The Battle of the Five Spot Ornette Coleman and the New York Jazz Field, by: David Lee

The Mercury Press, 2006

©Laurence Svirchev

The Battle of the Five Spot tackles three topics, the most important being the significance of Ornette Coleman’s 1959 supernova entrée into the jazz world at the Five Spot Café. The second topic is the jazz club-scene –the Five Spot Café is the example- which Lee treats as a as a microcosm of the artistic world. The third academically elucidates topics one and two in light of the “artistic field” theories of French philosopher/sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002).

Before Ornette Coleman hit the New York scene, Cecil Taylor had begun to develop his explosive music, Bobby Bradford and John Carter were hinting at freedom, Steve Lacy was moving from dixieland to improvisation, and in Europe, Manfred Schoof, Alexander von Schlippenbach, and Evan Parker were all-ears to American developments as they were en-route to their own expressions of freedom. Something new was in the air, but there was scarcely a hint that “free jazz” would seed, divide, multiply, and develop into the variegated forest that it is in 2007.

Coleman did in fact hit the scene, and the musical result was an immediate, frantic, and emotional alignment of opinions into pro and con with precious little middle ground. Some went so far as to say that Ornette Coleman couldn’t play, a castigation that had been hurled at Thelonious Sphere Monk a decade previously. It was the same dynamic that young artists like Picasso or Isadora Duncan had faced when they hit their scenes, their art shocking and scandalizing the proponents of established forms.

Lee’s book helps both aficionado and professional readers understand a period of critical mass in American music. The principle value of The Battle of the Five Spot is that it analyzes the musicology central to understanding what has been called free jazz. The music that Coleman and others developed broke with the song-forms that had formed the basis of American jazz through its course of development. Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman’ was simply not “Surrey with the Fringe on Top”.

Free jazz also permitted, for the first time, complete egalitarianism, democracy, and creativity within a jazz group. Drum and bass, for example, were not confined to the role of time-keeping or the occasional virtuosic solo. The overall emotional appeal and the intertwining of harmony, melody, and rhythm from any instrument become the defining points of the music.

These relatively simple points of music-making may be taken as obvious and normal to many musicians and listeners today, yet they provoked considerable controversy when they were first enunciated in clubs and on recordings four-plus decades ago. And oddly enough, in the post-2000 media that are dominated by movado wrist-watch type advertisements, the sleekly-groomed movado model holding a trumpet still elicits considerable press when he speaks of  “jazz tradition.”

In fact any realistic, as opposed to advertising-public relations, point of view would state with aplomb that the jazz tradition now includes what Coleman and his contemporaries expounded almost fifty years ago, what Charlie Parker and others let loose sixty years ago, and what Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines revolutionized eighty-five years ago. Listening to any one of those masters should still send shivers down spines.

Lee nicely situates the context of Coleman’s New York debut. The Five Spot Café was situated in the bohemian section of Greenwich Village in New York City. The area had long been a focal point for American cultural innovation. The poet e.e. cummings in the 1920’s had hung out in the men’s only McSorley’s Old Ale House, located around the corner from what was to become the Five Spot. So did Woody Guthrie. The Cooper Union, one of the more prestigious arts and sciences universities in the United States, was right next door and doubtless supplied plenty of the white female students that Lee describes as hanging out with Charles Mingus at the Five Spot. Thelonious Sphere Monk had played there many times with Johnny Griffin and John Coltrane. Full-of-gusto intellectuals like Amiri Baraka and Norman Mailer were regular patrons. When these well-connected writers passed the word about who was hip and who was not, the news traveled fast through the neural subways of New York’s intelligentsia and cultural power-mongers.

The Battle of the Five Spot explores in-depth the multiple relationships that consecrated (a word Lee frequently uses) Coleman as well as those who sought to de-establish him. Some of Coleman’s detractors were musicians who appeared to be initially threatened, but who also later became reconciled when their own positions in the jazz world were not at all endangered by what the free improvisers wrought. But he also had his promoters, and they came from unexpected sources in the musical community, for example the ultra-sophisticated composer John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet and the contemporary-classicist Gunther Schuller.

What comes out of the analysis are two salient features: Coleman’s incredible self-confidence in overcoming the odds against tomorrow, and his equally incredible influence, which seemed to come out of nowhere. For when Coleman arrived in New York, he landed, and he played. He did not go through the traditional method of hanging out, sitting in, and then getting gigs from the New York establishment.

Coleman had already been a house servant and a dishwasher in-between rare gigs during his formative years. He had been kicked off many bandstands, either because other musicians couldn’t stand or understand what he was playing, or because club owners couldn’t sell drinks when their customers fled from Coleman’s music. But when he got to New York, there he was, fully formed, with a musical conception that rattled the cages. He was like the brother from another planet, very few knew what to make of him. But some of those very few, for example von Schlippenbach and Manfred Schoof in Germany, knew exactly what Coleman was doing. They were not the only ones. Lee documents and analyzes all of this in a lucid way, enough to make one nostalgic and wish they too had sat in the Five Spot Café when it was all new.

The Battle of the Five Spot, however, contains a serious detraction from Lee’s simple, straightforward, and easily understood presentation of the social, political, and economic intricacies of an artistic scene. The book is an adaptation from Lee’s masters thesis using Pierre Bourdieu’s “artistic field” theories to help explain the Ornette Coleman phenomenon. From my perspective as an interested reader, Lee spends an inordinate amount of time discussing Bourdieu’s work, which is well-weaved throughout the book. For example, Lee uses the Bourdieu’s term “field” when the word “scene” with a bit of explanation would be intuitively understood even by readers with a cursory familiarity with jazz culture. Had ninety percent of the discussion of Bourdieu’s theory were left out and the reader presented with a bare-bones summary, that would have left much more room for exploring the actual music and, for example, its links with its antecedents in contemporary classical music.

With that one proviso, The Battle of the Five Spot is an essential work for understanding today’s –and yesterday’s- creative music.

Originally published September 2007

Comments are closed.