Ornette Coleman: Captured By a Lonely Woman

When I was in Junior High School I did a report on Jazz. My research led me to check out The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz. Amongst many pieces that would influence my future appreciation for music was the song “Lonely Woman” by Ornette Coleman. This song did something to me that I can’t totally explain. But I’ll try.

The prospects of a fifteen year old white kid in suburban Kansas getting into jazz had about as much to do with attracting the attention of certain girls as it did with a love for music. I would spent hours brooding over early Jazz recordings with very little knowledge about what the hell I was listening to, and acting not only like I “got it” but that I really “dug it.” But until Ornette Coleman my appreciation for Jazz was a sham.

Bands with names like The Sex Pistols, Dead Kennedy’s, Black Flag, and Bauhaus had just cracked open my sonic world. Initially, this music seemed about as far away from Jazz as the school band arrangements for “Beat It” I was required to learn. I played the alto sax in school band but it was just an easy elective class for me. I was not inspired to venture outside of what I was taught.  

The song “Lonely Woman” changed that for me. It showed me that Jazz could be just as useful in expanding one’s horizons and pissing off one’s parents as Punk Rock could. The song’s slow creeping bass line intro and nervous ride cymbal set the stage for an undeniable darkness. And seeing as I had just entered my early teens it was a darkness I was primed and ready to embrace. Drunken horn lines that seem to dip in and out of pitch were the perfect backdrop to the mysterious jungle of High School I was about to enter. I had heard the old timey rags of Scot Joplin and maybe a little Sinatra and Herb Albert from my parent’s old record collection. Thanks to the Smithsonian Comp. I dipped my toe in some Charlie Parker and early Miles Davis but when it came to “Lonely Woman” there was something distinctly different. It felt like a difference that almost anyone could notice. It was almost making fun of itself. If I were to describe it literally, to me, it sounded like music for possessed clowns. It almost seemed like something a junior high school kid with only 5 years of lessons could play. I could see this “Lonely Woman” clearly in my mind. As she swaggered down some New York City sidewalk after a night at the bar. I could feel the predators of the city lurking in the shadows. Little did I know I would see her for real when I would moved to the Lower East Side in the early 90’s. I saw her many times fixing in the allies or lost and inebriated at 3am on Ave. B, floundering on lopsided heels. I would point her in the direction of the 2nd Ave Subway and tell her it’s not totally safe down here at this time.

The first time I listened to Ornette Coleman’s: Lonely Woman I felt like I was not just listening to the future of Jazz, I felt like I was literally listening to a small piece of my own future.  I guess you could say the punk rock won out over the jazz influences in my life long ago. I swapped my Saxophone for an electric guitar soon after I entered high school. But his music taught me about the power of melody and expression while always reaching for something outside of the lines.  Along with the darkness I eventually found the humor and drama in Coleman’s music. These qualities make him an ultimate humanist.  It is this hybrid of ideas that continues to fuels my love for all music.

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