Words by Hank Williams. Photos by Joyce Jones.

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Jazz great Ornette Coleman, known for his Harmolodic approach to music and expansion of the field of jazz, died on June 11, 2015. He’s been the subject of an exhaustive list of obituaries assessing his work and New York FM radio station WKCR—known for its memorial broadcasts for jazz musicians–turned over its airwaves to play nothing but Coleman’s music for a full week after his death.

He’ll likely be the subject of many tributes to come, but the one people were looking forward to was held on June 27, in Manhattan’s historic Riverside Church, which was filled with hundreds of people from the jazz world and fans who wanted to share one last moment of reflection on Coleman’s life.

Recurring themes were Coleman’s gentle spirit, ferociously creative artistic drive, and overall humanity, which were the starting points for most of the musical and spoken tributes.

The event was emceed by veteran educator, jazz historian, and WKCR radio broadcaster Phil Schaap, who opened the proceedings with his recollections of Coleman. Schaap related Coleman’s history with the radio station — which was a long one– and culminated with their weeklong tribute to Coleman which played only his music continuously for the week after his death. In addition to their memorial broadcasts, WKCR is also known for their birthday broadcasts where they focus on the work of a single artist for 24 hours. Coleman had additional significance in that he was the last living musician to be honored in that way.

Howard Mandel: “Ornette didn’t play free jazz; he freed jazz.”

Author and Jazz Journalists Association president Howard Mandel offered his own reflections on Coleman, recalling interviews with him and concluding that “Ornette didn’t play free jazz; he freed jazz.”

Award-winning Amsterdam News journalist Herb Boyd was tasked by Coleman’s son Denardo to assume the monumental job of assessing Coleman’s contributions to Black culture. Boyd focused on Coleman’s forward thinking aesthetics, pointing out that some artists “not only capture the essence of black culture — the past the present — some of them look into the future and the rest of the culture has to catch up”.

Pianist Cecil Taylor read 2 poems for Ornette and then played a tribute. Taylor’s become somewhat reclusive in recent years and it was a rare opportunity to see him perform and read his work.


Video by Liza Bear|YouTube.

Journalist Larry Blumenfeld recalled that Coleman “also liberated the world around jazz”, noting that “it’s harder to live harmolodically”: the latter a referral to Coleman’s signature musical style, which he took as a directive that went beyond music.

Blumenfeld said that “Ornette always talked about tones and sounds, but never notes” because he realized that individual notes could get trapped in spaces. In a nod to Coleman’s true commitment to harmolodics, Blumenfeld pointed out that “getting to know Ornette and his son [Denardo] taught me that you could parent harmolodically — without hierarchichies”. Blumenfeld posted his thoughts on Coleman after the service.

Poet, activist, broadcaster (and now Newark mayor Ras Baraka’s communications director) Felipe Luciano recalled that he and Coleman “never spoke about music. We spoke about God. We spoke about mysticism.” Luciano explained that his talks with Coleman had a calming influence on him as a young activist and also pushed him to think more deeply about his politics, the world, and how he related to people. Their discussions led to more complex questions: “How can we get beyond [the limitations of the world]? How can we fly?” Luciano ended with a poem dedicated to Coleman.

Ornette Coleman: “Everything is music”

Vibraphonist and pianist Karl Berger recalled that Coleman “wanted you to go beyond simple logic” “He always wants you to find your own intuitive logic, your own music.” Coleman told him that “thinking is too slow for music making”, instead stressing intuition: the ability to feel intuitively what’s happening and respond musically according to those feelings. Berger remembered Coleman once being asked what he was listening to and replying “everything”. “Everything”, the questioner asked, to which Coleman replied, “Everything is music”.

Visual artist Mel Edwards recalled that one connection they both had was in being Texas natives. “Like Texans of our generation, we went west to go north”, Edwards explained. Edwards and Coleman were both part of the Los Angeles Black Arts cultural scene before Coleman took up residence in New York.

Edwards stressed the mutual understanding they shared of the importance of being politically committed artists and the commitment to not simply creating “art for art’s sake”, but rather the imperative to create art that would help people see clarity in the world and somehow improve their lives.

Henry Threadgill and pianist Jason Moran collaborated on the composition “Sail”, written specifically for the tribute.

Yoko Ono recalled that she knew Ornette “for 50 short years” and choked back tears while cradling an unfinished scarf she knitted for him and left it on the podium as a reminder. While Ono had little to say, her inability to articulate more than she did spoke volumes about the deep connection she felt with Coleman and the level of loss she felt.

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The tribute also featured musical remembrances by saxophonist Pharaoh Sanders, pianist Geri Allen and saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, drummer Jack DeJohnette and tap dancer Savion Glover, and a quintet of saxophonists David Murray and Joe Lovano, bassists Al McDowell and Charnett Moffett, and drummer Denardo Coleman.

Coleman’s been laid to rest in Woodlawn Cemetery in The Bronx along with a host of other jazz greats. The tribute and his musical and personal legacy suggest that he is indeed in good company and that although he’s gone, his influence will live on for a long time.

Hank Williams is an associate producer for Suga’ in My Bowl on WBAI Radio and webmaster for the Suga’ and Behind the Mic sites. He is also a PhD candidate in English and Africana Studies at the CUNY Graduate Center and teaches at Hunter and Lehman Colleges and The City College of New York.

Joyce Jones is producer and host of Suga’ in My Bowl on WBAI Radio. A graphic artist by training, her photography has also been published in the Black Renaissance Noir journal

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