Appreciation: Why was Ornette Coleman so important? Jazz masters both living and dead chime in

Saxophonist Ornette Coleman, who died Thursday, performing during the "Hommage to Nesuhi Ertegun" at the 40th Montreux Jazz Festival in Montreux, Switzerland, in 2006.

Saxophonist Ornette Coleman, who died Thursday, performing during the “Hommage to Nesuhi Ertegun” at the 40th Montreux Jazz Festival in Montreux, Switzerland, in 2006.

(Martial Trezzini / EPA)

Those less familiar with out-there jazz of the 1950s and ‘60s might not have a clue as to why Ornette Coleman, who died Thursday morning, was such a transformative American musician at that time, and well beyond. The saxophonist’s music was so far removed from the smooth, easy Dave Brubeck tones then popular with the mainstream as to sound like an utterly alien art form. Somebody once described his music as sounding like a ragtime band — whose members are each playing a different song.

He continued to experiment throughout his life, a testament to his willful creative spirit, but his early work for Atlantic Records is the stuff that upended the jazz world. In 1993, that music was collected in an essential CD box set called “Beauty is a Rare Thing: The Complete Atlantic Recordings.” A profound exploration, “Beauty ...” is a loving ode to Coleman; and its liner notes, part of a package produced by Yves Beauvais, offer further evidence of Coleman’s influence.

Specifically, peppered throughout the box’s booklet are the gathered quotes from jazz luminaries both living and dead, each reacting to early encounters with Coleman’s music. Below are some of the best, taken from those notes:


“I don’t know what he’s playing, but it’s not jazz.” -- Dizzy Gillespie to Time magazine, June, 1960

“[The day I met Ornette], it was 90 degrees and he had on an overcoat. I was scared of him.” -- Don Cherry, Jazz magazine, 1963

“I listened to him all kinds of ways. I listened to him high, I listened to him stone cold sober. I even played with him. I think he’s jiving, baby.” -- Roy Eldridge to Esquire magazine, 1961

“Are you cats serious?” -- attributed to Dizzy Gillespie, at one of the Ornette Coleman Quartet’s Five Spot shows in New York City

“His playing has a deep inner logic, based on subtleties of reaction, subtleties of timing and color that are, I think, quite new to jazz. At least they have never appeared in so pure and direct a form.” -- Gunther Schuller, reported by Martin Williams, Jazz, 1963

“Man, that cat is nuts!” -- Thelonius Monk

“He’s got bad intonation, bad technique. He’s trying new things, but he hasn’t mastered his instrument yet.” -- Maynard Ferguson


“This guy came up on stage and asked the musicians if he could play, and started to sit in. He played three or four phrases, and it was so brilliant, I couldn’t believe it -- I had never heard any sound like that before. Immediately the musicians told him to stop playing, and he packed up his horn, but before I could reach him he’d already left through the back entrance.” -- Charlie Haden, told to John Litweiler in “Ornette Coleman: A Harmolodic Life”

“The only really new thing since the mid-‘40s innovations of Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Thelonius Monk.” -- The Modern Jazz Quartet’s John Lewis, 1960

“Hell, I just listen to what he writes and how he plays. If you’re talking psychologically, the man is all screwed up inside.” -- Miles Davis, reported to Joe Goldberg, “Jazz Masters of the ‘50s”

“It doesn’t matter the key he’s playing in -- he’s got a percussional sound, like a cat with a whole lot of bongos. He’s brought a thing in -- it’s not new. I won’t say who started it, but whoever started it, people overlooked it. It’s not like having anything to do with what’s around you, and being right in your own world. You can’t put your finger on what he’s doing.” -- Charles Mingus, Downbeat magazine, 1960

“When I worked with Ornette, somehow I became more of a person in my own playing.” -- Shelley Manne, reported by Jazz magazine, 1963

“Coltrane used to come hear us every night. He would grab Ornette by the arm as soon as we got off and they would go off into the night talking about music.” -- Charlie Haden to Robert Palmer, Downbeat magazine, 1972


“He is a man of great conviction, a pioneer always moving forward down the path he has chosen, a can opener who opens all of us up as musicians. I could not play what I play had it not been for Ornette Coleman.” -- Herbie Hancock, New York Times, 1990

“The new breed has inspired me all over again. The search is on. Let freedom ring.” -- Jackie McLean, in his own liner notes to “Let Freedom Ring”

“It’s like organized disorganization, or playing wrong right. And it gets to you emotionally, like a drummer. That’s what Coleman means to me.” -- Charles Mingus, Downbeat, 1960

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