The Battle of the Five Spot: Ornette Coleman and the New York Jazz Field

By David Lee
Mercury Press

By Ken Waxman

Taking as his jumping off point the theories of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu and applying them to the legendary New York club engagement of the Ornette Coleman Quartet in 1959-1960, David Lee has produced a unique and fascinating book.

The Battle of the Five Spot is a touch academic, as can be expected when linking Bourdieu (1930-2002), a post-war French intellectual of the first order with the innovative yet decidedly unorthodox improvisations of Coleman, who by coincidence was born the same year as Bourdieu. Neither dry nor pedagogic in his writing however, Lee uses Bourdieu’s theory of “fields” to document not only the impact of the ostensibly revolutionary music of the alto saxophonist, but also to show how his widely heralded engagement at the Five Spot jazz club realigned the existing jazz infrastructure.

This is what makes the volume particularly noteworthy, since few sound creators actively consider how many non-musical factors are involved in the acceptance or non-acceptance of their work.

Briefly, applying Bourdieu definition of a “field” as a “self-contained universe” to the existing jazz scene, Lee points out that this intellectual areas like others, is rife with conflict. These tensions relate to “its members positions” in this “intricate ecology in which each individual’s movements within the field hierarchy are constantly monitored by the other members …because each person’s change in status up or down through the ranks, has the potential to displace the position of any one or all of the field’s members.”

A notable field member accumulates, according to Bourdieu, the “prestige, celebrity and consecration” which provides more of an opportunity for the artist to eventually extract economic capital from his or her endeavours. Consecration is doubly important because it’s the process by which an artist “newly arrived from outside of the field … achieves substantial status within it.”

Unlike most field members, however, Coleman seemed to have arrived at substantial status, without, at least according to his detractors, fulfilling the proper apprenticeship – paying New York sideman dues. His early experience which helped form his theory of harmolodics was in his native Texas and then Los Angles. A loner, he had never played or recorded with any other major jazz figure.

Remember that by the late 1950s jazz had the highest profile in North America it ever had or perhaps will have. It was championed as high musical art by innovative visual artists and literary figures such as Jack Kerouac, Norman Mailer and James Baldwin looking for cultural heroes not entertainers. Physical locus was within the self-consciously avant-garde, that is “cool” clubs of New York such as the Five Spot.

Despite experiments with self-conscious, long-form pseudo-classicism, by 1959 the taste makers in their field had concluded that jazz had come to terms with the speedy tempos introduced by Bebop pioneers like Charlie “Bird” Parker and would next be concerned with gradual evolution of the song form. One person who accumulated value- added cultural and symbolic capital to be accorded top position in this “field” was trumpeter Miles Davis with his seminal LP Kind of Blue. Once Coleman’s quartet arrived, however, says Lee “[s]uddenly playing jazz need have nothing to do with the song form …or in some cases any pre-arranged structure.”

Confronted by an “un-consecrated avant-garde figure” in a prestigious jazz venue, musicians such as Davis were involved with what Bourdieu described as the conflict “between artistic generations, often only a few years apart”. What seemed to rankle was while one respected jazzman – or consecrator – who championed Coleman was John Lewis, pianist in the highly successful Modern Jazz Quartet, other mediators who praised him and his music included non-jazz musicians such as Third Stream composer Gunther Schuller, conductor-composer Leonard Bernstein and several prominent music critics.

To apply Bourdieu’s “fields” theory, again, Lee points out that many musicians who couldn’t accept Coleman’s way of playing “effectively lost rank within the jazz field”. As he writes: “in terms of symbolic capital, if the most valuable currency within the field was possessed by the musicians seen as the most au courant, then after decades of working their way up through the hierarchy [they] were now clearly being sent down. And:” it’s possible that Coleman’s fiercest detractors among the era’s jazz musicians were reacting not to him or to his music but to what they saw as a devaluing of their entire body of work and a threat within the jazz field”.

Since this loss of status and displacement within the field often translated into a monetary loss as mediators such as Mailer, Bernstein and others , hungry for the “next big thing” abandoned these musicians, is it any wonder that song-form players like Davis would characterize Coleman as being “all screwed up inside”?

The Battle of the Five Spot goes into greater detail about the jazz wars that resulted from Coleman’s appearance and how in time, there was a gradual rapprochement among the different factors. Using Bourdieu’s theory, the situation Lee isolates can be universally illuminating. New Music practitioners of every sort of style can probably cite other instances where a musician’s output was denigrated not so much for what it was or sounded like, but for what it wasn’t. Was Coleman’s experience any different than the circumstances in their field(s) that confronted early minimalist composers or electro-acoustic players or sound poets?

A fine effort, The Battle of the Five Spot, is not only for improvised music followers, but can be read for insight by anyone who has ever created – or championed the creation of – an artistic product beyond the then-accepted norms.

In MusicWorks Issue #98