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Jean Genet and Ornette Coleman
What did you see in Babylon, father, father? Not an awful lot. Most of my time
was spent doing programs and rounding up future program material for WBAI, our
own KPFAs new sister. The big news in New York right now is WBAIs impact on
the city. It is blowing the dust out of a lot of musty corners and whistling
through a number of rat holes and the New Yorkers dont know what to make of it.
At least the Establishment doesnt. Most of the holders of imaginary power in
highbrow New York circles havent had a new idea since they were expelled from
the John Reed Club in the late 30s, and they persist in trying to fit us in
their broken strait jackets of worn-out ideas.
The audience response, on the other hand, has been terrific. But
this is all old stuff to people in northern California who have been listening
to KPFA for ten years. Louis Schweitzer, the man who gave us the station, was
certainly news to me. He is one of the most vital men I have ever met, and the
only man of great wealth I ever heard of who is totally committed to direct
action social responsibility. Just eating lunch with him is thrilling but
thats a long story and should be a column by itself.
There is a big show of Monet at the Museum of Modern Art which
will be showing up in San Francisco one of these days. It is fine to see, good
to come back to Monet after many years (I grew up in Chicago, which is full of
Monets) and enter once more into these paintings entirely given over to the
movement of light and air. Monet is worth looking at for what he had to say on his own
terms, not as an influence on Philip Guston.
Theater? I cant recall, offhand, anything in the world that
interests me less than the commercial Broadway theater. Once in a long while I
get enticed into one of these things and I have never been able to get the joke.
Off Broadway right now is pretty tame. Most of it is routine Little Theater
Chekhov and ONeill and all that. There are a couple of corny reworkings of the
Classics Don Juan and Orestes, to wit. Me, I may be
over-refined, but I think theyre vulgar. Then there is Genets The Balcony,
which is a horse of another color. Genet, as you may have read, is a reformed
thief and stud-roller who learned to write in prison and who has a lovely talent
for blarney that would put Jack Kerouac to shame. Most of it, besides, is about
subjects of low life, nasty, brutish and short, which would scare that innocent
young man out of his sandals.
This play is about a brothel whose inmates pay money to act out
charades of authority. Gas men who dress as bishops, plumbers as judges, clerks
as generals. (Dont believe the news weeklies, its about as sexy as a VD
clinic.) The exigencies of a passing revolution force them to assume their
make-believe roles for real, and the old struggle of the two levels of the
Social Lie rolls over and begins again. The actors are a bit highfalutin, but
they create a powerful illusion. Once you have escaped from it, you immediately
begin to wonder, Is this true? It isnt. Society is stuffed as full of evils
as a Christmas goose of prunes and nuts, but these evils are not liable to so
simple an indictment. Completely rash overstatements like this are sentimental,
and so the play is melodrama or farce and not great comedy. But what a gift of
gab! And what theatricality! There in the small nightclub floor-show stage
of the Circle in the Square, Genet creates an all-mastering illusion by sheer
force of words. It is a little like Marlowe or Thomas Kyd, the old intoxicating
Elizabethan rant. Id like to tape it and broadcast it on KPFA. And I hope they
do it here very soon.
The best thing on this trip was the music of Ornette Coleman.
This is the young man who, almost single-handed, has launched one of those
periodic revolutions without which jazz would become a sport of musicologists.
He is playing the Five Spot to jam-packed audiences every night, rain or shine,
a large percentage of them other musicians. It is significant that the
top-notchers, Coltrane, Mingus, the Adderly brothers, and the rest, all think he
The second string, especially the perennial side men of the bop
revolution, think he is a fake. The reason, of course, is that they have a
vested interest in their own stale novelties and are terrified of being crowded
at the trough. I was a little dubious myself, and recently asked John Lewis
during a radio interview, Is Coleman really good? He answered simply and
flatly, Yes, he is just as good as they ever come. If you know music can
read score or whatever all you have to do is listen. This is jazz that uses
every musical resource, dissonance, polyrhythm, twelve-tone scales,
polytonality, special tone color effects everything you can find and pull out
of four musical instruments.
Coleman himself, as you may know, plays a plastic saxophone with
a special fleshy tone color, and he makes it do tricks like Yma Sumac. He pushes
it back and forth to the absolute limits of its range, it gulps and scoops and
vibrates Paul Whiteman would have given a lot of money to have had some of
these effects in the concert version of Oh, By Jingo, but with Coleman it is
never corny, because the end in view is an enriched musical experience, not a
Modern jazz is mostly harmony-oriented, most numbers are really
toccatas or chaconnes Theme and Variations. Seldom do you get even the
rather thin melodic and contrapuntal interest of the best Dixieland.
Ornette Coleman has restored melody to jazz. Even his new
drummer, Blackwell, weaves a constantly varying percussion melody around the
other instruments. Hayden’s bass is even more melodic, very seldom is it just
pedaling, usually something is happening, vital elements are being built into
the melodic structure. Besides, like all the others, he pulls all the color out
of the instrument he can get. Midway in the first number I suddenly pricked up
my ears and looked at his hands. He wasn’t using the conventional positions at
all, but crawling up and down the long neck of the bass like a crab. The results
were wonderful. I just hope he doesn’t get a permanent bursitis. People always
ask, “What is that thing Don Cherry plays?” He tells them it is a Pakistani yeti
whistle or some such tale. It is a triple-curled B-flat horn which must
require a superhuman head of wind to blow, especially since he plays it with a
flat, dry embouchure that makes it sound like imaginary music.
All this is just to let you know, not that I am in the know,
but that contrary to what you might have heard, nobody in jazz knows better what
he is about than these four men. Most important, it isnt a lot of scrambled
Boulez and Monteverdi. It is jazz, funkier far than jazz has been in a long
time. You could not only dance to it, you could roll and bump to it. It is even
unconsciously folkloristic. The whole group is from the Southwest, and
behind them you can hear the old bygone banjos and tack pianos, and the first
hard moans of country blues you can even hear modern Texas dance bands,
Johnny Ace and Lloyd Price. I have not spent such nights of pure musical joy and
excitement since we used to get together at Farwell Taylors or Jack Bryants
cellar joint and work out the first patterns of the new jazz that came at the
end of the war. For years Ornette Coleman wandered up and down the Coast and
nobody would hire him. If the Hawk or the Workshop doesnt get him here soon,
Ill rent a hall myself.
[May 8, 1960]
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