music precisely if idiosyncratically (Feather remarked that Coleman is “no less unusual in his verbal than in his musical expression”). But first, Feather prefaced the test with an introduction that took a firm critical stance on Coleman’s notoriety, and in doing so echoed Mehegan in identifying the problem of power.

In the early days, jazz talent took its natural course. Anybody with something new and important to say would find his way to the surface of public acceptance, simply on the strength of the stir he had created among fellow musicians.

Today the situation is very different. The initiative in molding new stars has been seized by other experts, including some who were among the slowest to accord reluctant recognition to Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. Ornette Coleman, an alto saxophonist, who, until a few months ago, was virtually unknown, must suffer the judgements applied by the contemporary method.(35)

In the past, Feather is saying, established musicians were the first to acknowledge original new artists, by testing and tempering their abilities in the nightly workshop of the jazz engagement. Now, because the consensus of critics was supplanting this “natural” method, musicians might find themselves in the spotlight before their abilities had earned them a place there.

At the time he wrote this, Feather himself had been the USA’s pre-eminent jazz critic for over twenty years. Since his arrival from England in the mid-1930s, his influence had been felt in the careers of countless American jazz musicians. Feather wrote reviews and books on jazz, and produced concerts and records. Although he also wrote songs that would occasionally be performed by jazz musicians, it was as a critic that he was principally known—a critic who did not hesitate to use his influence on behalf of music that he liked, or to denigrate or overlook music that he didn’t like. So there is a disingenuousness in his complaint about the power of critics--presumably critics other than himself--to alter the “natural course” of jazz talent.(36)

Despite this, Feather’s comments make a useful starting point for examining the workings of power within the jazz field. How in fact did Coleman—in person quiet and self-effacing—manage to make such a noisy, spectacular entrance into the jazz field? Was it in fact not just the power of his music, but the power of a “small group of king-makers” that engineered his leap into the spotlight?

In fact, some of the era’s most influential and powerful individuals and institutions helped to boost Coleman into prominence. The chain of events that brought Ornette Coleman to the Five Spot combined the best efforts of critics, record producers, academics and the promotional forces of the music industry. It was a chain of events very different from the organic process that Feather champions as “natural,” but one that plainly revealed the currents of power that are constantly at work within artistic fields. As Joe Goldberg wrote in 1965, recalling Coleman’s first Five Spot engagement:

Unfortunately, Coleman immediately became a scapegoat; critics used him as a shield behind which to take potshots at other critics. Two of Coleman’s staunchest admirers were Nat Hentoff and Martin Williams, co-editors of The Jazz Review. The publisher of that magazine, Hsio Wen Shih, became Coleman’s manager for a while. Some journalists began to see a Lenox–Atlantic–Jazz Review Establishment, forcing Coleman on the jazz world…. With such poison pellets in the air, reasoned comment on Coleman’s music became almost impossible.(37)


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