Ornette Coleman (1930 - 2015)

June 2015


Ornette Coleman, called "one of the most powerful and contentious innovators in the history of jazz" by Ben Ratliff in his New York Times obituary, died on Thursday June 11th in Manhattan, at the age of 85.

Ornette has no need of an obituary from me.  Nevertheless, over these last few days, as I think fondly of him and of our conversations, I would like to say something.

When I finally met Ornette, I don't know when, maybe twelve years ago (Uri Dotan introduced me, but it should be linked to my second show with Michael Anderson), in any case long past the time that someone should meet a famous person, I told him that he was, in part, the reason why I was living in New York. I had to explain.  Well, I was in Dublin, where I had been born.  It was around 1967/68, and I was desperate.  In the record store I came upon an album with thetitle of 'New York is Now' by Ornette Coleman.  I bought it, took it home, and listened to it again and again. Every phrase made perfect sense to me, in a way that nothing in my entire life, by which I mean the tribal family relations, the sports/military complex of the educational system, which pretended to favor freedom of thought, but in fact hated it, the ethos of the professional 'middle man', who wants to be 'in and out' on commission, the social and political consensus, which is there to endorse all of the above, had.  I had a sense right then and there of what I already intuitively knew, that there was an authentic world of human experience to be engaged, even if the social consensus would do everything to obfuscate it.

Did I come to New York because of Ornette Coleman?  No.  There was already Herman Melville and Jackson Pollock!  The broader issue is that modern art had expanded beyond its original boundaries in Paris to embrace New York.  Two cities where one could live!  This has nothing to do with Europe, or France, or the United States of America.  Nothing to do with nationalism.  How unexpected? 

Ornette was born in Fort Worth.  He told me that as he walked down the street as a child, if he saw a white man approaching, he would cross over, for fear that the man would kick him aside.  As I looked into Ornette's sad eyes, I understood that there had been no space in Fort Worth of the 1930's and '40's for the modern aesthetic.  No more was there in Dublin of the 1950's and '60's.

Nor is there anywhere now.  Yet it exists.

Ornette's music will live, as Pollock's painting and Melville's writing will live, but the modern aesthetic, founded upon their genius, will continue to be denied for the same economic and social reasons.  Ornette said to me that he would gladly give up his music, if only he could connect with his fellow man.  As he said it, we both understood that he would never be able, and so he would not give up his music.  And neither will we.

Paul Rodgers