Remembering Ornette Coleman, the Philosopher-Saxophonist who Changed Jazz Forever

Ornette Coleman, legendary jazz saxophonist, died Thursday morning of cardiac arrest. He was 85.

Coleman rose to prominence in 1959 with his unique ear for melody and an extraordinary degree of freedom he gave his bandmates, which encouraged improvisational risk-taking. A respected performer and bandleader, he was equally admired - and sometimes ridiculed - for his philosophical approach to jazz. He spent much of his career pushing against the boundaries of the genre, even at the category of “music” itself.

In 2009, Steve Paulson spoke with jazz critic Ben Ratliff, who had recently interviewed Coleman for a book he was working on where he listened to records with—but not by—famous jazz musicians. But he found that Coleman didn’t always answer musical questions with musical answers. His interests went much deeper. “Ornette is in a perpetual state of bother about what happens when you name something,” he said,“ like what happens when you set up a system such as ‘Western harmony.’ This kind of thing frustrates Ornette endlessly, and he’s puzzling over it all the time.”

To deal with this frustration—or, perhaps, because of it—Coleman believed that even things that seemed “fixed” in formal musical traditions, such as notes, keys, and scales, actually have a fluid relationship that involves the person playing them.

During their interview, Coleman put on a record that caught Ratliff by surprise: a recording of famed Jewish cantor Joseph Rosenblatt. Coleman responded to the piece very emotionally, which offered Ratliff a glimpse into Coleman’s ideas:

Ornette has this theory that we shouldn’t think of notes as “notes” per se; that we shouldn’t think of a D as just a D. The person who is creating the supposed D and the note itself together form some kind of “harmony.” So when he listens to Joseph Rosenblatt sing this very emotional song he thinks, “Are those really notes? Or are they not notes at all? Is this just pure Joseph Rosenblatt singing sounds that you can’t define?”

For Ratliff, one tenet of Coleman’s philosophy was the relationship between “sounds” (as opposed to “music”) and human expression. But this line of thinking wasn’t merely academic. Ratliff thinks Coleman was articulating one of the fundamental truths about why we listen to music. He says, “You know, you can get very mystical talking about sound and human expression, but look—that is what music is all about. That’s why we respond to a piece of music. Not because someone is playing a D, but because the way they play a D and what they bring to it.”

The Jazz Ear

Ben Ratliff on "The Jazz Ear"

Ben Ratliff has been a jazz critic at the NY Times since 1996.

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