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In Writing

Ornette Coleman 1930–2015: Neil Michael Hagerty & Jennifer Herrema

June 2015

The Royal Trux duo conclude our online tribute to Ornette Coleman

I don't play jazz so I don't really know where Ornette Coleman stands in that scene. He was one of two sax players who played at John Coltrane's funeral so that is important. It is simply humbling to be asked to write something in tribute to this great man. I want to extend my sympathies to his family and to his friends, to thank them for caring for the man and helping his music spread throughout the world.

As you probably know Mr Coleman was born in 1930 in Fort Worth, Texas (in a State so strange they fought two wars to preserve slavery) and he died an elder statesman of a progressive global community. To an American my age this is the entire history to what will become the future some day. And I know his legacy of work will continue with Denardo Coleman, Jamaaladeen Tacuma, Bern Nix, Charles Ellerbee, James Blood, and Vernon Reid opening for Aerosmith in Wyoming. And everyone he shared his music with. His generosity was inspired by something that I don't think I can ever grasp but it makes me grateful to him and I will never forget him.

Is it strange that some random rock dude would say straight out that if it were not for Ornette Coleman's work he would never have found his way to a life worth living? Or maybe a lot of these tributes tell that story? For me it started when I was at the public library and I saw a copy of At The Golden Circle Vol 1. I was about 11 years old and I wanted to play music. Something about the expressions on the faces of Coleman, David Izenzon and Charles Moffett standing in that snowy wood caught me out and I took that LP home. Listening to it I asked: is this like Louis Armstrong? I thought it was. Is this maybe like Cage or Schoenberg or Billy Cox and Mitch Mitchell? I sounded like all of those things. Even better, there they were in Sweden getting paid to play this beautiful music, just these human beings standing out in this frozen white glen.

I had to learn everything I could about this. The emotional breadth of the music lent an immediate authority to every word of Mr Coleman's I could find and read. By this time in the 1970s he was starting to speak and write about harmolodics and it was accessible. And luckily I found those electric records like Dancing In Your Head and Of Human Feelings – to the edge of funk and beyond. Beyond the sawing and shrieks that rock music had incorporated from free jazz already as style. It seemed like, OK, maybe rock music could arrange itself harmolodically so that every time you played a song you'd have to listen to each other and not just push a button and chop your way through the usual moves to achieve a result. If you listened to each other and took the rhythms and harmony and melody into new relationships the music would be kept aloft by group participation not replication, or it would crash if you weren't present. We could go ahead and try to speak and listen simultaneously because tomorrow is the question and there is never enough time.
Neil Michael Hagerty

Ornette Coleman symbolises and defined not just free jazz but freedom… freedom under fire. A consummate musician and individual. When he started playing in the ‘cracks’ and utilising space that was meant to remain empty his unique approach was met with disdain by many including fellow musicians calling him out of tune… Says who!? WTF… That kind of small minded exclusivity still exists today but at least there is the precedent set by Mr Coleman that can be utilised as a tutorial weapon against shallow simple minds. Ornette Coleman the man his music and philosophy of harmolodics and more has been important to me for a very long time and served as a beacon to the personal realisation of individual freedom. Perseverance in the face of adversity can be lonely and thankless at times but the comfort of belief and believing not only in oneself but the ability of others to overcome boundaries and parameters uselessly set to further particular and exclusive agendas is what continues to stoke the flames of a fire that at times was/is denied the essential air/oxygen needed to burn bright… Mr Ornette Coleman's flame was hot and dangerous but mesmerising and seductive… all the things that evoke fear and curiosity simultaneously. Ornette Coleman questioned everything about the structure of Western music… His sceptical thinking regarding what we think we know based on teachings and practices is what changed the world for me. His journey was not dry, didactic or scholarly in nature it was musical in nature… Leading by example… never stopping… and playing music until the day he died.
Jennifer Herrema


Speaking of Ornette's "flame," I lit up when I read that "At 'The Golden Circle' Vol.1" was YOUR entry point into the music at age 11. Being I'd guess 4-5 years your senior, I had exactly the same experience in the Chicago Public Library! One difference: I listened then and there, during repeat library visits, on a bulky grey phonograph in plain view of passersby who witnessed me dancing in my head(phones). Just finished a 5 1/2-page poem on this subject that could have, should have, been haiku. Small world. Thank you for your appreciation.

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