Got a text yesterday… “Ornette has gone”. At the age of 85 years old Pulitzer Prize winning master musician and composer, Ornette Coleman passed away due to cardiac arrest. His heart could take any more. The curtain on an era of radical innovation in America that gave us musicians like Don Cherry, John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, Albert Ayler, Sun Ra, Cecil Taylor, Horace Tapscott, Pharoah Sanders, Archie Shepp, Bill Dixon and Philip Cohran is gradually drawing to a close.I first heard Ornette via my dad’s record player back in the Sixties. I think it would have been ‘The Shape Of Jazz To Come’ on Atlantic Records. As a teenager I didn’t really know what Ornette’s music was except it was out there! That LP combined the unique skills of Don Cherry, Charlie Haden and Ed Blackwell and I grew to love that quartet. It was slamming. Ornette was living in Los Angeles and married to the poet Jayne Cortez at that time – another extraordinary being. He was the man with a white plastic ‘Grafton’ saxophone. It was simply Ornette’s time and through that quartet he took things to a whole new level while crashing through a critical wall of skepticism and even derision within the jazz world.
Ornette didn’t want his musicians to follow him. He wanted them to follow themselves but be with him. That approach inderpins all of his recordings which gradually evolved to embrace his theory of “harmolodics” – a contraction of harmony, movement and melody.
The Sixties saw the ‘Free Jazz’ album with its wicked gatefold sleeve and a cut out window that revealed a Jackson Pollock painting. The album was truly radical in the sense that it featured a double quartet – one in each of the stereo channels. Check it out. Then there were the classic trio albums for Blue Note which fetaured Ornette on alto and violin and David Izenzon on bass and Charles Moffett on drums. The follow up album – ‘The Empty Foxhole’ – showcased his 10 year old son Denardo on drums!
I vividly recall reading a brilliant piece in 1972 by Val Wilmer, in the Melody Maker, about Ornette and the London Symphony Orchestra and how he dealt with the elitist and potentially racist attitudes of the classical musicians enlisted to play the score for ‘Skies Of America’. That was something a revelation.
In the mid Seventies Ornette had us ‘Dancing In Our Head’. Sidestepping the concert key system of Western tonality he transported us to the Rif mountains of Morocco where he united with the deep trance inducing reed players and percussionists of the Master Musicians of Jajouka. That LP also introduced Ornette’s first electric band, Prime Time, and paved the way for the saxophonist’s own record label Art House.
Prime Time made their first London appearance at a theatre in Victoria. It was most definitely the session to be at that week! It was post punk times. James Blood Ulmer was on Rough Trade. Expectations were high. I recall arriving in the theatre and seeing these weird round white speakers onstage and when Prime Time strolled onstage and plugged in this was definitely no straight ahead jazz gig. Two electric guitar players – Charles Ellerbee and Bern Nix, Jamaldeen Tacuma on electric bass and Shannon Jackson on drums… it was rockin’ and Ornette on alto was firing on all cylinders. People at the front were shouting that “It’s too loud”. Ornette’s response was something like “Maybe you should move back!” The Rip Rig and Panic crew… Neneh Cherry, Andi Oliver and co… were dancing wildly in the aisle. That was a night to remember and though I’ve consistently delved into his fresh, sometimes demanding, recordings and seen him play live several times, that’s how I want to remember Ornette – alive and attuned to the times, blazing a revolutionary pathway through the music of his comrades.
ABOVE: 1978 Germany. Ornette Coleman – sax, violin; Ben Nix – guitar; James Blood Ulmer – guitar; Fred Williams – bass; Shannon Jackson – drums; Denardo Coleman – drums
Ornette Coleman – March 1930 – June 2015. RIP.