Wayne Shorter Remembers Ornette Coleman: 'One of My Favorite Astronauts'

Frans Schellekens/Redferns
Ornette Coleman performs during Heineken Jazz festival at the Doelen in Rotterdam on Sept. 17. 1988.

Ornette Coleman, a giant of the jazz world and determined iconoclast, died yesterday (June 11) at 85. Tributes to the saxophone player began pouring in from members of the music community worldwide, from jazz musicians following in Coleman's footsteps to the Roots' Questlove. 

We spoke with one of Ornette's few musical peers, saxophonist and composer Wayne Shorter, about his legacy. The transcript, below, has been lightly edited for clarity.

Musicians Pay Homage to Late Jazz Giant Ornette Coleman

What Ornette was actually doing is something that is still needed in this country -- the same thing. It's not considered popular, but he had a sense of mission. A lot of the great stuff is not the best-seller -- it's interesting or thought-provoking, stuff that makes you want to transfer [ideas] from music to something that you do in another profession. 

We need someone to do that. If everyone was doing the same thing, like the same thing pop-wise, that's like a lake without any outlet: everything in there gets poisoned and dies. [People like Coleman] work as antidotes to the sleeping powder that we drink...think...ingest.

I think the music that's called "future stuff" is the soundtrack to the few people who have the nerve and the courage to continue, to go to the end of the line and not be deterred. Like Miles [Davis] used to say: "What's the matter, you scared?" 

Ornette Coleman Dead at 85

There's a steady forward march of a creative process, that some of us stay with and don't give up -- that should be an admirable thing. From Louis Armstrong, to Charlie Parker, to Miles, to Ornette, and some people who are not even known today -- some kids coming up -- people who are out to change the world.

When John Coltrane passed, we were in the church for the memorial. Albert Ayler came walking in playing, real out there. He was actually mourning through his horn. Mourning, but it was also like a call to wake up. Wake up!

Here's what some of the street guys might say: if Ornette was not an African-American, he might have been one of the most wealthy musicians in the world. If he hadn't been an African-American, fill in the blank. Blanksss [laughs].

I know Ornette was playing violin sometimes -- that was his bridge into the classical world, to break up that whole pecking order. "You cannot enter these portals, because the classical world is sacred" -- get out of here!

Wayne Shorter on Miles Davis, Kanye West, & the Music of the Future

Ornette was one of my favorite astronauts. A musical astronaut. Anyone who has that astronaut thing knows what it takes and knows what it is, and they're ready to go down with the ship. 

Here's one of the most hip statements I heard about people who want everything to be the same: Symphony Sid said, back in the 60s, "You know a lot of people got on the A train (you know, Duke Ellington's '[Take the] A Train'), they got on the A train and never got off." Ornette got off. 

When you do your writing, you can write "I did a lot of laughing." I think Ornette would like that.