© 2024 WRTI
Your Classical and Jazz Source
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

The ultimate Juneteenth anthem? Look toward Ornette Coleman's symphony 'Skies of America'

Saxophonist Ornette Coleman (1930-2015) performs at the 1971 Newport Jazz Festival on July 3, 1971.
David Redfern
Saxophonist Ornette Coleman (1930-2015) performs at the 1971 Newport Jazz Festival on July 3, 1971.

Midway through Skies of America (1972), Ornette Coleman’s first recorded orchestral work, there erupts a brief, tumultuous section that the composer christened “The New Anthem.” It’s unclear whether Coleman intended to propose, seriously or otherwise, his dense and daunting symphony as an alternative to the patriotic strains of “The Star Spangled Banner” — a work, after all, that’s been met with more knitted brows than swelling chests.

But as we prepare to celebrate Juneteenth, perhaps Skies of America has always been an anthem in search of its occasion. True, Juneteenth — honoring the adoption of the Emancipation Proclamation and the end of slavery in the United States — had been commemorated for more than a century before Coleman composed his piece. The occasion only achieved official recognition as a federal holiday in 2021, taking its place on a calendar of uneasy observations acknowledging past wrongs as much as they celebrate historic achievements.

Both composer and holiday share their origins in Texas; Coleman is a son of Fort Worth, while Juneteenth was first celebrated on June 19, 1865, after General Gordon Granger led Union troops into Galveston and announced that all enslaved Texans were now considered free. The festivities were both overdue and premature, as the next century and a half (and beyond) of struggle would prove. Coleman’s own place in the pantheon of American composers is similarly long in coming, while the full scope of his artistry still remains to be grasped.

Coleman had already established (and, to many listeners, alienated) himself as a pioneering force in avant-garde and free jazz, with his controversial residency at New York’s Five Spot at the end of the ‘50s and the release of the form-shattering Free Jazz at the dawn of the following decade. At the same time, he’d been involved with early attempts to merge jazz and classical idioms, playing on Third Stream figurehead Gunther Schuller’s 1961 album Jazz Abstractions.

Skies of America was not Coleman’s first orchestral composition, but it was the first he’d managed to get recorded, albeit in a rushed nine-hour session at London’s Abbey Road Studios following just two rehearsals. Still, the effort earned him a standing ovation from the assembled musicians. “Skies of America is worthy of serious consideration,” wrote longtime Village Voice jazz critic Gary Giddins in his 1998 book Visions of Jazz: The First Century. “Coleman’s formulations give the impression of a more complicated and radical music than the ear actually hears; his achievement is readily approachable and can be enjoyed without the footnotes.”

As with “The New Anthem,” it’s inadvisable to tie the music of Skies of America too closely with the album’s track titles. These were appended after the fact, when Columbia Records became wary of selling a single monolithic classical piece by a jazz composer, parsing the album into 21 tracks. Still, Coleman’s titles hint at his preoccupations at the time. Some are political: “The Military,” “Foreigner in a Free Land,” the mocking “The Men Who Live in the White House” (a roster that at that time would have included President Nixon and the now somehow centenarian Henry Kissinger). Others speak up for artistic pursuit (“Sounds of Sculpture,” “Poetry,” “The Artist in America”) or undersung voices (“Native Americans,” “The Soul Within Woman”). It’s clear that some form of patriotism coexists with the album’s pointed critiques.

The cover art for Skies of America depicts white doves tearing at the U.S. flag, coming away stained by its colors. If there’s a suggestion of violence to this Vietnam-era piece, there is also a sense of wary hope in its soaring, sky-high view of the country. Coleman’s work is as profoundly American as Aaron Copland’s, but where the older composer depicted the wide-open vistas of the pioneer west, Coleman’s landscapes are cluttered by the ramshackle houses of segregated Fort Worth and the frenetic claustrophobia of New York City.

A scene from Shirley Clarke's film 'Ornette: Made in America'
Ornette Coleman and Prime Time with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, in Shirley Clarke's film 'Ornette: Made in America'

Shirley Clarke’s kaleidoscopic 1985 documentary Ornette: Made in America depicts a homecoming performance of Skies of America by Coleman and his Prime Time band with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, offering a glimpse of the jazz-meets-classical concerto grosso form originally envisioned. The original recording, with the London Symphony Orchestra, was famously compromised; the British musicians’ union wouldn’t allow Coleman’s band to perform with the orchestra, leaving the saxophonist as the only soloist, performing on less than half the album.

His playing — tart, barbed and keenly probing — darts and jabs through the thundering chaos. The orchestra responds with a teeth-gritted laboriousness, often miring Coleman’s more whimsical notions. But even their most leaden attack can’t mute the serrated playfulness of a section like “The Good Life,” whose sing-song motif had been recorded earlier that year as “School Work” during the sessions for Science Fiction, and would reappear as “Theme From a Symphony” on 1977’s Dancing in Your Head.

Those same tensions are intrinsic to the piece, musically and thematically. Coleman’s Third Stream forebears had been determined to unify the European classical and African-American jazz traditions, but Skies of America revels in the collisions and dissonances that result. The album served to introduce Coleman’s Harmolodic theory, which allows individual musicians to play in different keys through the use of modulation — a spirit of freedom that carried an inherent risk of disharmony and thus a musical metaphor for the American experiment.

Juneteenth playlists tend to be stocked with soulful paeans aptly bounding with pride and defiance: James Brown’s “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud),” Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come,” Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright.” Skies of America may never be as welcome at a backyard barbecue, but it is a stunning masterwork worthy of being thought of as a monument in musical form — a landmark rich enough to contain the contradictory multitudes of oppression and accomplishment that lie at the heart of this commemoration.

Shaun Brady is a Philadelphia-based journalist who covers jazz along with an eclectic array of arts, culture and travel.