Ornette Coleman’s death prompts a dramatic resurrection

Among the people at the bar in 1959 when the jazz revolutionary Ornette Coleman played his historic engagement at the Five Spot in New York was Charley Gordon, then a political science student who would have rather been a trumpet player. He worked that episode into a play, as yet unproduced. Coleman’s death this week brought the play out of a desk drawer. This is a scene from A Different Drummer.

 


SCENE 1

 

A nightclub, jazz playing in the background. Rich and George  and a total stranger are sitting at the bar. Rich is drunk, talking to the Total Stranger.

 

RICH

You know the way I am, first thing I notice is the drummer. But I don’t know who this guy his. He’s just driving like crazy. The horn stuff is odd, but I’m just fixating on him. I’m trying to figure out who this drummer is. I’m 20 years-old, right, and I read Downbeat, cover to cover, memorize the fucking thing. But I never heard of this guy, never saw his picture. I know it’s Ornette Coleman playing, because that’s who Bob brought me to here to see. He says, “You gotta see this guy. It’s like nothing you ever heard.” We’re both a little drunk. We already caught a set of Art Farmer and Benny Golson over at the Jazz Gallery.

 

GEORGE

Rich, I …

 

RICH

I got to start at the beginning. This is 1959, Christmas holidays and my first time in New York. On the way across Third Avenue this panhandler hits us. “Can you spare a quarter,” he says. “I’m not going to spend it on food or a room. I need it for a drink.” I thought, wow that’s original and give him all the change I have. I’m sort of embarrassed there’s some pennies in there but I can’t ask for them back.  (To the bartender.) Another.

 

GEORGE

I don’t know, Rich. Don’t you think …

 

RICH

Don’t fucking lecture me. We work our way into the club. The Five Spot. It’s a narrow room, tables way at the back and in the front and the bandstand is facing the bar. I think I remember murals. It’s not there any more. Sim and I grab a seat at the bar and order a scotch. It’s really expensive, like $2. There’s a trio playing. Bass player is really tall. Ron Carter. Shit, the piano player is really tall too. Randy Weston. He sounds like Monk, I say to George. What do I know? You’re a young jazz guy you gotta say somebody sounds like somebody else. The bass player is Ron Carter. Really tall too. I don’t know who the drummer is. Bob doesn’t know either. I can’t remember if he was tall. They’re just finishing up their set.

 

GEORGE

I think the drummer was Roy Haynes.

 

RICH

Shut the fuck up. You weren’t there.

 

GEORGE

Yes I was. I was with you.

 

RICH

Don’t listen to him, he wasn’t there. I was there with Bob. Bob Dutchyshn. You know him, Bobby Delmar, big shot flooooogelhorn player. Used to be able to play trumpet before he got rich and famous. He was with me. We were in New York. First time there. Then these other guys come on to set up. No piano player. The alto guy is Ornette. His saxophone is made out of white plastic. The trumpet player has this little tiny trumpet. But then you know all that, probably.

 

TOTAL STRANGER

Don Cherry.

 

RICH

I know it was Don fucking Cherry. It’s before he went on the hockey games. That’s a joke. Don Cherry. And one white guy, looks like a second-year commerce student at Queen’s, the bass player.

 

GEORGE

Charlie Haden.

 

RICH

Charlie Haden. That’s right. How’d you know? And the drummer, another young guy. Black guy. They all look young except for Ornette, who has a beard. There’s a little buzz around the room. People are looking at these guys set up. Shit nobody ever watches the band set up, but people are watching these guys. I think Leonard Bernstein was there. Lot of famous people. We didn’t know it at the time, but this was going to be famous time. The famous people must have known it. You know how famous people know how it’s going to be a famous time and a famous place and they arrange to be there?

 

GEORGE

I don’t think Leonard Bernstein was there that night. I think he was there some time during their run because people have written about it. But not that night.

 

RICH

Shut the fuck up, George. Bernstein was there. Ask Bob. What happens next is amazing. They don’t tune or anything. They don’t count in the tune. There’s no one, two, one-two-three-four. They just look at each other and all of a sudden they’re all playing this fierce up-tempo tune, all together. They start all together without even fuckin’ counting it. How did they do that?

They’re just playing — fast, really fast — and the drummer, Billy Higgins, it’s Billy Higgins, he’s just driving so hard. I can’t take my eyes off him. Of course, I’m a drummer. Bob is staring at Ornette and Don Cherry and he’s kind of moaning, like he doesn’t know what’s going on. He turns and looks at me, with this sort of sad look on his face. Sad and puzzled. He doesn’t know. I don’t really know either, but it doesn’t bother me so much because Billy Higgins is just playing the shit out of it. Some of the people in Five Spot are looking like Bob.

 

GEORGE

It was me, Rich.

 

RICH

No fucking way. It was Bob. The people are looking like they don’t understand. The tune, nobody heard a tune like that. And then the blowing — we can’t hear any chords, we can’t hear where the A is and where’s the B and when one chorus ends and another begins and we can’t even tell what key it’s in or if there’s a key. And I can see that Bob wants to like it, because it’s so modern, because it’s the latest thing, because it’s going to be the latest thing if it isn’t now. But he can’t like it. It needs to make sense for him to like it and he can’t see how it makes sense. Now, you can see how it makes sense, or how it didn’t need to make sense at all. But now is 30 years later.

 

GEORGE

Forty years, Rich.

 

RICH

You weren’t there, George. Another thing: there’s no cues, nobody looks at the other guy when his solo is about to be over. Ornette just stops playing and Don Cherry he starts like he knew all along that he was supposed to come in. Same with the out. They just all go out together, without anybody saying out or pointing or anything. Amazing. At the end of it, half the bar is in silence, the other half is screaming. I figure some of the screamers are screaming because they figure they should. At a table in front of us, between us and the stand, there’s this couple and they’re having a terrible argument. It looks like he wants to go and she wants to stay. (To the bartender.) Another.

 

GEORGE

Rich, you really don’t need …

 

RICH

Shut up. I’m not finished the story. They play for another hour. One weird tune after another. None of them we recognize. Same strange blowing. No chords. We have a couple more scotches and stumble out onto Third Avenue about 1 a.m. We lurch up the street and find an all-night diner and start talking about it, about what Sim would think, how’d he like the no chords. Bob, he says, “I can’t believe that. I can’t believe it was as bad as I thought it was. If it was so bad, how come everybody liked it?” He says he can’t believe how bad Don Cherry sounded, all those little noises he made that weren’t like notes, what a horrible sound he had, like Clifford Brown, Blue Mitchell, anybody, would have just killed him. I said Billy Higgins was really fuckin’ kicking. We eat a smoked meat sandwich. There’s all this all these beat-up looking people in the diner and I’m thinking, wow, this is New York and these are New York people. But they just really look sad, like it doesn’t mean anything to them that they are real New York people. Finally, Bob says: “We’ve got to go back.”

 

GEORGE

It was me, Rich. Me, George. You and I were there.

 

RICH

It was Bob. I ought to know. So we go back the next night. And it’s the same thing. Same music, same reaction in the crowd. Only this time Bob is a little looser with it. He stops listening for chords and starts hearing the rhythm section. The music is really moving, it’s really strong, you can see the people grooving on the emotion of the thing. Now I look back on it, and I think, I was there, Ornette’s first New York gig. A big historic thing, like being there when that guy for Ellington played all those choruses at Newport.

 

TOTAL STRANGER

Paul Gonzalves.

 

RICH

Some guy. They were shitty choruses too. Or when some asshole stepped on Dizzy’s horn at the party and it got bent and Dizzy decided to play it anyway and it sounded good to him. Historic. It was like that and I was there. Bob and I were there and 30 years later I still don’t know what the fuck it was all about.

 

GEORGE

It was you and me, Rich. You and me.

 

RICH

Billy Higgins. What a fucking drummer.

 

Album Cover Don Cherry by Ornette Coleman

-30-

 

2 Replies to "Ornette Coleman's death prompts a dramatic resurrection"

  • Jay Stone June 14, 2015 (11:09 pm)

    Amazing Charley. Now I want to read the whole play.

  • Shelley Page June 15, 2015 (10:07 pm)

    Charley, love it. What a great idea. Love the dialogue!!!