Ornette Coleman’s music came to me in my freshman year of high school. I had this really bad habit of saving my lunch money up and ditching school every three days to purchase compact discs from a store called Rare Bear. It was right around the corner from the high school I attended.
I started my journey through Coleman’s catalogue with The Shape of Jazz to Come. I have to admit that I lost interest in his music once I started to explore his work that he released in the 70s and after, but his earlier work was highly influential on me. I also have this memory of being in a car with my cousin who was obsessed with punk rock music (Circle Jerks, Ramones, Dead Kennedys and the like, music which I do appreciate) and she had asked me to put on some of my favorite music. I had two cassette tapes in my bag, a cassette I had dubbed of Henryk Gorecki’s music for strings and an Ornette Coleman birthday tribute I had pulled off of the radio over spring break that year (Ornette’s birthday was March 9). I decided to put Ornette Coleman on as his music was considerably “heavier” than Gorecki’s 2nd String Quartet and also very rebellious in spirit. I will never forget the ignorant tone of her laughter when she heard Coleman’s music! Some things are forgivable, but I cannot forgive poor taste, while I won’t hold a grudge, it’s hard to forget that an individual has a limited knowledge of culture, regardless of whether that limited knowledge is of art, music, film, literature, critical theory, philosophy, or anything else, it just shows that an individual hasn’t really taken time to enjoy anything that isn’t placed in front of them by a teacher, a parent, a friend, the television, a movie, a magazine, social media, and so on. In other words, a limited knowledge of culture shows a lack of intelligence and free thinking and a shallow necessity to fit in and be accepted.
Which brings me to the importance of Ornette Coleman. His music is loved by the elitists in so-called “new music” and “improvised music.” However, I would not call him an elitist. He was famous for dropping the piano from jazz and completely ignoring the implied harmonies of the bass line when he improvised. He played a plastic saxophone. He released an album that lent its name to an entire genre, Free Jazz (a feat that was also accomplished by Venom with their album Black Metal). Another hero of mine, John Zorn, has recorded an entire album of hardcore covers of Ornette’s work, Spy vs. Spy: The Music of Ornette Coleman. He made contributions to the soundtrack of David Cronenberg’s film adaptation of Burroughs’ controversial novel Naked Lunch.
The point is, at the age of 14, I was completely unaware how Ornette’s music would keep coming back to me as my interests developed and I would eventually become aware of the web of influence that connected Ornette to William S. Burroughs to David Cronenberg; or Ornette to John Zorn to Napalm Death; or Ornette to Weasel Walter and The Flying Luttenbachers to the sounds of No Wave (which could even be connected to Basquiat in a round about way). Ornette Coleman would eventually become this nexus point of the avant-garde for me. I cannot think of anything more cutting edge and more amazing than to be that influential on such a diverse assortment of progressive thinkers. His music epitomizes substance and quality and departure from tradition. Coleman was an iconoclast.
Coleman passed away June 11, 2015.
I also want to acknowledge my thoughts and prayers for the family of Chris Cornell. Soundgarden and Audioslave have been two of my favorite rock groups throughout my life and he was an incredible vocalist. RIP.