Perhaps the most surprising thing about John Litweiler’s biography of Ornette Coleman is the fact that it is the first full-length work to deal with the influential composer and performer. Litweiler begins his prologue by stating that four musicians, Buddy Bolden, Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, and Ornette Coleman, created music that changed the course of jazz forever, and that of the four, Coleman’s influence may be the most far-reaching.
Litweiler certainly did his homework before writing this book. He conducted extensive research and numerous interviews with members of Coleman’s family, his friends, and the musicians with whom he played. Not surprisingly, it is the musicians who provide the greatest insight into the significance of Coleman’s lifework, although even their attempts ultimately fail to provide a clear definition of Coleman’s famous theory of “harmolodics,” the term that Coleman uses to describe his unique approach to group improvisation. Apparently, the harmolodic approach to playing is one that Coleman is able to teach to musicians in playing situations over a period of time, but is not one that lends itself to linguistic definition. As Litweiler says, however, the “objective of the concentrated practice and study together of the harmolodic system is to get musicians to play—to feel and think—in this kind of [concordant, harmonious, consonant] unison.”
The purely biographical portions of Litweiler’s volume tell the fascinating story of an unusual artist who had a personal vision from an early age and managed to stay true to that vision in the face of incredible obstacles and virulent opposition that would have crushed a man of anything less than indomitable will. Finally, however, it is the author’s knowledge of and attention to Coleman’s music that makes this biography well worth reading.
Litweiler cannot be faulted for what he has done in this work, but the volume is surprisingly brief considering the tremendous artistic significance of its subject. One can only hope that more extensive studies of Ornette Coleman will follow. After all, Coleman is still composing and performing on his primary instrument, the alto saxophone, as well as on the violin and trumpet, and he will no doubt continue to extend his artistic range and influence.
This volume contains an extremely useful selected discography as well as a transcription by David Wild of Ornette Coleman’s alto saxophone solo on the song FREE.