Stephen Rush Deciphers Ornette Coleman

Stephen Rush, Free Jazz, Harmolodics, and Ornette Coleman. New York and London: Routledge, 2017. 302 pp.

Seven years ago, President Barack Obama received an honorary degree from the University of Michigan and gave the traditional commencement address in the football stadium on a sunny, if breezy Sunday morning. Behind him stood another honorary degree recipient—Ornette Coleman, one of the greatest musicians that America has produced. Coleman, who released his first album three years before Obama was born, listened attentively and I am absolutely certain that he had tears in his eyes as he took part in a ceremony that for most of his life he could not have ever dreamed of. After all, a Black man born in Texas during the depression, who followed his own unorthodox path as a maverick jazz musician, could have hardly imagined that he would one day receive a doctorate of music from a major university and share the stage with the first African-American president of his country, and the glint in his eye revealed the complexities of feeling and emotion that he must have felt in that moment. I recalled this picture as I read Stephen Rush’s book on Coleman, a volume that deals as much with music as with philosophy, religion, spirituality and race, revealing the unique humanness of his subject.

Rush has been fascinated by Coleman for years; he has written about him before, has taught classes on his music at U-M, and has performed Coleman’s compositions as well as Coleman-inspired works of his own, but he obviously felt a need to investigate more closely the singular enigmatic musical concepts that Coleman has dubbed as harmolodics. The ceremonies surrounding the bestowal of the honorary degree in Ann Arbor provided an opportunity to hook up with the great musician, resulting in a series of long interviews, perhaps better described as dialogues, that led to the writing of this work.

The first part consists of a short introduction to the life and art of Ornette Coleman, focusing on the intimate relationship between the trajectory of the Civil Rights movement and the biography of the musician and on his somewhat enigmatic concept of harmolodics. After reading the book, one has a better intuitive grasp of what it might be, but not a definition. Perhaps closest to this is the initial statement in the preface, revealing the integrative notions that are central to Coleman’s vision: “a fit and apt metaphor for social and mystical principles seminal to the black American experience.” Hence this book is as much about life as it is about musical structures.

The introduction is followed by a chapter that contains selections from the interviews, arranged in non-linear fashion around certain topics, with explanatory commentary by the author. This is the non-musicological point of gravity of the book. Coleman spoke in a unique voice, combining highly metaphorical language with an almost Socratic manner of eliciting responses with his interlocutors. His communicative expressions were highly integrated so that his multi-instrumental playing, composing, speaking, manner of dress, and even the way he held himself were multiple language codes of a single personality. Rush does his best to interact with Coleman to draw out explanations and annotates these discussions to clarify meaning for himself and for the reader. But Coleman controls the dialogs and in the process, he often reveals as much as about Rush as he does about himself.

The third part of the book consists of transcriptions and analysis of ten Coleman composition and solos, taken from different phases of his career, albeit some of the solos come from other performers, including Branford Marsalis, Pat Metheny and Paul Bley. Here Rush shows his musicological chops but also reveals his own original views on improvisation and composition, opinions that were in part informed by Coleman’s radical rethinking of the role of both in jazz. All of this is quite technical, but Rush manages to analyze things in a manner that speaks to non-musicians who wish to dig deeper into the music. The author has been teaching a course on this kind of music for years and therefore the book is structured to be used as somewhat unorthodox textbook, but this should not put off prospective non-academic readers.

The wonder of this book is that it is unique. There are many printed interviews with artists and academic studies of jazz musicians are also easy to find, but I know of nothing similar to what Rush has achieved. As already observed, it is intimate and personal, not only because of the way Coleman took him seriously as an equal and made his interlocutor’s ideas, emotions and spiritual longings part of the dialog, but also because of Rush’s longtime prior meditations on the man and his music and many years of creating original music. The discussions center on music, to be sure, but Coleman never viewed art as a thing apart and insisted on viewing it as part of his own humanity, hence the discussions range from history to philosophy, religion, and race, eliciting strong responses from the author, who is himself a deeply spiritual person. If only Rush could have conducted similar interviews with Sun Ra….