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Harrisonburg, Virginia, United States
Professor of Saxophone, James Madison University

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Reflecting on Ornette Coleman

  Ornette Coleman passed away on June 11, 2015.  His impact on modern jazz is beyond measure, but as is often the case with artists that revolutionize an artform, his influence has spread to such ubiquity that it is not readily apparent to contemporary ears.  I once played a few tracks from "Change of the Century" for a group of elementary school students and they didn't bat an eye.  To them, it sounded like jazz.  Period.

When I first became interested in jazz, I read a few history books.  The sections on Ornette Coleman painted a picture of a wild and rebellious eccentric.  I read about mainstream artists heckling him, even chasing him.  Critics were afraid to review him because they weren't sure if he was serious, or if his music was an elaborate ruse.  I decided that I wasn't ready to listen to something so controversial, so I forgot about him.

By the time I got to college, I had already stretched my ears by listening to George Adams, The Fringe, and even some late Coltrane.  I had listened to Ornette's "Free Jazz," but I recognized that the double quartet improvisations were not really showing me the man's artistic core.  It felt more artifice than art, and since I had heard other artists cover the tune "Ramblin'," I went to the record store to find the original version.  This was a pivotal moment in my young musical life.

My first impression of "Change of the Century" was highly positive, but I was also a bit puzzled.  What the heck was all the fuss about?  I heard swinging grooves, singable melodies, and the blues.  Sure, Ornette's saxophone and Don Cherry's trumpet tones were a little rough, not exactly conservatory quality, but nothing that would lead me to believe that they were faking.  The bebop language was a little discombobulated, but it still seemed logical.

If we could hear his early albums with the ears of the time, our experience would be very different from my own, which was some twenty years ago and thirty years after the time of recording.  At the end of the fifties, bebop was in full flourish.  Jazz was cool, hip, and smooth.  Ornette's music was raw, stripped down to the essential elements.  There was no effort to be pretty, at least not in the "with strings" sort of aesthetic that was so dominant with popular music of the era.  Ornette Coleman was certainly not going to be playing over lush arrangements of the American songbook!

In a time when jazz musicians were mostly improvising on slick bits of language that they had worked out ahead of time, Coleman was doing something radically different.  Instead of elegantly plugging cliches and intricate patterns into the corresponding harmonic structures of song forms, he was improvising on the essence of the songs.  He was an expressionist, a seeker of musical truth.  At a time when most artists were playing pretty love songs, Ornette Coleman was trying to play the way that love really feels.  His solos were jubilant and joyful, or twisted up in pain.  He was like a toddler that needed a nap, pouring out emotions as fast as they would come.  He cut the music open and let the blood and guts spill out all over the place, and not everyone has the stomach for that kind of brutal honesty.

I once almost met Ornette Coleman in New York City.  I was standing no more than ten feet away from him.  He was calm and congenial, accepting congratulations from some fans, as he had just received an award.  I wanted to talk to him, but I didn't know what to say.  What I wanted to do is to throw myself at his feet and thank him for risking everything to change music, so that I could have a career making the kind of music that spoke to me at a deep level.  I wanted to thank him for not giving up after he was literally beaten after a gig in Baton Rouge, and for not packing it up when those guys smashed his saxophone beyond repair.  I wanted to thank him for bravely listening to his inner voice, and for chasing his dreams.  I wish that I had just squeezed his hand and said "Thank you, Mr. Coleman.  For everything."

It is difficult to process that all his great colleagues from the original quartet albums are gone, and that he managed to outlive them all.  I didn't like everything that he recorded, but he had my respect for staying true to his vision.  I hear his influence in Keith Jarrett, Joe Lovano, and just about every young improviser on the scene today.  Ornette Coleman didn't just open doors, but he also held them open so that the rest of us could pass through.  Thank you, Mr. Coleman.  For everything.

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