The life and times of jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman was celebrated Saturday, June 27, at New York’s Riverside Church in a three-and-a-half hour service that featured remembrances and music.
Coleman died on June 11 after suffering a cardiac arrest. He was 85.
Yoko Ono was among was among the many luminaries in the crowded church. Wearing a black suit, tilted beige straw hat and sunglasses, John Lennon‘s widow clutched a scarf she’d been knitting for Coleman, who she knew for 50 years, during her brief visit to the podium.
Another highlight was an improvised duet between tap dancer Savion Glover and drummer John DeJohnette, which went on for close to 10 minutes, as each matched the other’s rhythmic flourishes.
Born in 1930 in Fort Worth, Texas, Coleman made a name for himself in the jazz world with his avant-garde style on the breakthrough late-’50s album, Something Else!!!! and The Shape of Jazz to Come. Coleman had a distinctly different approach that eschewed traditional song structures and harmonics, which he dubbed “free jazz.”
“Ornette didn’t play free jazz,” former down beat editor Howard Mandel explained. “He freed jazz.”
Coleman moved to New York in the ’60s and lived on Prince St. in Soho where he raised his drummer son Denardo, who performed his father’s tune, “Lonely Woman,” with saxophonists David Murray and Joe Lovano late in the program.
“He went his own way,” the younger Coleman noted, “and we’re all a little better for it.”
Other musicians to grace the stage during the service included saxophonists Pharoah Sanders and Ravi Coltrane, pianists Cecil Taylor, Geri Allen and Jason Moran, flautist Henry Threadgill and bassist Jamaaladeen Tacuma.
Most of the comments focused on Coleman’s warmth and humility. Host Phil Schaap called him a “sweet special soul.” Composer Karl Berger quoted John Cage who said, “I don’t like jazz, but I like Ornette.” Poet Steve Dalachinsky mused that Coleman “helped free jazz from itself.”
Speaking directly to the casket, Riverside Church’s pastor, Rev. Dr. James A. Forbes waved his hands and exclaimed, “He’s hovering, waiting to see if we get it.”