Surfing the Net — Remembering Ornette Coleman

June 18th, 2015

photo by William Claxton
Ornette Coleman, 1959


Like everyone who has a love of jazz music and its culture, I mourn the passing of Ornette Coleman.  We will all likely miss the impassioned spirit of his musical creativity, and how his art not only changed the way musicians played music, but how listeners consumed it. 

Few artists have lived to read words like those written of Coleman by the influential critic Martin Williams, who in 1959 wrote in Jazz Review, “I honestly believe . . . that what Ornette Coleman is doing on alto will affect the whole character of jazz music profoundly and pervasively.”  It certainly affected what I played on my turntable over the years.

I found his music to be intensely and joyfully challenging and most times best suited for introspective listening, but very early on in my “Jazz 101” phase I was struck by this artist whose every album title seemed to communicate passion and revolution – what Gary Giddins and Scott DeVeaux wrote in their 2009 textbook Jazz “seemed to incarnate the authority of the New Negro: The Shape of Jazz to Come, Change of the Century, This is Our Music, and Free Jazz.” These albums provided great curiosity, led me to his art, expanded my view of the culture of the music, and, most telling, my ears grew.

Because of Coleman’s influence and intellect, he has inspired remarkable tributes by an eclectic set of entertainers and journalists, from Ben Ratliff’s outstanding New York Times obituary to thoughts from Robert Wyatt, co-founder of the legendary progressive jazz-rock group Soft Machine, to essays in publications like Rolling Stone, Paris Review, Slate and the New Yorker.   A sampling of the tributes are found below.  To read the entire piece, click on the writer’s name and you will be linked to it. 


“He was more voluble and theoretical than John Coltrane, the other great pathbreaker of that jazz era. He was a kind of musician-philosopher, whose interests reached well beyond jazz. He was seen as a native avant-gardist, personifying the American independent will as much as any artist of the last century.”

Ben Ratliff, New York Times


“No one, almost no one, would kick back on a Sunday afternoon and put on an album by Ornette Coleman. You used his music to reboot your system, to clear the cobwebs from your soul. His music could sound like children’s songs performed by fifty-foot children with hammers and whistles, like folk songs that haven’t been finished, like an orchestra tuning up and deciding whether to go onstage or go home.”

Brian Cullman and Rafi Zabor for The Paris Review


“What has always warmed my heart, in the end, has little to do with his influence on younger improvisors. It is the timeless vocal beauty of the actual sequences of notes and phrases he could come up with, and the feeling of pure living joy of playing they can communicate.”

Robert Wyatt, founding member of Soft Machine

, published on Wire


“Sometimes we listened to music together, or he destroyed me on the pool table. Mostly we would discuss philosophy. Ornette seemed to really enjoy my perspective, and vice versa. He gave me countless new ways to think about the universe and life. He had this unique way of thinking, and I found myself writing down everything he said. For example: “Sound can change things you would never imagine,” or “Sound is eternal but means something different to everyone.”

John Rogers, New York City photographer and friend of Coleman’s, published on NPR


“But the essence of Coleman’s philosophy connects it to the defining trait of philosophical thought from Socrates onward: the puncturing of shibboleths, the rational devaluation of concepts considered essential, the proof through reason that ideas and categories believed to derive from nature are merely convenient artifices and social markers and can easily be dispensed with. But those ideas and categories are dispensed with by those who cherish their freedom of spirit, and often at the cost of their social position. To expose familiar habits as fusty fabrications is to expose oneself to ridicule, as a weirdo, and to persecution, as a threat to the established order.”

Richard Brody, for the New Yorker


“People ask me, ‘What’s it like to play with Ornette?’ I tell them that there are more things he can’t do than things he can. But he can play the shit out of Ornette Coleman music.”

Charles Farrell, musician who has played with Coleman


“It’s said that James Brown’s great innovation, one drawn deeply from African-American musical tradition, was that every instrument in a band could be a drum. Likewise, Coleman saw that every instrument in a band could be a human voice, the drum’s longtime companion—singing, but also chattering, yelling, moaning, crying. And while Coleman was never the kind of Black Power firebrand many of his successors were, his insight did come with a political subtext: Because they are human, all those voices should be equal and free.”

Carl Wilson, Slate music critic


“To the average jazz fan, Mr. Coleman’s free jazz was rambling and chaotic—an incoherent style that indulged artists’ creative whims at the expense of audience attention spans. In this regard, Mr. Coleman and his high-pitched saxophone came to epitomize jazz’s wrong turn, from his refusal to make his sax sound commercially appealing to his lack of accessibility to the media. Over the decades, he paid a steep price for remaining true to his art and steadfastly refusing to record Broadway standards and radio hits accompanied by strings. In this regard, Mr. Coleman personified the pure artist who won’t allow his vision to be corrupted or compromised by fads and commerce.”

Marc Myers, Wall Street Journal


“Part of the beauty of Colemans work flows from what can seem like an unending supply of goodwill and generosity. As he once told The Chicago Tribune: At a certain point in my life, I just decided that I would never fight any kind of class, any kind of race, and if someone said, I dont like you,I wouldnt try to defend myself. Im not trying to control, change, dominate, kill or be against anyone, or put somebody above another. I think my position is that Im no more than a speck of dust in the sand, and Im trying to avoid being stepped on.

Seth Colter Walls, Pitchfork Media


“As Francis Davis wrote in 1985, ‘For those of us who began listening to jazz after 1959, it is difficult to believe that Coleman’s music was once the source of such animus and widespread debate.’ That’s true, but one reason was surely that jazz elders felt Coleman must be poking fun at them. In addition to the bizarre sounds he produced, Coleman often played a plastic saxophone. He would also frequently pick up a trumpet or a violin on stage, producing sounds that were interesting but clearly less proficient than what he could do with a sax. It must have seemed like he was clowning them.

David A. Graham, The Atlantic


“One of the great misconceptions about Coleman’s music, especially in the Sixties, was how the jazz community confused the notion of “free jazz” with pure chaos. Coleman’s drive was to express himself across all of those conventional boundaries, to something shared and emotionally fundamental.”

David Fricke, Rolling Stone


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