Ornette Coleman

Like many of us, I woke up to the sad news that saxophonist, composer, and visionary Ornette Coleman had died at the age of 85 from cardiac arrest. By this point in the day proper obituaries have been circulating widely and I feel no need to rehash the details of his life here. Apart from sharing opinions, I try to keep myself out of my music writing, but without Coleman there’s a good chance I wouldn’t be writing about music at all: I’m hardly alone in saying that his music and thinking changed my life.

I interviewed a bunch of musicians about Coleman for DownBeat magazine in 2007, when critics named him artist of the year. One of the folks I spoke with was pianist Vijay Iyer and I vividly remember something he said because it was an idea I’d held for decades: Coleman was kind of a protopunk rocker. In a text exchange with my brother this morning, he articulated what that really meant: “For me he was about the validity of making something based on one’s own rules.”

When I was an impressionable young man, there were so many different things about Coleman’s work and persona that struck me. First, the melodies, which reverberated with joy and sadness. They were rooted in the blues, but transcended the form. The idiosyncratic shapes of “Lonely Woman” or “Peace” (and dozens upon dozens more) have held sway in my brain for decades and will never let go. Whether he was playing lines with Don Cherry, his crucial partner on pocket trumpet, or improvising alone, his alto saxophone was among the most vocalic instruments in the history of recorded music, and certain phrases could hit like a ton of bricks; they were unmatched expressions of humanity. Second was his ethos. Coleman was attacked both intellectually and physically for forging his own path and sticking to it. (From the time I first heard his joyful music I could never understand how it caused such violent reactions, but he truly rocked the music’s foundations during the 50s and 60s.) That’s the punk-rock part of him showing itself decades before punk rock ever existed. Finally, I loved that he was endlessly searching. Coleman’s trademark licks and noncodified approach were constants throughout his fruitful career, but he never stopped exploring. He experimented with a double-bass line-up, taught himself to play trumpet and violin in a bracingly autodidact fashion, wrote an orchestral epic (Skies of America), and explored electric instruments in a wholly unique way with his group Prime Time. The first time I heard Coleman live was with Prime Time at the Chicago Jazz Festival in 1984. I told myself that I loved it, but it took years before I really understood what the band was doing with its five simultaneous lines of melody bubbling over the manic rhythms of Denardo Coleman and Kamal Sadir. The last time I saw Coleman was also at the Chicago Jazz Festival, where he played in 2008.

Coleman’s ideas transcended jazz. He had a way of stripping art to its essence, particularly in emphasizing the human connection—what he did touched our souls, but it also demonstrated how artists could work together in the most elemental, fundamental ways. I knew that Coleman had been in fragile health for some time, but that doesn’t make his death any less painful or sad. I’ve never known life without his presence on the planet and now my decades-long experience of hearing nearly everything through a Coleman-designed prism will have to be recalibrated somehow. There’s no way what I’ve written here can convey the profundity of his impact upon me (and countless others). I feel like I could work on this post for the next couple of months and still not get it right. Ornette, on the other hand, always seemed to get it right.

Today’s playlist:

Mike Pride’s From Bacteria to Boys, Birthing Days (Aum Fidelity)
Jason Kahn, Things Fall Apart (Herbal)
Arvo Pärt, Adam’s Lament (ECM)
Le Super Biton National de Ségou, Anthology (Kindred Spirits/Mali Kunkan)
Chris Forsyth, Solar Motel (Paradise of Bachelors)