Abolishing the Terms of Unison: Ornette Coleman's Aesthetic Marronage

An abstract expressionist on a black canvas with pointillistic paint splatters in yellow, orange, and white
Photo by Jr Korpa / Unsplash

Presented at the Rhythm Changes Jazz Studies Conference in Amsterdam, Netherlands on August 26, 2022

Today, I'll be engaging in an exploration of jazz as politics through the musical practices of Ornette Coleman, the visionary midcentury alto saxophonist, composer, and improviser who unabashedly set the tone for much of the music's development in the modern era.

My goal is to consider Coleman's musical output as a form of bandstand prefiguaritivity, as a laboratory for living into his radical vision of freedom. Here I use the term prefigurative to describe political projects that aim to model the world they are trying to build through the activity of the project itself. In other words, I aim to describe the project of convening, organizing, and performing Coleman's music as a project geared towards prefiguring his expansive understanding of freedom, grounded in individual autonomy and collective self-governance. As Coleman put it in a 2008 interview with journalist Howard Mandel, "We will not allow any prejudice to be in the way of the energy of the expression that can be shared, which we call removing the caste system from sound."

That Coleman forged this conviction in the face of so much hurtful prejudice—from everyone from white supremacists to bebop purists—is important to note. Furthermore, the political implications of Coleman's project was not lost on listeners at the time—for example, rock critic Robert Christgau wrote in his review of the Prime Time band's album Of Human Feelings, "The way the players break into ripples of song only to ebb back into the tideway is participatory democracy at its most practical and utopian."

The Music

I'd like to begin in the realm of "the music itself." As we'll see, Coleman's compositional approach includes design elements that also prefigure increased autonomy and collective action, which I derive from four principles: melodic primacy, maximal ambiguity, rhythmic propulsion, and group interactivity through trust.

Melodic primacy

Coleman’s music is characterized by its melodies, which are strikingly memorable and convey a range of emotional truths. When Coleman found musicians who would rehearse his music with him, upon his arrival in Los Angeles in the early 1950s, he began to show others what he had already learned from his studies of improvised bebop melodies. As he put it in an interview with John Litweiler, "You see, when you play a melody, you have a set pattern to know just what you can do while the other person is doing certain things. . . . And finally I got them to where they could see how to express themselves without linking up to a definite maze." By “definite maze,” Coleman is likely referring to a standard concept in bebop practice: that the harmonic structure is a determinative “maze” through which a virtuosic improviser would negotiate their melody. Coleman’s musical logic reverses the principle: various harmonic possibilities are implied by the melodies, but they are not fixed structures.

In other words, the melody became the starting point through which to imagine the overall sound, not the other way around. This had an important effect on the other musicians, who, according to Coleman, began “to feel more confident in being expressive like that for themselves.” By emphasizing the melody as a starting point for limitless exploration, rather than a prescribed harmonic “territory” to be navigated, he expanded the musical space of possibilities in which he and his bandmates could operate.

Maximal ambiguity

One important factor for this boundless exploration to be possible is the creation of musical compositions that inspired the ensemble without overly constraining it. This required walking a difficult tightrope between melodic coherence and harmonic spaciousness. The principle of “maximal ambiguity” refers to something that underlies Coleman’s music on various levels, creating extra “room to move” for the individuals who perform alongside him. In other words, by creating maximally ambiguous frameworks for music-making, Coleman makes as much space as possible for the difference and individuality of his bandmates to be highlighted.

One way that this manifests is through the use of parallel 4th harmonic motion, especially between two or more melodic instruments in an ensemble. Coleman obliquely explained the logic of this usage on a number of occasions, tracing the practice back to his younger days in Texas, when he played both tenor and alto saxophones. By playing the same fingering pattern on an alto that he would play on a tenor, he would produce pitches that were a fourth higher. Thus when an instrument tuned in Eb, such as an alto, plays “their C” at the same time as an instrument pitched in Bb, such as a trumpet, playing “their C”, an interval of a fourth is produced. This could be achieved easily in practice by having both instrumentalists read off of the same lead sheet, pitched in C. Furthermore, the fact that much of the history of European counterpoint involved avoiding parallel 4th motion means that this is precisely the avenue through which Coleman begins to explore alternative harmonic possibilities. By invoking parallel 4th motion, then, Coleman and his bandmates are able to avoid any of the tonal baggage of other parallel intervals.

Coleman also achieves the principle of maximal ambiguity in meter, creating melodic phrases of varying lengths in order to frustrate any sense of regular, metrically organized time-space. This can be heard most clearly in some of his early blues-form compositions, such as “The Disguise” and “Turnaround.” Let's have a listen to “Turnaround,” in which Coleman begins the “turnaround” section of the form on the “and” of beat three in measure 8, but uses a melodic pattern with emphasis on beats 2 and 4 to come into conflict with the metrical assumptions being produced by the rhythm section (and the song’s previous regularity), creating the effect of purposefully “turning the beat around”—adding a musical pun, to boot:

With his writing for symphony orchestra and the formation of his Prime Time ensemble in the 1970s, Coleman expanded this principle of ambiguity to include genre—refusing to limit his output to the performance circuits and sonic expectations traveled by jazz musicians. The systems designed by Coleman to achieve maximal ambiguity were constantly changing over time; no single specific musical device or effect can stand in as a necessarily representative practice of harmolodics—this allows for even the term itself to remain ambiguous.

Rhythmic Propulsion

This is another consistent element of Coleman’s music, which presents a clear continuity with the bebop tradition. Even without metrical regularity, Coleman’s early drumset collaborators created a sense of rhythmic propulsion that is very similar to that of the great bebop drummers. There is often a swing feel played on the ride cymbal, a regular pulse, and irregular beat accents in the bebop tradition of “dropping bombs.” Later in his career, with the band Prime Time, Coleman began employing rhythmic language from funk and rock instead of swing; this coincided with his more frequent collaboration with his son Denardo on drum set. Again, no specific rhythmic language is a prerequisite for the practice of harmolodics, but the music is often characterized by a strong groove. That is not to say that Coleman’s music requires a pulse at all times—there are many instances, during improvisational sections in particular, when none of the musicians articulate a clear pulse. It is true, however, that few of Coleman’s compositions are characterized by pulselessness—even long collective improvisations such as the album Free Jazz.

Trust and Group Interactivity

The aforementioned characteristics lead to a compositional palette that allows for maximum group interactivity based upon individuals most fully being themselves in the music. As Jimmy Giuffre, who first heard Coleman in Los Angeles and studied with him at the Lenox School of Jazz in 1959, explained it,

It has nothing to do with the ideas or the musical content, it has to do with the statement—and when somebody gets to this point where he can be this free and this sure in his statement, then it’s just a matter of his speaking. . . . He has thrown out the bugaboos about being afraid of what he’s going to sound like. (Litweiler 1992:69)

This is a profound paradigm shift, from an ethical perspective. Music-making, in this formulation, is a process of self-discovery and of making space for others’ self-discovery in a process of real-time collaboration. It relies on the interactive sonic mirroring of others, while maintaining a supportive foundation for each to do so simultaneously. Furthermore, it does not privilege any particular set of sonic phenomena over others—there are truly no wrong notes.

Political Implications

I'd now like to delve a bit into these political implications more deeply. In doing so, I'm inspired by David Graeber and David Wengrow's recent book The Dawn of Everything, in which they reframe human history as a series of contingent experiments in collective action, leaving a vast archaeological record of all kinds of social systems. In one chapter, they focus on a dynamic described by the anthropologist Gregory Bateson as schismogenesis, the formation of new social orders as ethically grounded negations of the previous status quo. These can then manifest as two neighboring societies that "perform a mirror image of each other," such as Athens and Sparta in the fifth century BCE.

The geographies that Coleman traveled in his early life, what is colloquially known as the U.S. South, are also replete with such examples. Small bands of escaped slaves, indentured servants, and Indigenous people formed what were known as maroon societies since the earliest days of European colonization in North America. These groups actively constructed alternative societal formations, often in the face of dire practical circumstances, on the outskirts of European settlements. These communities proved to be consistent sources of irritation for European colonists throughout the antebellum era.

It is these stories of maroon societies that provide the theoretical foundation of Cedric Robinson's book Black Marxism, a perspicacious analysis of black political struggle in the modern era. Maroon politics lies at the core of what he calls the black radical tradition—an ongoing, lived commitment to overturn the oppressive systems that undergird contemporary racial capitalist domination by any means necessary. Crucially, Robinson argues that this negation arises not only from an ethical commitment against oppression, but also towards alternative modes of world-making traceable to their African ancestry.

In an earlier book, The Terms of Order, Robinson also makes this point when he contrasts European conceptions of anarchism with anthropological studies of so-called "stateless societies" in Africa. After identifying a handful of unresolved contradictions in the European anarchist project about the nature of power and revolutionary change, he concludes that "though anarchist theorists attempted to reconstruct social order mainly on the basis of economic authority, their conceptualizations of social order had identical epistemological and metaphysical foundations to that which they sought to oppose."

He contrasts this contradiction with an evaluation of the Tonga, a group of Bantu-speaking people living in what is now Zambia. His conclusions are as follows:

In developing an epistemology based on a metaphysics of kinship, the Tonga, for one, have preserved a mythology which is transferable and translatable into a variety of social and historical milieu. It is a mythology whose primeval presumptions are constantly referred to in the 'brotherhoods' and 'sisterhoods' which characterizes the movements of oppressed peoples from the most highly industrialized to the most primitive of contexts. ... The singular significance of the mythology, one which is yet to fully be understood, is that it is, at one and the same time, a revolutionary instrument and a post-revolutionary vision. It is capable not merely of cohering a political challenge to political authority as an epistemology and as a system of social order, but more importantly, projects an alternative epistemology and a postrevolutionary system of integration."

Coleman's insistence on "removing the caste system from sound" suggests that something similar is underway in his body of work. The political implications of this process unfold as an ongoing process of composition, rehearsal, and improvisational performance geared towards cultivating anti-carceral subjectivity, or what Lorenzo Kom'boa Ervin calls the capacity to "make ourselves and our communities ungovernable." I'll now relate the four principles described earlier to their sociopolitical analogues along these lines.

The principle of melodic primacy encourages an approach to group collaboration based on shared orientation to a single sonic referent. This, in turn, allows for other elements previously thought to be fixed to be experienced more expansively as the improvisers negotiate the performance of the melody. Each musician has a great deal of autonomy to augment and tease out different aspects of the melodic statement, depending on what the others are doing at any given moment. Just as Cedric Robinson offers a radical alternative to Western notions of political order in The Terms of Order, Coleman offers a radical alternative to Western notions of unison by emphasizing the real-time, relational aspect of playing something together.

The principle of maximal ambiguity supports this tendency by militating against shared habitual tendencies within the group. Improvisers practicing with maximal ambiguity are alert for whenever the energy flow stagnates, seeking opportunities to spill over into new streams and eddies. Rather than tightly coordinated actions designed by a central cadre, actions unfold as provocations and responses grounded in shared trust and a common goal.

To my ear, rhythmic propulsion reflects the cultural drive at the heart of all successful change movements. As Amilcar Cabral put it in a 1972 report for the United Nations, "the struggle for liberation is before all else an act of culture." The inimitable percussive approaches of all of Coleman's drumset collaborators—especially Billy Higgins, Ed Blackwell, and his son Denardo Coleman—all point to the rich vein of black musicality at the core of so many struggles for freedom.

This leads us to the principle of trust and group interactivity, whose parallels are perhaps most obvious in the political realm. This principle allows for the resolution of the contradiction Robinson identifies in European anarchism: that a relational epistemology grounded in kinship can offer sufficient scaffolding to bridge the revolutionary present and postrevolutionary future because there are no "wrong notes"—no particular social phenomena that are privileged at the expense of the processes and relationships that bring them into being.


My exploration of these articulations began just over ten years ago, during my graduate studies at UCLA when I joined a new performing group in the Department of Ethnomusicology led by Prof. James Newton. At the time, I was far enough removed from studying chord-based improvisation that I often felt frustrated by what I then thought of as a propensity for “wrong notes.” Prof. Newton was always encouraging, however, and pointed me towards the practice of learning the melodies of Ornette Coleman by ear from a recording. I first began to do this with the song “Peace,” which I performed at a faculty recital at the Young Musicians & Artists summer program in July 2012. In that performance, joined by three very open-eared musicians well versed in free improvisation, I experienced a “flow state” experience, where my rational, emotional, and sensorimotor faculties seemed to be operating themselves in a completely integrated way, and in which I also noticed an altered state of consciousness that seemed to be able to exist in a space of inter-being with the three other musicians, who supported me adeptly. This profoundly human interaction was deeply inspiring, and I owe it in part to Coleman’s inimitable melody.

Since then, my explorations of Coleman's unique approach have continued through pedagogy, scholarly research, and trombone performance. But when I began to engage with immigration justice activism in Portland, Oregon nearly six years ago, I started hearing Coleman's aesthetic interventions differently. I had also met organizers who described similar experiences of flow-state inter-being in the early days of the Occupy ICE encampment, which successfully shut down the state immigration and customs enforcement headquarters for a week in the summer of 2018. Connecting the dots between Coleman's example of a musical life lived in the pursuit of love and contemporary activist struggles pursuing the same goals forced a reevaluation of my relationship to both jazz and liberatory politics. I hope that this presentation has also sparked your interest in this exploration and I look forward to your questions in the Q&A to follow.