ORNETTE COLEMAN, GUNTHER SCHULLER, CHRIS SQUIRE
The Death of Three Innovators Within One Month
by Gary Gomes
The 20th century was, to my mind at least, the most interesting period in the history of music. So many radical changes of theory occurred in all forms of music that as Paul Bley once averred, the 1960’s alone seemed to be undergoing three decades of music in ten years, which encompassed movements like free jazz, minimalism and electronics within a ten year period. However, if you look earlier in the twentieth century, the advent of Schoenberg, the second Viennese school, Stravinsky, Satie, Jazz, and others through 1930 showed one major disruption of tradition after another: bebop, cool jazz, "third stream," John Cage, Stockhausen, Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman showed up in the 1950’s. Everything seemed to be changing, morphing into something different every few years, sometimes every few months. My perception may be skewed, but the same level of change does not seem to be occurring.
Technologically, the invention of new electronic devices, most seeming to do the same thing in slightly different ways, is exciting, but we have all these wonderful electronic items that seem to produce no really different sounding music. This is not to insult current musicians, most of whom are better schooled and more proficient than their predecessors, but there does seem to have been, since the late 1970’s, a slow turn to conformity and tradition in the arts. This is not a bad thing. It just doesn’t especially excite me. And I would not call the emergence of rap and hip hop in different languages around the world revolutionary. It is still "rap" or "hip hop," not a new musical form. Also, is rap the most influential musical form over the past 60 years? Please.
Of course, every revolution has its end, but I would argue that Coleman, Schuller and Squire represented the urge to blend different--sometimes radically different--musical cultures together in their respective areas of focus- jazz for Coleman, classical for Schuller, and rock for Squire. All three merged various styles, based on both their admiration of the styles, but also based on the needs of themselves as individuals. Ornette definitely the most radical of the three- although he had a grounding in blues and bebop, his decision to "play the music, not the background" was a conscious choice, but people who heard him early on said he always sounded the way he sounded later on, and he had the effect of liberating a music that didn’t know it wanted his touch, or his grace.
Ornette was a revolutionary by being himself in many ways. The plastic alto saxophone he used at his first emergence is the most superficial of manifestations. He moved those who were willing to listen to accept microtonal jazz, but in a natural setting, basing it on blues inflections. His earliest recordings on Contemporary Records, then Atlantic, don’t sound all that radical now. Wynton Marsalis would probably be somewhat comfortable with them. But the recordings and his live appearances started a massive debate among the jazz audience. Some people--Coltrane, Leonard Bernstein, and some jazz critics--embraced his new freedom. Others, like Charlie Mingus and Miles Davis notably, put him down without mercy.
When Free Jazz emerged in 1961, Ornette finally made a recording worthy of his firebrand reputation, and people to this day have trouble with that record. However, it is polytonal Dixieland, using players EVERYONE respected (Freddie Hubbard, Eric Dolphy, Scott LaFaro), so his musical credibility could not be questioned. Ornette, a little later, wrote string quartets (on a hard to find ESP-Disk, Town Hall 1962) and also formed alliances with other players everyone respected--Elvin Jones and Jimmy Garrison. Coltrane let everyone know his admiration for Coleman. He could no longer be dismissed as being "psychologically all screwed up inside" to paraphrase Miles Davis, who also incorporated Coleman’s innovations into his music.
Coleman’s evolution into using electric instruments was slower than Miles’, but he picked up the amplified violin and had Charlie Haden amplifying his acoustic bass around the same time that Miles added electric piano. A few years later (around 1975), he added electric guitars and the amazing Jamaaladeen Tacuma on electric bass, at a time when music seemed to be taking consolidating position and influenced several innovators, like Ronald Shannon Jackson, James Blood Ulmer (both of whom were featured on his groundbreaking 1977 album Dancing In Your Head and Vernon Reid.
In one of the nerviest moves of any recording artist, he put his son Denardo into a recording studio with him when he was only 10 years old (1966’s The Empty Foxhole) and kept him with the group through the "rock" years. Denardo’s work on Crisis on Impulse Records (1969) is very good, as is his work with Prime Time.
But Coleman was blessed with extraordinary bassists and drummers--his main drummers, Ed Blackwell, Billy Higgins and Charles Moffat, were masters of their instruments, and in addition to Tacuma, LaFaro and Garrison, employed Charlie Hade and Dave Izenson (tied with Dave Holland as being the most technically accomplished acoustic bassist I have ever seen). His music was difficult, but it freed so many people to explore new things. It is tough to imagine free jazz without his presence (or Cecil Taylor’s) and he was invaluable as an inspiration to Coltrane, Davis, Tony Williams, Beefheart, and rock musicians as diverse as Lou Reed, Robert Fripp and Hugh Hopper.
I first encountered Coleman in what I considered the best of all possible times and circumstances. I heard him live without ever having heard a single one of his records. I had no preconceptions and he blew my head off. He started with the electric violin, switching to trumpet, then alto saxophone in the opening song. This was the quartet heard on the Flying Dutchman release, Friends and Neighbors (1970). I saw him many times after that through the years, and he never failed to astonish--records really did not do him justice and seeing him live was the best experience.
Ornette was the culmination of Dixieland’s collective improvisation and Arnold Schoenberg’s conception that all notes were equal. Like Schoenberg, Coleman used a system (Coleman called it Harmolodics and some report it was a system Coleman adapted, but it worked nonetheless, to encourage the improvisers he worked with to "play the music, not the background"). He was always striving, always looking, always optimistic, and always learning. Nobody else quite sounded like him (although Dewey Redman, his tenor saxophonist, sometimes came close). His bands were always different--even free jazz, which he helped create and inspire, rarely had players who matched him for joviality and unorthodoxy. He was not known for what I call the later "scratch and scrape" or the high energy take-no-prisoners approach of many free players of the 60’s and beyond. "This Is Our Music" was more than an album title to him; it was the way he approached music. He will be missed, but his example as the spirit of new ideas and his ability to encompass all types of music will endure.
Gunther Schuller was a latter day version of George Gershwin, but he turned Gershwin’s conception on its head. His idea was not to make jazz serious music, but to have jazz taken as serious music in its own right. Schuller was known for his open mind, and his love of adventurous composition styles. He had the unique perspective of being a talented horn player who played in classical ensembles, but also with Miles Davis and he loved the music of Duke Ellington among others. He was also an early champion of Ornette Coleman, while the larger jazz community was trying to make up its mind about Coleman. Schuller was a Boston Conservatory leader for many years, and had a profound impact on musical life in Boston and internationally, as Boston is now considered one of the musical centers of the world (surprise!). Schuller himself had a notable oeuvre, and did several hybrid works before the term "fusion" was coined, and similar to John Mayer in England, pioneered many collaborations with jazz and rock players.
He was also known for his unflinching commitment to his principles, and excoriated the trend among classical players to abandon more adventurous classical composers in the late 1970’s and return to more traditional repertoire (which seemed to be a universal trend among many musics in that reactionary time). He knew the musician had a responsibility to explore, to innovate, and to expand musical horizons, not just glorify the past. This type of spirit needs to be nurtured and we need more Gunther Schuller’s.
To the general rock audience, Chris Squire is probably the best known of this trio we’re mourning. He was the bass player of a very successful band (Yes) and was hero-worshipped as one of the most proficient bassists in rock music by many aspiring bassists.
Squire did have several attributes that made him stand out-aside from his prodigious technique- he was tall and later in life, also heavy, he was a big presence on stage. But his playing combined the rough grit of Jack Bruce’s tone, Paul McCartney’s melodic inventiveness, John Entwistle’s technical facility, Lee Jackson of the Nice’s rhythmic punch and speed, and even some of Greg Lake’s precision. Although he worked for a progressive band, his sound was punchy, aggressive and full, and on some early Yes albums, he was almost threatening. In terms of speed and inventiveness, things like "America," "Heart of the Sunrise" and, of course, "Roundabout" are tough to match. He was also capable of some fairly outside work, like Close to the Edge, Tales from Topographic Oceans and Relayer. But mostly, Squire is in this company because he would not behave like a conventional rock bassist--bass, as I have inferred before, is an instrument first and a role second. I can remember a bass playing friend of mine saying that he thought the bass line on "Roundabout" was being played on a clavinet (an old electric keyboard) not on a bass. Many bassists lose sight of the bass as an instrument entirely. Squire refused to play in the background, and maintained Yes on an adventurous path through several decades. For sheer stubbornness and dedication to the band’s vision, he deserves to be remembered. But his prodigious talent as a bass player will cement his memory as one of the finest instrumentalists rock produced.
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