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A Love Letter to Ornette Coleman, Jazz Legend Lost

“I want them to follow themselves, but to be with me.”

June 12, 2015

Ornette Coleman’s “The Shape of Jazz to Come”


When I was eleven, you took me aside and you showed me jazz. I don’t think that’s accurate, but I know it’s true. My father played alto and I followed. (He was from Dallas and you Fort Worth, and in that I found significance.) When he showed me Bird, even so young I knew it wasn’t the end. It couldn’t all be just the runs and numbing patterns. The idea matters too.

Your records punched like the exclamation points littering their covers. Tonal thoughts so tight they seemed fit to snap. You wanted it all — philosophy and feeling, taut harmony and sonic freedom. You asked for Something Else!!!! and you found it in yourself.

At first, jazz didn’t know what to do with you, and neither did I. But somehow, I understood. I too chafed at the rules. The hours of sitting behind the stand, staves blurring from one scale to the next, they left me restless. Technique was one thing, but without heart, where’s the beat?

I didn’t need to worry about keys, chords, melody if I had that emotion that brought tears and laughter to people’s hearts.”

Maybe that’s what scared them, those swingers and bluesmen, boppers and cool cats. Jazz was always evolving, but until you it was linear — swagger in a straight line. You looked back to the beginning, past the Broadway ballads filling up the Great American Songbook, straight into the eyes of Texas blues. Then you took bebop and broke it. You undid their structures. You shattered their rules.

“There is a law in what I’m playing, but that law is a law that when you get tired of it, you can change it.”

And what do you do with a sound like that? One that evolved as the players played? I’d grown up with Miles and the cool, savored the subtleties of the lyricism. But you left melody mangled in your wake and called it “harmolodics” — harmony, melody, movement. You dug at something deeper.

Sometimes, I imagine you kneeling in the dirt in a silk suit, white plastic sax at your side, sawing at an exposed root. Straight to the source — avoid the paper with its five lines and blotted inks. This is where the paper came from.

Back to the roots, you put your faith in folk and in other folks. You were the shaper, but never the leader.

“I don’t want them to follow me,” you said once. “I want them to follow themselves, but to be with me.”

Without you now, Ornette Coleman, what shapes will we assume? Tomorrow is always the question, but sometimes it’s also an answer. What can we do but play on?


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