It’s hard to describe how it feels to stand at the podium of Riverside Church, to look down at a coffin that holds Ornette Coleman’s body, and to look out at a large crowd including Yoko Ono, Sonny Rollins, Henry Threadgill, John Zorn and Jason Moran, along with so many musicians and artists and friends from all corners of New York’s cultural world and from a much wider world, too.
An hour earlier, I’d attended the viewing. Lying in state, Coleman looked resplendent in one of his customary silk suits; he looked happy, bathed in his own glowing light, much as he’d always seemed when I saw him.
Early on in the 3 1/2–hour celebration on Saturday, June 27—which began with a procession led by two musicians from the Master Musicians of Jajouka, the Moroccan brotherhood that collaborated with Coleman several times in his career—I had the honor and the challenge of finding words with which to help do justice to Coleman’s life and legacy, and that might help raise everyone up.
A sudden switch in the program order meant I ended up following Cecil Taylor. Taylor began with an extended moment of silence at the piano. He played sweetly and slowly and then with accumulating rhythmic intensity. He finished up with a recitation in various inscrutable tongues.
“I thought I’d be following two erudite critics,” I said, “And so I had kept these words Ornette Coleman in my head: ‘It’s perfectly O.K. to repeat a phrase, just don’t say the same thing.’ Following the great Cecil Taylor, we don’t have that concern.”
I looked out over that diverse and deeply focused crowd, and began like this:
“Let’s put it this way. On this planet, there is human expression, which has been related through art for many years. But this expression has not been free of categories or preconceptions.”
Ornette Coleman told me that 20 years ago.
This community, here today, celebrating Ornette, is distinctly free of categories and preconceptions. This community is among the many wondrous things that only Ornette could have shaped. It’s humbling in a transformative way to be part of it.
That humility… the very first time I head Ornette’s tone on alto saxophone—bold yet fragile, almost unbearably human—I got a taste of the special brand of humility that was essential to Ornette’s greatness….
Somewhere in the middle, I got to this:
Ornette talked about tones and about sound, but not about notes. Never notes. Because notes can get bound up in chords or trapped on a staff or stuck in hierarchy— dominant, subdominant , all that.
Ornette talked about human beings, not men and women or black and white because he known those traps, those domination schemes. Ornette consistently called out racism.
I had Erica, my wife, and Sam, my son, with me. And so I said this as well:
I’m happy my son, Sam, who is here today, got to meet Ornette. Being around Ornette and his son, Denardo, as they made music on the bandstand and lived life off of it helped me understand that fathers and sons can free themselves of hierarchy and convention—they can function as a harmolodic team.
Phil Schaap, jazz historian and disc jockey at WKCR, Columbia University’s radio station, officiated throughout with grace and some insightful anecdotes. Schaap, who’d celebrated Coleman’s birthdays during the past 40 years with 24-hour radio marathons, recalled asking Coleman’s advice for playlist one year. Instead, Schaap said, Coleman offered simply this: “I just want you to tell people to be good to each other.
Throughout the program, the music resonated wonderfully through the cavernous church: At the sound board will be Coleman’s longtime engineer Chris Agovino, who had traveled the world with Coleman, making sure his presentations were superb. Tenor saxophonist Pharoah Sanders played a sorrowful, hymn like melody on his saxophone. Henry Threadgill, playing flute, and pianist Jason Moran, performed a new composition, “Sail,” that began with solemn long tones and floated gently yet forcefully into something gloriously complex. Tap dancer Savion Glover engaged in a free-flowing and intricate call-and response with drummer Jack DeJohnette. After Schaap pointed out that Coleman had played at the funeral of John Coltrane, in 1967 (at Coltrane’s specific request), Ravi Coltrane (John’s son) played Coleman’s “Peace,” in duet with Geri Allen, who was one of few pianists to record with Coleman. Tenor saxophonists David Murray and Joe Lovano, along with two bassists, Al Macdowell and Charnett Moffett, and Denardo Coleman on drums, performed the Coleman classic “Lonely Woman.” A final recessional gathered guitarists who had played in Coelman’s Prime Time band—Jamaladeen Tacuma, Charlie Ellerbe, Bern Nix, Ken Wessel, Chris Rosenberg, along with tabla player Badal Roy and pianist Dave Byrant.
In his spoken reflections, musician Karl Berger, who, with Coleman’s help, founded and still runs the Creative Music Studio, cited Coleman as the one who taught him that “thinking is too slow for music, but intuition isn’t.”
Yoko Ono spoke briefly and tearfully while holding an unfinished white scarf that she had begun knitting for Coleman. “I wish the world could have him for another 50 years,” she said. “He wouldn’t have to blow his horn. Just him sitting there breathing would make the world a better place.”
Poet Felipe Luciano spoke forcefully and beautifully about the impact of Coleman’s presence on him during his nascent days as and activist. Poet Steve Dalachinsky worked many Coleman album titles into a poem, and reminisced with humor about getting to know Coleman while a budding poet: “I handed Ornette a copy of my book, he said, “and he signed it, and gave it back to me.”
Denardo Coleman, wearing one of his father’s suits, recalled how his dad began outfitting him in silk suits at age 11. During his reflection, he pointed out: “Because Ornette did everything with such ease does not mean it was easy.” And he explained: “It’s not like he thought outside the box, it’s just that he didn’t accept that there were any boxes.”
In my reflections, I recalled how Coleman’s 1995 album “Tone Dialing” had arrived to reviewers with a jigsaw puzzle that spelled out one phrase: “Remove the caste system from sound.” And how Coleman had asked me 20 years ago, “Did you get the puzzle?” As I stood before Coleman lying in state, I answered him: “We’re working on it, Ornette, thanks to the pieces you gave us.”
Later, during his eulogy, speaking directly to the casket, Riverside Church’s pastor, Rev. Dr. James A. Forbes waved his hands and exclaimed, “He’s hovering, waiting to see if we get it.”
Speaking directly to the casket, Riverside Church’s pastor, Rev. Dr. James A. Forbes waved his hands and exclaimed, “He’s hovering, waiting to see if we get it.”
In New Orleans, there’s an expression at jazz funerals—”cutting the body loose.” That’s when dirge turn to uptempo celebration, and the spirit is set free. Coleman, who spent some formative time in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward, had a spirit that was defiantly and notably and gloriously free from the start. Mostly, he helped others wrangle themselves free. (As critic Howard Mandel said during the funeral: “Ornette didn’t play free jazz. What he did was he freed jazz.”)
That Saturday in Riverside Church helped cut us all loose from Coleman’s body. It set us free to simply follow his spirit.