Music Features

Ornette Coleman - R.I.P.

Some of my No Ripcord colleagues may argue with me, but I don’t think we have any sense, listening to music for the past couple decades, what a seismic shift in sound and style would sound like.  The fact is we just haven’t lived through it.  “But dude, music keeps evolving all the time…”, blah, blah, blah.  Yeah, I get it.  Sure, we’re always incorporating styles from around the world, and experimenting with various forms of pastiche, but we’re really not getting our minds blown by wild shifts in harmony or rhythm.  Even if we are, nobody of consequence really gives a shit.  No one of consequence even exists anymore, in the sense of an intellectual class or movement that puts forth and vets ideas with a capital “I”.  It wasn’t always thus.  Avant Garde jazz was never a truly popular art form, but there was a time when the goings on at Vanguard and Blue Note and Atlantic were watched by people that had an influence on American intellectual life, and therefore America at large.  We gave up on intellectual life after the Reagan era when we realized it wasn’t paying the bills and anything that didn’t pull its weight was grist for the mill.  The infrastructure still exists, and smart people write about smart things all the time, but nobody cares anymore.  The democratization of taste brought on by the internet has rendered an intellectual class obsolete in this country.  My heart tells me that’s a good thing but my head knows it sucks, especially for people like me who wouldn’t mind participating in a debate that actual had some impact. 

In 1958, people still cared what smart people thought, and when their minds were blown, the rest of America felt a draft.  Ornette Coleman blew into his cheap plastic saxophone and blew the minds of a generation of intellectuals and music lovers.  This mighty wind spread far beyond the people who actually bought Something Else!!!! , or its colossal follow-up, The Shape of Jazz to Come.  It got even stronger with Free Jazz, the first collectively improvised recording in history.  By the time 1960’s aptly titled Change of the Century was released, Coleman’s legendary status had been assured.  But this was guaranteed right from the first series of notes of Invisible on his debut, as the melody starts to diverge from the harmony and “something else” is felt, something strange and ephemeral.  This went beyond Charlie Parker’s flights of fancy at the advent of bebop, or Thelonious Monk’s “wrong notes” and playful chords, and it represented a similar radical departure.  Lest you indie popsters think this has nothing to do with you, I’m here to insist that Coleman had almost as big an impact on the music we hear today as Elvis, the Beatles, The Velvet Underground or James Brown.  He gave musicians of all stripes license to do almost anything.  Lou Reed himself had declared that not a day went by where he didn’t hear Coleman’s Lonely Woman in his head. 

Well the great Ornette, who kept playing live dates well into his senior years, died today.  Any music site worth its salt better raise a glass pretty damn high to toast this giant, this artist (and I mean artist using the old definition, as someone who created art, not just someone with a major recording contract referring to themselves with the word to convince us they are important, when they’re not), this, dare I say it, yes I will, genius, who made beautiful music that changed the way people think – literally.  It’s no exaggeration to say that this helped make the 60s, with all its cultural and political changes, possible.  All of this is hard for us to imagine, stranded as we are in this corporatized theme park, spoon fed our minor cultural changes in chewable gummy pill form.  Call her Caitlyn?  No problem.  Call him Ornette, and remember.