Ornette Coleman, 2007, Palau de la Música Catalana (© Ricard Cugat).
By Spike Wilner
I’d be remiss if I didn’t say a few words about the passing of Ornette Coleman. Ornette Coleman was a giant of this music. In Buddhism he would be called a “wheel-turning king” - a great spiritual force that comes only once in several generations and invokes a great change in the fabric of the Dharma. Our Jazz Dharma was fundamentally changed by Ornette’s trailblazing musical mind.
I had the inexplicably good fortune of being invited to Ornette’s Chelsea loft to play a session with him and some other musicians. This was thanks to photographer John Rogers who had a friendship with Ornette. When Ornette was in town with some time off he liked to play and John would suggest guys for him to play with. That afternoon I was there with drummer Anthony Pinciotti, bassist Gregg August and saxophonist Stacy Dillard. Ornette’s loft was awesome – a huge space with highly modern design and décor (would you expect anything less?). Ornette himself was shy and soft-spoken almost like a child, but his smile disarmed any nervousness and one immediately understood what a beautiful soul he was. Ornette greeted everyone cordially with soft handshakes and took us to a rehearsal studio section of the loft. There was no piano, which made sense, but he did own a pretty good keyboard. We were cowed to silence not knowing what to expect, but set up our instruments and waited to see what would happen.
But before any playing started, Ornette began to speak. His voice was gentle and somewhat high pitched. He had a mischievous twinkle in his eye and began to speak about the metaphysics of music. He had an elaborate theory about the relationship of sexual energy and each note of the scale. I wish could have recorded this but can only paraphrase from memory. Somehow, middle C represented the female sex organ and all the other tones where subjugated to this tone. For Ornette, sexual energy was musical energy and thereby the Universal Energy. It all made perfect sense to me at the time but we were dumbfounded and could only listen. We sat around him on the floor like the disciples with the Great Sage.
Finally we began to play. Nothing was said and no instructions were given. We just started playing – no preconceived idea, no tune, no chords, no imposed structure or rhythm – completely open. We started tentatively. Ornette didn’t play but just listened as we searched, trying to find something and uncertain what we were doing. And then – Ornette played a simple phrase that shattered us! Something so simple and yet it directed us immediately to a musical place where we then began to dwell. It went on like this: we would play and Ornette, every now and then, would play one or two little things which would direct us and set a new vibe, a different slant. He was like a shepherd herding his lambs and we followed and gamboled in his musical landscape. This improvisation lasted for more than one hour with out pause. In this hour I found myself in a musical world, which I never knew before. It was like being at a cocktail party with different groups of people holding different conversations and one wandering from one to the other seamlessly. The hour passed so quickly! Ornette, the entire time, smiling his secret smile and guiding us along in his dream-like music world.
This musical experience at Ornette’s loft is one that I constantly refer to and think about the most in my musical studies. What I learned that day has forever changed my personal approach to jazz and what I think it is. He freed me from my personal box and made me understand the nature of spontaneity as the essential essence of true jazz music – the ineffable unconscious that must appear with out contrivance. If you can connect to this than you have achieved the goal. In the brief time that I got to experience Ornette Coleman (which was only twice), he impressed me as a true artist, a true thinker and a philosopher. In addition I perceived him to be a near angelic-like spirit. My profound thanks to you, Mr. Coleman, our world is far the better because of you!