love in a time ofcrisis
ORNETTE COLEMAN changed jazz by challenging the notion of what it is as music, and as life. Now 81, he talks to KEVIN LE GENDRE prior to arriving in London in November for a rare concert to close this year’s London Jazz Festival
Acopy of the American Bill Of Rights with its edge curled upwards by a creeping flame is an image that might raise an eyebrow among more than one elected official in governments on either side of the Atlantic. Torching the amendments that outlaw the abridging of free speech, allow the right of people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects, and, of course, bear arms, is a most molotov provocation.
Such is the sleeve of Ornette Coleman’s 1972 album, Crisis. Even viewed through a pre-9/11 prism, the sight of the U.S constitution blackened by fire is one of the most audacious statements one could make, stopping short of striking a match under the stars and stripes.
Yet although the combination of jacket and music conveyed profound dissent at western iniquity and imperialism, none more so than on a piece such as ‘Trouble In The East’, the album is essentially humanist, the work of a man who, beyond any facile flower child clichés, seemed genuinely beholden to the idea of pacifism and altruism. Just a few years before the release of Crisis, Coleman recorded Denardo At 12, the debut of his little drummer boy son in the company of seasoned men, tenor saxophonist Dewey Redman and bassist Charlie Haden.
On the back of the record he made this declaration, complete with little love for the conventions of syntax: “What? Is progress in a society of 200,000 people education wisdom health and wealth for all without any one person suffering from the evil of his neighbour.
“To achieve this blessing must be the goal – for such a life we must not use death as a weapon of destruction to attain these things. So the question is how when and what must the I in society do to learn the way. Work give and pray that it is done with love.”
That was in the late-1960s. Almost 50 years later, as the first decade of the second millennium drew to a close, in the era where the zeitgeist has added the word ‘mass’ to Coleman’s uncannily prescient construct “weapon of destruction”, those sentiments have been returned to its purveyor with a credit
‘Music is nothing but the soul of human beings without any fear’ – ORNETTE COLEMAN
crunch defying interest. The recognition of the importance of his opinion-splitting oeuvre has resulted in adulation if not outright hero worship that few artists enjoy in their lifetime.
Ornette Coleman stood on stage at the Royal Festival Hall in the summer of 2009, looking decidedly humbled by the standing ovation as cries of “We love you!” rang out, and although that emotional discharge can often seem unnecessary if not trite, it would take the hardest of hearts to say that there wasn’t genuine cause for such adoration.
The gig was part of the prestigious Meltdown festival curated by the saxophonist. This was not an honour to be taken lightly. This was an endorsement of Ornette Coleman’s place in the pantheon of modern music, irrespective of genre. This was notice that he had affected culture beyond the confines of jazz. His work has a universal reach.
Previous recipients of the Meltdown creation put this into context. Coleman joined the likes of David Bowie, Robert Wyatt, Patti Smith, and this year’s incumbent Ray Davies, all of whom are fêted for the fact that they have carved out an artistic vocabulary that has given several generations new ways of viewing all the possibilities of lyric and melody.
Coleman was one of the first improvising artists to receive a
18 NOVEMBER11 // Jazzwise