This morning brought the news that jazz legend Ornette Coleman died at age 85, from cardiac arrest. Somewhat surprisingly even to me, I’m having real trouble processing this information, my reaction is mostly one of profound shock and disbelief.
This flies in the face of logic and reason, which is often the case with our feelings. I mean, I know we all have to go eventually, even Ted Williams, and at 85, Ornette was well within the age range where people can be expected to die of various natural causes. It may have something to do with the fact it has come so quickly on the heels of the deaths of two fine Toronto musicians – Lenny Boyd and Archie Alleyne – both of whom I knew well, in fact I’m in the middle of writing memorial pieces on each of them. And then this – oh God no, not another one gone – but as a friend said the other day, bad news often comes in threes.
It’s not just that though, it’s something else…….it’s that Ornette Coleman was so original and ground-breaking a musician, so unique a thinker on matters even beyond music, that he didn’t seem to have an age or even to be quite of this earth, so it seems impossible that he’s dead, inconceivable.
I suppose I fell into the habit of thinking of him not as a man, but as a force, a legend, as a manifesto of revolutionary, yet influential, ideas and principles, in more or less human form. This is odd too, because It’s not as though I idolized him outright, he wasn’t my absolute favourite musician or anything. But I admired him a great deal, love a lot of his records, pieces and bands and even the ones I didn’t care for so much did nothing to change this. He was hugely important and I always respected him deeply, even when something he would do occasionally would have me muttering to myself “I wish he’d stop doing that”. He was a daring and fearless improviser and I think he was one of the great jazz composers; I wish his tunes were more commonly played. He had a great gift for writing beautiful original melodies that stayed with you despite their supposed atonality, and which supplied terrific grist for improvising.
Ornette showed jazz a new way to go in the late ’50s, at a time when the music was ensnarled in an endlessly dense maze of chord changes and when improvisers seemed to have painted themselves into a harmonic corner. He upset people and not everyone followed his lead, but he did change the music for the better eventually, he presented it with new possibilities and that’s what improvised music is all about – the presence of possibility. Strange as his music seemed in those early days, it came out of jazz traditions – he was from Texas and his music was full of the blues, wide-open spaces, the hothouse emotion and swing/dance feeling that suffused other music from that seminal area.
Like Lester Young, Coleman’s originality went well beyond his music, extending to areas such as his singular appearance, speech, manner of thought and wardrobe – he dressed beautifully, often in brightly coloured clothes that were made for him rather than store-bought. Like Pres, he seemed like an introverted visitor from another planet, one who resisted conformity and corporate thinking at every turn. And yet, he always made sense – in interviews he came across as intelligent, thoughtful, gentle and modest, the most soft-spoken of radicals.
In fact, the image of Coleman as messianic jazz revolutionary was not of his own making, but one thrust upon him by the media and record companies, who insisted on giving his albums futuristic names like Change Of the Century and The Shape of Jazz to Come, something I get the feeling he could have done without. Mostly, he seemed like a sincere, unpretentious man who was interested in going about the serious business of making music the way he heard it – for real, no fuss, no muss.
Ornette’s down-to-earth, yet cryptic quality is nicely illustrated in this odd story about him, the only one I’ve heard personally. It comes from my good friend Barry Elmes, and I’m hoping he won’t mind me relating it:
In the early ’70s, Barry was going to York University and worked a couple of summers playing drums in a run-of-the-mill country band called “Eddie and the Pacemakers”, which toured the circuit of country bars around Ontario. He was by far the youngest guy in the band and the only one with any interest in or knowledge of jazz. The band was playing a week once at The Gerrard Tavern, which is long gone now, but was a pretty divey bar on the north side of Gerrard St., just east of Parliament St., a fairly rough neighbourhood in those days. It was the kind of joint that you’d see somebody staggering out of in broad daylight, or being thrown out of as you were passing by in a streetcar.
In the middle of a set toward the end of the week, Elmes looked out and noticed a black man sitting alone at a table drinking beer and paying close attention to the music, unlike anyone else in the place. The bass player noticed that Elmes kept staring out at this guy and asked why and Elmes answered that he looked exactly like a famous American jazz musician named Ornette Coleman. The bass player said, “Well maybe it is him” and Elmes answered no, it couldn’t be – what would somebody like Ornette Coleman be doing there, of all places?
Still, the uncanny resemblance persisted and Elmes kept staring until the break came and the bass player said, “Look, you’re never gonna know unless you go up and ask him.” Elmes demurred and the bass player said, “Well okay, then I will”. So he walked over to the table where the guy was sitting and said, “Our drummer says you look an awful lot like some guy named Ornette Coleman” and the man answered, “I am Ornette Coleman”. So the bass player yelled over, “Elmes, it’s him, get over here!”.
Dumbstruck, Elmes introduced himself and told Ornette how much he liked his music and, curiosity winning out over politeness, he couldn’t resist asking Coleman just what the hell he was doing there. so far from home, listening to a country band in a crummy bar. Ornette explained that he was playing the next week at The Colonial Tavern, but came to Toronto a few days early to visit some friends, who lived nearby. He wanted to get out of the house because he felt like a beer, or their kids were making a lot of noise or something, and The Gerrard Tavern was the closest bar, so in he came. With a smile, he said he stuck around because “he was from Texas and loved going out to hear shit-kicker music”, which flabbergasted Elmes, though Ornette seemed perfectly sincere about it. He and Elmes had a beer and a pleasant conversation during which Ornette emerged as a polite, soft-spoken, regular guy who just liked music and people of all kinds, as opposed to being some tortured, dark, self-involved genius.
I love that story. Like Ornette and his music, it’s surprising and goes against the grain, yet has its own underlying logic. This was summed up in Coleman’s famous statement that he knew he was on to something in his music when he began making mistakes. It took a long time before I understood what he meant – the fact he could make mistakes playing his seemingly free music meant that it had substance, meaning and boundaries and wasn’t just random. There were rules – his own – but rules all the same.
Tonight, I have the house to myself and will be playing some Ornette Coleman records, a nice way to remember him and digest his passing. It’s as well my wife Anna will be out, she likes Ornette Coleman’s music the way Golda Meir liked Anwar Sadat. Coleman wasn’t for everybody but, like him or not, he was a giant who changed jazz forever and I for one am grateful to him and glad he was among us so long.
There are many I could have chosen, but I’ll leave you with a favourite track by Ornette with his first quartet – “Congeniality” – with Don Cherry, Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins, which shows what he was all about as well as anything else he did. Rest in peace, Ornette.
© 2015, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.