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Ornette Coleman

By Ellen Taaffe Zwilich

Ornette Coleman was an extraordinary and universal musician of our time. He came onto the scene playing saxophone in the bebop era. The influence of Charlie Parker was clear, but Coleman brought elements of rhythm and blues and even country blues into the mix. Some people were delighted that he had “pushed the boundaries” of what music could be; others thought he had gone too farearly on he was controversial.

Personally, I don’t think that he was looking to “push the boundaries,” he just didn’t think that there should be any limits to what music can be.

In an interesting turn, Coleman formed small ensembles with other free-thinking musicians. A British critic described his second album as “bursting with exquisite originals…his playing a partly planned, partly serendipitous mingling of tonal, atonal, and microtonal music, infused with the blues.” This wouldn’t be shocking in today’s music world, but this was 1959!

Meanwhile, Coleman had attracted much interest from musicians including composer Gunther Schuller and John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet. At the same time there were well-known detractors (I won’t name names!)and from time to time there was even a scuffle at a Coleman performance. Was he a genius or a fraud? Many years later the MacArthur Foundation weighed in on the side of “genius!”

Never stopping in place, Coleman went on to explore elements of 20th-century “classical” music, including serialismand for those of you who don’t know the implications of that term: his album “Free Jazz” has a Jackson Pollock painting on the cover.

Still evolving, in the next decade he became interested in what we now call “world music,” traveling to Morocco, playing with Jajouka musicians and becoming fascinated with Moroccan traditional drumming. Meanwhile, he was open to funk and electro-acoustic music. And Coleman’s music continued to reflect all of his interests.

Near the end of the 20th century and into the 21st, he hosted spectacular events in London and New York. These events included pop, classical, and Chinese traditional musicians, Sufi singers, opera singers, orchestras, chamber ensembles, and dancers.

As the 21st century progressed, Coleman was featured at Carnegie Hall; won a Pulitzer Prize for his recording of “Sound Grammar;” was given a Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award… I could go on and on with awards not yet mentionedthe Miles Davis Award from Montreal, the Praemium Imperiale from Japan, the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize… and more.

But, for me, the most wonderful thing about Ornette Coleman’s life trajectory is that he went from outlier to celebrated cultural icon, never compromising his deeply held values and his abiding passion for all things musical.

Ornette Coleman made a difference. And his music lives on.

Read at the Academy Dinner Meeting on April 5, 2016.

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