Coleman died last week at eighty-five.
For nearly fifty years, Ornette Coleman was the philosopher king, the trickster, the barbarian at the gate, the prodigal son. Despite advancing years, his ideas remained so young and so wild that they were always carded at the door. A powerful, emotional, seemingly tireless sax player, he took inordinate pleasure in performing and recording on violin, an instrument he played with the cheerful exuberance of a cocker spaniel.
Like most philosophers, Coleman was more interested in questions than in answers, and his gnomic sayings and musings are almost better known than his music, which could be impenetrable unless you gave in and let it wash over you with its pure mineral sound, allowing it to take you where it wanted to go—which was often not a destination but a way of getting there.
It sounds like a melody, but it’s not a melody, he said.
Emotions are the overtones of thought, he said.
What is the sound of sound? he asked.
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.
In pictures, he is often beatific, and most descriptions of him emphasize his gentleness, his calm demeanor. That’s true, but it’s not the whole story. Saintly as he could be, he was not without his thorns, and there was often a gentle—there’s that word again—malice that lurked below the surface, a steely resolve that could, if you weren’t careful, capsize the conversation and send you down, down, down. But mostly you just didn’t want to disappoint him.
One time we were in an office somewhere in the back of a recording studio, and there was a fish tank with one solitary goldfish inside, meandering back and forth through a maze of rocks and stones and sea grass decorating the aquarium. There was a plastic statue of Neptune holding a trident, and a very bored-looking mermaid ignoring Neptune to gaze at a broken starfish. Ornette watched with a fierce concentration, with a child’s fixed stare, as if he was placing bets on whether the fish would take a left or take a right. The fish hovered just where he was and watched Ornette.
The silence made me uneasy. Ornette’s spaces always did; I’d rush to fill them with anything at hand. I started talking about a French musician I’d visited at IRCAM, the institute of sound based in Paris that was funded in part by the French military. He looked perplexed.
“They’ve figured out how to develop sounds that they can use in war,” I told him. “Sounds that can disorient you, make you lose your balance. Sounds that can stop someone’s heart.”
“Why would they do that? Why?” he asked. “People’s hearts are already stopped.”
When I was a kid of thirteen or so trying to learn my way into jazz, the word on Ornette Coleman was that he was a charlatan from out of nowhere who was out to destroy music with his uneducated noise—so I was not predisposed to like him. On the radio, by chance, I heard his anthemic dirge “Lonely Woman,” and it made all the difference. That brilliant misfit music, its torn, sad, happy voice full of love, disjunction, and the blues: Had I ever heard so purely human a sound on a musical instrument before?
His band’s language was loose limbed but coherent. It had slipped the noose of accumulated jazz technique, landing beyond category and qualification: so simple it was complex, so abstract it was more concrete than anything else within earshot. He was a blues-based, post-bop musician who had shucked off every item of formal clothing to achieve a poor, bare, forked, unforgettably naked sound. Some people thought it was all he could do. But occasionally some more traditional musician, like the bop tenor giant Dexter Gordon, who thought that Ornette was basically jiving would come upon him practicing, unaware of being heard; the listener would recognize Charlie Parker’s truest disciple, not one who imitated the master but one who had winnowed away the chaff to disclose the true essential grain. Ornette Coleman can play Charlie Parker to make your socks go up and down, Jack DeJohnette once told me—but Coleman refused to put it on a record. He didn’t want to score a point when the truth of his playing ought to have been proof enough.
John Coltrane, for whom Coleman helped light the way, had to struggle mightily through the constrictions of inherited form to reach the transcendent freedom that was his goal. But Coleman seemed to find his freedom waiting; he was ready to play without an internal agon, even knowing the world would provide heaps of resistance. He heard what he wanted to play, knew what wasn’t part of it, and stuck to his guns, no matter what.
He came up hard and disregarded through blues and rhythm bands in his native Texas, and then met with disdain and incomprehension on the Los Angeles jazz scene until he found a few sympathetic souls—like Blake’s fortunate fool, he persisted in his folly to become progressively more wise.
By the time he broke upon the larger world with his revolutionary quartet, at the Five Spot in New York, in 1959, his moment was waiting for him; this was the turn into the sixties, with the winds of change at his back. The sense of liberation his music conveyed included the political and the racial, but it wasn’t confined to those parameters. The jazz elite, notably including Coltrane (with a large assist from Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk) and Charles Mingus, had been launching assaults upon the citadel when all of a sudden this holy innocent, this country cousin, showed up able to walk through the walls as if they weren’t there. They’d been stretching, bending, complicating the music’s harmonic structure. Ornette simply dispensed with most of it atop a base of open-form pentatonic blues, playing off a tune’s melody or feeling, hitting “wrong” notes when he felt them and employing a raw, untempered sense of pitch whose notes you wouldn’t find on any piano. The music changed and the earth beneath it shifted, whether everyone was ready or not. The possibilities of life and consciousness shifted, too, or so it seemed to those tuned in to the broadcast at the time.
Coleman was profoundly dyslexic, but with that higher form of the syndrome characterized by a roving point of view within the sentence, so that key reference points slipped their moorings and arrived at foreign harbors before the end. Something similar might be said of his mobile sense of pitch, tonality, and form, of his solos on the horn and their capacity to unbox us from conventional limits into richer recognitions. He was a soft-spoken, gentle man, but he could be peevish about feeling underappreciated and, especially, underpaid. Sometimes he could take the cult of innocence too far, as when he put his ten-year-old son, Denardo, on drums—and made it work—and he sometimes insisted on playing instruments he had far from mastered, like the trumpet and violin. But he recorded at least one masterpiece on brass, the well-named “Golden Number,” with his canonical bassist, Charlie Haden. And he wrote an Ivesian symphony—a concerto grosso for orchestra and his small band, fitfully achieved on record—that will probably endure one way or another, along with a collection of “classical” chamber music.
Later in life, laden with awards and honors, he was one of a small number of jazz musicians—Sonny Rollins is another—so beloved he could get a standing ovation just for showing up. He had done us a favor none of us will find the perfect words for.
Brian Cullman is a writer and musician living in New York City.
Rafi Zabor is the author of The Bear Comes Home and I, Wabenzi.