People walked out of his gigs, musicians refused to play with him. For many, Ornette Coleman’s music was unplayable and unlistenable. Of all the great innovators in jazz, Coleman was the one least willing to compromise or to backtrack. John Coltrane observed, in 1961, that the 12 minutes he had spent on stage with Coleman amounted to ‘the most intense moment of my life’. His death this week deprives us of one of the great, truly great, musicians of the twentieth century.
Through a series of seminal albums in the late 1950s and early 1960s – Something Else!!!!, Tomorrow is the Question!, The Shape of Jazz to Come, Change of the Century, This Is Our Music, Free Jazz – Coleman came to define the avant garde. Together with John Coltrane, he changed the course of jazz, freeing it from bebop, pushing it in new directions. Probably more than any other figure Coleman ensured that jazz was unchained from traditional rules of harmony and rhythm and chord structure, and less rooted in the American songbook.
His influence ranged far wider than jazz. His ideas fed into classical, electronic and rock; those who drew upon his work included Leonard Bernstein, John Zorn and Lou Reed.
The cry of ‘Judas’ might have greeted Bob Dylan in the Manchester Free Trade Hall in 1966. It was a sentiment that dogged Coleman virtually throughout his career. Yet, the idea that he was simply a noise maker is absurd to anyone who has truly listened to his music. Yes, his work could be difficult, dissonant, confrontational, chaotic. But it was also often melancholic, haunting, beautiful. Some of it is even funky. And always in the background are the blues; Coleman grew up with the blues, and much of his work is rooted in the blues, but a blues loosened up and given flight.
So, here are my ten favourite Coleman tracks. In the words of one his compositions, beauty is a rare thing.