Ornette Coleman was a musician, a magician and an oracle. The three professions are related, because each can realign humans' relationships to senses and spirit, thereby connecting them to an essence.
To achieve the realignment, Coleman took people out of their bags. As a musician, he designed a holistic system to make us hear notes as equally balanced entities that interact outside the harmonic frameworks we're used to. This is similar to what a magician does: In the ancient sense of the word, a magus is a priest of sacred rites -- not an entertainer who deceives with tricks, but a doorkeeper who distracts us from ourselves so he can reveal what's behind the gate. An oracle, too, doesn't simply answer questions, he uses the ambiguities of words to shatter their meanings and expose the shallowness of our inquiries; when Coleman talked, he did that all the time. The design of monumental stone circles such as Stonehenge shows the same attitude: The external path doesn't lead straight to the sanctuary, but takes a severe bend before the rim. You must approach the Light obliquely.
Coleman didn't like to talk about his history, but I bet someone in his youth served as an example of the griot or oracle. Well, maybe it was just that great parabolist Jesus of Nazareth, by way of Coleman's Methodist mother. The record does show that Coleman titled one of his earliest compositions "The Sphinx" (an ancient riddler), that he married a poet and that he was fascinated with magic.
All this contributes to why people find Coleman's music difficult: He was here to teach, not to coddle. He did it with warmth, though. Breath is spirit, and he always breathed. Think about "The Blessing," from Coleman's first album, "Something Else!!!!" (1958) -- the way it made unusual rhythmic accents puff more naturally than the jagged Charlie Parker riffs that inspired them. "Lonely Woman" (1959) was hardly more than a sigh and a moan. His alto sound was often described as a cry, but it was a "Love Call" (1968) or a child's shout (he recorded a 1966's "The Empty Foxhole" with his 10-year-old drummer son, Denardo) rather than a cry of anger or warning. It's funny that the only time I remember Coleman sounding out of breath was on his most popular tune, "Theme From a Symphony" ("Dancing in Your Head," 1977).
Coleman won a 2007 Pulitzer for his blues-to-noise tour de force "Sound Grammar," and a Lifetime Achievement Grammy the same year, only to have liberal jokester Stephen Colbert make fun of him. What's amazing is that, considering his sales figures, he ever got that kind of recognition.
But I'm glad he did, because Coleman accomplished miracles that have nothing to do with the marketplace. He opened the heads of thousands of musicians and maybe millions of listeners, in ways they still may not realize. Although his recordings deserve to last, the several times I've heard him live have altered my genes in the most important ways, reprogramming me to accept a wider range of emissions from the Light.
In other words, Ornette Coleman changed my life.
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My favorite Ornette Coleman records:
"Live at the Hillcrest Club" (recorded with Paul Bley in 1958)
"Something Else!!!!" (1958)
"Free Jazz" (1960)
"Skies of America" (his symphony, 1972)
"In All Languages" (1987)
"Sound Grammar" (2006)
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I invite anyone to comment on Ornette Coleman for this page by mailing me at "info at metaljazz.com". Read some responses below.
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A POEM BY RICHARD MELTZER:
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FRIEND DAVID N. MEYER ADDS:
Ornette...proof that you can totally not understand something in any intellectual or emotional way and it still can resonate so powerfully. Prior to "Dancing In Your Head," which I wore out twice on vinyl, I had and have NO idea what Ornette was on about. I could not parse it. I could not grok it. I could not understand it. I'm not even sure I could say it "moves" me; it evokes emotions I can't name. It puts me in a place I cannot name; I like it, though. I love it. And sometimes, his music has made me so restless I could not stand it.
Whatever Ornette was doing struck me powerfully and sounded as alien - never less so on repeated listens - as it did familiar and meaningful. I hate to describe him as impenetrable; maybe he was. His music penetrated me in ways beyond words. "Dancing in Your Head" was suddenly comprehensible as were most of his compositions after. That you could dance to it, dance to Ornette - or hell, even nod your head and tap your foot to it - was shocking. I think of him as such a rock, so beautifully tailored and turned out, solid as a mountain amid that chaos. He knew where he was, always.
Those profound small-group works with Haden and Cherry were conversations in a language from another planet, another sound-space-time continuum altogether. Their interior meaning escaped me, but the force of their connection, the eloquence of their communication, bore so much emotion, even when I could not understand what they were saying. But even on one listen, you knew that Haden totally understood Ornette. What a relief and blessing those two must have been to each other.
All these decades later, his music remains mysterious. What is he doing? What is he thinking? What is he on about? I don't know. I know no one's music does to me what Ornette's does. My lack of comprehension opens so many other doors as I listen. Maybe that's what he's on about...
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THOUGHTS FROM BRICK WAHL HERE.
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MEMORIES FROM G.E. STINSON:
ornette was pivotal for me. i first saw him in 1968 with dewey redman, charlie haden and ed blackwell. as a young blues-rock guitarist, it was the very first time i attended an "avant garde" musical performance. it was challenging, intriguing and powerful. it planted a seed that would lead me places that i never expected to go. just as you said in your piece, ornette's music changed my life forever.
with this piece of music i was attempting, in my own way, to evoke the harmolodic orchestrations of "skies of america" and the bluesy gospel essence of ornette's playing. his soulful vibe is what drew me into his music. his adventurous searching nature is what kept me there and challenged me to find my own musical voice. there are no words that are adequate... but there is music, the language that ornette shared with many of us.
i am grateful to him. he is free of this physical realm. may the bodhisattvas give him refuge and guide him. om mani padme hum.
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STEUART LIEBIG THEORIZES:
like a lot of people today, i opened my facebook feed and learned that ornette coleman has died. (and how weird is it that we learn these things in this way now?)
many friends have had some very eloquent things to say about this event. here are a few reflections i've had since learning this news.
being born in 1956, i think it's hard for me to fully fathom how groundbreaking and iconoclastic ornette must have seemed when he first came on the scene. for people like me, he's just a huge part of the zeitgeist. imagining music without his influence is sort of like trying to comprehend living without a phone . . . it's always been there and it's pervasive.
you could argue that his influence on music *worldwide* has been broad, deep and seminal. it's not just jazz that has felt this titan's influence. in my opinion, western music (classical, rock, jazz, blues. etc. [for instance try to imagine the rock guitar solo without the influence of ornette on coltrane]) and eastern music, probably even middle eastern or african music, have all felt the effects, in varying degrees (tsunami to ripple), of his musical vision and the way he applied it.
in many ways, i think he embodied the sense of progress in post-war america . . . and also was a recipient of the backlash against it in the reagan years (hello marsalis clan).
i think he did what very few people can truly do, he changed the *world* around him.
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MATT DUERSTEN CHARTS ORNETTE'S INFLUENCE ON L.A. IMPROV HERE.