Ornette Coleman: An appreciation

Time catches up to Ornette

Jazzman Ornette Coleman died last Thursday at 85. Only his age ameliorates the sense of loss that another of those who made the 1950s and ’60s such dynamic decades is gone.

Ornette Coleman in 2011. (Photo by Michael Hoefner via Creative Commons/Wikimedia)

The best response is coming from Columbia University’s WKCR-FM, the partly student-operated radio station that is conducting a weeklong shiva for Ornette, playing recordings, special archive tapes, and other pieces of Coleman’s musical legacy nonstop, 24/7 for the seven days through this Wednesday at 9:30am. A streaming download is available.

Ornette’s alto sax music is unique, which also makes it an acquired taste. Its squawks and squeals, its whirligig rhythmic changes and melodic shape-shifting are notorious in the jazz world, where even giants like Dizzy Gillespie and Roy Eldridge had their doubts about what Ornette was doing when he started recording in 1958.

Now I am amazed by what I hear in this memorial broadcast stream. It reminds me of the time when, as a young man, I splurged on two bottles of what I thought was a very good California chardonnay. A few weeks later, I tried the first and was shocked to taste such flinty, stony, unyielding flavor. That was what I had spent $12 on? A few years later, I came upon the second bottle at the bottom of my closet; might as well taste it before tossing it out. Whoa, what happened? The wine was bright, flowery, soft, wide open, and delicious. Time had ripened it in ways I had not foreseen.

Not a freakish outlier

That is what hearing so much of Ornette Coleman’s music at once is doing to me, too. Though I own three or four of his records, I had not listened to him in recent decades. Problem: I could always find individual songs I liked, but so many more tracks seemed unrewarding, impenetrable, or downright unlistenable. Now I can’t stop listening! How to explain the music streaming from WKCR, full of exciting double or triple harmonies (his “harmolodics”), moments of swing, long stretches of harder bebop, and a consistent tone and sound. It’s now obvious that Ornette Coleman was no freakish outlier, but rather came directly from the line of sax greats that includes Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, and Don Byas, as well as Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane, two of his contemporaries. You can hear it all; it’s right there. How could I have struggled with this once? How could this ever have been controversial? (Well, there is still that violin playing, ouch.)

He was ahead of his time, but my own little pair of ears has caught up to him at last. Where I used to hear what made his music so different from mainstream jazz, now I am thrilled to hear the commonalities between his playing and those mainstreams. What has been pouring out of my computer speakers is accessible, comprehensible, feisty, and funny, sometimes blue, sometimes plaintive, elegiac, and moving, but almost unceasingly beautiful. It makes me bounce my feet and tap my hands on the table. The quick, tightly coordinated song endings could make anyone exclaim with delight. Stretches of sounds that once seemed harsh fit into a bigger entity that I can now absorb with pleasure.

Underlying consistency

Ornette’s generous lifespan helped his recognition. He is still a hard sell at first listen, but enough people could hear more than I once did that he won both a Pulitzer and a Lifetime Achievement Grammy in 2007. The memorial broadcast taps a surprisingly large pool of recordings, both public and private, that demonstrate his constancy across a wide range of composition, improvisation, and instrumentation — even the symphonic, like Skies of America from 1972. No matter how the music varies — and it varies, wonderfully — the one thing you will almost always hear is that short, sharp, rising, spreading, squalling alto wail that punctuates a phrase. It once bothered listeners, but all it’s really saying every time is, “It’s me, Ornette!”

If you don’t catch any of the memorial broadcast, mark the calendar for his birthday marathon on WKCR next March 9. Fortunately for others who may want to test time and their ears, most of his recordings are still available and there are excellent legacy compilations from his early period.

Sign Up For Our Newsletter

Want previews of our latest stories about arts and culture in Philadelphia? Sign up for our newsletter.