Photo by Jimmy Katz.
On June 11th, we lost an American jazz visionary, a true original and spiritual being in Ornette Coleman. His influential reach extended far and wide, not only in the jazz spectrum, but in punk, rock, and beyond. That influence will manifest itself later this year when his final appearance—at Prospect Park in Brooklyn dubbed “”Celebrate Ornette”—is released as a recording, a summer night last year that featured Flea, Thurston Moore, Patti Smith, Nels Cline and a host of other all-stars paying homage to the jazz icon.
Avant-garde jazz improviser and Melvins/Mr. Bungle bassist Trevor Dunn wasn’t there that evening but he’s just one of myriad musicians Coleman’s music has touched, and in this piece for Noisey, he paid tribute to his hero. Now, we’ve wrangled up a few more Ornette disciples to tell their stories of how his music affected their path including, Wilco guitarist Cline, avant-jazz swingman and Tom Waits/Elvis Costello/Robert Plant/John Zorn cohort Marc Ribot and Coleman’s very own longtime bassist Jamaaladeen Tacuma.
Read on for their testimonials to the dearly departed jazz legend.
"It was my bro who first embraced Ornette, and I didn't get it really. Always more willing and able to embrace so-called 'avant-garde' extremes, Alex marveled over 'Art Of The Improvisers' and 'Science Fiction' (and also embracing Dolphy, Sun Ra, Art Ensemble of Chicago, et al very early on). As a Coltrane obsessive, Ornette's music seemed really compressed to me, often whimsical, and HAPPY, which was pretty far from the ruminative poignance and dead-serious fire of Coltrane I so admired and was awestruck by. The fact that Paul Bley, whom I also was obsessed with then, so whole-heartedly embraced Ornette's music (to the point of firing his band at the Hillcrest Club in Los Angeles in 1958 and hiring Ornette's band as his band, thus getting them all fired eventually!) also helped me approach Ornette more readily. In my later musical life, however, I feel that it has been either equal parts Ornette and Trane if not more Ornette who influenced my way of thinking about and playing 'free jazz' - about freedom of harmony, simultaneity, and sovereign melodic invention. I became influenced not only by Ornette directly, but also by many of those whom he influenced, the 'Ornette-inspired', such as Sonny Simmons, Charles Brackeen (in the Paul Motian Trio particularly), Keith Jarrett's 'American Quartet,' and of course by the work of Ornette's illustrious sidemen: Don Cherry, Dewey Redman, Charlie Haden…. Also, I ended up in the slipstream of Ornette consciousness when I started to play/interact with Charlie, Bobby Bradford, John Carter, and others. The influence as it emanated over all the years and distance was/is so palpable.
In the last month I played 'Sadness' twice, as an encore piece - in Victoriaville and in Tokyo - not only because I love it so much but because I truly felt Ornette's departure from the planet was imminent. I could go on about why I am so into pieces like this and 'Broken Shadows' (which I have intended to "cover" for years now but haven't found the right moment, and now doing it would be some sort of epitaph I suppose and, as such, not my intention. Bummer). But to me, Ornette is so much more than a musician. It's like he was a vibrant beacon of light/life force - so powerful, brave, and charismatic - beautiful. Living ART and glowing humanity, bold and iconoclastic, inuring and confounding and very warm…" --Nels Cline
"Just two nights ago, I was sitting in a café trying to explain to my friend Stephen what a revelation the Prime Time Band’s 'Of Human Feelings' was for me when I first heard it c/a 1980. I was talking about polytonality, rhythmic displacement, about a certain way of working with a motif…no, not working at all: PLAYING…playing your heart out, with Human Feeling. But what Ornette was up to can’t be reduced to any single set of technical parameters. But it was an idea of improvising, an idea that came out of Jazz, that could be applied to material not historically understood as ‘jazz’.
I imagined the open imagination and generosity of spirit that let Ornette, already a world acclaimed composer/musician, to form a band with Jamaladeen Tecumah and Calvin Weston, incredibly talented young local Philadelphia musicians just out of high school (if that!), and to open his ears to the drumming of his own son Denardo (who was 6 in their first recording). A generous, beautiful, and wise spirit, who was much loved, much listened to, and will be much missed." —Marc Ribot
"Ornette Coleman was a musical visionary, a teacher, a gentleman and a father figure to me. With his original and game changing approach to western musical formats he changed the way we all listen, perform and appreciate music through Harmolodics. With this influence and understanding I was blessed to blossom as a bass guitar instrumentalist, composer and most importantly a better human being. Thank you God and thank you Ornette Coleman." --Jamaaladeen Tacuma