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That Sax

In response to:

Bird Watching from the January 23, 1975 issue

To the Editors:

It doesn’t matter how many fellowships Virgil Thomson has recommended Ornette Coleman for, the fact of the matter is that—after reading thousands of words on, seeking (and even taking) countless pictures of, and holding innumerable conversations about and with him—I know of no evidence to suggest that Coleman ever, ever, EVER played soprano sax at any point (early, middle, late or other) in his career.

In continuing to maintain that “the soprano sax for Ornette Coleman is correct for his early career,” Virgil Thomson gives us a first-rate example of ignorance combined with stiff-necked arrogance. If Mr. Thomson can adduce one single shred of objective evidence (other than his own fuzzy recollections of what he believes he saw a dozen or more years ago), by all means, let us have it. Meanwhile, there is abundant physical evidence that can readily be cited to demonstrate that Thomson is quite wrong in his assertion. Coleman’s first album, Something Else! The Music of Ornette Coleman (Contemporary Records 3551), recorded in Los Angeles in 1958 well before Coleman’s move to New York (hence before Thomson could have seen him “when he first played in New York at the Five Spot,” at which time Thomson “thought [emphasis added] he was playing a pink plastic soprano”), pictures Coleman on its front cover holding what any first-year marching band student could easily identify as an alto saxophone.

Similarly, Coleman’s third album, The Shape of Jazz to Come (Atlantic Records 1317), released in 1959 when Coleman was in the process of moving east, also has a picture of Coleman on its front cover, again cradling what can only be an alto saxophone (which is, for noninitiates, at least fifty percent larger than a soprano). If Thomson, or the august editors of the prestigious New York Review, were or are in doubt about the matter, all that is required to settle the question is to take a look at the albums in question, check the files of various jazz magazines, etc. In so doing, Thomson and the editors will soon discover that it is not at all the case that, as Thomson still maintains, Coleman “later played alto” (emphasis added). On the contrary, Ornette always (during his recorded career) played alto, except for a few brief forays on the tenor (which, once more for uninitiates, is even larger than an alto and therefore even less likely to be mistaken for a soprano saxophone)….

Frank Kofsky

Sacramento, California

Virgil Thomson replies:

No comment.

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