By Marc Lee
If you were told that one of the nation’s best jazz clubs existed just 40 miles from Dallas, you might be able to swallow it. And if you were told that it was once the home of a forward-thinking record label that spotlighted one of jazz’s most influential figures, you’d at least consider it.
But if you were told that place was Fort Worth’s Caravan of Dreams, would you believe it?
Although it’s now known for hosting sold-out shows by such Fabio-haired Oasis fixtures as Warren Hill and Richard Elliot, Caravan was quite a landmark achievement when it opened in 1983 as an avant-garde art palace that brought together music, theater and dance in one building.
It would become known to jazz artists as one of the premiere clubs in the country and regularly featured performances by such influential musicians as Dizzy Gillespie, Freddie Hubbard, Wynton Marsalis and Dallas’ own Roy Hargrove, who even today calls it “the most incredible jazz club I’ve ever seen.”
Fort Worth native and jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman found a home at the club in more ways than one: He made three albums (now out of print) for the club’s Caravan of Dreams Records, the best of which was Mr. Coleman’s historic 1987 recording, In All Languages, which was recently re-released by his own Verve-distributed label, Harmolodic.
For its grand opening, the 400-seat club brought Mr. Coleman to town to consecrate the center.
“It seemed like an unlikely spot for such an avant-garde place,” says Denardo Coleman, Ornette’s son, drummer and business manager. “We were there for a week or two. It was a very exciting time for the whole of Fort Worth and there was a new energy coming into downtown from the Caravan. ”
Ornette Coleman wanted to capture that energy and decided to record his performances during the Sept. 30-Oct. 1, 1983, opening. Caravan used the opportunity to launch Caravan of Dreams Records and eventually released two recordings: Opening the Caravan of Dreams, featuring his band, Prime Time; and Prime Design/Time Design, featuring Denardo and the Gregory Gelman String Quartet performing the world premiere of a chamber music piece called “Prime Design” at the club’s rooftop bar.
The little label took off from there and for five years recorded some of the most “out there” music in America, including live albums from Prime Time members James Blood Ulmer and Ronald Shannon Jackson. Caravan’s triumph, however, was In All Languages.
Recorded in New York City, Languages brought together Mr. Coleman’s original quartet – trumpeter Don Cherry, bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Billy Higgins – for the first time in more than a decade. In the late ’50s, this group recorded Something Else!!!! and The Shape of Jazz to Come – prophetic and controversial musical statements based on a theory that Ornette would later call “harmolodics,” which erases emphasis on chords and places it on free melody and individual improvisation.
For Languages, Mr. Coleman and the quartet recorded seven songs that were also interpreted by Prime Time on the same album. “The whole process was very concentrated, ” says Denardo, who played drums on the record. “He likes to try different approaches.”
The differences between the tunes are dramatic. The quartet’s version of “Space Church (Continuous Services)” is cold and lonely; Ornette’s sax and Mr. Cherry’s trumpet wail over a rumbling, bluesy bass line and steady, chopping drums. But Prime Time’s version is like a stomach-dropping free fall. Ornette’s melody is essentially the same, but its rise and fall never connects with the wild improvisations going on around it.
Throughout Languages, only the melody serves as a connection between different versions of the songs. Prime Time plays at finger-breaking speed, and its improvisations are centered on funk and rock. In comparison to the electric band’s frenzy, the slower, acoustic quartet sounds almost traditional, as if it were playing nothing more than a soul-jazz vamp. But the band slips in and out of time and is guided by Ornette’s fascination with Moroccan music and his sense of blues, which he picked up playing in roadhouse bands around Fort Worth.
After Languages, Mr. Coleman became unhappy with Caravan’s limited distribution and decided to move on. “We were trying to expand what we were doing and reach more people and expand internationally,” Denardo says. “It was probably a little too much for them.”
After a brief association with CBS that produced Virgin Beauty, featuring collaborations with the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia, Ornette Coleman strayed from the studio. He released only a live disc recorded in Berlin and contributed to William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch soundtrack.
The establishment of his own record label, Harmolodic, and the release of Prime Time’s Tone Dialing in 1995 seems to have inspired a spurt of creativity for Mr. Coleman again. Along with Languages, Harmolodic has reissued 1977’s album with Charlie Haden, Soapsuds, Soapsuds, and 1975’s Body Meta. The other Caravan albums won’t be far behind, Denardo promises.
Tone Dialing was followed quickly by two versions of Sound Museum, in which Mr. Coleman records different versions of the same songs, this time with a new acoustic quartet. His most recent release is Colors, a concert CD of airy duets with pianist Joachim Kuhn on which he plays saxophone, violin and trumpet.
“The one thing with Ornette,” says Denardo, “is there’s new tunes every day. You better be prepared.”