"Art is the creative custodian of the truth"...Heidegger

"There is no true Art without secrecy"...Camus

Jack Reilly is a pianist, composer, and author whose work has achieved a remarkable synthesis of traditional classical music with jazz. His compositions and performances reflect his solid musicianship, intelligence and sophistication. The enthusiastic response his European tour with George Russell's New York Band and his subsequent performance with the band at the Village Vanguard in New York City; his concert at Jordan Hall in Boston with the Jack Reilly Trio, where he was given a standing ovation; his recordings and books --- three volumes on jazz improvisation entitled Species Blues, nine folios of his compositions and the acclaimed book The Harmony of Bill Evans confirms the scope of Reilly's talents and versatility.

Reilly has also presented lecture/recitals at numerous schools in North America and in Europe including presentations at the prestigious International Piano Festival and Competition at the University of Maryland. Formerly chairman of the Department of Jazz Studies at the New England Conservatory of Music, he has served on the faculties of the Mannes College of Music, New York University, The New School, The Berklee School of Music, and as chairman of the Jazz Program at La Musica A Villa Scarsella in Diano Marina, Italy.

His recordings include include albums of original material: Blue Sean Green, Tributes, The Brinksman, Masks, Here's What I Like, Tzu-Jan Volume 1 and 2, and two new releases, Pure Passion and Live in Poland, all on the Unichrom label.

His compositions include Jazz Requiem (1968), an Oratorio comissioned by the NEA (1974), Chuang-Tzu - Theme and Eight Variations for Orchestra (1993), Concertina for Jazz Piano and Strings(dedicated to Bill Evans), Lullabys for Orchestra, Fantasy for Piano and Wind Quintet(dedicated to George Russell), Piano Sonata in D Minor, and Concerto for Harmonica and Strings.

In 2001 his first Piano Concerto for jazz trio and orchestra, titled, Orbitals was premiered in Houghton Michigan,with the composer as soloist, with the Keweenaw Symphony, Jeff Bell-Hanson, conducting.


Friday, February 02, 2007
Shaping Jazz - Ornette Coleman debate--Given by DARIUS BRUBECK at the 2005 IAJE convention in NYC---


I've received many emails asking why the Darius Brubeck paper on Ornette Coleman had been deleted. I didn't delete it. I just gave it a rest for a few weeks. I wanted the chat room "enthusiasts", (dare I call them the thought police(?)( I prefer to call them, zealots but not of the religious visionary type), to take a breather, in hopes they would see the LIGHT and their DARKNESS. Of course I have no control over their thoughts, only my own and what I choose to post on my blog site, "THE BIRTH of an IDEA". I am that I am...............

Here again, is Darius' wonderfully objective, intelligent, perspicacious and discerniong essay on Ornette Coleman.

Shaping Jazz – an Ornette Coleman debate
Professor Darius Brubeck

Acceptance and Rejection

The late, great Texas tenor, Illinois Jacquet, told my wife this story in 1979. The setting is Jimmy Carter’s Whitehouse jazz barbecue, the first large collective presidential jazz event. The proceedings included a jam session and a stage was set up on the Whitehouse lawn in the expectation that the musicians present would ‘spontaneously’ form an all-star band. Seasoned players like Dizzy Gillespie had often found themselves in similar situations in the past and knew that once they agreed on some ‘heads’, they could unerringly craft an impressive performance relying on their tacitly shared repertoire of stock devices: intros, horn riffs and trading fours leading to convincing endings after great solos in the middle. As long as it swung. Lack of rehearsal wouldn’t have been a concern, but then, still conscious of carrying the prestige of jazz to a higher level, all were on their best behaviour. Only Ornette Coleman’s presence in what was effectively a bebop line-up added a dimension of musical insecurity. (Does he know any tunes? Will he play in tune? What if he just starts soloing and doesn’t stop?) Without a word spoken, they improvised non-musical manoeuvres on stage so that Coleman was more seen than heard. At the end of the set, following Whitehouse protocol, they lined up to meet the President and the atmosphere was relaxed and cordial. For example, George Benson gave Jimmy Carter a signature guitar. When it was Coleman’s turn to be introduced to the President, he gave him his latest album. Seeing this, Illinois Jacquet reported hearing a colleague mutter, “Oh no, now they’ll never ask us back.”

That Ornette Coleman was considered important and representative by 1979 (perhaps through Martin Williams’ influence at the Smithsonian) is evident in his invitation to the Whitehouse. In 1984, he was canonized by NEA as a Jazz Master along with Miles Davis and Max Roach and now, anyone who has taken a semester of jazz history certainly knows his name and has listened to ‘Lonely Woman.’ Illinois Jacquet and others, however, obviously didn’t believe he was really one of them and were afraid of embarrassment. Doubt extended beyond this particular occasion. The question of whether Ornette Coleman was ‘good enough’ was less important than the conviction that he was unrepresentative of jazz and his music potentially misleading to those not in the know. Jimmy Carter might actually play his record and that would be the end of White House invitations!

What I find intriguing about this story is that it is not ‘hip-versus-square’ bebop comedy, but an example of the hip irony, empathy, complicity and pragmatism of the ‘old guard’ of professional musicians. I also think this story resonates for 21st century jazz educators who, like jazz musicians at the Whitehouse, must take a pragmatic approach to gaining and exploiting prestige – not selfishly - but on behalf of their programs, their students and institutions and, of course, on behalf of jazz as a legitimate academic discipline worth supporting with funds as well as acclaim. I suspect that playing ‘avant-garde’ on the Whitehouse lawn these days would be an audacious act of protest and still not the best tactic for increasing the level of NEA support for jazz. Should students be told to play whatever they can and feel like playing? Most of us harbour suspicions about ‘free jazz’. There are problems with anti-disciplinary artistic extremism despite the fact that avant-gardism keeps the music from stagnating. Ornette Coleman is controversial in his own right but it is how we understand and deal with this dynamic that affects us as teachers and artists.

I first heard Ornette Coleman at the famous Lenox School of Jazz in 1959, when I was twelve years old, spending the summer there with my parents. We were next door neighbours and he was there as a student by arrangement with Gunther Schuller and John Lewis. I certainly became well acquainted with his sound. When he practiced alone it sounded like nothing in particular was being worked on. When he practiced with Don Cherry, it was the opposite; the same phrases over and over again. I now realize they were searching for the precise, yet unnotatable phrasing and inflection that became such a striking feature of their ensemble playing. I don’t remember disliking his sound but it was funny to me because it was so unlike ‘Uncle Paul’ [Desmond] who played a gold-plated Selmer alto sax, not a white plastic one. Of course early exposure does not make one an expert but it did make me, as I hope will be obvious, sympathetic to opposing points of view.

Coleman versus Modern Jazz

Ornette Coleman’s emergence and the eruption of ‘free jazz’ in the 1960’s marks the beginning of the end of jazz modernism until it resurfaces in the academy under the aegis of jazz education. Already in the ‘50’s, modern jazz was bending towards classical music and away from earlier jazz styles and R&B, although ‘soul jazz’ and ‘funky’ playing was a universally enjoyed corrective and release from too much seriousness. Musicians’ tastes and interests were certainly not restricted to the stereotypical styles assigned to them in condensed jazz histories and record buyer’s guides. For example, Charles Mingus’ name does not spring to mind among those linked to Third Stream music, yet at the time, he was as much a part of that movement as John Lewis was. In 1959, Dave Brubeck recorded Time Out while developing separate projects with Louis Armstrong and Leonard Bernstein. Miles Davis was collaborating with Gil Evans on Sketches of Spain at the time he made Kind of Blue. (With the exception of Armstrong and Gil Evans, all of the musicians I have just mentioned plus members of their working groups and many others, met at Lenox during the summer Coleman was there.) That scene, for all its rich diversity, was remarkably consolidated and interwoven compared to today.

Even players working in the same realm – for example, Oscar Peterson, Thelonious Monk and Bill Evans playing standards in piano trio format – demonstrate that different aesthetic codes could be, indeed were meant to be, applied without abandoning the fundamentals that made jazz jazz. In a broader sense, jazz, despite a contemporary taste for breaking it into sub-genres such as hard-bop or West Coast, was an overarching style built on a core repertoire of blues and popular song with adherence to swing and improvisation, instrumental proficiency and consistent performance codes. Successful experiments with counterpoint, modes, time-signatures, orchestration and form were extrapolations from a set of ‘givens’. Innovation was one of the chief features and indeed selling points of modern jazz, but nevertheless listeners always knew what they were getting. Such was the robust creative milieu that Coleman entered proclaiming a radical alternative.

In this ferment of old and new competing trends with the reward of stardom for successful jazz musicians at stake, it was important for listeners and musicians alike to feel confident about differentiating between ‘charlatans’ and genuine innovators, between ‘acts’ (a trade term inherited from vaudeville) and serious artists, even though criteria were elusive. (These were great days for professional jazz critics.) At least the ascent of bebop ten years earlier established that jazz was a specialised form of music requiring a high level of skill. Musicians never considered technique the essence of jazz or an end in itself but the level of jazz then, as Scott DeVeaux shows in The Birth of Bebop was the direct outcome of jam sessions and cutting contests that determined rank and respect in the professional world. Vestiges of this persist to this day.

Bebop in the narrow sense was already dated in 1959, but its standards of musicianship carried over into every modern style. Unlike his contemporary Bill Evans, who was at Lenox as a teacher that year, Coleman would never have succeeded in the regular professional scene with its daily demands – sight-reading, playing in tune and consistency of execution. However, with respected and articulate champions in John Lewis, Gunther Schuller and Martin Williams and a contract with Atlantic Records, he never had to. A question for us, is whether we sometimes over emphasize professional skills?

Coleman was heralded as the leader of the new avant-garde when he opened at the Five Spot in New York concurrently with the release of his first Atlantic LP in 1959. This sudden celebrity and top-billing did not endear him to musicians used to such acclaim only after years of ‘scuffling’ and ‘paying dues’. Not many knew about Coleman’s personal struggle prior to Lenox, which according to Schuller, was ‘almost heart-breaking.’(1) Even though this was no longer Texas or the Deep South where Coleman had endured threats and assaults, Max Roach, as if personally insulted, actually hit Ornette outside The Five Spot. According to jazz-scholar David Ake, Coleman’s problematic relationship to skill and prowess amounted to undermining ‘accepted ideas of masculinity in jazz.’(2) Anger at Coleman may not have been unrelated to the fact that the club was packed night after night with jazz fans as well as musicians. Envy aside, he was seen by some as guilty of a major, albeit unintentional, transgression that I will come to presently. By any yardstick, his band of young musicians made a spectacular debut on the New York scene with their new sound.

Down Beat 1960

A short preface to an article in Down Beat in May 1960 states that ‘In the wave of controversy over the playing of Ornette Coleman, there have been few cool, reasoned attempts to evaluate the work of this startling alto saxophonist and his colleague, trumpeter Don Cherry. It continues: Down Beat assigned the task to a man who is not only one of the most important jazz musicians of the present era, but a calm, analytical and literate commentator as well: Julian (Cannonball) Adderley.’ Adderley begins his article by reporting the reaction of other respected musicians:

Dizzy Gillespie stood in front of the Five Spot Café in New York, folded his arms, and looked disdainfully at the musicians as he asked, “Are you cats serious?” Thelonious Monk is reported to have said, “Man, that cat is nuts!” “He is an extension of Bird.” That description is attributed to John Lewis… But whatever the views expressed, it cannot be denied that there had been more talk, pro and con, about Coleman than anyone in jazz in the last decade.

The article mentions as ‘suspect’ his ‘intonation theories.’

They [Coleman and Cherry] explain this phenomenon as “human pitch" and suggest that this is also freedom of expression.

Adderley sums up the controversy while giving a concise picture of the brilliant musical milieu in which it takes place:

There are many important musicians who are advocates of Ornette’s freedom theory of improvisation. But there are fewer who would use his approach to sound and harmony. I would say 75 per cent of jazz musicians dismiss Ornette’s whole thing. But he has caused more reflection and analysis than anyone since Bird, Diz, and Thelonious.

But the so-called ‘music of tomorrow’ theme which accompanies his performances is more harmful than good… I feel that though Ornette may influence future jazz, so will George Russell’s Lydian concept of tonal organization, Coltrane’s sheets of sound, Miles’ melodic lyricism, and Gil Evans’ clusters of sound in rhythm. Ornette Coleman is an innovator of the first water. But he is certainly no messiah.(3)

Charles Mingus’ remarks, also published in this issue of Downbeat as ‘Another View of Coleman’, begin with: ‘Now he is really an old-fashioned alto player.’ Mingus considered instrumental proficiency, exemplified by Charlie Parker, ‘modern’. Note that Coleman’s perceived technical limitations make him ‘old-fashioned’, the antithesis of prophetic; and the clash between his lack of ability compared to veteran jazzmen and his claim to showing the way to a universal future is what provoked the violence. Coleman seemed determined to make a public display of his ignorance of and disrespect for the musical achievements of modern jazz, of the narrative of progress and, by implication, all those who contributed to it and believed in it. Worse, white socialites and intellectuals, the Dorothy Kilgallens, Leonard Bernsteins and Nat Hentoffs loved it. Primitivism contradicted the messages that musicians like Miles Davis were sending out at the time.

But, Mingus’ tone suddenly changes in a way that is as confessional and illuminating as the sudden shifts in his own music:

Now aside from the fact that I doubt he can play a C scale in whole notes … in tune, the fact remains that his notes and lines are so fresh.
So when [radio DJ] Symphony Sid played his record, it made everything else he was playing, even my own record that he played, sound terrible… I’m not saying everybody’s going to have to play like Coleman. But they’re going to have to stop copying Bird… You can’t put your finger on what he is doing. It’s like organized disorganization, or playing wrong right.(4)

The Change of the Century

At the end of the 1950s, Ornette Coleman’s music inspired a new genre, known at first as ‘free jazz’ and later ‘improvised music’, a more comfortable label that puts some breathing space between its practitioners and the jazz canon. According to Schuller, ‘90% of the students [at Lenox] thought that Ornette was wacko…They put him down a lot…’ However, at least one of them, David Baker, while not a ‘convert’ had second thoughts.

‘All of us were trying to find our voices: the only one with any secure idea of where he was going in vision was probably Ornette.’(5)

Recalling first hearing Coleman, Baker’s admits, ‘We hadn’t even had our day in the sun and all of a sudden there was a new movement and I really felt dreadful about it. Now I realize in retrospect that the threat was about ego rather than the validity of the music.’

Maybe ‘ego’ is too harsh. Like most aspiring musicians then and now, Baker had already invested in the rigours of bebop, at least as a well-tried route to finding his own voice. Yet Coleman played a very effective ‘jazzy’ and individual kind of music, ignoring musical procedures that, until then, had been fundamental to playing jazz. It seemed unfair that he gave himself authority to change the game to suit his needs, like playing tennis without the net.

Coleman’s famous aphorism, ‘From realizing that I can make mistakes, I have come to realize that there is an order in what I do.’(6) is the pronouncement of a confident, self-aware artist and it is quoted by Martin Williams in the liner notes to Shape of Jazz to Come recorded that very year, 1959. Baker was proved right about Coleman’s security of vision and voice. He continues:

My question, which kept on coming up, when I would ask “What’s supposed to take the place of the changes?” Because I had talked with Gunther and some other people who went to Indianapolis to see Wes Montgomery and this conversation came up…where was the next movement going to go in jazz?
Was it going to be atonalism, was it going to be what? ‘Free’ never entered into the discussion because that wasn’t a concept that anybody had even envisioned, but we talked about “would it be twelve-tone music?” Would it be the experiments that were going on the West Coast at the time? What would it be? … ‘How do you start playing? How do you get rid of, what do you do in place of, playing changes?’ It never occurred to anybody that we would stop playing changes.

The question that began to bother John Coltrane after he recorded Giant Steps in the same year as Coleman’s Shape of Jazz was the inverse. He told a French journalist, ‘I didn’t know where I was going next.’ Coleman had ‘done a lot to open my eyes to what can be done… I don’t know if I would have thought about just abandoning the chord system or not…And he came along doing it, and I heard it, I said, “Well, this must be the answer.”(7)

Forty-five years later

British writer, Andy Hamilton interviewed Coleman backstage at Sage Hall, Gateshead, England in 2005. He remains remarkably consistent about his beliefs, musical values and motives, and, in my opinion, about what he wants us to believe about him. Coleman never mentions a short-coming, doubt or fault; he doesn’t talk about trying to improve in any way and never admits to learning anything from anyone else. He speaks with a biblical certainty that pre-empts critical discussion or any possibility that he might revise (or even better define) his ideas. Yet he is soft-spoken and tolerant in the faith that differences will evaporate once the rest of the world understands what he is on about. Some of his statements are beautifully evocative like his music, but some are nonsensical. Because of the subtle force of his personality and respect for his music, most people take him at his word. I quote:

I think music itself is an idea. It's not a style, it's not a race, it's just an idea.

And everybody has ideas. That's why music is so free for people to cherish and so open – because it's how the idea is affecting you, and how you express what it means to you, regardless of what the style is.

I don't think people realized that I knew any music, [they thought] that I was just playing. But I never thought about trying to prove what I could do.

Yes, I wanted it to be heard. But I was having musicians that time telling me, “Oh, you can't play like that”. I was being beaten up, my horn thrown away. I was saying “Oh my goodness me, that's just crazy”...I realized that whatever reasons the person had to make them treat me like that, it was what they had experienced [that made them do it] – that whatever they were doing, if they didn't succeed, why should I succeed?

I was only just playing the way I'm playing right now. I have never tried to be different. It's like I'm sharing what I'm sharing with you.(8)

His aesthetic resonates with the Romantic idea of music being a special language of emotion, if that is what he means here by ‘sound grammar’.

In sound grammar, we can express any form of emotion, of the deepest depth or the highest... In other words, the emotion, in some way, has no gender, it has no race, it has no goal, it has no purpose. It's only to let you know the state that's affecting you at the moment. It's true.

So far, so good. The direct link between music and emotion is valued in every culture and is one of the truly brilliant qualities that animates so much of Coleman’s music. But his own long-standing attempt to systematize his musical universe appears as unrealized and irrelevant as it ever was. The interview contains torturous passages of pseudo-theoretical discourse. Since his music is not set within normal conventions anyway, why the obsession with certain technical terms (transpositions, pitches, notes, unisons and modulations)? None of this relates to what he plays and how he improvises. He still struggles to explain the familiar Coleman theory which he promises will be expanded to book length:

I found out that in Western culture you have the Bb, the C, the Eb and the F instruments – those are the four dominant transpositions…The note of the saxophone is different to the sound of the saxophone…To this very day, I've been working on a concept called harmolodics, which means that the four basic notes of Western culture are all the same sound on four different instruments …

It is likely that Coleman didn’t know about transposing instruments when he started playing. What he ‘found out’ is the result of instrument design, mechanics and notational convenience, not ‘the four basic notes of Western culture.’ The question is why didn’t he simply learn about transposing instruments and notation? Is it really true that he still doesn’t know? Humble demeanor notwithstanding, he strangely believes he is on to something the rest of us might not have seen and that this might lead to startling revelations and revisions. He maintains that notation and common theory represent immutable ‘rules’ or rather long-standing fallacies from which he has freed himself and eventually the rest of mankind:

Yeah...One thing I don't believe is hiding any information that can advance anybody... They have never tried to use this [my approach] to see what's wrong with it. A hundred years ago, someone invented this (here according to Hamilton he gestured toward the piano keyboard) and they made some rules and the rules haven’t changed since.

While musicians don’t normally try to account for their personal style in abstract, universalizing terms, Coleman seems to believe he must, so it is frustrating that his idiosyncratic brilliance as a player has so little to do with the issues he seems eager to talk about. Harmolodics seems to start and end with some murky ideas about vertical pitch relationships. To understand Ornette Coleman, study the music and not what he says.

What do we hear then, if not ‘harmolodics’, that makes him so identifiable? First of all, his controversial pitch – and we’re used to that now. Since 1960 we’ve also heard plenty of music from other cultures using various tuning systems. Non-standard tuning is also a signifying sound used by jazz musicians laying claim to a non-western identity. Secondly, the rhythms and phrasings of his melodies sound logical and natural but in notation reveal unconventional phrases, meter changes – much deviance from our expectations of 4 and 8-bar phrases. This makes his music challenging to play although musicians, like Pat Metheny for one, do play it. Finally, of course, the forms he uses for improvisation are never harmonically determined and not usually pre-determined at all. This alone was the new idea underlying the original ‘free jazz’ freak out. Today, a lot of the music one hears – hip hop, for instance – and of course much contemporary jazz, isn’t any longer based on fixed forms and ‘playing changes.’ So, in a very practical sense, Ornette Coleman’s music was, in 1959, music of the future, certainly the direction of the century, if not the change of the Century.

I believe the main reason he still expounds his theories dates back to his arrival at Lenox when John Lewis, Martin Williams and Gunther Schuller were intrigued and happy to defend what he was doing. At Lenox, there were discussions about modes and applying classical forms to jazz, as in the case of the MJQ. Excitement about ideas permeated the atmosphere; it was a time and place where verbalization was rewarded. George Russell is still teaching the Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization. Coleman had talent, immense self-belief and very little formal education. Rather than enter into a desperate struggle to ‘catch up’ when he already had the respect of important people, he chose to invent his own rationale. The term ‘harmolodics’ only came up in 1972, but in typical Coleman fashion he back-dated it; it was something he always knew.

The avant-garde of the 1960s and 1970s, as we all know, opened up a non-imitative space for improvisers, especially European musicians, for whom the disciplines and ‘standards’ (in both its meanings) of bebop were of marginal relevance. ‘Jazzing’ no longer required identification within a system of American cultural references of generations past (e.g. film music, Broadway, social dancing, religious music). Ornette Coleman offered an alternative to revising the past.

Branford Marsalis, who does it all, recently told Jazz Times, ‘I would learn shit from the 50’s, 40’s and ‘30s exactly to the letter. And by learning it that way I earned the right to not have to play it that way. But that right is earned.’(9) Let’s suppose Branford Marsalis didn’t ‘earn this right’: so what? I certainly believe in the value of formal training and historical grounding, but how best to communicate this holistically? Ornette Coleman’s career demonstrates that there are people who simply don’t follow ‘the rules’ and have more to give as a result. On the other hand, we need all the other ‘shit’. Hope you ask me back!


(1)All remarks attributed to Gunther Schuller are from my interview at his home in Newton, Massachusetts, 3 April, 2000. A complete transcription of this interview is in my M. Phil thesis, Jazz 1959: The Beginning of Beyond at Nottingham University.

(2)David Ake, ‘Regendering Jazz: Ornette Coleman and the New York Jazz Scene in the Late 1950s,’ Jazz Cultures, University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 2002,

John Litweiler, Ornette Coleman: A Harmolodic Life, William Morrow and Co. New York, 1992

Ake and Coleman biographer John Litweiler both report that Max Roach physicaly assaulted Coleman at the Five Spot Café and later shouted threats from the street in front of Coleman’s apartment. The original source given in Litweiler is John Snyder, ‘Ornette Coleman’, an unpublished essay.

(3)Julian Adderley, ‘Cannonball Looks at Ornette Coleman’, Down Beat, Vol 27, No.11, 26 May, 1960

(4)Charles Mingus, ‘Another View of Coleman’, Down Beat, Vol 27, No.11, 26 May, 1960

(5)All remarks attributed to David Baker are from my interview at his office at Indiana University in Bloomington, 17 April, 2000. A complete transcription of this interview is in my M. Phil thesis, Jazz 1959: The Beginning of Beyond at Nottingham University. A slightly modified version appeared in Jazz Educators Journal, September/October 2002, Vol. 35, No.2.

(6)Martin Williams, liner notes, The Shape of Jazz to Come, Atlantic Records SD 1317

(7)Benoit Quersin, ‘Entretiens: La Passe Dangereuse,’ Jazz Magazine, January 1963, Transcribed by Lewis Porter and Carl Woideck in Porter, John Coltrane, cited in Ake.

(8)Andy Hamilton kindly sent me his article which was published as ‘Interview: Ornette Coleman’, The Wire, issue 257, July 2005. The interview took place backstage at The Sage Concert Hall, Gateshead, 29 April 2005.

(9)Nate Chinen interview with Branford Marsalis, ‘Committed’, Jazz Times October/November Vol. 34, Number 9, 2004.