Thursday, June 11, 2015

R.I.P. Ornette Coleman

"It's like organized disorganization, or playing wrong right. And it gets to you emotionally, like a drummer. That's what Coleman means to me." 
— Charles Mingus, Down Beat, May 26, 1960

"[The day I met Ornette], it was about 90 degrees and he had on an overcoat. I was scared of him."
— Don Cherry, Jazz, December 1963

"[Ornette Coleman's Free Jazz] causes earache the first time through, especially for those new to Coleman's music. The second time, its cacophony lessens and its complex balances and counter-balances begin to take effect. The third time, layer upon layer of pleasing configurations -- rhythmic, melodic, contrapuntal, tonal -- becomes visible. The fourth or fifth listening, one swims readily along, about ten feet down, breathing the music like air."
— Whitney Balliett


"How can I turn emotion into knowledge? That's what I try to do with my horn."
— Ornette Coleman, Esquire, December 14, 2009

Coleman with Prime Time on the April 14, 1979, episode of Saturday Night Live

I had no clue what to do with "Lonely Woman," upon popping The Shape of Jazz to Come into my laptop three years ago, but this encounter would not be the last with Ornette Coleman. At the time, I didn't have much choice: I was interning at Milestone Films, writing the press kit (online here, for what it's worth) for a Shirley Clarke gem they unearthed, Ornette: Made in America, and to do my job right I needed to know this man. The more I read about him and by him, the less I, frankly, understood: Here was the pioneer of "harmolodics," a theory whose tenets still elude me; a man who almost voluntarily castrated himself; a reticent genius who lived through stints of violence and poverty without complaint.

All humans are indefinable, I suppose, but Coleman knew that, for him, only jazz could express those multitudes within — just not the jazz of Bird or anyone else he might have heard. His work, from Shape of Jazz to Come to Sound Grammar, sounds unlike any other record of its time, and despite the former's prophetic title, it has not been followed since. Coleman's innovations belong to him, and his son Denardo, and Charlie Haden, Don Cherry, Billy Higgins and his other immediate contributors — for a guy who alienated many colleagues ("Are you cats serious?" — Dizzy Gillespie, to Coleman's Quartet), Coleman was a supreme collaborator. I'd say that is what reifies his newness into some of the last century's hippest, finest, most meaningful music. Beyond Coleman's taxed, honest embouchure and unpredictable stops and starts, a song like "The Fifth of Beethoven" pulses with Haden's bass and Ed Blackwell's drums, all players locked in perfect sync if only still deciding where to go. 

I may never know Ornette, the man, but I now know his music, and that's a knowledge to be shared, disputed and studied still. For thinking and living through his art, Ornette Coleman leaves us with an image that will never gloss into stasis, always two notes ahead.

*If you don't already have it, Atlantic reissued Beauty Is a Rare Thing: The Complete Atlantic Recordings in March and it's on Amazon for a steal.