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The singularity of jazz genius Ornette Coleman

His alto saxophone was made of cheap white plastic. His trumpet player, Don Cherry, played a Pakistani pocket trumpet, an instrument few, if any, had seen before that looked as if it were the clumsy little toddler of the trumpet family – either that or a minor instrument in a folk tradition none of us would ever really know.

Toy instruments, some called them.

That first 1959 gig at New York’s Five Spot – where Thelonious Monk had held forth a couple years before – paid him, it’s said, $15 a night. Other jazz musicians made it their business to come hear the new jazz phenomenon. “He’s all screwed up inside,” was Miles Davis’ instant verdict, on hearing Ornette Coleman’s music. “Jive,” is what Roy Eldridge decided after actually sitting in with Coleman’s epochal first band at the Five Spot.

It is one of the everyday miracles of the Internet World we now live in that none of us ever has to wonder what Ornette Coleman was like in live performance. He is all over YouTube. And he’s glorious.

But at his death on Thursday, I simply couldn’t help feeling bereft that the only jazz dream I ever had that I might still have plausibly realized was now over: I’ll never be able to hear Ornette Coleman in live performance.

Frustration was my very personal knee-jerk reaction. Until I had a chance to think a little and realize how incredibly lucky my life as a jazz listener has been.

Ornette was, almost literally, the ONLY giant of jazz in my time I ever missed catching live. True, I never heard Eric Dolphy or Booker Ervin (what must Charles Mingus’ band have been like with both? Listen to the disc “Mingus at Antibes”). And I actually passed up a chance to review Rahsaan Roland Kirk at Bemo Crockett’s Revilot Club in Buffalo.

But, except for Ornette Coleman, I have heard in my life every jazz musician I wanted to and that I might have had a plausible way to: Mingus; Miles Davis (twice); Thelonious Monk (twice); Sonny Rollins (four times); Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers (twice); John Coltrane; Duke Ellington (three times with his band, once with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra); Count Basie (three times); Cecil Taylor (four times); Dizzy Gillespie (three times); Carmen McRae; Ella Fitzgerald; Sarah Vaughan; Louis Armstrong… The list goes on and on.

I even had the luck and privilege to interview some on the phone – Count Basie (who, amazingly, seemed to talk as minimally and substantively as he soloed on piano); Sonny Rollins; Keith Jarrett; Toots Thielmans and, memorably, Gillespie, who had a furious argument with his wife without hanging up.

If I never heard Chet Baker, Art Pepper or Gil Evans’ Monday Night Band, it’s because they didn’t travel all that much to cities where I’d be or I was seldom where I needed to be at the right time to hear them. I did go to a Manhattan night club once that promised an appearance by a Booker Ervin band but, at the last second, he bowed out, suffering from the disease that finally took him. Instead, I heard an unheralded Pete LaRoca quartet whose saxophonist was Dave Liebman and whose extraordinary pianist was a composer/pianist of no name whatsoever yet that we were introduced to as “Chick Corea.”

My cup isn’t just full; it runneth over – with everyone but Ornette. But my problem wasn’t that uncommon. Every YouTube clip shows me what I missed.

What an extraordinary figure he was.

There’s a reason so many are in my boat: He rigorously required either the right recompense or the right circumstances – or both – to perform live in his prime. At one point, he responded to Atlantic Records getting rid of him for poor record sales by tripling his price for live performance. The result was years of infrequent performance.

The great jazz critic Gary Giddins once wrote: “Coleman’s music remains bracing, shocking to many.” Nothing has changed that. What he did is one of the most radical things an artist can do: He gave jazz back its innocence.

But he didn’t do it at all naively. He did it in a sophisticated and, at first, almost a polemic way. The ultra-sophisticated jazz triumvirate that first understood the arresting rawness of what Coleman was doing – critic Martin Williams, composer pianist John Lewis and classical composer Gunther Schuller – heard “the joy of inspired creation” (Williams’ words) in Coleman. But musicians and jazz fans accustomed to the harmonic sophistication and instrumental virtuosity of jazz understood far less of what he was doing than a punk kid garage band might.

It seemed, as Giddins wittily put it, that it was part of Ornette’s program to say “screw the tempered scale and the lute it rode in on.” To make sure that his audiences remembered the amateur joy of pure inspiration Coleman never stopped seeking, he played violin and trumpet in concert, along with his real instrument, the alto saxophone. Given the choice between innocent inspiration and accepted jazz professionalism, he preferred inspiration every time.

That made his music both sophisticated AND, in a strict sense, unprofessional.

“Learned technique is a law method,” he said. “Natural technique is nature’s method. And this is what makes ‘beautiful’ to me. It has both, thank God.”

And thank Ornette.

A couple of final stories about the kind of person jazz lost this past week.

From musician and record executive Robert Seidenberg (Full disclosure: my first cousin once removed) who worked with Ornette at the record label he created with John Snyder, Artist House: “I was a young intern … and one day I had to go talk to Ornette at his loft about some plans for an upcoming Public Theater show. I had only met him briefly, so this was to be my biggest audience with him, a man I considered (and still do) to be one of the most brilliant musical geniuses of our time. We started talking about the business at hand but after about 10 minutes, Ornette sat back and asked ‘So what do you play?’ And then proceeded to give me a short but mind-blowing lesson on how to integrate harmolodics into my guitar playing. So one of the geniuses of our time didn’t want to talk about his upcoming concert, his great accomplishments etc., he wanted to know about me, to impart what he considered to be the essence of music.”

From veteran Boston jazz publicist Ann Braithwaite, reporting on a scene witnessed by her husband, Randy Harrison, in Boston during a Coleman gig there. A Boston critic named Charlie Guilliano came into Coleman’s room with a stack of his records, hoping the musician would sign them. “All the classics,” according to Harrison. “When he got to ‘Free Jazz,’ the one with the Jackson Pollock cover, Charlie mentioned in passing that he had just seen an article in the Times that that very painting was sold at Sotheby’s for some ungodly sum like $5 million or more, and suddenly Ornette went silent, with a very funny look on his face.” He told them Pollock had bequeathed him the painting after his death and his widow, Lee Krasner, “kept calling and asking (Coleman) to pick the painting up.”

According to Harrison, Coleman then said “ ‘I guess I should have picked it up, huh?’ with a very funny, sheepish smile on his face.”

But then that really wouldn’t have been the Ornette Coleman thing to do.

Beauty, according to the title of one of Ornette’s tunes, is a rare thing. So was Ornette Coleman.


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