Adam Shatz remembers Ornette Coleman in the LRB:
‘One of the most baffling things about America,’ Amiri Baraka wrote in 1963, ‘is that despite its essentially vile profile, so much beauty continues to exist here.’ Perhaps, he wondered, ‘it is because of the vileness, or call it adversity, that such beauty does exist.’ Baraka made the observation in his liner notes to John Coltrane’s album Live at Birdland, which includes ‘Alabama’, an elegy for the four girls murdered in the 1963 Birmingham Church bombing.
I thought of Baraka’s words at New York’s Riverside Church last Saturday, at the funeral of the alto saxophonist and composer Ornette Coleman. No one mentioned the atrocity in Charleston explicitly; no one had to. We were in the church where Martin Luther King declared his opposition to the Vietnam War in 1967. We were honouring the life of America’s leading free jazz musician in a dramatic week for freedom in America. The Supreme Court had ruled five to four in favour of gay marriage; at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, Obama had drawn on the cadences of the Southern black church, in perhaps the most powerful speech of his presidency, and invited his audience to join him in singing ‘Amazing Grace’.
In speech after speech, Coleman, who died at 85, was remembered as a man who embodied a set of values – freedom, independence, improvisation, cultural survival – that transcend music, values shared by Coleman’s friend John Coltrane, who, just before he died in 1967, requested in his will that Coleman perform at his funeral. With Coleman’s death, an era closes. As the jazz DJ Phil Schaap said, ‘I have the feeling of the conclusion of the age of the prophets.’