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Kansas City musicians mourn the death of jazz great Ornette Coleman


Ornette Coleman was a revered visionary who redefined jazz.

The innovative composer and alto saxophonist who established the style called free jazz died Thursday in New York at the age of 85. He broke old rules, established new ones and helped propel jazz into new dimensions.

Coleman became a statesman who received honors previously unthinkable for jazz artists. He was the second jazz performer to win a Pulitzer Prize, cited for his 2006 album “Sound Grammar,” and was voted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Largely self-taught, Coleman would create “harmolodi” concept of music, which also became a life philosophy. The music derived from free interaction between the musicians, untethered to rigid metric or harmonic structure.

Renowned guitarist Pat Metheny, formerly of Lee’s Summit, was one of the musicians who collaborated on Coleman’s 1985 “Song X” album.

Local players praised Coleman’s contributions:

Stan Kessler, trumpet: The arrival of Ornette Coleman on the jazz scene was a seminal event in music history. He single-handedly opened the door to a much wider definition of what was possible and acceptable in jazz. Breaking all the rules, he was a pathfinder.

His much freer harmonic, rhythmic and compositional style paved the way for a new school of artists, those who wished to explore music less restricted by form. He was to jazz as (Wassily) Kandinsky was to art. The effects of his music are still felt today. He is considered the father of avant-garde jazz.

Jeff Harshbarger, bass: I truly love Ornette Coleman. His importance can’t be understated. He helped us listen to music and to each other in a new way. To think of what he went through — to go from being ridiculed to heralded as a genius, an NEA Jazz Master and a MacArthur Fellow, never compromising his vision — is very inspiring.

One of my favorite Ornette moments is his Lifetime Achievement acceptance speech at the 2007 Grammys. Like his music, it is a beautiful, heartfelt, whirling mass of ideas about the nature of life and death ….

A snippet: “One of the things I am experiencing is very important and that is: You don’t have to die to kill and you don’t have to kill to die. And above all, nothing exists that is not in the form of life because life is eternal with or without people so we are grateful for life to be here at this very moment.

Rich Wheeler, saxophone: I first remember hearing Ornette’s “The Shape of Jazz to Come” when I was about 20. I had never heard anything like it, and I was immediately drawn to both his playing and improvising. It was unlike anything I had been exposed to up to that point, and that difference was fascinating to me.

He had a really unique ability to play with both shock value and beauty at the same time while improvising — something which is an incredibly difficult thing to balance, and he was an absolute master at it. I have always been a big fan, and like the rest of the jazz world I mourn his passing.

Hermon Mehari, trumpet: Ornette was one of the few true innovators we’ve had in American music. What he had to offer was incredibly unique, bold and honest to himself, but it was also rooted in the blues and soul of what American music is about. Call it what you may — free, jazz, free jazz — it doesn’t matter to me. What matters to me is how much integrity his melodies carried throughout his music.

Rick Willoughby, bass: He was hugely influential and a monster player. He expanded an already broad art form. Hopefully everyone can take some time to listen to his work and celebrate his life.

Mike Stover, multi-instrumentalist: Ornette Coleman was one of my earliest jazz discoveries. In 1992, I lived in Joplin, where the only way you could get “weird” records was to special order them from the well-meaning-but-goofy hippies who ran the only indie record store in town. Here’s the exchange when I went to pick up my copy of Ornette’s “Free Jazz”:

Clerk: “Ornette Coleman! All right!”

Me: “Yeah, I love his music.”

Clerk (turns solemn, eyes cast downward): “He was one of the greats, man.”

Me: “Well … he’s still alive.”

Clerk: “Sweet!”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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