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The Ornette Coleman Concert That Never Happened — Or Did It?

Ornette Coleman

August 29, 2017 | by Jeff Wilson

The Jackson Pollock of Jazz

When alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman began recording albums in the late 1950s, battlelines were quickly drawn. Some considered the leader of the new avant-garde school of jazz a charlatan — “I think he’s jiving,” is how trumpeter Roy Eldridge put it — yet Ornette’s most ardent supporters included prominent members of the jazz mainstream, including John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet. Ornette released six albums between 1958 and 1961. The music world was still busy processing the first five when the boldly innovative Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation hit record stores in September of 1961. The LP contained a gatefold cover that, when opened, revealed a reprint of an abstract-expressionist painting by Jackson Pollock. “White Light” is everything you’d expect a Jackson Pollock painting to be: dense, abstract, and wildly improvisational, it was a visual burst of energy. Similar words could also describe the music by Ornette’s new “double quartet,” which featured separate trumpet players, bassist, and drummer in both channels, as well as bass clarinet on one side and alto saxophone on the other.

For this once-ever session, some of Ornette’s current and former bandmates — Don Cherry, Charlie Haden, Ed Blackwell, and Billy Higgins — were joined by Eric Dolphy, Freddie Hubbard, and Scott LaFaro. Although some recordings billed as “collective improvisation” are harsher, more aggressive, and more abstract than Free Jazz, the interplay between the horn players, which sometimes evolves into simultaneous soloing, added a new layer of complexity to Ornette’s music, and the record has remained one of the centerpieces of the new jazz. Free Jazz was a one-time project with no tour to promote it. Probably the economics of paying and transporting such a large band had something to do with that — and logistics, too, as corralling eight of the most in-demand jazz musicians for an extended tour would have proved difficult.

As it turns out, only one concert was planned for the free jazz double quartet. The event was slated to take place in Cincinnati at the Taft Theatre, a 2,500-seat venue. Occasionally I’ve read about the concert, but information has been scarce — and, I might add, wildly inconsistent. There’s one detail everyone agrees on, though: Things did not go well that evening. Because I live in Cincinnati, I assumed I could dig a little deeper into this mysterious event more so than out-of-towners. I wanted to know what happened; on top of that, I wanted to know why this once-ever concert was supposed to happen here when the more obvious setting would have been New York City or another large city on the East Coast where “out” jazz was more common? Until recently, that was always a head-scratcher.

Ornette Coleman Double Quartet

Extra Sensory Perception

Some accounts of the concert placed it in October of 1961. That’s off by a month (the actual date was November 17 of that year), but I’m glad the supposed date was wrong, as newspaper reports from the month of October helped paint a picture of what the jazz scene was like in Cincinnati during that period. It’s worth noting that the entertainment section of one local newspaper gave considerable space to adventurous new jazz on both a national and local level. In October, entertainment writer Dale Stevens wrote in the Cincinnati Post and Times-Star about an innovative local jazz group called the New Jazz Four. “Main trend is to gospel jazz,” Stevens said. “But the trend with the most promising lasting power is one that doesn’t even have a name yet. It’s headed by Ornette Coleman and Eric Dolphy, and might be termed Extra Sensory Perception.”

The article added that the leader of the New Jazz Four, Frank Floyd, had studied with Ornette Coleman and Lee Konitz in New York, and apparently the group played some heady stuff. “The tunes… last as long as 15 to 20 minutes as they create in suite form, a conformity which permits a certain element of premeditation,” Stevens wrote. “Floyd is outstanding on alto with a range of emotions from searing anger to his inclination to ‘murmur’ sounds not found in the scale.” The article includes a picture of two black men and two white men dressed in dark suits. In 1961 interracial bands weren’t unheard of, but on the other hand they were uncommon. Another artist whose bands featured racially-mixed lineups? Ornette Coleman.

The New Jazz Four got more press shortly before the Ornette show as a result of becoming the house band for the newly opened Left Bank nightclub at 226 E. Fifth St. The venue was across the street and a block down from the Taft; that whole block is now occupied by Procter & Gamble’s main office. “The boys… are in the interesting new school of free-form jazz which has become ‘the’ new jazz movement through Ornette Coleman,” Stevens wrote. Considering at that point free-form jazz was almost nonexistent in Cincinnati venues, it’s a huge coincidence these two similarly-minded bands were within close walking distance of each other on the night of the show.

Stevens also penned an article about the newly-formed Encore Productions, whose first-ever concert would feature Ornette Coleman’s double quartet. Three recent graduates from the University of Cincinnati’s College Conservatory of Music felt that Cincinnati was ripe for more adventurous music. “The real progressive style of jazz hasn’t hit Cincinnati yet,” promoter Phil Blinkley said. “We think that type of music will go here because Cincinnati is a fine music town.” Ornette was to be their first show; after that they planned to bring the Modern Jazz Quartet, Thelonious Monk, George Shearing, and Miles Davis.

The Ornette Coleman Double Quartet Free Jazz

Encore Productions placed numerous ads for the concert. The largest, which appeared on the day of the show, went out of its way to highlight the fact that this was a special event: WORLD PREMIERE: ORNETTE COLEMAN DOUBLE QUARTET/In an unrehearsed concert featuring new jazz styles, original compositions, spontaneous innovations. The Post and Times-Star included a large photograph of Ornette in the entertainment section on the day of the show and included an interview. Ornette’s enigmatic responses were heady stuff for the afternoon paper.

“Music is the basic reason acting came into existence,” Ornette said. “It has that silent emotion. It betrays the emotions you can conceive yet you know someone hasn’t been through it; by playing a tune you didn’t write, but you can play it more beautifully than the person who wrote it.” Ornette also addressed religion, stating, “I believe the purpose of god creating human beings was proof they didn’t create themselves, in order for His own creation to be acknowledged.”

On the day of the concert Ornette appeared as part of a lecture series on jazz at the University of Cincinnati, and this was documented the following week in the university’s newspaper, The News Record. The article, which included a photograph of Ornette addressing a classroom, was the headline story of that issue. The writer, Leonard Herring Jr., clearly supported the music of Ornette Coleman and the efforts of Encore Productions to have important jazz artists perform in Cincinnati.

Unfortunately, after Ornette left the University of Cincinnati on the day of the concert things started to go downhill. What occurred was enough of a fiasco that it was addressed in John Litweiler’s biography Ornette Coleman: A Harmolodic Life. Litweiler makes it clear that before the concert was supposed to begin the nerves of the musicians, Ornette’s manager (Mildred Fields), and the promoters were frayed:

Ornette and Fields arrived in Cincinnati the day before the concert to promote it, and by late the next day the rest of the musicians arrived, too. While the double quartet was rehearsing for the “unrehearsed” event, Fields went to the concert promoter to ask for the $1,000 advance that the musicians were to receive. No, Encore Productions told her, we already advanced you $900 to fly the band to Cincinnati, and the musicians drove their cars instead. “Nonsense,” responded Fields. “Who ever heard of travel money with restrictions on it.” She called the musicians off the stage.

While Litweiler blames the cancellation on that disagreement, other people have blamed it on semantics. Advertisements for the concert described it as “free jazz,” which can mean more than one thing. One of the members of the double quartet who was slated to play that evening, soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy, described the day in an interview that appeared in Steve Lacy: Conversations: “Around the cinema was a long line of people waiting to buy tickets for it. And guess what? They didn’t want to pay. It was a crisis, man. ‘Hey, it’s free-jazz, we’re not gonna pay.’ So they shouldn’t pay and we wouldn’t play.” According to A Harmolodic Life, “The Cincinnati affair was a fiasco that could have turned violent, for that was the crowd’s mood.”

Did people really arrive at the show who expected it to be free? If so, they weren’t very good readers, as all the ads that I’ve seen included ticket prices, with the exception of a day-of-the-show ad. Like Litweiler, The Post and Times Star article that appeared the day after the event states the cancellation was all about the contract (“About 150 persons were given their money back after Encore Productions and Ornette Coleman disagreed”). Another local newspaper, The Cincinnati Enquirer, places the blame elsewhere, stating, “Transportation difficulties delayed half of the ensemble so that plane arrival in Cincinnati from New York was too late to permit adequate rehearsal.” Yet that sounds fishy because the MO for this octet was not to rehearse.

To make things a little more confusing, I’ll throw out the possibility some music was performed that evening. Interestingly, the three people I know who went to the Taft that evening all claim the double quartet actually played some music. When I asked Carmon DeLeone, for decades the musical director of the Cincinnati Ballet and also a fine jazz drummer, he remembered there was tension in the lobby, but he also said music was played. Jazz pianist Charlie Wilson said there was a short but aborted performance. A friend of mine, John Flanagan, stated that an initially supportive crowd soured after the music got too bizarre. Recalling an event that took place over 50 years ago is a lot to ask of a memory, but when three people who know nothing about the supposed pre-show cancellation say music took place, you gotta wonder.

So what actually happened? Did the concert end early or get cancelled before it started? And why did it go south? I hoped to answer those questions in this article, but so far all I’ve really done is add layers of ambiguity to a narrative that was hardly lacking in that department. Diving into this ill-fated evening made me flash back to those college lit classes where we studied modern novels with so many unreliable narrators that readers could never pin down exactly what happened. Strangely enough, the newspaper reports that came immediately after the show/non-show raise at least as many questions as my recent conversations. Somehow this twisted and all-too-uncertain narrative seems appropriate for Ornette Coleman, whose music has always (even when he’s played his version of fusion music, or the blues, or other more generally accessible genres) avoided the obvious. I doubt that, had Ornette chosen to write a novel, it would have been the kind of fiction that James Joyce described in a 1926 letter to Harriet Weaver as containing “wideawake language, cutanddry grammar, and goahead plot.”

Unfortunately, my attempt to play Sherlock Holmes ended in failure, or at least for now (I guess I’m hoping someone who stumbles across this article will give us the full story, plus photographs and even a recording, if any music was played). But our story isn’t over yet. Somehow I managed to stumble upon a subplot that details the activities of the octet after the Taft show went south. I first caught wind of this narrative between sets at a local jazz concert, and — well, I’ll let Ron Enyard tell the story.

Who’s Pulling the Strings?

One sunny Sunday afternoon Enyard sat across the table from me in the front room of a bookstore in the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood in Cincinnati. Enyard was the drummer for the New Jazz Four that Dale Stevens praised and featured Frank Floyd, who, again, had studied under Ornette Coleman. Even though there was no gig that day, Enyard was dressed sharply in a pair of dark sunglasses, a navy blue blazer, a dark shirt, and crisp blue jeans. Pausing for the occasional sip of coffee from a Styrofoam cup, he seemed undistracted by background chatter and people walking by us. He did request, however, the bookstore change the music in the background. During our interview Spotify saw to it that, instead of disco, Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue “and music like it” came through the speakers.

That was about all Enyard needed to do a little time-traveling. As if knowing in advance the questions I would have asked, he launched into a narrative that needed very little guidance. He began by discussing alto saxophonist Frank Floyd, who had a huge influence over him as a musician and as a person. Frank Floyd stood out as someone who, when Ron met him in the late 1950s, was already heading in the direction of free jazz.

“There would be little groups of people that would be aware of this music in different towns,” Ron said, “and I would go visit Frank in Anderson, Indiana. He had a job as a janitor, and he would have Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass that he’d be reading while he was pushing the broom. He was a very spiritual person, and when he played he played with so much heart it would just make today’s music seem academic in comparison.”

The New Jazz Four Quartet

The two musicians quickly developed a strong musical connection. “Whenever we played,” Ron said, “it would be charged with spirit. He brought out things that other players wouldn’t because he wasn’t academic.” The connection between the musicians was so strong, it seemed to go beyond music. “We’d meet at the weirdest times,” Ron said. “I saw him at a Greyhound bus station once, accidentally. It’s like, ‘Who’s pulling the strings on these puppets?’”

At first it was just the two of them, Frank Floyd on sax and Ron Enyard on drums; after bassist Michael Fleming and trombonist Eddie Morgan were added The New Jazz Quartet was formed.

“I got with Eddie and we started shaking some bushes trying to get some work,” Ron said. “That was when Dale Stevens was writing for The Post, and Dale Stevens was a friend of music. He loved our music, he loved jazz. He helped us get some gigs. At that time Seven Cities Coffee House was going, and we also had a gig at the Left Banke, which was across the street from the Taft Theater. We were playing there with that group and the group was magical. It was something that took us away.”

One thing that united the musicians was a reverence for Ornette Coleman. Explaining Ornette’s initial impact on the jazz scene, Ron said, “It was mind boggling to hear Ornette. It was so fresh; it’s still fresh today. His sound… but Frank Floyd had that sound, too. I guess they call it ‘the cry.’ It was from the soul.”

The New Jazz Quartet played for months at the Left Bank, a club with some sound issues. “The acoustics were horrible,” Enyard said. “They had a marble floor and a tin ceiling. Someone donated a parachute, an orange and white parachute, and we draped that over the bandstand. That deadened the sound quite a bit, but visually…. Under a parachute it was just a short step to be floating through mid air, and we were floating through midair. We’re playing a lot of Ornette music, and a lot of Monk, and too, just a lot of free improvisation, Our first song would probably be as we were tuning up, just developing into a spontaneous song.”

The band shared an almost telepathic chemistry. “We never counted tempos,” Ron said. “The two horns would inhale, they would hit, that would be the down beat, and then the real magic would come, where’s that second beat, because that’s going to establish the tempo. And it never failed, and there’s no explanation for that. We were so in tune with each other. With that kind of trust, when you hit, it had great significance. When you hit like that, anything’s possible.”

The members of the band were playing the same night that the free jazz double quartet was slated to perform at the Taft Theatre, and the sense of missing out on something was exacerbated by geographical proximity. “The night of the concert, we could feel the vibe in the air — Ornette’s across the street with the double quartet,” Enyard said.

Then there was more than a vibe: after leaving the Taft, members of Ornette’s band entered the Left Bank.

“We’re playing,” Enyard said, “and we look up, and there’s Don Cherry standing in front of the bandstand. All right! All right! But then he left — and he came back with most of the double quartet. Jimmy Garrison, Bobby Bradford, Steve Lacy, Ed Blackwell on drums, Charles Moffet… We did not see Ornette, although it was said that Ornette was in the back. They played, they brought their horns, and we played. They were impressed that we were students of them, disciples so to speak.”

Ornette Coleman

An impromptu session of such a historic occasion cries out for documentation. “Dick Shaffer recorded it,” Enyard said, “but then he would never let me have — I wanted to make copies.” Hearing that prompted me to say we’re going to have to track down Dick Shaffer. “Well, you’re going to have to go to heaven or hell to find him,” Enyard said, “because he passed away, and all his belongings were thrown in the dumpster.”

One of Ornettes’s band member, Charles Moffet, joined Enyard for an after-hours gig, and the connection Enyard forged with several musicians did not end that night.

“Years later I lived in Oakland, California, in Berkley, and Charles Moffet would come by and we talked about that,” Ron said. “And I mentioned it to Ed Blackwell a time or two. They remembered that fondly because we were playing Ornette’s music, and Frank was playing in the proper spirit. It wasn’t a copy of Ornette, but it was in that world.”

What are the odds that on what may well have been the only day Ornette Coleman stepped foot in Cincinnati he was playing a block away from one of his ex-students? Next to none, and the fact that kindred spirits from different parts of the country ended up jamming together suggests that something went right that evening.

A Short Sermon

Encore Productions’ goal of exposing Cincinnati to the more progressive style of jazz was noble, but we shouldn’t lose sight of the amazing amount of jazz that came there during the 1950s and 1960s. At one point there were at least a half-dozen jazz clubs within two blocks of each other downtown, and there were many more. Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Dave Brubeck, Ahmad Jahmal, Hank Mobley, Kenny Dorham, Miles Davis, Sonny Stitt, John Coltrane, Sarah Vaughan, Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Getz, the Modern Jazz Quartet, and Johnny Hartman are a few of the jazz musicians who have performed there. And it wasn’t just Cincinnati: in cities across America, audiences could see major jazz artists in small clubs all the time.

Also, the more progressive jazz soon achieved broader success. The person who first engaged a wider audience was John Coltrane. The title track of My Favorite Things — an album released a few weeks before the Ornette Coleman show at the Taft — helped open ears to “the new thing.” Somehow Coltrane’s quartet distilled the essence of a well-known song from a contemporary musical and engaged in ground-breaking improvisation. Avant-garde jazz blossomed from the 1960s through the 1980s — and then got kicked to the curb when jazz took a reactionary turn. It’s worth noting that in 1961, in a Midwestern city hardly noted for its progressive ways, the music critic for a local newspaper supported innovative jazz while in the 1980s some big-name East Coast journalists believed “real jazz” was all in the rearview mirror, leading me to wonder if the world was once a better place. Heck, just the fact that the paper had a staff music writer suggests we were better off then.

Thus ends my sermon.

Waiting for the Bus

Ron Enyard has played with many different groups, but he seems most fond of the one with Frank Floyd. For that reason, he regrets that the group folded as quickly as it did. “It was a really weird split when the band broke up,” Ron said. “The group just broke up. We didn’t really know why. I miss them tremendously to this day.”

He added, “Frank disappeared in New York. I knew his mother. She lived in Fort Wayne, Indiana. She was in touch with me and I was in touch with her. He was coming home for Christmas. By this time he was really getting out there. He wrote a letter to me and told me he was living in the bosom of Abraham. And I thought, okay, I’m still here on Hill Street with 30 dollars a month rent. He was to come home for Christmas on the Greyhound bus, and his mother went to the bus to meet him and he wasn’t on the bus. She thought maybe he’ll be on the next one, but he was gone. She went to New York looking for him. It was kind of mysterious. She talked to some friends of his and they said, ‘You just wouldn’t understand. We don’t know if he went to Tibet to meditate or if he’s still in New York.’”

At that point, Ron Enyard’s career as a jazz musician was just beginning. Performers he later worked with include Roland Kirk. For decades Enyard has overseen releases of important jazz recordings that, without his participation, would have been lost to history. The most recent, Live at Herbie’s, documents a 1967 show where Enyard pounded the skins behind tenor saxophonist Bobby Miller. That record is the only official recording of the fiery and relentlessly creative tenor player who died while still a young man.

Ron Enyard isn’t just archiving, either. He plays gigs regularly around Cincinnati, usually with younger musicians who learn something from the guy behind the drum set, the veteran who played with Frank Floyd and knows all about a style of music once referred to as Extra Sensory Perception. Three of the compositions that Enyard performs (“Turnaround,” “Jayne,” and “When Will the Blues Leave?”) are Ornette Coleman songs that preceded Free Jazz.

Ornette was part of the New Jazz Four songbook: It was his style of music that helped form a bond between two different bands on the night the quartet was joined by some kindred spirits who — in spite of the mysterious meltdown that occurred earlier in the night — played spirited music anyway.

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