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Jazz Workshop: For Ornette Coleman on his 78th Birthday

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Dear Ornette,

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about your 78 years on this planet (as of today, March 9). Two Thousand and Eight is an awfully big year where you are concerned—it marks a half century since you debuted as a recording artist. Fifty years of Ornette is no small feat, and for the jazz world it means a legacy that everyone, even those who show contempt for all the doors you’ve opened, must grapple with. Incidentally, it’s also the year of your triumph in Portland, just last month—even your onstage conversation with Howard Mandel at the Portland Jazz Festival has created a sensation.

But 2008 is also the year that I’ll see you performing live for the first time ever—at Town Hall in Midtown Manhattan, on March 28. You are, of course, the jazz artist who most intrigues me: When I read that Gary Giddins had memorized the Louis Armstrong/Earl Hines records one at a time, I decided to do the same with your Atlantics; but it was too tough, at first, so I went back and memorized a couple dozen Charlie Parker records first, then hit your Contemporary albums, then finally the Atlantics. (Well, okay, so I’m still working on the tail end of the Atlantics; all those outtakes albums like Twins and To Whom Who Keeps A Record are awfully exhausting, you know.) So I’ve hoped for a long time that I’d get this opportunity; you don’t teach yourself a hundred or so songs by somebody unless their music is awfully important to you.

But to be honest, last year you gave us all quite a scare. I’m speaking of the Bonnaroo Music Festival last June, when you collapsed onstage while playing the violin. It’s instinctive to fear the worst in those cases, and your being 77 didn’t help matters. Then, when the news explained what had happened, the word “stroke” stood out much more than the word “heat” that immediately preceded it. In that split second before I realized you were all right, I thought that was it.

I’ve said it before, Ornette, and I’ll gladly say it again: you are the greatest and most important jazz artist alive. You redefined the whole idea of the music, kicked the doors open for a vision of jazz in which your “freedom” subsumed all aspects. Because of you there was John Coltrane, Albert Ayler, Pharoah Sanders, Archie Shepp, Anthony Braxton, Roscoe Mitchell, Henry Threadgill, James Blood Ulmer, Ronald Shannon Jackson, David S. Ware, Matthew Shipp, Greg Osby, and Myra Melford. If you lived another 78 years, the world could never repay you for the exponential musical inspiration you’ve provided it.

You’re also a mass of contradictions. You’re a sweet, gentle, soft-spoken and intellectual man whose music seems so wild, intense, ear-splitting and visceral. You’re a man of vast influence who reinvented the jazz wheel—the last person to do so—and who’s altered the musical perceptions of nearly every artist who’s come into contact with you. Yet you’re a man with few real imitators on his instrument and an artist who embodies the idea of sui generis. You’re a man whose art commands such respect that you have won a Pulitzer Prize, and a man whose art disgusted observers as erudite as Ralph Ellison.

But then again, those contradictions are a part of the reason that you are a treasure. If you embody something special about jazz–a kind of relentless adventure, a creative spirit–you also embody the complexities of existence. You know that, of course, and you've even encouraged it in yourself: nobody who titles an album Of Human Feeling can help being aware of his own complexity. It does just as much as your raw creativity to make your art compelling.

As I write this, I’m listening to the internet broadcast of WKCR-FM, the campus radio station at Columbia University; they are playing 23 solid hours of your music in an “Ornette Coleman Birthday Broadcast.” At this very moment they are playing “Open to the Public” from the 1968 Love Call album (Blue Note). Odd, that: Love Call is half of a recording session that also yielded the album New York Is Now! The latter is not your best album—it’s a moment when your unique vision seemed particularly played out and uninspired; the music I’m hearing from the former, however, is as exhilarating and powerful and unique as ever.

Yet another contradiction? Well, perhaps it’s just an indication that Blue Note was willing in 1968 to release even the dregs of a recording session. But I like to think of it as emblematic of what your music is really about: possibility. The possibility of music, of the artist, of the beholder.

That’s what we learn from the Harmolodic Theory that you so rejoice in: about the possibilities of all of these things, rolled into one. Ethan Iverson from the Bad Plus explained it the best: Harmolodics is about the potential of every performer to make a composition his own, in the sense of improvising one’s own rhythm, melody, harmony, even arrangement. What I’m not sure he captures is the creative joy, the imagination, that you embody in playing music with that sense of pliability.

But that, of course, is what we celebrate in your work. And in you.

For that reason, Ornette, more than any of the other, equally laudatory things, I celebrate you today. Though your mortality remains on my mind–and doubtlessly, let's face it, yours too–today should really be about your immortality. And it is.

Happy 78th birthday. May the joy you’ve felt, expressed, and imparted on all of us continue. May it be reflected on you. May you, and we, continue to inspire each other to new heights of wonder.

You were right. Beauty is a rare thing. How do you make it seem so common?

See you in a few weeks.

Mike

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About Michael J. West

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    Very nice, Mr. West.

    -Glen

  • http://musical-guru.blogspot.com/ Michael J. West

    Thank you, Mr. Boyd.

    -Mike