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Ornette Coleman’s White House Band

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Ornette Coleman’s 1980 attempt to put together an all-white cover band of his own songs in order to create an audience for his music, since white people were more willing to listen to white musicians than black musicians is interesting, odd, and a little sad.

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  • Oy vey. Sad indeed. Having grown up in a household where rock and Motown & classical were given equal air time, music segregation by both races has always been a puzzle. It’s music, you just have to listen to it. You don’t have to beriend the musicians. And of course when you get into the history of American music it gets even stupider. Also Jimi Hendrix. Exactly. Shut up.
    But this not change the fact that white people who think they’re cool for listening to rap deserve nuclear wedgies.

    • cpinva

      “But this not change the fact that white people who think they’re cool for listening to rap deserve nuclear wedgies.”

      anyone, who thinks they’re “cool”, simply because of the music they listen to, deserve both a nuclear wedgie, and a smack upside the head.

      • Shakezula

        Unless one thinks coolness is conferred by listening to Creed, in which case it is 50 lashes with the Cat and permanent exile.

        No wait, that’s the punishment for thinking Creed is music. The punishment for listening to it … Eeeeeewwwww.

        • firefall

          I thought coolness was listening to Pat Boone?

  • Uncle Ebeneezer

    Obviously putting “White House” in the title makes Coleman the real racist.

    • BlueLoom

      Ahhh, but what a wonderful “crash blossom.” I certainly first read it as a band put together to play at the White House.

  • Decrease Mather

    This seems misguided. Was Coleman’s problem one of race? He has probably been more popular in Europe than here.

    Surely the reason he didn’t have a larger audience was because he was all artistic and shit. That’s not what a lot of people are looking for in music.

    • shah8

      Never underestimate just how untalented white jazz players are allowed to be. Gotta listen for the Patricia Barbers of the world, and skip the likes of Jane Monheit, or worse, Diana Krall, or even worse, Kenny-G. Brad Mehldau is cool even when he ain’t doing piano versions of Radiohead songs. But then, people generally just don’t listen to challenging music, as a whole. I think this was performance art/joke from start to finish by Ornette. The sort of low grade people who really *cares* that much whether the player is white or not, don’t listen to the kind of music Coleman plays, full stop. Just like all those people who *cares* that the football quarterback is white doesn’t really appreciate good QB play. They’ll talk about all the little stuff, going into detail about what good or bad thing they see on the field–but the actual comprehension is very low, and they appreciate football about as much as they do pro wrestling.

      • Uncle Ebeneezer

        I’m seeing Brad’s Trio next weekend. I can’t wait. He’s one of my favorite jazz players. While his re-interpretations of famous songs, are totally amazing, I hate that so many people (mostly non-jazz listeners) think that that’s all he does. I love his original works just as much (and sometimes even more.) This weekend their splitting the night with the Bad Plus + Josh Redman. Bad Plus on the other hand, I think sorta does deserve the “cover” reputation. Their original stuff never gets me that excited, but they sure no how to do interesting covers (and they are an amazing group of musicians.) Most of the stuff I’ve checked out of them with Josh Redman, is very free jazzy which is not my thing. Anyways, I think you (and other commenters) are probably right that the biggest hurdle that Coleman faced was the challenging nature of his music. Even among jazz afficionados that sorta thing seems to only appeal to a pretty slim part of the overall jazz market. Sadly the biggest part of the market (as you allude to) is the Boney James, Kenny G, smooth jazz dreck.

        • Elvis was a hero to most but he never meant shit to me

          Sadly the biggest part of the market (as you allude to) is the Boney James, Kenny G, smooth jazz dreck.

          “Nobody goes there anymore because it’s too crowded.” — Yogi Bear

          What do you care if people love music that fails to meet your standards?

          • Uncle Ebeneezer

            What do you care if people love music that fails to meet your standards?

            Impressive work, troll. I like how you skipped right over shah8’s comment expressing the exact same sentiment, but felt compelled to respond to me. Obsessed much?

        • howard

          i saw mehldau perform solo last year and i have to say: he was more impressive than i expected, with a surprising touch of cecil taylor in his performance (probably because they are both students of western classical piano repertory).

      • Halloween Jack

        Sorry, did you just put Diana Krall in the same sentence as Kenny G?

  • Cryptic ned

    First of all, this whole project makes no sense as Ornette Coleman was never known for any of his “songs” but for improvisation, particularly orchestrating opportunities for group improvisation. Second of all, 1980? Not 1960? The idea that avant-garde jazz didn’t have a white audience was ridiculous. Coleman himself had been continually performing in Europe since the mid-60s.

    Here’s a picture I found on Wikipedia to show one of his shows in Toronto in 1982. Not exactly the Apollo Theater.

    Sounds like a half-assed publicity stunt.

    • Ornette’s suit in that picture is very lime green.

    • Richard

      I agree. Coleman’s music was always difficult and unlikely to get a huge popular audience. Plus the audience for avant garde jazz has always been as much white as black

      • howard

        while i suspect that even ornette would agree that “free jazz collective” doesn’t constitute easy listening, he has never conceded that his music is difficult. in fact, my guess is that he would actually say something like “my music is no more difficult than bird song.”

        and cryptic ned, you need to go listen more carefully to ornette’s music if you don’t think there’s any songs there: start, of course, with “lonely woman,” but there’s many more examples.

        i was actually lucky enough to catch ornette-don cherry-charlie haden-ed blackwell on tour in, i think it was ’87, and seeing them perform “lonely woman” is among the most treasured musical memories of my life.

        (but if you really want to hear ornette’s way with melody, check out the version of the mary hartman theme he and charlie haden recorded somewhere in the mid-’80s: since it’s a recognizable tune, people who find ornette’s music “difficult” can more readily find their way in.)

  • cpinva

    that was an interesting quote, from an interview with the music critic version of robert palmer. i kind of understand (i think) where mr. coleman is coming from and, admittedly, he has a point, kind of. well, except for that whole “foreign accent” thing. it was actually kind of sad.

  • c u n d gulag

    Poor, poor, Ornette Coleman, if only he had done R&R instead of harmolodic funk, Pat Boone would have done this for him.

  • CaptBackslap

    I think Ornette Coleman’s main problem finding a larger audience was the difficulty of his music. He was always controversial even among jazz cats. The first time I heard him was on Joe Henry’s album Scar*, and my modicum of previous experience with jazz had just not left me prepared to deal with it.

    *Don’t start with this album if you want to get into Joe Henry. And you do want to get into Joe Henry.

    • firefall

      So where DO I start, then?

      • CaptBackslap

        Probably either Fuse or Short Man’s Room, depending on your taste. The former is bass-heavy soul-rock, the latter more alt-country. Tiny Voices retains some of the jazz influence from Scar, but it’s a bit more developed musically (and has some interesting political overtones, which he’d previously avoided).

        For what it’s worth, Fuse is one of my all-time favorite albums (although like most of those, it took a few listens for me to decide I really liked it).

        • firefall

          ty, I’ll try Fuse then

  • bspencer

    That kind of broke my heart.

  • Agee

    I love Ornette, but the idea that he wanted to be the Ted Stepian of jazz is odd, to say the least.

  • I just want to put a word in here for Eric Burdon and War. Its not jazz I know, but its not cracker music either. Here a White guy had an all Black back up band. My understanding is that it was immensely popular among White audiences. After all they toured Europe not Africa.

    • John

      Eventually they kicked out Eric Burdon, no?

      • According to what I can find on the Internet he left voluntarily.

      • Richard

        No. It was a mutual decision. They were actually a LA band who Burdon saw in a club and hired. And they werent all black – Lee Oskar was Danish. War had its big hits after Burdon left and had a huge Chicano audience. They’re still touring but with only one original member

        • Okay, I did not know that Lee Oskar was Danish. Although Danish does not necessarily mean White. There are a number of Black Danes with origins in Ghana and a lot of Ghanaians with Danish names. Spill the Wine was a huge hit and it came from the first album with Burdon and War. Cisco Kid and Low Rider came later.

    • TapirBoy1

      I got really into War when I was in high school in the late ’90’s/early aughts. One of the most underrated bands of the 70s.

      I get the point OC was making, but it would have been more applicable to a more mainstream artist. as previous posts point out, the audience for the hardcore avant-garde was always small, self-selected, and largely white. Most folks wouldn’t have ever dug him even if he was Ornettington Carnegie Rockefeller VII.

  • LeeEsq

    Like others said, this seems to be more of an artist stunt than anything else. In 1980, plenty of white people were listening to African-American musicians. Its just that these musicians produced music that was way less experimental than Olmette Coleman’s music. Michael Jackson anybody? A lot of experimental white musicians did not have mainstream appeal either.

    On a related note, does anybody find the concept of a “cover song” weird? The idea of cover song made no sense before the 1950s because before rock, a particular song was never that closely connected with a particular artist. Billie Holiday or Frank Sinatra might produce the most famous rendition of a particular song but they weren’t seen as owning the song and other renditions weren’t called covers. Even in classical music, nobody is seen as covering a symphony by Mozart or Beethoven. Its only rock and related genres were we have the concept of a cover song.

    • Hogan

      Possibly because Sinatra and Holiday didn’t write the songs? Before rock and roll, the singers didn’t tend to be the lyricists or composers, and having been both gives you a different kind of claim to ownership.

      • Richard

        But a lot of the songs we consider to be covers weren’t written by the original recording artist – Big Mama Thornton didn’t write Hound Dog (covered by Elvis), Big Joe Turner didn’t write Shake, Rattle and Roll (covered by Bill Haley), the Chords didn’t write Sh-Boom (covered by the Crew Cuts).

        I think the real difference is that there were some versions of r&b songs deliberately recorded so as to appeal to a pop market and to make the song less “black”. I think Sh-Boom falls into that category as well as Pat Boone’s version of Tutti Frutti and Georgi Gibb’s version of Dance With Me Henry. This was a different phenomenon than various versions of a pop song which many singers recorded and the term “cover” was applied to those versions and then later became more generic in referring to any later version of a song where the original was distinctive.

        • howard

          richard is right on the money here, so let me just augment him by saying that in the jazz world, the term used back, for example, in billie holiday’s day, was “standards.”

    • Nutella

      Michael Jackson: Don’t you remember how hard he had to work to break out of the “Soul/R&B” category and into rock, which was considered white? At the Grammys and in the record stores, even though his sound was definitely rock’n’roll.

      Don’t you remember how unusual to was then that Tower Records refused to make that distinction in their stores? Most record stores put black pop/rock in a separate section from white pop/rock.

      Only when Thriller was such a huge success did the mainstream music industry start letting go of the idea of ‘race music’.

      It may have been different for the much smaller audience for avante-garde jazz but in the big money music scene white musicians and groups were a whole different category from black ones.

      • LeeEsq

        I was about three when Thriller came out, so no I don’t remember this.

  • Halloween Jack

    Sad, but true:

    “America is a very good country for a Caucasian human being, because regardless of what his native tongue is, if he changes his name and speaks English, he could be of any Caucasian descent. And I think this is very beautiful thing for a human to have, where he can go out into the world and make a living for himself and then come home and have his ancestral roots still intact. That is one thing that black people here have never yet had. I’ll tell you, man, I’m so tired of feeling that being black in America has something to do with not being white in America.”

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