There were 11 of us in the audience at the Minor Key in 1960 in Detroit when Ornette Coleman and his quartet showed up for a weeklong engagement. When he came out of the back room of the club brandishing a white plastic alto saxophone, accompanied by Don Cherry with a small pocket trumpet, we knew we were in for something else, in keeping with his first recording, which a few of us had heard.
Fresh from an appearance at New York’s Five Spot Cafe, Coleman and his group had sparked ceaseless rounds of controversy in the world of jazz, his jagged, bluesy extension of bebop unnerving some of the “moldy fig” traditionalists, even some of the more avant-garde advocates. But for us young radicals, it was just what we were looking for, and when they opened with “Invisible,” one of Coleman’s most endearing compositions, he and that new sound came completely into view.
We thought he would be disappointed with the dismal turnout, but between sets, he informed us that it wasn’t about numbers, not about quantity, but the quality of the listeners. That may have been fine for us, but what about the club owner?
Unlike “Something Else! The Music of Ornette Coleman” (Contemporary Records), there was no Paul Bley on piano, but Chet Baker and Gerry Mulligan had already, to some degree, prepared us for groups without a chordal blueprint.
Coleman and his group were never more present for us than when they did “The Blessing” and “Lonely Woman”—tunes we all knew by heart, and each of which I put lyrics to that I shared with Coleman 13 years later when he appeared again in Detroit at the Strata Concert Gallery, a cultural group in which I was the editor of its newsletter.
From the very beginning of his remarkable career, a few of us were loyal and devoted followers—something that never stopped for me. When he settled in Harlem after shifting his musical headquarters a number of times over the years, I saw him on several occasions at various locations, including at Manna’s, one of his favorite dining spots.
All of those moments came rushing back Thursday, June 11, when I heard he had died of cardiac arrest in Manhattan. He was 85 and probably still looking beyond the moment to fresh vistas, unexplored horizons of music to test his mettle.
I was among his fans who collected all of his early albums, none more exciting and compelling than “The Shape of Jazz to Come” and “Change of the Century.” He brought an entirely new concept, a new vocabulary and syntax to harmonic, melodic and rhythmic contours that most of us—musicians or otherwise—had grown accustomed to. Many were not prepared for the innovations, hearing them as strange, disruptive and untutored improvisations, as more than one musician exclaimed.
Even so, there were a good number who relished his performances with Cherry, who had an uncanny way of following or embellishing Coleman’s often dazzling complexities. This is what most amused me in those early forays when he had Charlie Haden on bass and Billy Higgins on drums. Haden’s bass was always the necessary tonal center, the GPS if Coleman and Cherry strayed too far afield from their often boundless parameters.
As you can see, this is not an obituary but a reflection on a musician that I deeply admired, and though it was challenging to follow him at every turn of his musical odyssey, the electronic impulses of Prime Time or the classical tinges of “Skies of America,” to say nothing of his excursions on violin and trumpet, he remained a singular visionary for me, and it was hard not to recall his specialness during a memorial service for poet Jayne Cortez, his wife for more than a decade and with whom they shared a son, Denardo.
All of my vinyl records and many of my CDs by Coleman are in storage, so for the past several days since his death, I have resorted to YouTube while also taking in some of the celebration of his life on WKCR, Columbia University’s radio station, where they often stop regular broadcasting to honor a giant in jazz.
And Coleman certainly soared far beyond the borders of convention, whether in terms of music or ideas. He seemed ever in quest of a sound, a meaning to his life and music, that was more than “harmolodics,” more than any of us would ever be able to describe or to define.
His funeral services are scheduled for Saturday, June 27 at 11 a.m. at Riverside Church, which will be followed by a private burial.