Special Report: Ornette Coleman’s Funeral in NYC

Generations of jazz greats pay tribute

Sonny Rollins attends Ornette Coleman's funeral at the Riverside Church in New York City; June 27, 2015
Pharoah Sanders performs at Ornette Coleman's funeral at the Riverside Church in NYC; June 27, 2015
Cecil Taylor reads poetry at Ornette Coleman's funeral at the Riverside Church in NYC; June 27, 2015
Henry Threadgill performs at Ornette Coleman's funeral at the Riverside Church in NYC; June 27, 2015
Yoko Ono speaks at Ornette Coleman's funeral at the Riverside Church in NYC; June 27, 2015
Denardo Coleman (left) and Jack DeJohnette at Ornette Coleman's funeral at the Riverside Church in NYC; June 27, 2015
The Rev. Dr. James A. Forbes Jr. delivers the eulogy at Ornette Coleman's funeral at the Riverside Church in NYC; June 27, 2015
Alumni of Ornette Coleman's Prime Time -- Dave Bryant, Chris Rosenberg, Ken Wessel, Bern Nix, Charles Ellerbe and Jamaaladeen Tacuma (from left) -- reunite at Coleman's funeral at the Riverside Church in NYC; June 27, 2015
Joe Lovano (left) and David Murray perform at Ornette Coleman's funeral at the Riverside Church in NYC; June 27, 2015

Public funeral services for musicians as revered and influential as Ornette Coleman, the alto saxophonist and composer who died on June 11 at age 85, can make for precarious planning. The natural temptation would be to turn the event into a hit parade featuring high-profile acolytes-at which point a day of mourning becomes a source of entertainment and the requisite respect is lost.

Coleman’s service, which stretched well beyond three hours at an impressively filled Riverside Church in New York City on Saturday, struck a reverent balance between a celebration of his art and the realization that a beloved man is gone. There was probably a surplus of speakers, but most of them tended to bring necessary perspectives. More important, they succeeded in humanizing an artist who was mythologized-both by himself and by the culture around him-throughout the majority of his life.

Platitudes and other received wisdom, repeated over and over throughout the decades, can obscure the truth about a human being rather than illuminate it, so some of the simplest and most casual remembrances here were often the most revelatory. We heard about Coleman’s penchant for shooting pool using his own explorative set of rules. From two family friends, Anton Wong and Nathaniel Phillips, we learned of how this major figure in 20th-century music invited his son’s pals along on family trips, treating them with the generosity of a benevolent uncle. During an address from Coleman’s son (and drummer) Denardo Coleman, we laughed at how his father’s open-door policy turned their Manhattan home into a kind of artists’ flophouse. A trio of journalists-Howard Mandel, Larry Blumenfeld and Herb Boyd-paid tribute to an interviewee whose sweetness and willingness to participate more than made up for his cosmic indirectness.

Early on, Coleman’s selflessness, and his core belief that humans are inherently good, formed a through line that never let up. Movingly, the poet, activist and politician Felipe Luciano contrasted his own past in black militancy with Coleman’s globally minded idealism-his “war” against the musician’s “God,” as the virtuoso orator put it. Another arc had to do with Coleman’s singular wit, otherworldly yet bound to a kind of personal logic; each speaker seemed to harbor at least one quotation or story that evoked both ancient yogis and Yogi Berra. But again they folded back into a theme of earthly community. The composer, pianist and vibraphonist Karl Berger recalled an anecdote during which, driving with the saxophonist, they spotted a taxicab with a bumper sticker that read, “If you don’t blow your horn, I won’t blow mine.” “That should be the title of my next album!” Coleman exclaimed. Another time, Berger said, Coleman answered a trite question-what music have you been listening to?-with a single shaman-like word: “Everything.” Coleman clarified: “Everything is music.” (Kudos to the usually loquacious WKCR deejay Phil Schaap, a tactful officiator who got a solid quip of his own in at the top of the program: “I’m Phil Schaap,” he deadpanned, “and I’ll try to be brief.”)

In the end, this was a major jazz event, and the musical lineup did Coleman proud without negating the gravity of the occasion. The processional bookends harkened back to the 1977 LP Dancing in Your Head: Opening the day was Bachir Attar, current leader of the Master Musicians of Jajouka, the legendary aggregate of Moroccan trance musicians Coleman played among for that album’s “Midnight Sunrise.” Following the Benediction, a percussion-less version of Coleman’s harmolodic-funk band Prime Time resounded the LP’s “Theme From a Symphony,” perhaps Coleman’s most identifiable melody this side of “Lonely Woman.”

That tune, Coleman’s gift to the standard repertoire, got its due as well, by way of a quintet featuring Denardo, dual electric bassists Charnett Moffett and Al MacDowell and the twin-tenor frontline of Joe Lovano and David Murray. The saxophones sounded the melody and improvised on it with emotive ferocity, together and apart, as Coleman thrust straight, headlong rhythms and the bassists reverberated the theme. In harmolodic fashion, there was a constant, beautiful sense of the band and tune coming together and then ebbing apart in a cycle.

A pair of duet performances served as elegies. Henry Threadgill and pianist Jason Moran played a work the former wrote specifically for this day, “SAIL,” full of fractured minor-key chording and somber, lingering melody mitigated by Threadgill’s soothing tone on bass flute. Ravi Coltrane, commanding on soprano saxophone, took Coleman’s “Peace” far away from its head, into improv territory usually reserved for solo-sax recitals, as pianist Geri Allen outlined the harmony artfully, sparingly underneath. (Per Schaap’s explanation, jazz history was in serious play here, and had come full circle: Ravi’s iconic father specifically requested Coleman perform at his more private funeral service in 1967.) A third duo pairing, drummer Jack DeJohnette and the jazz-indebted tap dancer Savion Glover, loosened the sobriety and communicated the joy so integral to Coleman’s art.

Closer to the advent of the jazz avant-garde was Pharoah Sanders, who blew unaccompanied on tenor sax, his mighty sonics floating toward the top of the covered renovation scaffolding that occupied the front of the church. Cecil Taylor delivered something like one of his solo performances in miniature: He began with poetry, escalated from slight clusters to his rumbling trademarks at the piano, and then finished with more phonetically audacious verse. (Taylor’s presence, along with that of speakers Yoko Ono and the sculptor Melvin Edwards, served as reminders of Coleman’s eminence and influence outside of jazz proper, and argued that he’s part of the general conversation about the 20th-century avant-garde, alongside the likes of Varèse and Picasso.)

Like one of Coleman’s impeccably circuitous compositions, this service ended thematically where it began, with a deft eulogy from Dr. James A. Forbes Jr., reverend at the Riverside Church, that lifted up the musician’s message of human goodwill. In its most affecting passage, Forbes engaged directly with the casket, laying the criticism and naysaying he’s encountered in his own career aside the violent pushback Coleman received en route to transforming the jazz language. To be reminded of Coleman’s hardships was a welcome message; in this cathedral, with so many brilliant and famous people singing his praises and looking on (including Sonny Rollins), it was easy to forget the friction he withstood-with unflagging grace and empathy-to get here.

Evan Haga

Evan Haga worked as an editor and writer at JazzTimes from 2006 to 2018. He is currently the Jazz Curator at TIDAL, and his writing has appeared at RollingStone.com, NPR MusicBillboard and other outlets.