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Branford Marsalis Remembers Ornette Coleman

3.9.30 – 6.11.15

Ornette Coleman in 1966 (Francis Wolff/Courtesy of Mosaic Images)

For each March issue, we ask prominent musicians to pay tribute to fellow artists who passed away in the previous year. This piece appeared in the March 2016 edition of JazzTimes.

I was 22 years old, maybe 23, when Stanley Crouch brought around a copy of Ornette’s record The Shape of Jazz to Come to Wynton’s house. He put it on, and I went, “Aw, man, turn that shit off. My ears are bleeding.” I hated it. He said, “You just can’t hear it yet. Just hold on to that record a while. I think there’s some shit in there that you could use.” I’m like, “Yeah, OK.” I listened every day, trying to figure out what was good about it. About four months in, I suddenly started hearing the music the way Ornette heard it-and then it was like my brain exploded.

He played the saxophone in a very unconventional way. I started to understand his relationship to all the music that came before him, and how he was able to use that to propel the music in a different direction. He couldn’t play that kind of vertical technique like Bird or Phil Woods or Sonny Stitt, so he developed a subset of the language out of necessity. From not having that vertical technique that we fall in love with, he came to express the music in a way that’s shockingly brilliant.

What he did that none of the other guys could figure out how to do was play bebop, or swing-based music, while avoiding four- and eight-bar phrases. Most of the greats could never do that, and today we are awash in four- and eight-bar phrase playing. But more than that, he played no patterns, played no scales; it was all blues and melody. And he played it in a very disjunctive way. He didn’t resolve in the conventional places, and because he didn’t adhere it sounded like the shit was radical and crazy-when, in fact, it was unbelievably logical.

As human beings, what we do is try to master all the information in the box that we live in. So whenever something shows up that is not in the box, you can either expand the box or double down on the box. At that point in my development, I was doubling down on the box. I had to expand the way I thought about music to get to where Ornette was, and I was grateful.

I started playing Ornette tunes and trying to play as much like Ornette as I could. And there are a couple records-Trio Jeepy, Random Abstract-where you can hear me doing blatant Ornette rip-offs. He appreciated that. I didn’t really have a personal relationship with Ornette, but whenever he saw me he was very nice to me, because he got that I understood what his work was about musically as opposed to just technically.

I didn’t make it to Ornette’s funeral in New York; I was abroad, in Poland or somewhere. But I was at that “Celebrate Ornette” concert in Brooklyn in the summer of 2014, and that’s easily the best memory I could have. All I need is that. Ornette hadn’t played publicly in years. So we set this setlist up, based on the premise that Ornette hadn’t been playing: “You can play this song, you can play that song.” And then he said, “I think I’m gonna play a tune,” and the first tune he played was a tune that I was gonna play. I was gonna do three tunes. I said, “Well, now I got two tunes.” And then he played another, and I said, “Now I got one tune!” But he played for a long time, and this was after not playing for a while.

That was special to watch, and especially to be a part of. The moment had inspired him to that degree, and it was the last time he played publicly. I’m honored to have been there. And that meant more to me than it would have meant to be at his house jamming with him. It was beautiful and it was great.

Home page photo of Coleman by Alan Nahigian.

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Originally Published