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  • Soliloquy of ChaosOrnette Coleman in Copenhagen, 1965
  • William Pym (bio)

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Tambour, by Terry Adkins, 2013, mixed media, 59 × 18 × 18 inches (150 × 46 × 46 cm), courtesy of the Terry Adkins Estate and Lévy Gorvy, New York, © Estate of Terry Adkins.

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As a teenager in 1940s Fort Worth, Ornette Coleman supported his family playing tenor saxophone on the radio and in regional clubs, honing woozy gutbucket rhythm and blues suitable for partying and abandon. “I was in the South when minorities were oppressed, and I identified with them through music,” Coleman told the philosopher Jacques Derrida in a 1997 conversation published in Les Inrockuptibles magazine. “One day, I walked into a place that was full of gambling and prostitution, people arguing, and I saw a woman get stabbed—then I thought that I had to get out of there. I told my mother that I didn’t want to play this music anymore because I thought that I was only adding to all that suffering.” His sense of belonging in that scene ended there, with that epiphany. “It was like I had been re-baptized,” he said. The sadness, exhaustion, and mania of the tavern scene echoed the pain and tragedy Coleman sensed in Texas culture, and he felt trapped there, unable to grow or create an environment where others could grow. By playing the Blues, he could only propagate the blues. He could not explore a way to leave the blues behind.

On November 30, 1965, Coleman opened his set at Copenhagen’s Tivoli Koncertsal with his 1959 composition “Lonely Woman,” already something of a standard, and the only tune in the set that the audience would have heard before. “Lonely Woman” is, here, a loud lament: pure, desperate blues. Over steadily carved arco bass from David Izenzon and energetic bouncing and splash from drummer Charles Moffett, Coleman draws out the horn phrasing, making it reach, ending elongated stamina blasts with boozy, hard curls. The audience, 1,600 Danes in an auditorium nestled in the grounds of a sprawling, fanciful nineteenth-century amusement park, are transported to the clubs of postwar Fort Worth. Coleman plays his past to them as he introduces himself. He shakes his memories of intoxication, sorrow, and delirium before they become reverie, and picks up the pace; Moffett follows, and Coleman puts some nimble bebop into his playing, quotations of other moments, people, and places. When the improvisation runs out of gas and dies down—it’s clear that the length of this up-tempo passage had not been agreed upon ahead of time—Coleman returns to the yearning, stretched figures of the main theme, now stronger than before. The song collapses in exhaustion, and the audience erupts into applause. Moffett plays a few rolling, ecstatic hits and the crowd starts clapping percussively. The precise syncopated reaction is jarring, and the first audible clue that this is not an American audience. There is an intense energy in the room.

Coleman drops into “Clergyman’s Dream” without letting the audience carry the moment. It’s a workout. Izenzon plays nimble pizzicato, chasing the horn line around, looking for the key and the phrasing. Moffett keeps an up-tempo ride [End Page 77] pattern going. Coleman hits a peak and lays off. Izenzon takes a short solo; Moffett takes a long solo. One has the sense that everyone has settled into the space. Coleman rejoins and they celebrate for a good while longer. The tune lasts twenty minutes. “Sadness” follows, a shifting of weight. Coleman goes for a stroll, taking some time and space to think. It’s an aside, and blue, but without the overwhelming bodily pathos of “Lonely Woman” at the top of the set. The sadness in question feels like the hardness of estrangement rather than the softness of despair. It’s only a few minutes long. “Falling Star” closes things out. For this valediction to his Copenhagen audience—forty minutes after greeting them for the first time—Coleman plays the violin and trumpet, two instruments he had never played on record.

Jazz-obsessed Danes had intensely anticipated Coleman’s Tivoli performance for...