Ornette Coleman: The Outsider - Rolling Stone
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Ornette Coleman: The Outsider

Fifty years ago, the saxophonist staked out a radical new future for jazz. Miles Davis thought he was crazy, Jerry Garcia worshipped him — and half a century later, America still hasn’t caught up

Ornette ColemanOrnette Coleman

Ornette Coleman

Frans Schellekens/Getty

At seventy-seven, Ornette Coleman is a handsome man, with a high forehead, an avuncular mus­tache. Lithe and graceful, he glides around his sleek loft with an aura of kindness about him. If you were a kid liv­ing in the heartland and fantasizing how an unbelievably cool jazz icon lived, this might very well be the crib you’d imagine — an open space with highly polished floors, leather sofas, curv­ing walls and African art, everything buffed to a high-bohemian sheen. The icon himself needs no buffing — today he is wearing a sharply tailored powder-blue blazer, a dark-green sweater vest, a multicolored silk shirt, taupe slacks and impish wingtips.

I am offered a drink — water, if I like, or perhaps a box of Juicy Juice, or a glass of 1996 Comte de Lupe pinot noir. We’re in a slice of midtown Manhattan that seems to be in a 1970s time warp. From the window of this loft are visible: a beauty-supply house, a shoeshine parlor, a discount mattress store and an ‘Everything Must Go’ electronics store. Lady shoppers, their handbags clamped firmly between forearm and rib cage, share the sidewalk below with garment workers pushing metal racks of solemn pants, leather jackets and — another throwback to the Seventies — minidresses in splashy op-art prints. Across the street, completing the Ralph Bakshi landscape, a tenor saxophonist in a purple jacket and a pirate shirt plays on the corner, collecting loose change a quarter at a time, trying to scrape together a few bucks before nightfall.

When I ask if it’s all right to tape our conversation, Coleman looks amused. “OK,” he says, “but then we will have to think of something to say.”

What? But something tells me to get used to it. And I’m right — Coleman never comes down on the one, his replies always make me blink, and even his passing remarks bear the same relationship to everyday social chitchat that his stunning, free-form solos have to hummable little tunes.

A case in point: A few weeks after our first meeting, we are in a minivan driving from Nashville to Man­chester, Tennessee. Noting the somewhat anonymous, generic beauty of the highway, I mention that we could be anywhere in America, approaching Albany, Balti­more or even Portland.

Coleman smiles, nods. Like any great improviser, he knows how to make the sidemen feel they are getting in some good licks. “I was thinking something similar,” he says. “Those little lanes going this way? And those lanes going the other way? How they’re really the same.”

Nearly a half-century after his recording debut, Ornette Coleman remains one of the most controversial, challenging and vexing presences in American music, and his playing has lost none of its ability to startle, and sometimes to appall. In dozens of recordings, made in studios on either side of the country and in concert halls around the world, with string quartets, symphony orchestras and sometimes with jugglers and contortionists thrown into the act, Coleman has never once relented in his musical assault on the status quo.

Coleman has been thrown off bandstands, tossed out of clubs and left standing onstage, unfurling his sound, while the other musicians streaked toward the exits. “If you’re talking psychologically, the man’s all screwed up inside,” Miles Davis once famously declared near the beginning of Coleman’s career. Coleman’s great affront to the jazz establishment was to base his improvisations not on the chords of a song but on the melody, and then not on the actual notes of the melody but on what the melody makes you feel. This is complex enough if it is being done by a solo performer, but when it is being done in ensemble, it can be discordant and intimidating. Listening to it can feel like eavesdropping on six people in group therapy, and all of them free-associating at once. As a friend of mine put it, “Ornette doesn’t reward casual listening —— and if you don’t believe me, ask my neighbors.”

Though he is not the isolated and embattled figure he once was, Coleman’s seeming imperviousness to meter and key, his disjointed solos that skitter at random up and down the musical scale, and even the terminology he uses to try to describe the theory behind his playing — “harmolodics,” or “sound grammar” — keep him planted firmly on the outer edge of musical exploration. In the words of the great jazz critic Francis Davis, “Ornette is an outcat.”

Out there on that metaphorical edge is where the MacArthur Foundation located Coleman when they awarded him their coveted genius grant. It’s where he was this year when he received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Grammys and the Pulitzer Prize for music for his 2006 record Sound Grammar — putting him in the Pulitzer-ized company of such American musical giants as Samuel Barber and Aaron Copland.

When I ask him where he happened to be physically when he learned about the Pulitzer, he thinks for a moment and says, “I think I heard it on TV.”

“No,” says Michy Deiss, Coleman’s beautiful and stylish Swiss girlfriend, “the Pulitzer people called on the phone.”

Coleman shrugs, looks off into the distance. He has sustained himself as both a man and an artist by not taking to heart what others think or say about him, and he is not going to change that now. “I don’t want to be best or worst,” he tells me. “I just want to be.”

His speaking voice is soft and low, relaxed, and it still holds the humidity of what remains of a Texas drawl. Coleman comes from Fort Worth, one of those winner-take-all Ameri­can cities that started off as an outpost in the war against the Indians and then became a boomtown, a stopping-off point on the famed Chisholm Trail, upon which cattle were driven north and east, where their value was ten times what it was back in Texas; a place where disaffected Confederate soldiers showed up af­ter the Civil War, uprooted and embittered men trying to restart their lives. As time passed and the slaugh­ter of cattle gave way to banking, railroads and oil as sources of the city’s wealth, Fort Worth eventually learned its manners — building churches, mansions and museums — while remaining at heart a wide-open place, full of hustlers and fast money, a bare-knuckle town in which you could easily get your ass kicked.

In 1930, when Coleman was born, Fort Worth was not only a Western town but a Southern town, as well. Sensitive, perceptive, painfully alive to the slights and abuses of Jim Crow, Coleman at an early age maintained his confidence and sense of worth by refusing to give in to the majority culture, especially when it came to defining who he was and what he was allowed to do. “I wasn’t born English,” he explains, meaning Caucasian. “I was born African-American. So I can’t take credit for believing that any word really means what it says. I don’t take anything for granted.” He tucks his chin in a little, smiles sweetly. “Don’t you ever wonder why the alphabet only has twenty-six letters?” he asks me.

By the time he was seven, Coleman was fatherless. But no matter —— Freud once mused that any man who is loved by his mother can never be a failure, and Rosa Coleman loved her slight, wiry son, Ornette. She scraped together enough money to buy him the saxophone he so ardently desired. Private music lessons were out of the question, but Ornette was given a chance to play in his high school’s marching band, until he began adding blues riffs to the Sousa and was asked to leave. His local Methodist church gave him some opportunities to play, and there were other young musicians in Fort Worth he could jam with —— a few of them destined to join Coleman later, when he soared not only above Texas but above all of modern music.

“When I found out I could play music,” Coleman has said, “I really approached the thought that music was the thing I was going to support my family with.” And so, with a reasonable proficiency on the sax, Coleman started grabbing gigs all over town, playing one kind of music in the black clubs, another in the Mexican clubs and a third kind for the whites. He was basically a honky-tonk player, not above thrusting the bell of his horn at odd angles, leaping onto the tables and lying on his back while he played.

Rosa Coleman was so worried over what might happen to her slight, delicate son in the midst of the rowdy, often dangerous atmosphere of Fort Worth’s nightspots that she sent his older sister Truvensa with him on gigs as a chaperone. He probably needed it. His playing was not yet shredding jazz traditions, and he was doing his best to play what the people wanted to hear, but according to the jazz critic A.B. Spellman, even before he became a one-man revolution, the young Ornette had a look about him: zoot suits a la Cab Calloway, beaver hats, hair straightened by a product of the time called Konkoline.

Gigs around Fort Worth were plentiful, but poorly paying, and before long, Coleman left to take a job in a tent revue called Silas Green from New Orleans. Both Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith had put in time with Si­las Green, wedged in between comedy and tap-dancing acts. The Silas Green outfit may have been less demeaning than the white minstrel shows, but it was still a minstrel show, and the experience was tough on Coleman.

“We went to Oklahoma, Georgia, New Orleans, Mississippi and Little Rock,” he later recalled in Spellman’s Four Lives in the Bebop Business. “We played in all-Negro theaters and in outdoor tents. The comedi­ans were like Uncle Tom-type minstrels. I guess they were good because the audience used to crack up unless they were too drunk to ever hear what was going on. The music was strictly minstrel music, since we used to play for shake dancers and all that kind of stuff. I went to some places, man, and saw some scenes. I hate to even talk about it. I thought I had played in some rough places in Fort Worth…but the scenes we had in that minstrel group were something else. It was the worst job I ever had.”

Despite the tedium of honking out musical cliches, and the loneliness of life on the road, Coleman was developing his theories of improvisation. When he tried to get a few of the other Silas Green musicians to play his way, they found his ideas so repugnant that they got him fired. Cut loose from Silas Green, Coleman picked up some more work as a tenor saxophonist with scruffy little blues bands in the South. Then one night, playing a dance in Baton Rouge, he dared to take a solo that was so shocking to the crowd that not only did it freeze the people in their tracks — not a foot was tapping by the fifth or sixth bar —— but it got Coleman trounced in the dance hall’s parking lot afterward, his tenor sax disappearing into the night along with the thugs.

From the ashes of this catastrophe rose the phoenix of Coleman’s future: When he was able to scrape to­gether enough money to buy another instrument, he bought the cheapest alto he could find — made of plastic, no less. That plastic horn, with its paradoxically warm sound and human intonation, became and remains a Coleman trademark. When he switched from tenor back to alto, Coleman was able to exploit the fact that the two saxophones are tuned to different keys, and that by playing the exact notes he once played on tenor while playing the alto, he would suddenly find himself in a whole new tonal universe. This confirmed what he had come to believe: That confining musicians to the chord changes of a song amounted to a kind of tyranny. He believed instead that the musicians should be listen­ing to each other, not marching in lock step to the song’s pre-existent melodic and harmonic structure.

By transporting (rather than transposing) tenor notes to the alto, Coleman stumbled onto what would soon become the theoretical basis for what he eventually called harmolodics. Thus began his long alienation from the mainstream of music.

Armed with his white plastic alto and a new approach to improvisation and group playing, Coleman made his way to Los Angeles, then a thriving jazz capital with its own local jazz royalty, where — as Coleman biographer John Litweiler so succinctly puts it —— “The rejection of Ornette by Los Angeles musicians was massive.” Litweiler goes on to say, “Ornette began playing the white plastic alto sax when he came to L.A. in 1953. Other musicians thought it was a toy instrument. Too many of them couldn’t accept his advanced sense of harmony, so he found young musicians who learned his new way of listening to each other and to him. That’s what harmolodics is all about —— sensitive listening and responding. He hitchhiked all over the Los Angeles area to sit in. He studied music during his day job at a store, he composed lots of songs, and mostly he scuffled in California.”

Miles Davis might have thought Coleman was a madman, but other great musicians of the time saw in Ornette’s innovations a way out of the post-Bird dead-end that jazz seemed to be racing toward. “Let freedom ring,” Jackie McLean famously said upon first hearing Coleman, and even half a century later, Sonny Rollins fondly recalls meeting Coleman in Los Angeles, during that period when Rollins was making his great Way Out West record for the Contemporary label.

“When I used to go out to L.A. back then, there was something I could do you couldn’t do today,” says Rollins. “I’d drive my car out toward Malibu, park it on the side of the road, and go down to the beach to practice. I invited Ornette to come with me and we’d play, just the two of us standing in the sand, putting our sound out over the ocean. I really liked what he was doing. A lot of the established musicians didn’t like his playing, they were doing things like walking out on him, but I liked him.”

Coleman, remembering those days in L.A. in the 1950s, puts it in his own idiosyncratic fashion: “[In Texas] I was put in jail for having long hair, and I was called a homosexual. … [In L.A.] I was trying to find away to have my own individual beliefs, freedom. . . . I’d go somewhere thinking, because this was music, people were going to let me just be. … I didn’t think I was weird, I just thought I was being an individual and not in anyone’s way…. I was more religious. And when I realised no one treated me better because I was that way, and that I was literally starving and couldn’t get arrested, I said, ‘Well, I’m failing here as an adult, I’ll marry and become a bigger adult.’ So I cut my hair, and I found a woman I married, and I said, ‘Maybe I can now do it the way it’s done.'”

The woman Coleman married (and from whom he is now divorced), Jayne Cortez, was a poet who shared Coleman’s penchant for colorful, expressive clothes; together they had a son, named Denardo, who is now fifty-one years old, a world-class percussionist and still an integral part of Coleman’s musical life. The L.A. jazz scene might have seemed like a wonderland of possibility compared to Fort Worth, but the fact was that for most of the West Coast musicians, Coleman was an odd duck, unsightly, uncool and, just possibly, incompetent. Nevertheless, Cole­man managed to persevere, playing for chump change, working odd jobs, moving into cheaper and cheaper rooms, skipping meals. The effect of all this rejection and deprivation was to drive Coleman ever deeper into himself and his musical convictions.

The quiet fervor of Coleman’s beliefs eventually began to take root, attracting a few other independent musicians. Long-term collaborators, such as bassist Charlie Haden and trumpeter Don Cherry, were acolytes willing to wander into the wilderness with him. For a time, they were playing in a neighbor’s garage. “In a way,” Francis Davis says, “they were the first garage hand. Not only in terms of location but the same spirit and the same aesthetic.”

Enter Lester Koenig, the savvy chief of Contempo­rary Records. Koenig was sufficiently fascinated by Coleman’s composing and playing that he brought him into the studio to cut a record.

Though Coleman was not really making a living, he was becoming a celebrity, in a time when a serious jazz artist could become a celebrity, when jazz musicians married movie stars and the music itself was at the heart of the culture for the people who felt like internal exiles in their own country — the very demographic destined to be lost to pop music once the Beatles hit.

By the time Coleman brought his band to New York for an engagement at the old Five Spot Cafe on the Bowery (near the future home of CBGB), interest in him had spilled over the borders of the jazz world and into that Bermuda Triangle of the soul called Being Famous. His name was in the gossip columns, and people like James Baldwin, Larry Rivers and Norman Mailer were showing up at the Five Spot. Leonard Bernstein, so intent on understanding what Coleman was up to, got out of his chair and hovered next to the bandstand, his ear as close as he could get it to the f-hole in Charlie Haden’s acoustic bass. Dorothy Kilgallen, the doyenne of New York gossip columnists, turned her Friday column over to Coleman when she went on vacation.

Francis Davis makes the point that “Ornette became a jazz emissary to Bohemia. Like Charlie Parker and Charlie Mingus, Ornette was interested in what poets and painters were up to. Meanwhile, a lot of musicians on the New York scene resented the attention Ornette was getting from the press. They felt the same way about Coltrane, but they couldn’t resent Coltrane, because he came up through the ranks. Ornette, however, came out of nowhere.”

Before long, Coleman was signed by Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun to Atlantic Records, and he was, for all intents and purposes, a New Yorker. There followed months, years, even decades in which Coleman struggled to keep his band together. On the one hand there were rarely empty seats in the clubs Coleman and his band played, and some of the greatest musicians of the time —— John Coltrane, Gil Evans, Sonny Rollins —— were not only speaking highly of Coleman’s music but were incorporating his theories into their own playing. Nevertheless, the paydays were still so meager that Coleman would go for months without a gig, while waiting for the club owners to bump his fee up to the level of other comparable artists. Complicating matters was heroin; Coleman (naturally quite high on his own endorphins) was not a user, but junk ran like a virus through his bands. Sidemen hocked their instruments to pay for drugs, turned up hours late for gigs. At one point, Coleman became so exasperated with his trumpeter, Don Cherry, that he punched him in the mouth, effectively putting him on the DL with a split lip.

For a time, Coleman’s approach to improvisation and group playing became a part of the political debates of the time, with some people arguing that his emphasis on the group rather than the individual made his work more or less African, and thus a cultural component of the black-power movement, while others argued that his rejection of the familiar blues changes and his association with composers and players who were not African-American meant that Coleman was somehow against black power.

As for Coleman himself, his concentration was, first and last, on the sound of music itself. As he said to me, “All these labels, it’s just the English language. It doesn’t have anything to do with music.”

Yet while the jazz establishment fretted over what to make of Coleman, listeners and fans from all over the musical spectrum turned to his playing as a way out of the basically inflexible harmonic laws of West­ern music. Francis Davis says, “Ornette Coleman is in the American maverick tradition —— like Charles Ives or Moondog, and it’s that quality that has turned pop artists on to him, too. It’s not so much a direct musical influence but appreciation of Ornette as a symbol of go­ing your own way.”

Not surprisingly, the Grateful Dead were early fans of Coleman, recording and appearing in concert with him. Bob Weir, one of the founding fathers of the Dead, recalls,”I heard of him first from Jerry [Garcia] and Phil [Lesh]. ‘This guy’s got something new to say,’ they told me. So I got two of his records. At first, I didn’t get it — and then all of a sudden, I did. The main thing I felt was that the facility required to play what Ornette was playing was beyond my reach. Then in the mid-Eighties, Jerry was invited to a recording session, and I tagged along. Seeing Ornette live in the studio — that’s when I really got it. That’s when I realised this guy is doing things no one else has done. He’s not playing the math, he’s playing the emotion.”

We’re sitting in a soundproof studio built into Ornette Coleman’s loft, waiting for a couple of his bass players to stop by for a few hours of rehearsal. The studio is noticeably free of memorabilia- no framed albums, no honorary degrees, no awards. Instead, there’s a photo of the “I Have a Dream” march on Washington, an old picture of Coleman and his son, when Denardo was a young boy, and another of Lower Manhattan, with the Twin Towers still standing. First, Tony Falanga, one of the bassists on Sound Grammar, appears, looking like the coolest professor on campus in jeans and a black Levi’s shirt. Next, wearing black dungarees and a faded John Lennon T-shirt, comes Charnette Moffett, son of one of Coleman’s original drummers, Charles Moffett. A little later, they are joined by Al MacDowell, who generally looks as if he is suppressing a slightly sarcas­tic smile, who noodles around on the Roland keyboard and adds his electric bass to the bottom-heavy sound in the room.

The session begins like an advanced class in music theory, with Coleman writing out a series of notes and the bassists nervously huddled around him: E, E flat, C….

“The reason I’m doing this,” Coleman says, in his reassuring murmur, “has nothing to do with your instrument. It’s just grammar. It’s the gasoline that makes it go. Here, you see? You have one note representing an augmented chord, and if you play that note by itself . . . ?” Coleman lets the question hang in the air.

Moffett is frowning, his face showing effort and tension. Falanga is stroking his little goatee. Coleman’s cousin, James Jordan, wanders in, wearing a million-dollar blazer and a black turtleneck, and Falanga calls out to him, “He’s frying my brain!”

Jordan, Coleman’s producer on Sound Grammar, nods understandingly and says, “The flatted fifth.”

“No,” Falanga says, “I love the flatted fifth. The flatted fifth gets me out of a lot of trouble.”

Coleman plays a piercing, fiery riff on his plastic alto. Like everything he plays, it sounds so new and so per­sonal, you almost want to lower your eyes. “What key did you hear that in?” he asks. (Which is, of course, a lot different than asking, “What key is that in?” Coleman’s belief in subjectivity knows no end.)

“I was hearing it in E,” Falanga says, and Moffett says, “I heard E as well.”

“OK, then,” Coleman says, “let’s eat it up.”

At one point in the evening, Coleman turns to Falanga and asks, “Is there anything you’d like to play without anyone interfering with you?”

It’s a pretty loaded question. Falanga says, “In other words, you’re giving me enough rope to hang myself.” Coleman smiles, shakes his head, and Falanga begins to play one of the unaccompanied sonatas Bach originally wrote for the cello.

If Coleman’s music demands of its players a kind of emotional nakedness, Bach fits its interpreters like a tuxedo. Falanga is bowing passionately but not, as far as I can tell, changing a note from how it was written some 300 years ago.

But then, the edges of the music begin to blur, and the next thing that happens is Moffett starts plucking a counterpoint, and then MacDowell’s electric bass comes in. It is still Bach, but it’s getting weirder now, denser, more nervous, more probing; the stately, melancholy formality of the original line has been transformed into something closer to sorrow, but a bluesy sort of sorrow, the kind that is filled with humor and hope.

After about five minutes of this, Coleman jumps in, his alto sweetly astringent; he is on the melody, off the melody, it is Bach, it is Coleman, Bach, Coleman, Bach, Coleman. Do you remember the Swingle Singers? Well, forget them. This has nothing to do with that kind of jazzed-up Bach hipsters of yore used to listen to. Here, it’s as if Ornette and Johann Sebastian had both dis­solved into the ether and then merged.

The trio of bassists are listening to each other, listening to Coleman, and continually reaching down into themselves for the next idea. Think of one tightrope walker high above the ground without a net, then add another, and then a third, and a fourth, and not only are they all skittering along the wire simultaneously, but each one jumps from his wire to the next wire and then back again.

“Not bad,” Coleman says at the conclusion. “Tear­drops from the heart.”

A couple of onlookers have drifted in, and one of them says, “I love the three-bass sound. It’s like watch­ing a woman walk down the street, a woman with a big, beautiful ass.”

At which time, MacDowell, almost as a bit of musical joking, plays the opening bars of “Moonlight Sonata.” All eyes turn toward him. Smiles. Little nods. And then Coleman joins in on trumpet, Falanga and Moffett pluck, bow and slap their instruments, the music reaches a steady, invigorating boil — until suddenly it morphs into “Moanin’,” Bobby Timmons’ soul-jazz classic, a churchy, irresistible anthem of the hard-bop era. As for me, I have gone from sitting to standing, literally pulled out of my chair by the energy of the music.

A few weeks later, I am waiting for Coleman in the lobby of a Nashville hotel, across the street from Vanderbilt University. The lobby has a jukebox playing Emmylou, Travis Tritt and Aretha; the beige marble floor has a kind of lonely, laid-back luster. Not much is happening on this blistering summer Sunday. Suddenly, the elevator doors open, and Coleman emerges with his girlfriend, Michy Deiss, his cousin and man-ager, James Jordan, and Nancy, Jordan’s elegant wife.

Coleman looks festive and hip in a throbbing, bright turquoise silk suit, with pearlised cowboy-shirt snaps instead of buttons, purple pocket flats and a pale cobalt collar. On his feet, New York wingtips; on his head, a black straw homburg.

We are on our way to Bonnaroo, that fabled festival, known for its hippie ethos and musical eclecticism, where some 80,000 (by now) blasted music lovers have been encamped for the past four days. The woman who is driving the white Chevy van the promoters have sent to ferry Coleman to Bonnaroo reveals she is a distant relative of Earl Scruggs, and Coleman, whose taste in music is as wide as music itself, seems impressed, intrigued. “Thank you for driving us,” he says in his gentle voice, leaning forward for a moment and then leaning back, as “pick a state, any state” countryside rolls past us.

I ask Coleman if he’s worried about what sort of audience is going to be there. “Not at all,” he says. “I know they’re human beings.” He half-closes his eyes, and after a silence he adds, “Whatever you do, it’s over when you do it — but first you have to do it.” Then he turns to me, smiles, and adds, “Honesty is the best policy.”

If Coleman is unconcerned about who is going to show up for his set, this detachment is not shared by many of the Bonnaroo staff when we arrive at the site. Coleman is warmly greeted, but it is clear that there is an undercurrent of consternation — they are all honored and excited by his presence and only hope that after nearly four days and nights of music, there will bean audience willing and able to follow Coleman’s explorations, We are whisked to a tent where lunch is available— Coleman has some time before going on and he’s hungry. And, besides that, a half-century in the music business, with the majority of those years being lean ones, has taught him not to take a pass when complimentary food is on the table.

Coleman helps himself to collards, corn, corn bread and chicken, while Deiss makes sure he has something cold to drink. Even in the shade of the tent, the heat is tropical. Coleman is about halfway through his lunch when word is passed to him that Mavis Staples is right now sitting in with the Decemberists. He takes a final sip of his ginger ale, and next thing, we are all hurrying along a dirt path leading to a nearby stage, where Staples is in the midst of an astonishing rendition of “The Weight,” and the Decemberists have some­how been transformed into a roots band. Coleman is courtly and shy when he speaks with Staples after her song, but she’s thrilled to see him. As we walk away, he says to me, “The blues is always something to believe in. It never goes dry.”

But do you want to know what does go dry? Central Ten­nessee in a summer without rain. In fact, it is so dry here that every so often the grass and dirt have to be wetted down to keep the dust at bay. Though the afternoon is listing toward even ing, powerful waves of heat still ripple above the crowds. The Bonnaroo medical tent has been treating an unending procession of people suffering from sunburn, heat exhaustion and dehydration.

Soon, we are traveling via golf carts to a far corner of the campgrounds, where Coleman will be playing. A trailer like the kind at a construction site is there a few yards from the back of the outdoor stage, and Coleman goes in to relax for a few minutes before his set begins. He has already told the band — only two bassists today, MacDowell and Falanga, with Denardo on hand for percussion — that they will be playing for ninety minutes straight, with no intermission, and there is a slight uneasiness afoot because that is going to be grueling in this heat. When Coleman emerges from his trailer he is wearing a pale yellow suit and a blue striped shirt — to my considerable astonishment, that turquoise number was just for the ride.

Coleman mounts the stage, and he is greeted by an explosion of shouts and cheers from a sea of faces, most of them college-age, nearly all of them sunburned.

He arranges his sheet music on his stand, tightens the mouthpiece on his white alto, glances back at Denardo, Mac­Dowell and Falanga — and bang, just like that, we are about as far from the gravitational pull of mainstream music as a burst of notes can blast you.

The reaction of the crowd is a delighted roar of approval. Coleman is doing what he has done his whole life —— he is going his own way, believing in himself and following his own vision, without fretting over the consequences, without courting approval, and now, nearly eighty years old, he is playing with the fire of a man half a century his junior and the confidence of a master who has found both salvation and validation in art. Years spent on the bottom rungs of the Fort Worth ladder of opportunity disappear, years being chased off innumerable bandstands disappear, years without club dates, without record deals all disappear — they vanish with a wave of music’s magic wand, vanish in the roar of the Bonnaroo crowd.

Among the crowd is Bob Weir and his group. “I took my band to hear him,” Weir later tells me. “It was like a field trip, I really wanted my guys to hear what Ornette is doing. They got it, they really did. And at our next gig the band was changed. It’s amazing. We listen to each other differently. And what we think we can do has changed. That’s what Ornette is about. Listening to and loving each other and then adding to it and seeing where it goes.”

Now, as the Tennessee sun begins its slow descent, Coleman nods, more or less acknowledging the cheers, but he isn’t one for bandstand talk — no banter, no song titles, no introductions. His eyes half-closed, his neck swollen with air, he is inundating the air with his slashing, soulful sound. I ask Nancy Jordan if Coleman ever talks to the audience. She smiles.

“He’s talking to them now.”

And the crowd will get their chance to talk to him as well. Halfway through his set, Coleman is overcome by the heat, and only quick moves by Denardo save him from hitting the stage floor in a dead faint. It is a deeply disquieting mo­ment. Deiss is immediately at his side, and though Coleman comes to right away, there is high anxiety as we wait for the medics to arrive. The crowd does not disperse — though there is still time to hurry over and catch Wilco or the White Stripes. They stand solemnly in the punishing heat until Coleman gets up and is helped off the stage. They have all waited to give him a final cheer, and it rises like a geyser to­ward the scorching sky. 


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