A&E Goes Abroad: Remembering Ornette Coleman’s visit to Portugal

Sam Lewin

Portugal was an incredibly closed society in 1971. The country was ruled by an entrenched dictatorship in power since 1932, which used a ruthless political police force, PIDE, to restrict personal freedoms. It was illegal for more than three people to congregate in public areas, and the PIDE punished political dissidents.

The regime was also quite suspicious of jazz; political police frequented jazz clubs and intimidated musicians.

This is why it was shocking when jazz promoter Luís Villas-Boas and singer João Braga obtained permission — and received funding — to organize the 1971 Cascais Jazz Festival. The festival hosted not only internationally acclaimed jazz musicians, but also tens of thousands of Portuguese jazz fans.

Such a rare public gathering seems as though it was ripe for political subversion, but Braga claims that he and Villas-Boas hardly had time to think about politics.

Indeed, their focus on management clearly paid off. They hired some of the biggest names in jazz, including Miles Davis, Dexter Gordon, and the Giants of Jazz, which featured stars like Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie. But Villas-Boas wanted to go further and hire a free-jazz group: the Ornette Coleman Quartet.

However, this proved to be problematic, as Coleman’s bassist, Charlie Haden, was opposed to performing in a dictatorship. Coleman eventually convinced Haden to travel to Portugal, but Haden apparently had ulterior motives for performing.

While introducing “Song for Che,” Haden exclaimed, “This next song is dedicated to the Black People’s Liberation Movements of Mozambique, Guinea and Angola!” At the time, these were all Portuguese colonies struggling for independence.

The audience exploded with applause. Bassist Eduardo, a college student at the time, described how the mostly-young audience was especially receptive to Haden’s remarks. “The response was like a standing ovation, and I remember how a lot of guys connected with the underground political movements started to drop pamphlets against the colonial war,” Eduardo remembered. He continued, “It was like 5,000 people in a battle against the police, and Ornette Coleman was playing — he never stopped.”

According to Braga, PIDE directors were ready to deploy two buses full of “shock police” to control the audience. Braga claims that he convinced the directors that the “shock police” would further aggravate the situation — though there were already quite a few police unsuccessfully trying to quiet the audience.

The PIDE was not willing to spare Haden, however, and arrested him at the airport the next day. In an interview with Democracy Now!, Haden explained that he was taken to an interrogation room at the airport and was then transferred to a political prison in downtown Lisbon. After spending hours in solitary confinement and being hounded by questions, he was finally freed thanks to the efforts of the U.S. cultural attaché in Portugal.

No mainstream newspapers reported on the incident — presumably because of censorship — and the regime successfully destroyed most recordings.

However, Haden did have the foresight to slip a recorder into his coat pocket and walked away with one of the only recordings of the incident. This is now featured on his tune “For a Free Portugal” on the record “Closeness Duets.”

It’s hard to say what Haden’s protest meant for authoritarian Portugal. He became temporarily famous within the country, and the political opposition treated him as a sort of resistance symbol; he received huge ovations when he returned to perform after the Carnation Revolution in 1974.

Most significantly, Haden was one of very few people who explicitly spoke out against the regime. While the regime frequently encountered more subtle forms of resistance, Haden made his feelings clear in one of the most public forums in the dictatorship’s history.

His protest ultimately inspired jazz fans and other Portuguese youth, who would later create the political space necessary for a successful revolution.

Note: The Mellon Senior Experience Grant funded most of my research. If you’re interested in doing your own cool research projects, you should apply for the grant. Associate Professor of History Peter Blitstein is currently in charge of allocating funds.