1959 was the year Ornette Coleman broke into the jazz consciousness, a big bang event that forever changed the perception of what jazz is and the esthetics of the genre. In May of that year, while still in the west coast, he recorded his debut on Atlantic Records, the milestone album The Shape of Jazz to Come. In November he opened a two week engagement at the Five Spot Café in New York City, which expanded to ten weeks and generated a heated debate about his music. In between these events, that watershed year also included a period of three weeks that gave Coleman a flavor of what’s to expect from the jazz community, in particular fellow musicians. Already a professional sax player for ten years, he found himself as a student in a summer jazz program with esteemed faculty members and talented fellow students. The division of opinions about what he brought into jazz started there. This is the story of the 1959 Lenox school of jazz summer program.
The jazz program in the Massachusetts town of Lenox in the thick of the beautiful Berkshires region, home to the Tanglewood summer residence of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, started in the early 1950s when the New York couple Stephanie and Philip Barber purchased some land including an Inn and used it as a space for music lectures and performances. The highly acclaimed jazz scholar Marshall Sterns used to give talks about the history of jazz, and various jazz and folk artists such as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Dave Brubeck, Pete Seeger and Woodie Guthrie performed at what became known as the Music Barn. One of the bands that played there in 1956 was the Modern Jazz Quartet, where John Lewis realized the potential of a regular jazz education program in these serene surroundings and was appointed artistic director of a new school, its inaugural season that of summer of 1957. Lewis told Metronome magazine that year: “No one is attending the school to be tested. Even if they couldn’t play at all, they could gain something from the imaginative men who are doing the teaching. … We are trying to stimulate their imaginations.”
The summer program at Lenox was revolutionary it is approach to jazz education. It brought together established musicians and young students, broke the barriers between old and new and focused on the transfer of knowledge. Lewis’ goal was to “Heal the musical misunderstanding between the older masters of jazz and the younger jazz innovators. The school can be a special way to pass the traditions, the history, and the theoretical language of jazz music.” Educators included Gunther Schuller and George Russell, who together with Lewis made huge strides in fusing the concepts of classical music composition with the improvisational nature of jazz. One of the students who attended the program said: “It is very unusual for students of European classical music to study with the top rank players, rather than teachers, until they are at a very advanced stage. A school such as this is almost unknown to European music.” Trumpeter Kenny Dorham, who was a faculty member in 1958 and 1959, recalled his experience: “When I came to New York as a young boy to play, those fellows wouldn’t tell me anything – even Bird, with whom I worked for over a year. If I had this kind of chance then, I’d have been poundin’ at the gates to get in. I hope these kids realize what they’re getting.”
Faculty members in 1957 and 1958 included Dizzy Gillespie, The Oscar Peterson trio with Ray Brown and Herb Ellis, The Modern Jazz Quartet with Milt Jackson, Percy Heath and Connie Kay, The Max Roach quintet with George Coleman and Art Davis, Lee Konitz and the Jimmy Guiffre trio with Jim Hall and Bob Brookmeyer, who recalled: “There was a night when Lee Konitz, Sonny Rollins and I sat in my room, after Sonny’s concert, discussing at length whether it would be possible for musicians to critique one another, since we were all reasonably secure in our worlds. The vote was 2-1, Lee losing.” Author and critic Nat Hentoff who visited the school wrote: “In all my time writing about jazz, with all the extraordinary experiences I’ve had listening to the music and talking to the musicians, a phenomenon unto itself was the time I spent at Music Inn. I learned so much during those days and nights that I have been mining that information ever since.”
1959 marked a major year for the school, with the addition of musicians who will shape the nature of jazz music from this point forward. Bill Evans joined as faculty member, only a few months after recording the legendary album Kind of Blue with Miles Davis and a few more months before the first recording with his trio. Even more significant was the enrolment of two west coast musicians as students, covered by a scholarship granted by Nesuhi Ertegun, head of the Atlantic jazz label. The man behind this masterstroke was John Lewis, one of the early and the few who recognized the genius in Ornette Coleman’s music. Upon listening to Ornette he recommended him to Ertegun, another man with a vision, who signed him to his prestigious label. Lewis later said: “There are two young players I met in California – an Alto player named Ornette Coleman and a trumpet player named Don Cherry. I’ve never heard anything like them before. They’re almost like twins, they play together like I’ve never heard anybody play together. It’s not like any ensemble I have ever heard, and I can’t figure out what it’s all about yet.” Ornette Coleman looked at the opportunity to join the summer program at Lenox purely as a step in the right direction, literally, towards New York City: “Joe Timini of the Five Spot had said if I got to Lenox I could have the job. The club wouldn’t have paid the plane fare and transportation for me and my band to New York and back.” That Five Spot job was Ornette’s breakthrough not only in NYC, but into the jazz world at large. Read more about it here.
Like he did in NYC later that year during his performances at the Five Spot, Ornette divided faculty and students alike at Lenox. This had nothing to do with his personality, for he was a no-nonsense, pleasant man. But once he started blowing, he left people annoyed, critical, confused, supportive and sometimes appreciative. Through various written sources I collected quotes from musicians who were at Lenox that summer. The annoyed – Bob Brookmeyer: “I used to scream out of my window: ‘Damn it, tune up!’ as these cats would play evenings downstairs. The special interest in Ornette and Cherry, coupled with having to listen to their music constantly, was responsible for my leaving the faculty at Lenox.” Brookmeyer later toned down his reaction to Ornette when he saw him at the Five Spot. The critical – Austrian guitarist Attila Zoller, a student in 1959 before he joined Chico Hamilton’s group: “We were rooming together with Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry. We were the three oldest guys. There were not single rooms there; they always doubled up. They tripled us! It was a big room. At that time, we got into a lot of arguments about this stupid kind of a playing what he was trying to do – playing without changes, you know.”
The confused (and smart) – Pianist Steve Kuhn, a fellow student in 1959: “The group I was assigned was Ornette, Don Cherry, myself, Larry Ridley was the bassist, and a trombone player named Kent McGarrity (if I’m not mistaken), and a drummer named Barry Greenspan (I think he opened a drum store somewhere). That was the student group, and our leaders were John Lewis and Max Roach. So there was a real first-hand exposure to Ornette, and frankly, I really didn’t know what to do when he was soloing. So I just laid out, which seemed the most logical thing to do. John Lewis, bless his heart, said, ‘You can’t play chords.’ I said, ‘I know. That’s why I’m not doing anything.’ He said, ‘Why don’t you do sort of what I play behind Milt.’ He was playing these single-finger, single-note little counterpoints behind Milt. But I never really cared much for that. I just thought Milt swung his ass off all the time, and it was sort of counter-productive to that. So I did it a little bit, just to placate him, but I wound up just not playing, sitting on my hands, while he and Don played. To this day, I would probably do the same thing. I would enjoy listening to him, but I wouldn’t know what to do behind him. Now, if it came time to my solo, then that’s another story.”
The supportive – Gunther Schuller, who taught music history and composition and enjoyed Ornette’s curiosity about the music of his elders: “In some deep sense he wasn’t a student there – he could have taught any of the faculty at Lenox. He burst on the scene completely intact. The only thing that I felt I was able to teach him there, I did all of the history courses. I remember vividly Ornette Coleman just going out of his mind the first time he heard Jelly Roll Morton’s Black Bottom Stomp – he thought it was the best thing he’d ever heard in his life. I played a lot of Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, God knows what, and a lot of it was a revelation to him about his own heritage.” The appreciative – Pianist Ran Blake: “He was a strange muse. He would whisper when he talked to me. Once when the classmates made fun of my music he put his arm on my shoulder and later Don Cherry really befriended me and said I was admired.” When Blake met Ornette years later, Ornette complimented him and told him “It’s too bad you only play piano.”
Bill Evans’ comments about Ornette are perhaps the most open and honest: “I tried to play with Ornette one day at Lenox and it wasn’t really successful for a number of reasons. I enjoy listening to it, but I don’t know how much I could fit in. I don’t hear anything wrong in his conception, I think he’s very natural. I don’t think he’s trying to be far out.” Furthermore, he had some things to say about the criticism Ornette took in 1959: “I don’t understand that business. There are so many motivations, there’s jealousy, and there’s fear. I know there’s a lot of musicians that are probably just afraid. They are saying, well, if this is it, I know I’m far from it. Ornette plays some old-time licks, you listen to him. In fact I was sitting with Percy Heath the other night down there listening to him. He played something that sounded like about 1910, but maybe in a different place and with a different key.”In 1959 the three-week summer program at Lenox offered students an event almost every evening. The program included lectures and talks on topics such as The relationship of jazz to the university campus, Primitive beginnings of jazz in America, International jazz audience, Stylistic aspects of contemporary music, and The status of jazz study and performance in Europe. There were also concerts by The Jimmy Giuffre 3 and Ray Charles. But the most anticipated event was the closing annual benefit concert on August 29, performed by all the ensembles that grouped together faculty members and students. Six ensembles performed that night and the order of performances gave the audience no opportunity to ease into it as Max Roach’s ensemble got the honor to be the first, starting the evening with a composition by – you guessed – Ornette Coleman. The piece was The Sphynx, somewhat reminding me of Happy House in its syncopated rhythm. Bassist Larry Ridley, a student who was in Max Roach’s ensemble with Ornette, recalled: “And Ornette used to say, ‘Just play what you hear and what you feel.’ And he gave me this music to read with no bar lines. I’m saying ‘Wait a minute Ornette, what’s happening here? There are no bar lines.’ And he says ‘Oh, just play it.’”
Two more Ornette Coleman compositions were performed that night, Compassion and Giggin’, but unfortunately the LP that was released from that concert did not include them. It did however include one more track by Max Roach’s ensemble. No better way to introduce it then this funny story by Margo Guryan, a fellow student that summer: “In 1959 I was assigned to the group led by Max Roach; Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry were students (!) and assigned to the same group. One day, as I listened to the group rehearse, I saw Max walk from the rear of the stage to the front…where I was sitting. It occurred to me that he was going to ask me for a cigarette, so as he reached the lip of the stage, there I was holding up a pack with one cigarette pushed out. He said, ‘How did you know I was going to ask you for a cigarette?’ I said, ‘I don’t know.’ Shortly after that, when the rehearsal ended, Max walked over to John Lewis and they spoke. Almost immediately, John approached me and said, ‘Write something for tomorrow.’ I’m quite sure Max instigated this! I did write something…although who-the-hell knew what to write for Ornette Coleman at that time?…called it Inn Tune.”
Coleman had no problem navigating through the long tricky melody she wrote. Guryan’s links to the Lenox school continued when she later married Bob Brookmeyer and wrote lyrics to Ornette Coleman’s soulful piece Lonely Woman.
An article by Milton Bass covering the recital for the Berkshire Eagle read: “This talented young man split the faculty of the school smack down the middle because he plays in a style that is uniquely his own, a chaotic effusion that enraged the more traditionally oriented of the teachers.” A month after the Lenox concert saw the release of The Shape of Jazz to Come, and one more month later Ornette Coleman and his quartet with Don Cherry, Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins started their engagement at The Five Spot and jazz changed forever.
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