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Ornette Coleman, the Saxophonist Who Transformed Jazz

Martin Meissner/AP Photo

In 1960, Roy DeCarava set his lens on Ornette Coleman, nothing new for the photographer, who had documented fellow African American artists like Norman Lewis, Paul Robeson, Langston Hughes, and especially musicians—Duke, Basie, Billie, Mary Lou Williams, among so many. 

This image is especially striking. It’s an extreme close-up, in black-and-white—like virtually all of DeCarava’s work—and Ornette is not in ecstatic communion with his instrument, as in the shots of Elvin Jones, John Coltrane, and Horace Silver. Instead, Coleman is still, deep in thought, his mien assured. He looks away from the camera, off into the distance. The year before, Ornette titled his second album “Tomorrow Is the Question!” His first, in 1958, was “Something Else!!!!” Indeed, tomorrow was always the question for Ornette Coleman, who died last week at 85. And he really was something else. 

It wasn’t the first time a great photographer took Ornette’s portrait: William Claxton photographed Coleman, on the cover of his third recording “The Shape of Jazz to Come,” and Lee Friedlander did the honors for the next album  “Change of the Century,” almost identical to DeCarava’s shot, only in color. Ornette, lost in thought. Ah, those album titles: For an un-pedigreed Texan, sans resume-building sideman work with key jazz elders, he sure had a vision and an unshakeable belief in himself.  

He rode into town just the year before in 1959, at 29, on his alto saxophone, self-taught, more or less. Dexter Gordon had refused to play with him in L.A., Miles Davis and Charles Mingus didn’t hold him in high esteem, and Roy Eldridge famously said, “I think he’s jiving, baby.” 

At that point, tenor saxophonists were the heavyweights; Chu Berry, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Ben Webster, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins were the Jack Dempsey, Gene Tunney, Jack Johnson, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Archie Moore. One of the few altoists that conquered the world (the Ray Robinson) was Charlie Parker, who had died by the time Ornette arrived in New York. 

Coleman was imbued with Parker, but he didn’t want to be Parker. Where Parker’s be-bop revolution in the 1940s was against big-band—and killed off jazz as a dance music—Ornette’s ideas of freedom, which had been stirring with Cecil Taylor and others, countered the increasingly stifling conventions of bop. Ornette set out to dismantle a song’s architecture, making it less reliant on chord changes, and using a rhythm section mostly without a piano while opening up the roles of the bassist and drummer.   

If he was a freak to many, he did win over admirers early on. John Lewis, the founder of the Modern Jazz Quartet and the figure who really helped establish him back East, said: “Ornette Coleman is doing the only really new thing in jazz since the innovations in the mid-forties of Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and those of Thelonious Monk.” Whitney Balliett of the New Yorker wrote in 1959: “Listen to Coleman; he is unique; he is new.” (He also described Ornette as “otherworldy.”) 

So Coleman wasn’t jiving; he was Puck-ish. He played a plastic alto! And Don Cherry, one of his musical soul mates, played with a pocket trumpet, which looked like a toy. Martin Williams, another esteemed critic, wrote: “I believe that what Ornette Coleman is playing will affect the whole character of jazz music profoundly and pervasively.” Yes, profound, too. Part Puck, part Beckett’s Didi. 

After two lengthy and legendary residencies at the Five Spot downtown in Cooper Square, the ultimate outsider was suddenly the talk of the town. Later in 1960, he recorded “Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation,” with two quartets playing simultaneously. Jackson Pollock’s “The White Light” appeared on the album cover. 

If there was a drawback, Ornette’s music appeared to many at the time something you had to “get.” If jazz became an intellectual music after Parker, it may have become hyper-intellectual post-Coleman, something that wasn’t necessarily his intention. In the liner notes of “Change of the Century,” he said: “With my music, as is the case with some of my friends who are painters, I often have people come up to me and say, ‘I like it but I don’t understand it.’ Many people apparently don’t trust their reactions to art or to music unless there is a verbal explanation for it. In music, the only thing that matters is whether you feel it or not.” 

In fact, Coleman, as has been said in testimonials the past week, was first and foremost a blues player with a strong sense of melodic line. His sound on alto soars high into a mournful beauty. He was an intellectual musician, but an emotional one, too. The drummer Shelly Mann, though not in Coleman’s inner circle, once said it well: “He sounds like a person crying … or a person laughing … when he plays.” 

If he just had those handful of recordings from 1959 and 1960, and the Five Spot engagements, his contribution would have been immense. But he continued—tomorrow always being the question, remember—original, uncompromising, if not commercial. 

He began recording with his son, Denardo, his long-time drummer and producer, when the boy was just ten years old in 1966 on “The Empty Foxhole” with Charlie Haden. As Will Hermes points out in his exceptional book on New York City’s music scene in the 1970s, Coleman, taking a cue from friend and collaborator Yoko Ono, basically started the Loft Era in jazz, by founding Artists House at 131 Prince Street, “a combination performance space, recording studio, clubhouse, and apartment.” (His 1970 album was titled “Friends and Neighbors: Live at Prince Street.”) A movement followed; real estate values eventually skyrocketed. 

In 1972, he recorded the under-appreciated “Skies of America” with the London Symphony Orchestra. In 1976, he went electric, but his fusion was like no one else’s. Avant-free funk, you can say. The band, with Denardo, James “Blood” Ulmer, Ronald Shannon Jackson, and Jamaaladeen Tacuma, became known as Prime Time. (Coleman was a genteel man, by all accounts, but not shy.)  The following year he did some of his most beautiful playing on “Soapsuds, Soapsuds” a duet recording with Haden, his beloved bassist from that vital early period. 

He played on the score of David Cronenberg’s 1991 adaptation of William Burroughs’s “Naked Lunch.” In 1995, during a lingering neocon movement, he embraced hip-hop in his eclectic “Tone Dialing.” In 1997, he sat down for a chat with Jacques Derrida; hey, if he could do “Saturday Night Live” in 1979, why not sit down with a deconstructionist?

He won a deserved Pulitzer in 2006 for the excellent “Sound Grammar,” a live album recorded in Germany. He played Bonnaroo in 2007, before collapsing from heat exhaustion onstage. He played Prospect Park, this time last year, at age 84. He was something else (!!!!).  

Coda: I saw Ornette Coleman four times, three in concert. Two were from a four-night tribute concert in 1997 at Alice Tully Hall in Lincoln Center—not, mind you, the conservative Jazz at Lincoln Center; that would have to wait until the next century. Laurie Anderson and Lou Reed, long-time admirers, performed one of those nights; “Skies of America,” was featured another night. Ornette, if I’m not mistaken, wore a purple suit. His playing was beautiful; he sounded like a bird, I remember thinking—not Bird, just a bird, a gorgeous one. I saw him again in 2006, at Carnegie Hall. Abby Lincoln came on first. Talk about a double-bill. As an encore he played the mournful “Lonely Woman,” his best-known composition that young musicians today are obsessed with. 

The fourth time I saw him was the following year. It wasn’t from the upper tiers of a great concert hall, either. No, he was in front of me, at a deli on 34th Street and Madison Avenue. It was lunch hour, a weekday, and the frenetic crowd scooted around without seeming to notice him. He sat at a communal table, alone, serenely eating something, I want to say fruit salad. If he wasn’t wearing a purple suit, he wore something that called attention to itself—he usually did. That and the smushed down hat. Still no one noticed; no one knew who this was. I stopped; I stared. He was sitting down but I could tell he was slight, about my size, small for a giant. I didn’t know what to say and I just continued to stare, then smiled sheepishly and nodded. He saw me. Then he smiled, nodded back, and with thumb and forefinger, touched the bill of his hat.