Ornette Coleman (1930-2015), Frank O’Hara, Amiri Baraka

This morning brought the sad news that the groundbreaking jazz musician Ornette Coleman has passed away at 85.  There will surely be many obituaries and testimonials to Coleman’s importance and legacy, but I wanted to just note some the important points of contact between Coleman and the New York School and the postwar avant-garde.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Coleman became a central figure in the downtown avant-garde scene, beginning with a legendary ten-week residency at the Five Spot jazz club in New York, which was a regular hangout for Amiri Baraka (then LeRoi Jones), Frank O’Hara, and other young New York poets. Coleman’s landmark 1961 album Free Jazz famously featured a painting by Jackson Pollock on the cover, underscoring the connections between experimental jazz and avant-garde painting.  

Coleman became friendly with the young Baraka and other writers in Baraka’s lively bohemian circle, which included O’Hara and other poets of the New York School.  O’Hara was taken with Coleman and his music, referring to him in his letters and including a reference to him in the experimental film he made with Alfred Leslie, The Last Clean Shirt (which includes the exclamation “Ornette!” at one point) (at 32:15 to be precise).

The most detailed treatment of these intersections can be found in Michael Magee’s excellent article “Tribes of New York: Frank O’Hara, Amiri Baraka, and the Poetics of the Five Spot” (which can also be found in Magee’s book Emancipating Pragmatism).  Here’s an excerpt in which Magee writes about Ornette Coleman, O’Hara, and Baraka:

O’Hara was very excited about Ornette Coleman. Part of the occasion for that excitement was the affair going on between Coleman and O’Hara’s friend Diana Powell. In a letter telling Don Allen about the affair, O’Hara underscores Coleman’s name as “ORNETTE COLEMAN!!!” and in a contemporaneous letter to Vincent Warren he notes seeing Coleman at the Five Spot, prompting Warren’s memory by describing the group as “the one with the little trumpet [Don Cherry’s pocket trumpet] and sax.” While the references are typically gossipy, and while O’Hara’s interest in Coleman included his usual lack of distinction between the artistic, the personal, and the sexual, they lead in the direction of a provocatively different version of O’Hara than the one commonly invoked.  As Baraka has recently explained,

Frank dug the music, went to the 5 Spot often. We were all hit with the heavy impact in G[reenwich] V[illage] of Ornette C[oleman]. He was a New Thing, in that era of new things … Jazz was New York! It was urban, new, hot, revelatory, &c, it was the anthemic back and foreground of the art denizens of the then and there. Like language and city sounds … Frank was always looking for inspiration. The music inspired him. (Letter)

Baraka goes on to suggest what it was about Coleman that would have inspired O’Hara: “Jazz is Democratic in form, it basically is collective improvisation. It is about singular and collective spontaneity, and composition, both formal and mise-en-scene.”

As Baraka suggests, Ornette Coleman was “a New Thing, in that era of new things,” and his bold and exciting music had an indescribable impact on Baraka himself, on O’Hara, and on the shape of jazz, and so much else, to come.

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