After we lost the legendary free jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman to cardiac arrest last week, Soft Machine’s Robert Wyatt published a eulogy commemorating the late musician in The Wire. Wyatt’s piece isn’t remorseful so much as celebratory; he looks back on the few moments that he met Coleman and reflects on the first time he ever saw the man perform. He talks about the way Coleman dressed, his gentlemanly demeanor, his “Old World courtesy.” It’s a heartening read in the wake of such a somber event; here’s the last bit of the eulogy:
I only met Ornette Coleman a couple of times – what a gent. Did he ever raise his speaking voice in anger? It’s hard to imagine. What I remember is his (often mentioned) amused but welcoming Old World courtesy. (He was, by the way, as is the wonderful Archie Shepp, a very snappy dresser. Just see the photographs: no shabby chic for Ornette!)
But why do I love Ornette Coleman quite so much? Well, I’ll leave it to others to celebrate his significance to subsequent explorers of the freedom principle. What has always warmed my heart, in the end, has little to do with his influence on younger improvisors. It is the timeless vocal beauty of the actual sequences of notes and phrases he could come up with, and the feeling of pure living joy of playing they can communicate.
Ornette dead? The way I hear it, Ornette’s heartbeat’s as alive, in the ether, as it ever was.