James on Jazz: The passing of Ornette Coleman and more



I’ve often marveled at the way some individuals sway through life with a smile, an energy, and aura that’s almost otherworldly. What is their secret? Resilience.

It doesn’t matter how old you are, or how old you get, having resilience saves lives, and inspires lives.

Ornette Coleman, with his rich and vivid life, embodied the word resilience. Although he passed away today at the age of 85, his legacy will live on, a legacy that is truly immeasurable.

Robin James & Ornette Coleman, 2005.
Robin James & Ornette Coleman, 2005.

If you focus on the full body of his work, you will see that the Fort Worth, Texas native didn’t just help change the music known as jazz, he was one of its key architects — an arduous task that Coleman took on with great zeal, determination and love.

Looking at the big picture, I could never fully explain my brief but memorable experiences with this man. During our conversations (including a 2005 DownBeat magazine interview), he was extremely kind, gentle, and generous. I will forever remember the wisdom and knowledge that he imparted, his profound spirit, and being in the presence of true greatness. Coleman loved his mother. He loved his horn and music.

You see, Coleman had a special empathy for things. A voyeuristic look or outlook on life and music, something I think great artists, veterans, and those in the making either have or don’t have. For those that do, the rewards just keep on coming. And simultaneously so.

Consider this: In the world of jazz, there are rock stars and then rock stars-on-the-rise. Try as we might with polls to figure out who is likely to be great, or the next great, our culture may be shifting directions.

What if wanting to know what’s next isn’t what we want at all, and instead, we’re more interested in not knowing what’s next?

Ponder that thought for a moment.

Jason Moran and Robert Glasper at the Walker Art Center on Saturday, May 2, 2012
Jason Moran and Robert Glasper at the Walker Art Center on Saturday, May 2, 2012

Meanwhile, I’m thinking there are a ton of legendary artists that have left us, not just the world, but our cities, and some are on their way to the Twin Cities. And they keep us guessing and wanting more. And more, we shall get.

Last month, multi-talented artists Jason Moran and Robert Glasper performed an historic duo piano concert at the Walker Art Center on Saturday, May 2. Set two was both everything you’d expect from the high-level musicianship of Moran and Glasper, yet everything unexpected. They played music unsegregated by genre, the same as on their latest recordings.

During the set, there was beauty by way of classical flair, street energy, hip-hop edge, playfulness, sensualness, and of course, some Monk-esque moments. Monk is, after all, one of the significant thematic fibers that keeps them linked. Yes, there was serious entertainment, but humor, too. At the end of the late-night concert, Glasper said that Monk was like the middle finger in jazz. True.

Not unlike Dizzy Gillespie and Fats Waller, Moran and Glasper understood just how to mix the “high” and “low” art during their performance and so each enhanced the other.

Both men are giving meaning to our historical times with new projects in the works that are helping to push their careers in inconceivable directions. If you’ve surveyed jazz lately and thought perhaps there could be an originality problem, think of Moran and Glasper and their growing, lengthy and diverse résumés.

Also, think of the many artists on their way to town that capture the spirit of Coleman by continuing to shift and heighten our awareness of what jazz could be: Dr. John, Francisco Mela, Nicholas Payton, Charles Lloyd, plus new greats in the making like trumpeter Marquis Hill, and vocalist Cecile McLorin Salvant, to name a few.

As we get ready to make a great intro to summer, be prepared for even more amazing 21st century musicianship and sincerity from these great artists in the weeks to come, not to mention all the possibilities for expanding and enriching this music.

Let’s continue the conversation.

Robin James welcomes reader responses to jamesonjazz@spokesman-recorder.comYou can also find James on Twitter at @Robin_James1.