I was just reading about Ornette Coleman, pioneer of Free Jazz, in DownBeat magazine, when I realized I had almost completely wiped from my memory the concert of his I witnessed back in ’95. Coleman died not long ago at the age of 85, so he had a nice long run.
But talk about marching to the beat of a different drummer! I dare you to watch the entire video above — all six and a half minutes of it. You can’t do it. It’s like a head-on crash on the freeway, forcing you to look and turn away at the same time.
The concert I attended was in San Francisco, part of the annual jazz festival there, at the Masonic Auditorium. We had good seats, just a few rows back on stage right. The iconoclast was only sixty-five at the time. He played his infamous plastic sax. I say played but I mean “played.” He made sounds on his infamous plastic sax, while the rest of his entourage made interesting sounds on their instruments too, all together at the same time. The album, I recall, that he was promoting that year was called Tone Dialing, the meaning of which still eludes me. The music didn’t clarify.
At intermission, the band walked off the stage, replaced by a group of five or six people in colorful, flowing robes and with, a lot of them, shaved heads. One man was clearly the leader, and his followers included maybe four women and one other man. Before we could get our bearings, the leader whipped out a long long needle and put it through the other man’s cheeks, both of them. That is, into one cheek, through the mouth, and out the other cheek. Holy crap! Then the women disrobed and stood magnificently nude on the stage as the leader produced more long needles and pierced their breasts before our eyes. There was a little blood. The women didn’t seem to notice, only standing there in a kind of beatific trance as the elder guided the needles through great soft segments of their bosoms.
The crowd began to boo. Some shouted out, “We’re here for the music, not this bullshit!”
Indeed, and we were all stunned, even those of us who realized that Ornette had OK’d this and must have seen it as part of his performance.
All I know is, I didn’t buy Tone Dialing. As revolutionary as he was, Coleman never sold me one of his records because I just don’t get him. Miles Davis called him “psychologically screwed up.” Most people take his music to be mere noise.
But art is expansive, and there are those who did get him and who do get a bunch of other things I don’t get.
The artist calls his own shots, if he frees himself from the need to be popular.