By Devon Wendell
Ornette Coleman; they called him “atonal”, they said he played “out”, and was “avant-garde.” People tried to force these labels on me as I was discovering his music in my youth. They did the same thing when I got my first records by Monk, ‘Trane, and Dolphy, and Bird. All I knew is that the music took me to amazing places and fed me vivid images and fantastic colors.
When I first heard Ornette’s The Shape Of Jazz To Come album, I remember thinking that he played great blues and I could also hear great traditions of jazz in his playing. I heard a lot of Bird’s influence in his early work. Ornette had this lyrical beauty to his music that people don’t mention much. His composition “Lonely Woman” is a perfect example of this. I saw Ornette perform this piece many times and it always made me cry.
I met Ornette in New York twice. I think it was at The Village Vanguard. He was someone I felt I had to talk to. He was very approachable then and we discussed Schoenberg, Leonard Bernstein, and musical frustration and how to use it to create.
I recall him wearing an all red suit. Everything matched from his socks to his jacket.
He never appeared to be trying to look or act hip. He was who he was, a consummate professional and intellectual. Ornette was always seeking, always curious, and always growing in the face of constant labeling and controversy.
What courage it must have taken this man to not let all of that talk stop him. I would play Charlie Parker or Monk’s music for some people and a lot of them reacted the same as they did to Ornette’s music. “That has no melody” they would say or “That makes no sense and has no structure.” And I always asked “Compared to what?”
I still don’t know who made the rules so rigid and I suppose I never will. I do know that I will miss Ornette Coleman’s musical statements.
Ornette Coleman passed away at the age of 85 on June 11, 2015, and despite those who continue to not “get it”, there are those of us who will always love all of the incredible music he left behind.