Vernon Reid on Ornette Coleman: ‘He Set a Lot of People Free’
“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.
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