Pacific Rim Review of Books

[ Back to Issue Features ]

The Battle of the Five Spot

reviewed by Joseph Blake

The Battle of the Five Spot: Ornette Coleman and the New York Jazz Field. David Lee. The Mercury Press.

Ornette Coleman is arguably the most important jazz musician of the last 50 years. His controversial New York debut is the centerpiece of this brief examination of a seminal moment in modern jazz. David Lee, a jazz musician and author-publisher, uses sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of artistic fields to explain why Coleman’s pivotal performances had such an impact.

After conjuring-up The Five Spot with a highly personal, poetic introductory chapter, Lee establishes Coleman’s place in the 1950s jazz world in chapters reflecting upon jazz as high art, black art and white hegemony, and Coleman’s rejection of the song form and development of harmolodics.

Chapter three’s investigation of Coleman’s musical history and the evolution toward atonality in jazz is very strong writing, deep with insights including jazz great George Russell’s description of Coleman’s harmolodic music.

Russell describes harmolodics as depending “mostly on the overall tonality of the song as a point of departure for melody. By this I don’t mean the key the music might be in. His pieces don’t really infer key. They could almost be in any key or no key. I mean that the melody and chords of his compositions have an overall sound which Ornette seems to use as a point of departure. This approach liberates the improviser to sing his own song really, without having to meet the deadline of any particular chord.”
Chapter four digs even deeper into Coleman’s seminal 1959 recording of his composition Beauty Is A Rare Thing, describing how members of the band “call, respond, and merge with each other into a collective freedom.”

Lee argues that Coleman’s free playing proved that “suddenly playing jazz need have nothing to do with the song form- in fact, if improvisation was, as many insisted, the essence of jazz, then it logically followed that to retain the song form- or in some cases, any kind of prearranged structure- could only be an impediment to self-expression.”

In chapter five Lee introduces Pierre Bourdieu and the concept of field, carving the sociologist’s theory down to “taste classifies, and it classifies the classifier.”

Positioning jazz in a tension between exclusion and legitimacy, Bourdieu’s explanation of cultural capital is defined as “what one knows about one’s chosen field: The knowledge of the genre’s history, the background that enables one to interpret the codes implicit in a work, and perhaps most importantly, the command of the language used by members of the field.”

Lee brings these forces into the New York jazz field and the division of social art, bourgeois art, and art for art’s sake that make up the jazz field’s hierarchy.

In the next chapter he paints a vision of The Five Spot with its salon-like audience of Jack Kerouac, Norman Mailer, James Baldwin and Leonard Bernstein among the crowd of jazz musicians. The musicians’ varied reactions to Coleman’s New York debut and the response of the writers and critics sets up the title chapter’s battle notes and a very interesting comparison of the careers of Coleman and fellow free jazz pioneer, Cecil Taylor. He makes a strong case for Coleman’s leadership.
Equally interesting is the description of the Modern Jazz Quartet leader, John Lewis’ role in consecrating Ornette’s leadership status in the jazz field. Lee pursues this investigation in the next chapter, challenging the accepted jazz evolution with a view based on jazz fields around seminal characters like Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Jelly Roll Morton, and Wynton Marsalis. He caps his argument with a description of two worlds of jazz, Marsalis’ mainstream and the free jazz field of musicians Cecil Taylor, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and, of course, Ornette Coleman.

The book’s epilogue climaxes with a description of Coleman’s long, post-Five Spot career and a lovely review of his band’s 2005 performance at Toronto’s Massey Hall. That chapter and this book should lead you to 2007’s Sound Grammar, Coleman’s first recording in more than a decade and his first live recording in 20 years. If Lee’s little book inspires you to buy that CD, he will have given you a real gift. The book is interesting, but Coleman’s recording is a gem.

For 25 years, Joseph Blake has been Canada's grittiest music writer. A widely read travel correspondent, he lives in Victoria, B.C. His column on music appears regularly in the PRRB.