This article discusses how blues music influenced Ornette Coleman, Johnny Hodges and Coleman Hawkins.
I had a chance to play different kinds of blues to an
Ethiopian musician, well versed in many Ethiopian rhythms and
scales. He liked Robert Pete Williams who reminded him of the
singers who deal with the Evil spirits (the Zar) in Ethiopia. He
had no problem with Coleman Hawkins or Johnny Hodges, although he
never heard them before. When we got to Ornette Coleman, he
plainly asked "why does he do it ?". It was completely
unacceptable to him.
The definitions of the blues are many. It seems important for
us to define what music is to be called "blues" and what music is
not blues. Some say that blues is a song form consisting of 12
bar choruses built on 3 chords - the 1st, 4th and 5th. This
definitions excludes many songs by the likes of Blind Lemon
Jefferson who rarely adhered to the 12 bar limitation, or Howlin'
Wolf who liked to stay on one chord. According to this definition
"Rock Around the Clock" by Bill Haley is "more blues" than
"Wang Dang Doodle" by the Wolf. I reject this
Amiri Baraka wrote that the blues is the music of the Africans
in America - the music of the separate African American
community, as opposed to those blacks that have called themselves
Americans. Albert Murray says the blues is the musical means by
which African Americans deal with the blues coming down on them.
I prefer both definitions to any other I have heard so far.
Still, there are problems. Both Son House and Cecil Taylor are
blues musicians according this definition, yet they clearly sound
different. Archie Schepp's blues arouses a different response
than a Ben Webster or a Lou Donaldson blues. Putting them all
under the same umbrella and leaving it at that does not seem
It seems that the stylistic differences among blues musicians
have something to do with their attitudes towards tradition.
Instinctively we place Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker Bessie Smith
or Sidney Bechet at one end of the scale, and the likes of
Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler and Anthony Braxton on the other
extreme end of the scale. Within the blues idiom, they represent
totally different approaches.
Robert Pete Williams IS tradition. He embodies the tradition
in his lyrics, vocal approach and guitar playing. This is the
African tradition in its American manifestation. For some blacks
this is unappealing, as they look for a music that is more in
tune with the changing life style. "Sleep in a hollow log" does
not describe the conditions of African Americans ever since they
crowded in the big cities.
Johnny Hodges is as traditional as R.P. Williams, except he
plays the tradition at a different stage - the tradition adjusted
to the big cities, and the urban sophistication that comes with
it. He is not much different in approach from Elmore James, who
plays big city tradition of the post second world war generation,
of the overcrowded ghettos of Southside Chicago. While their
appeal may be universal, they do not think in those terms. They
want to play the musical tradition of their people the best way
they can, just as the Ethiopian musician attempts to play the
music of Ethiopia the best way he can, or any other musician who
plays a certain tradition.
And where do Ornette Coleman, Coltrane, Cecil Taylor, Archie
Schepp and their fellow "Free Jazzmen" stand ? They are
certainly bluesman according to Baraka's and Murray's
definitions. They drive away their blues with their music, and
they are certainly part of the distinct African American
community. Still there is a basic difference.
Ornette Coleman was not totally satisfied with the musical
tradition of his people. He was able to play the tradition as
well as others, but he wanted A CHANGE. He felt a need for a
change. A need to present something new, which may or may not
become part of the tradition in the future. His need for change
was part of the situation of his community, but whereas James
Brown reflected this need with a music that was made totally of
traditional elements, Coleman thought to present a new platform,
an alternative. He said "look at the mean old world we live in.
We sure need somethin' else".
Charlie Parker before him had gone in that direction, but the
change he offered was less extreme. He found new ways to
articulate traditional rhythms and sounds, but did not offer a
new set of rules. He did not offer an alternative. People like
Hawkins and Young understood Parker and loved him, but they could
not relate to Coleman or Taylor that way. And Sun Ra said
outright "I am from Mars". I am offering something else. Pharaoh
Sanders began as a total change, later falling back on original
African tradition for inspiration.
There was always a tension in the blues (and other forms of
music) between the elements of tradition and the elements of
change. This tension reached a high friction point with the
appearance of Coleman, Taylor, Ayler and their companions. Today,
in retrospect, we can say that while the extremes have never
achieved real financial success, they have provided the raw
materials to the more prosperous mainstream. Bobby Timmons and
Cannonball took the raw church sound, Joe Henderson and David
Murray took from the "Free Jazzmen", and the mainstream got
I have not mentioned white musicians and their role in blues
as the focus of my article is on the development of blues music
within the Afro- American community.. From Son House to Snoop
Dogg, it is all there.
The author, Nadav Haber, plays saxophone for an Ethiopian
band in Israel. Conatact Nadav Haber
© 1998 Nadav Haber
Jazz, Arabic music & funk... Israel Jazz Showcase.