Ornette: A Personal Listening Journal

ColemanU of T Jazz alumnus and Assistant Professor at the University of Victoria Patrick Boyle shares thoughts on Ornette Coleman in the wake of his passing.

Ornette: A Personal Listening Journal
By Patrick Boyle

When I heard Dizzy with Moe Koffman in grade 7, I knew they were playing a language and sharing ‘in jokes’ through music that I simply HAD to learn. I also wanted to be in on it all. They appeared to be having too much fun for me to not commit the rest of my life in that moment to jazz.

Dizzy Gillespie and Moe Koffman

The very first Ornette I heard was on that Bravo! Montreal Jazz Festival show. The VHS tapes are still at the folks house. There’s no way I could say I liked it. My ears were too closed, which is sad to say for a young person. Sadder still when Ornette played so playfully right until this week. Play is the work.

Ornette at the Montreal Jazz Fest 1988

In grade 9 or 10, I got “The Shape of Jazz To Come” and “Free Jazz” for Christmas. Lest you think Santa had his finger on the pulse of my inclinations, he did not. I asked ‘Santa’ for said records when ‘Santa’ said to me “you’re 15, should we even DO Christmas?”

Shape of Jazz To Come

Free Jazz

(wacky side note about Free Jazz. It was recorded the morning of Dec 21/60. Dolphy scooted across town that afternoon to record ‘Far Cry.’ Meaning on one single day he recorded with Ornette, Don Cherry, Freddie Hubbard, Charlie Haden, Scott LaFaro, Ed Blackwell, Billy Higgins, Roy Haynes, Ron Carter, Booker Little, Jaki Byard, Today I ate A&W and unloaded the dishwasher).

I think what I felt upon my initial listening to Ornette’s music was very, very similar to my first exposure to bebop. Style didn’t matter to me. There was SOMETHING going on that had intent. It was full of conviction and intensity and a lot of pathos and way, way more joy than most other music. They were communicating through their music to each other, and I couldn’t tell if they were telling me something or if I was just listening to them do their thing.

My commitment to Ornette specifically and music in general has more to do accepting things than anything specifically to do with music.

It’s weird trying to describe feelings about past experiences. It’s also inaccurate. Our memories are us, and we change all the time. It is even way easier to change how we think we felt about something than it is to try and change how we feel about something now.

I met Ornette once in January of 2007 in NYC. He was signing autographs at the IAJE conference in the Hilton. His Pulitzer Prize winning ‘Sound Grammar’ had just come out. I was first in line, without even trying. In fact, I recall the line-up being quite short. He was accompanied by two guys who gave the impression that everyone should know who they were. I bought a CD and approached the table. Ornette was, as usual, wearing a coat that can only be worn by Ornette. I said “Sir, I love your music and have for a long time. Thank you for everything you do” and extended my hand as he signed my CD. He shook my hand and said in an audible whisper “music is energy.”

Sound Grammar

In September 2009, my teacher Chase Sanborn hooked me up with a sweet gig giving a pre-concert lecture at Massey Hall when Ornette last played there. I worked my ass off trying to distill his genius into a short chat with a few sound examples. It was a great success with many interesting questions afterwards. I will admit to nearly breaking down when I read my most favourite Ornette quote. Maybe I was just excited to be there, or maybe I read the words and finally believed them.

“It was when I found out I could make mistakes that I knew I was on to something.”

Lonely Woman, the gateway drug to Ornette, has it all. Different tempi. Open string drones. It sounds like it’s in ‘D’. Flexible melody. The ‘yeah’ at 2:09 that someone (Haden?) gives as O.C. plays his changing same.


Then there’s the bop side of same said band, but with heads that make one wonder “IF this is written down how, and if not how is it learned?”


Or this perfect melody

I wonder things like would Ornette or Don Cherry get into an undergraduate jazz program? Who would teach them? Objective evaluation of this music is pretty near impossible in an academic setting. When things aren’t in time, nailing the changes, in tune or otherwise entirely individualistic, what is a teacher to do? Yet, I love this music. LOVE. I love it for what it is, no matter what it’s called. Whatever turns like into love anyway?

Or this performance. So much love and light. Such a willingness to let go and just exist. Check out ‘Broken Shadows’ at 8:19 especially. How do humans do this?


There’s no way, no way at all, that I could have ‘liked’ Free Jazz or even John Coltrane’s ‘Ascension’ right away. I don’t remember ‘liking’ it. I was moved by it, admired the effort and pluck to make it, and knew that there was something there. I still know that there is something there, and I also now like that record, but more than that I like that I know that there is something there. And I also like that I am still searching for it. And I also am now of the mind that the eight masters who were on that record were all doing the same thing, searching.

Same with the Master Musicians of Jajouka. I don’t get it. I just like it.

I remember working with Paul Bendzsa (clarinet), Jen O’Neill (trombone) and Gina Ryan (percussion) in a regular Friday afternoon ensemble that experimented with new sounds. Improvisation, guided and unguided. Just generally my first time searching with other people who were searching. I better a way better player as a result. Figuring out the full range of sounds possible. Then with Curtis (drums) and Duane Andrews (guitar) and Craig Squires (sax) and ultimately a whole mess of people at Sound Symposium, the searching became more intense, personal, and shared. Then came York U, nightly jams with Alberto Munarriz (bass), and the genius of Casey Sokol (piano). Casey had a clear and malleable pedagogy of musicianship and improvisation. He also had a room rigged out with a CD recorder so we could spend the whole weekend making our own projects. It wasn’t fancy, but the best things never are. Like this…..


I know I’m onto something here and I just don’t know what yet. Help me if you can! The above link takes to itunes where you can hear the entire 15 second track from Song X called “All of Us.” Three perfect melodies played back to back to back. I say perfect because if you briefly sang each one individually (do it) you’ll experience their power. Perfect antecedent-consequent stuff. No frills. But upon first listen….no, I’ll pause. Go and listen then come back.

(pausing….looking out the window…I should go outside)

Ok. Haden’s bassline is a little different each time. The two drummers (DeJohnette and Denardo) are just breathing. And these melodies, which blow my mind every time, just exist so perfectly against it all. It’s the weirdest thing ever but sounds so effortless and natural. This is the piece I think about most when I think the most about Ornette’s mastery of making the complex simple.


This is an AMAZING interview. Check out what he does at 1:30.
Ten to one he left that pause on purpose. He is playing the conversation like music and likely vice versa.

I’ll leave you with the only recordings of Ornette with Paul Bley live in 1958.

If you read this far, you are either kind, interested, hoping for a bigger finish, or some amalgam of each. Here’s to Ornette. I’ve tried to capture the reasons for my love of him in words, futile as that may be. Be well where you are and where you go.


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