I had an interesting twitter exchange (@ErikLoomis) today with Andy Bowen (@andymbowen) about John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman. I was listening to Ornette’s “The Shape of Jazz to Come” this morning and we started chatting and a really good question came up. Why exactly is John Coltrane so much more listened to today than Ornette Coleman? The young jazz listener probably enters the genre primarily through Miles Davis and John Coltrane, then maybe into Bill Evans or Duke Ellington or Herbie Hancock, and then may or may not explore in various ways from there. That’s a generalization, but one that seems not too far off based on the many jazz fans I know who are my age, former students, etc. My own experience listening to jazz, beginning when I was maybe 18 or 19, was with Coltrane, then into Miles, and then I found myself more attracted to the wilder stuff, so I began listening to Sun Ra, Pharoah Sanders, Sonny Sharrock and more modern people like Bill Frisell, William Parker, etc. Then later I moved back into the 50s and early 60s. Yet even my knowledge of Ornette’s deeper catalog isn’t all that great.
Anyway, why Coltrane? That’s not to say John Coltrane isn’t amazing. I do think that Coltrane has one huge weakness that Miles didn’t–he’s the jazz version of a ball hog, dominating the music in a way that Miles never did. That’s his strength as well and possibly his ultimate appeal. But rather, why Coltrane and not Coleman? Was Coltrane the clearly more popular bandleader in 1967, when he died? “The Shape of Jazz to Come” is as iconic an album as “Giant Steps” but Ornette seems a clearly secondary figure in the popular history of jazz (as opposed to the real jazz listener’s understanding of the genre).
So to repeat simply–why Coltrane and not Coleman?
All of this is really an attempt to get our valued commenter Howard to answer the question for me, as well as to start whatever kind of jazz conversation people want to have, which we don’t do enough of around here.