NEW YORK — Funny, the pent-up anticipation that usually wells up before a concert didn't hit me until a half hour before Ornette Coleman took the stage at Town Hall.
After all, the chance to hear the original Ornette Coleman Quartet--Coleman (alto sax), Don Cherry (trumpet), Charlie Haden (bass) and Billy Higgins (drums)--was the reason I came to New York in the first place. Even a fruitless trek up to Town Hall to catch some of the late afternoon sound check hadn't ignited any sparks.
And this was a performance a New York Times critic touted as one of the jazz events of the decade. This was a performance that found a healthy throng of people milling around Town Hall hoping to find tickets to the sold-out concert. But this was more than a "hottest ticket in town" performance for me.
Some fans may dream the impossible dream of hearing deceased masters such as Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley or Charlie Parker perform in the flesh. The most universal dream for pop fans was a Beatles reunion concert until Mark David Chapman fatally shot John Lennon. But not me--seeing the Ornette Coleman Quartet live was my Beatles reunion.
I first heard Ornette Coleman's music nearly 20 years ago. During summer break from high school I was working as a caddy and spending most of that money on the underground rock records of the day, such as Cream and John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, and Chicago blues albums. One day, with no new rock or blues albums around and my curiosity whetted by early Rolling Stone magazine articles, I started buying jazz albums.
"The Best of Ornette Coleman" album on Atlantic was about the 10th one I'd bought. His music floored me--it was simply the most natural and organic that I had ever heard in my life. Maybe it was the pervasive Texas blues feeling or the sense of wide open spaces it evoked that pulled me in. But that's intellectualizing after the fact; at the time, it just made perfect sense that music like this existed in the world.
So I was shocked to discover when I read the liner notes that Coleman's music provoked a mammoth controversy in jazz circles when he first performed in New York in the late '50s. Perhaps it stemmed from my lack of knowledge of music in any formal sense, but I simply couldn't fathom how music as beautiful and inherently logical to me could have stirred up that kind of reaction.
I became a devout Ornette Coleman fanatic. About 40 albums have been released during his career--I'm two short of the full set and that doesn't include duplicates of some prized records I've snapped up on sight.
The obsession has reached ridiculous proportions. When a woman friend recently showed me a Coleman bootleg she found that I had never seen, I was so enthralled that she offered to give it to me . . . and I instantly took her up on it.
But, by the time I became fascinated with Coleman's early music, he had ushered in a new phase involving electric instruments that evolved into his current Prime Time Band. I faithfully bought every record, caught every Los Angeles appearance by Prime Time and kept close tabs on projects involving his old musicians, particularly the Old and New Dreams quartet that briefly kept the legacy of his acoustic music alive.
But the prospect of ever hearing the original group was just another no-hope pipedream until three months ago, when Charlie Haden dropped the tantalizing word that he had been recording with the reunited quartet in New York. When the news arrived that Coleman's JVC Jazz Festival appearance here would include a performance by the original quartet, there was no question where I was headed during the last week of June.
When the house lights dimmed again after Prime Time's opening set in Town Hall, I was intently focused on the stage as first Cherry, then Haden, Blackwell and Coleman were introduced and prepared to play. They were older, obviously, but I wasn't carrying any nostalgic baggage where the music or the way the musicians looked might dredge up a disquieting reminder of the way things once were. True, Higgins wasn't there but Ed Blackwell had played on so many of those early records that I had always considered the two drummers interchangeable.
And when they began playing, it sounded just like it was supposed to. There was no sinking realization that your advance expectations were so high that there was no way the music could realistically live up to them.
The only old piece I recognized was "Lonely Woman" but that didn't matter because Coleman's appeal to me has always been the way he makes music rather than specific songs. And the pulsing rhythms of Haden and Blackwell and Ornette's alternately jubilant and mournful solo romps into the wide open center of the music was everything I had hoped for.
That initial euphoria didn't last long--next morning deadlines have a nasty way of bringing you back down to nuts-and-bolts considerations real quick. But the music that night has been lingering in my memory for weeks and probably will for months to come. As I told one friend after the concert, I can die happy now.
Well, wait a minute. Charlie Haden had mentioned something about a tour in the late summer or fall. If I grind out enough articles in the next couple of months, I would be due for a well-deserved break by then. Visiting different cities would be a broadening experience and traveling around like a band on the road would certainly give me new insights into the musician's life.
Hmmm . . . I wonder if Haden needs an apprentice roadie to lug around that upright bass.