Ornette Coleman’s Jackson Pollock Connection

Ornette Coleman. Legacy Recordings

Ornette Coleman.


The pioneering jazz saxophone player Ornette Coleman passed away today at the age of 85. For Coleman’s genre-establishing 1960 LP Free Jazz, he used as the cover image a reproduction of White Light by Jackson Pollock—an artist whose untethered abstraction mirrored Coleman’s explorative work within modern jazz.

In 2006, The New York Observer visited an exhibition of Pollock’s works on paper with Coleman, wherein the saxophone player affirmed the connection between the two iconoclasts. From the piece:

Gazing at Green Silver, another 1949 “all-over” masterpiece, he says, “See? There’s the top of the painting, there’s the bottom. But as far as the activity going on all over, it’s equal.” He pauses and shakes his head, impressed. “It’s not random. He knows what he’s doing. He knows when he’s finished. But still, it’s free-form.”

Sort of like your music?

“Well, like music, not just my music.”

But most musicians put the melody up front, the chords in the background.

“But that’s only because somebody told them that’s how it should be.”

As noted by the web site Federal Jazz Policy, it seems as though Pollock, an avid jazz enthusiast, would likely not have been a fan of Coleman if given the opportunity. (Pollock died in 1956; Coleman’s first record came out in 1958.) An article in the Wall Street Journal from 1999 states that “Although Pollock was hardly a traditionalist in his own art, his taste in jazz was for the classic New Orleans pioneers, the quintessential swing bands, the blues bards and Billie Holiday,” adding that “he had no use for such legendary modern-jazz figures as Charlie Parker, who were accused by traditionalist critics of burying the melody, splintering the rhythms and creating dissonance within dissonance.”

If Pollock couldn’t stomach Charlie Parker, Coleman probably would have drove him insane. It’s important to remember how divisive this music was during it’s advent. A quote from a 1960 New York Times article in part about Coleman called “Extremes of Jazz Meet Nightly in ‘Village'” perhaps captures the sentiment of the era best: “‘I don’t understand what he’s doing,’ several people remarked.”

Below is Free Jazz in it’s entirety.

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