So much has been written about jazz legend Ornette Coleman (1930-2015) that it is much better to read this snippet of an Atlantic article written in 1972, to hear him speaking for himself.
"I started writing before I started playing," he explains. "I didn't start playing until later, because nobody would hire me. But when I went to audition my tunes for Les Koenig [of Contemporary Records, Los Angeles] he liked me playing my own music, so I got the date. And yet it's been twelve years and they're still saying I haven't paid off the cost of the record." For a decade Ornette channeled his compositional ideas into providing frameworks for his combo to improvise on. Somehow he found time to write a string quartet and a piece for strings and woodwinds. Then he was awarded a Guggenheim, which allowed him to devote more time to writing, and last summer Skies of America, a full-length work for soloist and symphony orchestra, was given its premiere at the Newport-in-New York jazz festival.
In a sense, the composition is "about" the many things that have happened to Ornette Coleman since March 19, 1930, when he was born in Fort Worth, Texas, "under America's skies." More specifically, it is about being black, feeling exploited, working for recognition as an artist and a man in a society that has often been aloof, condescending, or hostile. He started on the alto saxophone at the age of fourteen, switched to tenor two years later, and played in numerous Texas rhythm-and-blues groups. He first left Fort Worth as a teen-ager, with a carnival band. He was dismissed from the tent show for playing bebop, stranded in New Orleans, threatened by racist sheriffs in Mississippi. In Baton Rouge a gang of roughnecks beat him up and threw his tenor off a hill, so he went back to the alto, which is still his principal horn.
He went to Los Angeles with Pee Wee Crayton's blues band and spent the better part of the fifties there, working at various odd jobs, studying music theory, practicing and composing whenever he could. He took up the violin. He continued to develop his own expression, and gradually a few musicians began to understand, especially the trumpeter Don Cherry, bassist Charlie Haden, and drummers Ed Blackwell and Billy Higgins. Ornette, Cherry, Haden, and Higgins worked with pianist Paul Bley at Los Angeles' Hillcrest club in 1958, and struck out on their own later that year.
During the sixties he was the subject of numerous articles, which either idealized or vilified him, and a series of "misunderstandings" with record executives and club owners made him more and more distrustful of the white middlemen who still control the presentation and dissemination of jazz and popular music in America.
"America is a very good country for a Caucasian human being," he says, "because regardless of what his native tongue is, if he changes his name and speaks English he could be of any Caucasian descent. And believe me, that is a very successful form of freedom. If you're black you can change your name, you can do anything you want to, but the color of your skin defeats you from having the same privileges as what I just spoke about. This is the tragedy of America.”