Ornette Coleman died today. At 85, it shouldn't come as any surprise, no matter how much longer I wish he could have been around.
I saw Ornette play twice, both times in Pittsburgh at the Carnegie Music Hall. The first time was in 1982 with the original Prime Time: Jamaaladeen, Dernado, Bernie Nix, etc. He stood in the center with a guitar/bass/drums trio flanking him on each side. I barely knew who Ornette was at the time but the tickets were cheap, the location within walking distance, and I was always looking for concerts to attend.
It was loud, much too loud for that particular room. It was a polymetric, polytonal funk attack. The records largely don't do the group justice, the exceptions maybe being "Dancing In Your Head" and some of "In All Languages" (though those cuts are much too short). A friend said afterwards, "I didn't expect Ornette Coleman to play disco!" (Hardly qualified, by the way.)
Whatever chaos was happening around him, Ornette was always calm and in charge. Without any firsthand knowledge, I suspect he was a very good and benevolent bandleader.
I saw him again in the 90s, I can't recall what year. That group had a tabla, a fusiony keyboardist, a fusiony guitarist. I didn't like the band at all. But Ornette was worth seeing for Ornette, he played fluidly and was in complete control.
I think of two things first and foremost with Ornette. First, there's Ornette the melodist. He could write an instantly recognizable tune. Many have an almost folk-like character, even if they don't seem to be referring to any particular folk tradition. Oh, there are those tunes, especially when you start hitting the third and fourth Atlantic LPs, that seem to be almost a blur of notes. But listen to pieces like "Lonely Woman", "Kathelin Grey", "Peace" (one of my all time favorite melodies), "Blues Connotation", "Sadness", and so many others, you should be able hear what a gift he had for creating a very direct melody.
The other thing about Ornette...let me put it this way: he was so controversial for (largely) dispensing with standard chord changes for improvised soloists. Many musicians and fans at the time thought he was a fake or charlatan, that it was cheating, that he was just doing whatever he wanted and who cares about the rules.
Here's the greater truth: if you're a musician, try working without chord changes. Try playing an improvised solo without having a particular sequence of chords, or even a defined modality, to support you. You'll find that in fact it can be very difficult to do. It's hard to play a cohesive statement without that proverbial safety net of established harmonic content. One of the things chord changes do for jazz soloists is provide drive and direction; you know a certain harmonic shift will happen at a certain time, and it provides structure for what you spontaneously play.
It would be too simple to say that Ornette made things harder by freeing himself of chord changes. I think he was following his muse, as they say, and that's as much of a model as anything else he did. It is not fair to say that he made things easy for himself though.
I'm grateful for this music, to Ornette himself, someone I'll never get to meet unfortunately. I think I would have been too nervous to say anything to him anyway. Let's continue to study and celebrate Ornette's music, just as we make room for subsequent generations who have learned from him.