How Ornette Coleman changed my life

The legendary jazz musician Ornette Coleman recently died at age 85. He had not been on my radar for a long time. In fact, I never actually listened to much of his music at all.

Yet, my immediate first thought on hearing this news was, Ornette Coleman permanently changed the course of my life. How can this be?

First reactions to Ornette Coleman’s music

In 2000, during a huge transition in my life that turned everything upside down, I began experimenting with listening to a lot of kinds of music I had never experienced before. I was exploring Cuban, Brazilian, Argentinian music. I was exploring Western classical music of the 20th century (I had a fairly narrow taste up till then focused primarily on the Classical 18th century and Romantic 19th century, with little before or after this range). In jazz, I was expanding beyond the swing, bebop, hard bop eras of jazz. I frequently reached areas that made me confused or disgusted. For example, in jazz I got as far as I could with John Coltrane as Coltrane ventured into “free jazz”.

I decided to try out Ornette Coleman for another approach to “free jazz”, and checked out the album “The Shape of Jazz to Come” (1959).

“Lonely Woman”

Immediately, I was struck by the track “Lonely Woman”. Conventional concerns such as being strictly “in tune” were out the window, in favor of extremely flexibility of pitch and raw, wailing emotional expression. It showcased Coleman’s lyrical side and was easy to love. OK, not too weird.

Other tracks

But bam, that was just a warmup. For example, check out “Eventually”. It’s very free indeed, a lot of notes, an expression of hyperactive motion, conventional tonality unimportant. Still, not too harsh, and not totally random.

Overall, what I really understood from his music was that he was doing what came naturally to him. It did not feel forced, it was not to prove a point. He was enjoying what he was doing. This sense of freedom really impressed me. It wasn’t reaction, it wasn’t rebellion. I respected that.

“Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation”

The next album I checked out was “Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation”

This was a step beyond, and confusing to me because of the simultaneous playing that often seemed chaotic. I confess to taking no huge pleasure in attempting to listen to it all at once (note that apart from lack of conventional structure, it also keeps going on and on at length). I found it more enjoyable to listen to only a couple of random minutes, trying to absorb some stretch of order.

However, although this was not really my thing, it opened up my mind to “why not?” Maybe this particular experiment didn’t work, but I could imagine a simpler setting, say, with fewer instruments, in which collective improvisation could work out better.

Check it out yourself:

“Something Else!!!!”

Finally, I checked out “Something Else!!!!”, which actually was his first album and closer to bebop and so forth.

I don’t have much to say about it, but it’s not too confusing to enjoy, because of still audible ties to some traditional forms and styles.


In the end, I didn’t continue exploring Coleman’s music.

But the sense of freedom, of permission to ignore boundaries and go wherever, musically, really affected me. Was what he was doing “jazz”? Listening to him, I made up my mind that I was never again going to get involved in debates about what jazz “really is” or what classical music “really is” or even what music “really is”. These labels stopped being meaningful to me.

That was what I really learned from him and his life. By coincidence, I just read this Rolling Stone article, “Vernon Reid on Ornette Coleman: ‘He set a lot of people free’”, that echoes exactly what I felt I learned fifteen years ago from my brief exposure to him.

In the past year or so, there have been times when, alone and not likely to bother anyone, I pull out my bass recorder (ha, my lowest instrument) and just go wild, play some melodic shapes, make up rhythms, go multiphonic, whatever, for the sheer joy of it. And I’m not embarrassed, because I remember Ornette Coleman and he gave us all permission to express our unconscious in whatever honest way it comes out. And he gave us permission to accept and encourage each other to do that, whether or not we personally like or understand everything that comes out of tapping the unconscious.


I hadn’t expected to think so much upon hearing of Ornette Coleman’s death. But he set an example that I respected deeply, forever changing not only my perceptions of music but of what musicians can and should be allowed to do.

Are you an Ornette Coleman fan or detractor? Did he change your life? If so, how exactly?

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