At JT, these past few weeks have been a period of focused, sometimes panicked reflection, and sadness. In mid-June, the avant-garde lost its North Star, saxophonist and composer Ornette Coleman. With our editorial deadline looming, we shuffled resources and schedules to make room for a tribute that could possibly do the man justice: a 2006 cover image by John Abbott, taken from the only official studio photo session JT ever conducted with the saxophonist; an elegant appreciation by our columnist, Nate Chinen, that explores Coleman’s strong and abiding humanism; a roundup of remembrances by a handful of his colleagues and acolytes; and my own coverage of his historic public funeral in New York. As veteran JT readers know, we reserve tributes to deceased musicians for our March issue, a measure that prevents the magazine from resembling a newspaper obituaries section. But there are exceptions for jazz deities.
It isn’t surprising that Coleman and his ingenious quartet also figure into “45 for 45,” the anniversary feature that had been picked as this month’s cover story prior to his passing. We do an anniversary book every five years, and it’s always work to look forward to-generally a conceptual, thoughtful, nostalgic alternative to the usual business of new releases and cresting trends. In 2010, for instance, we homed in on three monumental albums from the year of our founding, 1970. This year, we put our much-practiced poll-taking skills to the test, quizzing dozens of critics and musicians, from all stylistic corners, to come up with a countdown of the 45 Greatest Small Groups from throughout the jazz timeline.
Before you start in on another angry email about how jazz is art and life, man, not the NFL, check out the piece. For us jazz nerds who’ve been bantering about this stuff since ninth-grade lab band, it’s an intriguing read. Our pitch asked the polltakers to consider the strategies and dynamics at play within the group rather than the technical strengths of the leader, so certain godlike musicians might seem underrepresented-until you remember that they never really immersed themselves in an enduring unit; other players who inspire a double take, the journeymen and out-cats, made the cut because of their devotion to an ensemble identity. If nothing else, the list proves that no matter how many one-off all-star confabs are concocted by promoters and producers, nothing exhibits jazz’s defining principle of democracy better than a working band.