The death of Ornette Coleman two weeks ago was a sweeping loss, the passing of one of the visionary artists of our time — like losing Cage or Duchamp, Joyce or Coltrane, Lennon or Cunningham. I was first drawn to his sound in high school when I heard recordings of his mesmerizing Prime Time band, whose stew of trance rhythms, acoustic jazz, and electrified rock, post-’70s hard-core funk, free harmonics, and African polyrhythms all held some seeds of punk, Afro-futurist rock, and hip-hip to come (see Slate’s useful tracing of Ornette’s influence on non-jazz music innovators). The sounds knocked me sideways, introducing me to a musical language that carried so much magnetic mystery and human emotion that my incomprehension felt inconsequential.
When I first began curating music three decades ago, an early dream was to try to do something that would honor Ornette Coleman’s enormous contribution. I sought out Ornette’s drummer-manager son, Denardo Coleman, and we began a 12-year, on-and-off-again process of planning some kind of festival. Throughout, Denardo remained as genial as he was elusive (he would fall out of touch for months or sometimes even years, but when he resurfaced he remained as encouraging as ever). I will always remember a two-hour planning meeting with Ornette, arranged with Denardo, in the East Village the year before the festival, where I sat with rapt attention listening to this sweet, gentle, but fierce philosopher-poet of music and art, grasping only every third or fourth idea — not unlike my first introduction to his music. It was a meeting I found both baffling and mysteriously transformative. Ornette Coleman thought and worked on another plane altogether, and yet there I sat, furiously trying to scribble every word in a pad. I felt like I was clearly in the presence of a profound and generous spirit.
In April 2005, Ornette, Denardo and I were finally able to mount a three-day celebration of Ornette’s work — a copresentation of the Walker and Headwaters Music — encompassing a sold-out concert at the University of Minnesota’s 1000-seat Ted Mann concert hall, featuring his then-new quartet (which six months later would record the landmark, Pulitzer Prize–winning recording Sound Grammar); and a separate evening of Minnesota-based bands (including both Happy Apple and The Bad Plus, not to mention their rare recombinant, Bad Apple), all playing their versions of Ornette tunes in the Walker’s brand new McGuire Theater. Ornette sat in the audience, listening with attentiveness and grace. I walked him through the green room after as thanked each hero-struck musician who had played, telling them how much he enjoyed and appreciated their take on his work. The final event of the festival was a 10-hour marathon of wildly diverse and innovative music, concluding with a premiere of a Walker-commissioned set of works by Ornette and the avant-classical ensemble Bang on a Can All-Stars (BOAC). With so many performers, the concert ran very late. I remember Ornette warming up with great patience and generosity on our loading dock for nearly two hours. Finally hitting the McGuire stage at 1:15 am with Bang on a Can All Stars, he played a breathtaking set of new music with his inimitable, deeply mournful, timeless alto soaring above the complex BOAC-played compositions to the hundreds of intrepid Minnesotan true believers still in the house.
Ornette wrote to me later, saying, “The Walker is a harmolodic place if there ever was one!” We will forever miss you Ornette, and remain always grateful for your transformative gifts.
Philip Bither is Director and Senior Curator of Performing Arts at the Walker Art Center.