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Ornette Coleman • March 9, 1930 – June 11, 2015

You cannot travel the path until you have become the path itself. – Buddha

This morning, sunny, a slight chill in the air, begins with what will be a constant flow of e-mails and phone calls; unusual for this household. Sometimes a daughter will phone, one this morning, and the e-mails, coming mostly from back east – three hours sooner – start trickling in. My other daughter commiserating, knowing that Ornette was my hero. His music so special, opening up new melodic frontiers among rhythmic terrains dancing in my head. As Ornette would say. One daughter, born back there in the sixties, if she had been a boy child, would have been named Ornette Maxwell.

“Lonely Woman” performed by the Bill Smith Ensemble
Featuring David Prentice (violin) & David Lee (bass)

I was a fan of Ornette’s music right off, from hearing the earliest recordings of what was at that time considered radical music. The prophetic titles of his recordings immediately making famous syndicated jazz critics nervous, inclined to drivel: “Something Else”, “Tomorrow Is The Question”, “The Shape Of Jazz To Come”, “Change Of The Century”, “This is Our Music”, “Free Jazz”.

Pay no attention to what the critics say. A statue has never been erected in honour of a critic. – Jean Sibelius

It would be years before I’d have the privilege of hearing Ornette in performance: December 7th, 1970 at the Town Tavern in Toronto.

Edward Blackwell • Ornette Coleman • Charlie Haden Town Tavern, Toronto, December 7/1970

Edward Blackwell • Ornette Coleman • Charlie Haden
Town Tavern, Toronto, December 7/1970

I can still picture our first encounter at the Town, a then famous jazz bar in downtown Toronto. The superb quartet had included tenor saxophonist Dewey Redman, bassist Charlie Haden, the band completed by the master of rhythmic complexities, New Orleans drummer Edward Blackwell.

She was leaning against a pillar, her long ash brown hair, these days shortened and streaked with grey, cascading about her shoulders, her facial features enhanced by her large eyes which were emphasized by strikingly prominent eyebrows. And like the Woman of Bath in Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales”, was gap toothed, supposedly an indication of an oversexed woman.

Coincidence carries with it something mystic, numerology haunting me. That number 7. Said to be lucky by those in the know. Back we go again to December 7th, 1970 to that night at the Town Tavern, the evening with the Ornette Coleman Quartet, where I had first laid eyes on Sheila nonchalantly leaning against a post. Co-incident. Notice that Toronto, evening, Ornette and Coleman are all seven letters in length. Enough proof it seems to me that the seven is more relevant than a Marilyn Monroe film. Just by chance the name Marilyn has the same number of lucky letters.

Over the years I would seek out Ornette as often as was possible. There were film soundtracks ranging from little known independent films to David Cronenburg’s “Naked Lunch”; Shirley Clarke’s brilliant documentary “Ornette: Made In America”, even a National Film Board of Canada [NFB] short “Population Explosion”. And more than sixty recordings. But few opportunities to hear his brilliance in person.

His presence was so often among us. Reminding me of a party once in Amsterdam with Raphael Garrett and poet Ted Joans, where me and Elizabeth van der Mai spent the evening trying to convince Ben Webster, that great swing tenor-saxophonist, of the qualities inherent in Ornette’s music. All that Ben would admit to was that he liked Charlie Haden’s bass playing.

The last time so far ago now; Sunday, February 17th, 2008.

An elderly, humble, frail looking black man with a hangdog look, sporting a porkpie hat and clad in a vivid multi-coloured suit, playing the blues on a white painted French saxophone while perched on a high stool, is who we’ve travelled down to Vancouver to hear. Sheila and me. Valentine’s Day [February 14th, two sevens together], and more of that lucky number 7. Seven years it had been since Sheila discovered the lump in her breast, and once again we have set off to celebrate our love, appropriately with the music of Ornette Coleman, who is, for another month, 77 years of age. The music would have been enough, Ornette’s micro-toned intonation sliding into his Texas rhythm-and-blues roots, that distinctive heart-sound, pouring from his horn, dancing in our heads. But there’s more… Sunny mild weather prevails, giving the hope of spring; a luncheon date with Al Neil, and visitors from back east, out of the blue, old friends who have flown in from Halifax for one reason or another, waiting for us, or so it seemed, in the atrium of the Chan Centre…. All of us staying at the same hotel. Oh joy!

A goodbye is too little, incomplete, for he will always be here. So today, his last day as an earthly being is celebrated – all those marvellous songs resonating throughout the house, watching “The Soundtrack [Who’s Crazy]” with David Izenson and Charles Moffett [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s0sAuMPhFt8], the happy memories filling me full, the sadness of losing an inspiration for a lifetime. A day filled with tears inside.