In Print

The Battle of the Five Spot: Ornette Coleman and the New York Jazz Field
David Neil Lee (Wolsak and Wynn)

By Ken Waxman

Ornette Coleman’s 1959-1960 engagements at the Five Spot Café has since passed into jazz mythology not so much because it gave the alto saxophonist’s quartet its first prolonged NYC exposure, but also because it demonstrated that Coleman’s free jazz had to be taken seriously by the jazz world. Taking his cue from French-based philosophical tropes, author David Lee situates Coleman’s Five Spot appearance within its time, noting that the controversy surrounding those gigs plus the saxophonist’s subsequent acceptance owed as much to extra-musical as musical circumstances. Coleman arrived out of jazz nowhere and became a “star” because his supporters had stronger cultural bona fides than his detractors.

Lee sketches the scene at the turn of ‘60s when jazz, at the height of its post-war popularity, symbolized American high art and bohemianism, with certified intellectuals like Norman Mailer jazz supporters. The locus of jazz was NYC clubs such as The Five Spot. Plus following the advances of, Miles Davis and Charles Mingus, jazz taste makers were waiting for a jazzman who would adapt atonality to thrill jazz’s audience. Coleman fit the bill.

Very quickly, notes Lee, nearly everyone had an opinion on Coleman. The alto saxophonist’s detractors mostly included swing and bop-identified musicians of the caliber of Davis, Red Garland, Max Roach and Roy Eldridge – some of whom would later become avant-garde supporters – and critics such as Leonard Feather. On Coleman’s side were those perceived as being on jazz’s cutting edge. They included influential critic Martin Williams, who persuaded The Five Spot`s owners to engage Coleman; plus such musicians as John Lewis, the Modern Jazz Quartet’s music director, Third Stream composer Gunther Schuller; and even the New York Philharmonic’s Leonard Bernstein. Lee points out that the saxophonist’s recognition provided a blueprint for the advancement of the careers of other genre-stretchers such as Cecil Taylor, Anthony Braxton and the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Later though, a different group of tastemakers, using similar anti-establishment tropes and definitions of legitimacy that helped Coleman, fostered the career of jazz’s neo-conservative star Wynton Marsalis.

This is a book worth reading for its exhaustive research plus the provocation ideas contained in its thesis.

—For The New York City Jazz Record June 2015