Vernon Reid on Ornette Coleman: 'He Set a Lot of People Free'

Living Colour guitarist remembers the jazz legend who helped inspire so many artists outside his genre

Vernon Reid says Ornette Coleman "shook up" the orthodoxy of jazz. Credit: Robb D. Cohen/Retna/Corbis

"Ornette's work is so profoundly tied to the notion of liberty," Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid says, reflecting on the life, music and legacy of the saxophonist Ornette Coleman, who died on June 11th at 85, in New York of cardiac arrest. "One thing that came to mind" after Reid heard the news, he says, was a line by the 19th Century African-American writer-statesman, Frederick Douglass: "Freedom is a road seldom traveled by the multitude."

"Ornette took the hit for being independent, for having his own ideas," Reid goes on, referring to the early, negative reactions in the jazz establishment to Coleman's revolution against conventional bebop relationships in harmony, melody and rhythm and his lifelong sacrifice of mainstream acceptance for absolute creative sovereignty. "Even in a genre like jazz, which prides itself on freedom, there are rules of engagement – Ornette shook up that orthodoxy. And a lot of people did not get it."

In a long, warm homage to the composer-improviser only hours after his passing, Reid – who played with drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson, a Coleman alumnus, in the Eighties – spoke about Coleman's deep, broad influence in and outside jazz, including Reid's own turning-point band. "The notion of doing what calls you, what you want to do – that was transmitted through Ornette," says Reid. "To play with Shannon, who came out of what Ornette was doing – without that, I would never have started Living Colour. Even though the music was different, the impulse was the same. I owe Ornette a great debt.

One of the great misconceptions about Coleman's music, especially in the Sixties, was how the jazz community confused the notion of "free jazz" with pure chaos. Coleman's drive was to express himself across all of those conventional boundaries, to something shared and emotionally fundamental.
Absolutely. The other thing is there's a great burden of knowledge placed on the improviser. Think of Sonny Rollins – the amount of melodies it takes, that you need to know, to be really free harmonically, to be able to come in and outside of harmonic structure. As much as Sun Ra was a paragon of a certain kind of freedom, he was also a stickler, a formalist. There was a real tension in his music between the freewheeling side and the Fletcher Henderson side.

Something else too – Ornette had a profound effect beyond his genre, on rock & roll. Think of John Cale and Lou Reed [in the Velvet Underground]. Certainly Don Van Vliet [a.k.a. Captain Beefheart] had to be affected by Ornette. Then consider Jerry Garcia, Pat Metheny, Sonic Youth. And certainly me. Shannon came out of Ornette. Without that experience, I would never have thought it possible to start a rock & roll band.

Are there aspects to your guitar playing that you can attribute to Ornette – tonally, conceptually – beyond freedom itself?
I would say the ability to shift emotionally from genre to genre. There's this whole language of rock licks, metal licks, blues licks. To be in a place where they can all be played but also undercut, to incorporate unfamiliar things – that is very much a legacy of having been exposed to Ornette's music and played Shannon's music. That's something that has stayed with me.

Were rock audiences, in some ways, more naturally open to Coleman's music? I remember seeing his electric band, Prime Time, in the Eighties, at the Ritz in New York and thinking, "People are dancing to this. Nobody dances at the Village Vanguard."
There was a moment of fissure in the culture, in the Eighties. You had Sonic Youth, Material, Defunkt, bands like Curlew. There was this opening in the rock room, this fissure, and Ornette was in the breach.

Did you ever play with Coleman?
Indirectly. I did a rehearsal one time. There was a project in London with the Roots. And the Roots played with Ornette. It was kind of a hodge-podge. And his health was not in the best place. But at the very last moment, the Roots were playing their normal set. Suddenly, Ornette had his horn, and he was playing. A jam erupted, and it was really, really great.

I wrote a Rolling Stone feature story about Coleman in 1989, and met him on some occasions later. One thing that struck me was that for someone who was so villified, at one point, by the jazz establishment, he carried himself with a graceful pride. He was also very gracious to me.
He was an incredibly gracious man. The mainstream has almost begrudgingly given him respect, for the sheer amount of his work. There is this iconoclastic thread that goes from Thelonious Monk to Miles Davis to Charles Mingus. Ornette is a part of that – him, Eric Dolphy, John Coltrane. And so many greats played with Ornette – [trumpeter] Freddie Hubbard, [bassist] Charlie Haden, [trumpeter] Don Cherry. It's extraordinary. I saw a gig one time in Paris. Ornette rarely played with pianists, but he had this project with Geri Allen, and it was amazing. There was something beautiful and open in his playing, particularly in the later period.

His playing was always very lyrical. Lou Reed often told me "Lonely Woman" [on Coleman's 1959 album, The Shape of Jazz to Come] was one of his favorite records.
Profoundly lyrical. He's this firebrand in the Fifties and Sixties, forging this challenging thing. But then this other sound started to emerge. Even with Prime Time, there was this lyricism making itself manifest. I also look at something like Skies of America [Coleman's symphony, issued by Columbia in 1972], which I hope that orchestras pick up. Certainly it's Lincoln Center-ready.

And there's [1972's] Science Fiction, which has these great vocal things that he did with the Indian pop singer Asha Puthli. One of them, "What Reason Could I Give" – Neneh Cherry covered that recently. She's a good example. She came out of [the English punk-jazz band] Rip Rig and Panic, then she exploded into pop, the ultimate B-girl. But her grounding is in this whole other aesthetic because of the lineage of her father, Don Cherry, and of course Ornette.

Ornette was connected to so many people and things – painters, writers, poets, the cultural flotsam and jetsam of the century, all of these giants who were connected to this iconic personage. He set a lot of people free.