Miles Davis said he must be ‘all screwed up inside’ to play that way he did. Max Roach punched him in the mouth after seeing him play. But Ornette Coleman – who died today of a cardiac arrest at 85 – lived longer than almost any jazz great – and made important and challenging music for decades.How to get into Coleman’s music – which drove so many people crazy – influenced musicians in jazz funk and dance music – and became known even among admirers (a group that included not just fellow jazzheads but Jackson Pollock and James Baldwin) for being difficult and driven by an arcane theory?
Coleman’s music was indeed challenging and world-changing but getting a taste of what made him important a source of joy is not nearly so forbidding. There are two phases of Coleman’s long career which are – at least decades later – accessible and almost direct.
The first is his very earliest recorded music. Coleman shocked people by playing out of pitch – by rejecting the chord changes that had made up the basis for most jazz (and a great deal of the music in the West) – and conveying fierce emotional tones rarely heard in the rest of jazz – even by one of his models – fellow alto saxophonist Charlie Parker. He rarely played with piano and often avoided other chordal instruments that make a song’s harmony explicit – so his music could be disorienting even for serious players and listeners.