Alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman is one of the most influential musicians of all time, influencing everyone from Sonic Youth to Henry Threadgill, John Zorn and The Grateful Dead. His piano-less quartet, which debuted in NYC in the late 50s, did away with the usual jazz improvisation based on song chords and progressions, but instead utilized melody as the jumping off point. He called this Harmolodics, which was also based on the tuning of instruments.


I saw Ornette and band, in his yellow suit play at the Public Theatre in NYC around 1985. Fred Frith’s Skeleton Crew was the opening act. Ornette touched my life in several other ways. He was the originator of The Creative Music Studios in Woodstock NY with Karl Berger, Don Cherry and several other musicians where I attended school for several years. I also played in music groups with a woman who was his girlfriend for a time. Many years later, I smoked a joint with him outside an art opening in Soho and when mentioned he said ‘Yeah, she does not resolve’. Whatever that means.


Playing his plastic alto sax, Ornette was one of the first avant garde jazz musicians along with Sun Ra and Cecil Taylor. He also played and performed on violin and trumpet. He disbanded his famous acoustic quartet in the late seventies and reformed a band with electric guitars and electronic drums, the first including James Blood Ulmer.

He was born in Fort Worth, Texas and then moved to Los Angeles where he met and performed with Don Cherry and Charlie Haden, both members of his famous quartet. He and his group left there and settled in NYC. Critics, musicians and audiences were split about him. It was either ‘love’ or ‘hate’.

One of the most interesting things I learned about Ornette was when he talked about how he often thought about being castrated in one of the main music magazines. He went on to explain that sex was a distraction he would like to do without. He certainly was different…unique!