The Shape of Jazz that Came: A Tribute to Ornette Coleman

The Shape of Jazz that Came: A Tribute to Ornette Coleman

On June 11, 2015, legendary American jazz innovator Ornette Coleman died at the age of 85. With his identifiable timbre and visionary drive, the saxophonist, multi-instrumentalist and composer was a critical force in the development (and coining) of the “free jazz” movement of the 1960s, remaining a revered and influential artist throughout his career. To pay tribute to Coleman’s powerful legacy, we asked Kamasi Washington to share his own thoughts on the passing of jazz legend.

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My friend and bandmate Ryan Porter introduced me to the music of Ornette Coleman when I was in 9th grade.

He gave me the album The Shape of Jazz To Come and when I heard “Lonely Woman” and “Peace” they instantly became two of my favorite pieces of music.

The imagery that the music projected in my mind was so vivid it just blew me away! When I listening to them solo, it sounded as if the soloist was dictating the harmony through what they were playing instead of the changes dictating their possibilities. This idea was so amazing to me!

At this time my friend [pianist] Cameron Graves and I were both really into going outside of the chordal structures of tunes in our solos. In our high school jazz band, whenever we got a solo we would try to “go out,” and sometimes we would get lost in the form. So we would make up the chords and try to lead that into the bridge of the tune and hope that everyone would figure it out.

So when I heard Ornette and his band creating all the harmony on the spot, a light went off in my head that what Cameron and I were doing was actually cool and not a mistake!

So much to the dismay of our teachers, we started doing it on purpose. We would just change songs in whatever way we wanted and the challenge of figuring out what we were doing became our favorite way to improvise.

The next big revelation in music that I got from Ornette came when I got his album Free Jazz.

I’ll never forget the feeling I had when I first heard the sound of cacophony that starts off with. The way it leads with these amazing dissonant harmonies, it was so cool to me!

I’d never thought of the relationship of chaos and order in music before, and how cacophony is such a powerful statement; it’s something that I use in my music to this day. When I got into free jazz, I really started to see the extreme nature of people’s reaction to Ornette. Some of us loved him and others didn’t understand him at all.

Then I started reading about him and I saw how fearlessly he expressed himself. He was unapologetic about how different his music was and how it challenged the “rules” of jazz and music in general. This was very liberating for me; it gave me confidence that I could and should always follow my heart when it came to my music and not worry about what people would say or think.

And as I’ve gone through my career I’ve always tried to stay true to that. I’m so thankful for that; I truly believe that the greatest music that anyone can make is the music that lives uniquely in your heart, but first you have to have the courage to play it.

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Kamasi Washington is a saxophonist, composer and bandleader from Los Angeles. Along with his band and lifelong friends, the Next Step, Washington recently released his magnificent three-volume debut, The Epic, on Brainfeeder Records — our latest HiFi Album of the Month.  Read our in-depth interview with Washington here.

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