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.