In Ornette Coleman's final appearance in San Francisco, in 2009 at Davies Symphony Hall, it seemed for just one very short moment that age might have caught up with the jazz giant.
As his quartet launched into “Blues Connotation,” the lead-off track from the 1959 album This Is Our Music, Coleman himself laid out of the rapid-fire melody in the head. When it came back around as the outro, the saxophonist, then 79, struggled to keep up with the tempo.
Remarkably, that was the evening's only sign that Ornette Coleman, an undisputed genius of jazz and giant of 20th century music, might someday leave us. For the rest of the concert, Coleman, who died today at age 85 in Manhattan, proved himself just as nimble, unpredictable, and visionary as ever -- and playing mostly new compositions at that.
Plenty has been written about Coleman's conception of harmolodics, of the ways he guided jazz away from melody, and how he helped reimagine song structure and key to influence not just jazz but all forms of music that followed. That's all true, but it's also academic; too much so, really, for one whose music billowed with more humanity than theory.
Perhaps the simplest way to put it – and the greatest tribute to the man – is that there is no other human being on the planet, past, present or future, who could create the music that Ornette Coleman did.
And over the years, he made much of it in the Bay Area, bringing his humble spirit with him.
Randall Kline, Executive Director of SFJAZZ, remembers his many encounters with Coleman vividly, including an afterparty for the aforementioned 2009 concert at Davies Symphony Hall. Coleman walked into the room, came up to Kline, and kissed his hand.
“I told him, 'I should be kissing your boots at this point!'” Kline said Thursday, still surprised by the gesture. “But that's who he was. He had no airs about him whatsoever.”
SFJAZZ booked Coleman six times over the years, beginning in 1994 with a now-legendary premiere at the Masonic Auditorium called “Tone Dialing,” which involved on-stage body piercing, multiple projection screens and philosophical spoken-word. It was, one could say, an only-in-San-Francisco event.
“We took it as a personal challenge,” said Kline of the concert's logistics. “We felt his music was very important to present, and we would figure out how to bring a big enough audience to make it work.”
Most of the time, those audiences were big indeed -- Coleman regularly played San Francisco halls twice the size that he'd play in his home base of New York. His most recently scheduled date at Davies, in 2012, was canceled for health reasons. Even so, Kline remembers dropping by Coleman's Manhattan apartment shortly afterward, where the saxophonist continued to host weekly Thursday-night jam sessions, even after falling ill.
“Here he is in his 80s,” Kline remembered, “and he's still exploring!”
Coleman's appearances in the Bay Area go back to his earliest days playing his trademark plastic alto saxophone. Tim Jackson, Artistic Director of the Monterey Jazz Festival, notes that Coleman first performed in Monterey in 1959, the year the saxophonist's groundbreaking album The Shape of Jazz to Come was released. He would return to the festival four more times, between 1960 and 2007.
“In the two times that I worked with him,” Jackson said Thursday, “he was just a really quiet, humble guy. You didn't get a sense of this 'titan of American culture in the 20th century,' except that he had a lot of friends from the festival over the years, and always had a receiving line of people backstage. It was almost like a meeting with the Pope.”
Jackson agrees that Coleman's music wasn't for everyone, and remembers some people leaving during his 1994 set, with his electric band Prime Time.
“But what I love is that, particularly with Ornette's music, it engenders dialogue,” Jackson remarked. “Even with people who were leaving. It stirs feelings in people, both positive and negative, and you hear people talking about it -- the people who didn't like it, and how vehement they were, and then the people who loved it, and were as committed in their feelings.”
Also in the Bay Area, Coleman's path famously crossed with what might seem unlikely collaborators: the Grateful Dead. Jerry Garcia had guested on Coleman's 1988 album Virgin Beauty, and the band later invited Coleman's group to open for the Grateful Dead in 1993 at the Oakland Coliseum.
True to spirit, Coleman came back out on stage that night and sat in with the Dead for the songs “Space,” “The Other One,” “Stella Blue” and “Turn On Your Lovelight.”
“He's quite simply one of the architects of modern music, and every member of the Grateful Dead was certainly aware of that,” says Grateful Dead historian and former publicist Dennis McNally. “So to have him at the show was an occasion for reverence, if that's the right word. Everyone was incredibly mindful that here is one of the most important musicians in American history, and oh my God, here he is on our stage.”
McNally noted that though the Dead played with other jazz greats like Miles Davis and Branford Marsalis, having Coleman on stage was special for the band. “Particularly outside of what you'd call rock and roll,” he said, “Ornette was truly a giant, and they knew it. Boy, did they know it.”
Fred Berry, lecturer and director of the jazz orchestra at Stanford University, first became aware of Coleman while playing with avant-garde saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell in Chicago as part of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Music.
Though Berry never played with Coleman, “I saw him as being a very evolved player, both spiritually and technically,” he said. “And you could hear the blues all through his playing.”
Later, as a young student at Stanford in the late 1960s, Berry would finally see Coleman perform in Berkeley.
“He was extremely controversial to a lot of people, but I saw him as being one of the beacons and forerunners of the movement,” Berry said Thursday. “It was his way of approaching the music, not particularly the music itself, that was the thing.”
Randall Kline, who can't help but talk about Coleman without using phrases like "one of the great creators of the 20th Century," noted Coleman's philosophical spillover into other areas as well.
“His whole harmolodic concept of music is not something he just applied to music, he applied it to life,” Kline said. “And it's hard to say this without sounding pretentious, but a lot of our philosophy was formed directly from Ornette – his idea that everything can work together, and his openness of spirit.”